Thru-hiking is an enamoring yet vigorous, long-distance journey that can take many months of your life to complete. One of your biggest decisions will be if you are going to attempt your hike alone or with a partner/group. The potential adventure lying ahead of you is endless yet there is still a fear of the unknown that hits everyone.
So, is thru-hiking lonely? Thru-hiking is as lonely as you make it. Whether you start the trail with friends or solo, the trip will be as lonely or social as you desire. The hike will take many months to complete but there will be plenty of opportunities to hike and camp with fellow travelers along the way. If you prefer to hike alone then you can! Approach your thru-hike with positivity and it can be a divine journey on which to ‘find yourself’ as you reconnect with nature’s beauty and yourself.
Let’s go deeper and discover why you should do everything possible to break through your fears and how to do it…
Fear of Loneliness – Destroyer of Thru-Hiker Dreams
The thought of being all alone on a trail in the wilderness for several months can invoke fear of getting hurt, of wild animals, of losing your way. And these are only compounded by the fear of loneliness. This will often dissuade hikers from making the arduous journey. They do not trust in themselves and in their own abilities to conquer these fears and complete the trek.
However, if you can get past the fear or loneliness and complete the thru-hike solo, you will feel proud of your accomplishment and reaffirm the belief that you can master your fears.
The Benefits of Hiking Alone
Spiritual Health – Solo hiking allows for meditation, contemplation and self-examination. It provides a chance to ‘turn inward’, to practice mindfulness, gain mental clarity and achieve emotional stability. This is a necessary part of being truly ‘healthy’.
Outdoor skill development – When hiking in a group, there is a tendency to rely on others for your basic needs, such as preparing food, setting up camp and staying safe. Alone one must rely on his/her knowledge, skills, and preparations. This can provide one with a sense of accomplishment and pride.
Set your own pace – On a group hike everyone is expected to travel at essentially the same pace, therefore, going faster (or slower) than you yourself would choose. Hiking alone eliminates this and lets you move at your own individual pace. This way, you have the freedom to rest when you need to, eat when you feel hungry or stop and explore something in nature.
Flexibility along the way – Hiking alone allows you to modify the course of your journey, if you so choose. This is not possible in a group hike as the camping location, route, rest breaks and general pace is set by the group. This can make for a more enjoyable and personal experience.
Challenge your limitations – If on a group hike and the pace is moving slower than your preference, the experience will not be as fun or meaningful. You need the freedom to go faster, farther and longer than you have in the past. To challenge one’s limitations is a truly liberating experience which is more likely possible hiking alone than in a group.
Face your fears – Many fears will be faced along the trail. Fear of storms, darkness, heights, wild animals and loneliness are just a few. When hiking alone one is forced to conquer these fears. This provides personal growth and a sense of pride second to none.
Experience nature – When hiking in a group, the chance of experiencing any real wildlife is slim to none. The general commotion created by the group is most likely to keep animals away. When alone there is less noise and a better prospect of seeing small animals such as rabbits, squirrels or birds.
The ‘I did it’ affirmation – A solo hiker can be proud, knowing that he/she navigated the trail, set up camp, prepared the food and stayed safe without the help of another. Being truly self-sufficient the entire way will reinforce your self-worth and self-respect. There is no feeling in the world as great as success!
How to Stay Safe While Hiking Alone
Prepare yourself – Make the necessary preparations and gather everything you need before you begin. Check the suspected weather forecast; have the trail map ready to go; get the food provisions in order. The longer the hike, the better (and more) you need to be prepared.
Invest in a good compass – A compass is very important when hiking. Unlike cellular phones and GPS devices, a compass does not require a battery and therefore will not run out of power. It is also easy to use, lightweight and durable.
Start small first – Start with something short like a day hike and then work your way up to an overnighter, a weekend trek, a week-long hike and then the long distance journey. Do not jump head-first into a thru-hike. It is something to build up to after you have mastered something smaller first.
Make a detailed plan – Create a ‘daily plan’ for the first several days of your hike including when to rest, eat and sleep. Read the trail journals of past hikers to see what worked (and what didn’t) for them. Try to visualize yourself in similar situations and create a ‘plan of attack’. Even as your plans change over the course of your trip, starting with this plan will give you confidence on day 1.
Be realistic about your abilities and your goals – Know and accept your skill set, pain threshold, endurance level, etc. A thru-hike is a goal to be attained through practice and patience. It takes time build-up the necessary mental, emotional, psychological and physical skills required.
Stay on the trail – Know the area of the hike and stick with it! Be aware of the surroundings such as bailout points, water sources, wildlife ranges, private properties, etc. Do not veer off course as this can have a difficult, potentially dangerous outcome.
Leave a travel itinerary with someone you trust – Give a copy of your ‘daily plan’ to your parent, spouse or friend. Let him/her know how long you expect the journey to take. Also, stop in at the ranger station or talk to the land manager near the trailhead.
Use a trusted tracking tool – An electronic device such as Spot Messenger is a great investment. It will let those back home know where you are and how you are doing. Should help be required, this gizmo will get your message out there!
3 Inspiring Women Who Thru-Hiked Alone and Conquered Their Fears
- Emma Gatewood – The first female solo thru-hiker. Also known as ‘Grandma Gatewood’, she hiked the Appalachian Trail at the age of 67 with nothing but a knapsack and a pair of sneakers! She was inspired to complete the journey because no woman had ever done it solo before. Read more about her on outsideonline.com
- Heather Anderson – The fastest self-supported female thru-hiker. Referred to as ‘the Ghost’, or ‘Anish’ she set the speed record of walking 2,655 miles in 60 days! She later wrote that “the end of the journey is simply the beginning of the next” with her greatest achievements yet to be discovered. Read more about her on backpacker.com
- Neva Warren – The youngest solo thru-hiker. Known as ‘Chipmunk’, she hiked the Appalachian Trail at the tender age of 15! She spoke of the mental challenges she overcame along the journey and credited Help for Mental Health for her success. Read more about her on blueridgeoutdoors.com
How long does it take to hike the Pacific Crest Trail? The PCT is 2,650 miles and takes approximately five months to complete. Seasoned hikers have finished the trail in as little as two months. Those who have completed it in record time did so by walking over 30 miles per day.
Does the Pacific Crest Trail go through Yosemite? The PCT extends all the way from the Mexican border to the Canadian border. The best sections of the trail go through Yosemite National Park, from Donohue Pass in the south to Dorothy Lake Pass in the north. It is just under 80 miles from point to point with some of the most amazing scenery imaginable.
Related content: Is The PCT Crowded?
Erick is a freelance writer and outdoor enthusiast. Growing up in Nairobi Kenya and now calling Glasgow, United Kingdom home. Sipping on homemade spiced swahili tea and enjoying a good book is his idea of bliss.