Backpacking Alone: hiking solo means less margin for error.

Erika Henderson cruised the South Pacific and Caribbean on a boat as a child, and has hiked, backpacked, rappelled, and caved (spelunked) extensively across the US and abroad. Erika is also a pilot and Emergency Medical Technician and loves to sample the beer and cuisine of each new destination. Erika publishes The Active Explorer. You can follow her on Twitter where she’s known as @active_explorer.

I have backpacked extensively from Alaska to Florida, but I didn’t start backpacking solo until this year. I choose the Appalachian Trail for my first few solo trips because it’s well supported by shuttles and shelters. The extended time alone was like therapy with a workout, truly awesome!

Backpacking solo means less margin for error so good planning is essential. Here are a few tips for planning a safe and enjoyable solo trek.

Always leave the following information with a trusted friend or relative: Detailed route, the date to consider you overdue, whom to call if you don’t check in (typically a local authority), a list of equipment in your pack, the location of your parked car, and your medical conditions.

Research if your phone service covers your route and consider an emergency alert device such as the SPOT Personal Tracker. If you are trying to make a call with poor reception, try texting instead. The signal strength needed to send a text message is less than for a call.

Identify where roads access the trail in case you become ill or injured and need an early pick-up. Discuss these with your ride or shuttle service. This is only an option if your illness or injury is not life threatening, and you’re still mobile.

On the trail, be aware of your surroundings, trust your “gut” feelings about people, and avoid loitering near remote roads where you may attract unwanted attention from a passing vehicle. I’ve been known to refer to a phantom hiking partner when I meet people just so they don’t know I’m alone.

Pack Light and Carefully
Backpacking partners normally split their load, bringing just one tent for example, and if you forget something, there’s a good chance your partner has it in her pack. Now everything needs to be in your pack. Make a list, check it twice, and pack the lightest equipment and supplies possible. Load your pack early to make sure the space and weight are going to work for you. A book is worth the added weight on quiet nights.

If you don’t have a ride to the trailhead, try using a shuttle. Hiker shuttles serve many popular trailheads, but are harder to find in remote areas. Contact a local outfitter to see if they have a shuttle service or could recommend one. Another idea is to find one more trusted backpacker and each start at opposite ends of your route. When you pass on the trail, swap car keys and meet at a planned location when you finish. I don’t advise hitchhiking for safety reasons.

Some trails offer shelters, which are a convenient alternative to pitching a tent. Expect other backpackers and pack a tent or tarp in case it is full. If you don’t use a shelter, camp away from roads which can provide easy access for people looking to party or cause trouble.

If you haven’t backpacked before, go with an experienced partner or guide before heading out on your own. Once you are comfortable with your backpacking skills, use these tips and enjoy the truly unique and therapeutic experience of solo backpacking. Happy trails!

  • Kevin

    @ Buffer, The Isreal National Trail should be on the Bucket List. But, I have to twist an old quote just a little. ” Pack lighlty and carry a Big Stick.” I know, I’m a bit warped in the mind, have fun. :)

  • solotraveler

    Yes, gear is an issue. I just came from hiking Torres del Paine in Patagonia but I found another solo hiking partner before entering the park so we could share the load. But, generally, I have found that the smaller the pack the better I am at packing – to really scaling down what I need.

    Have a wonderful time!

  • Buffer

    Great article. I’m leaving to solo hike the Israel National Trail in a few weeks. Not having someone to share the gear load is my biggest concern.


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  • Erika

    Many thanks to all of you for your comments! Keven you make two very good additional points that everyone should use.

    Happy trails!

  • Kevin Hawley

    i just read Erika’s article again. You can see her experience for sure.
    Just wanted to add one thing & re-enforce one. Make sure you have as close to an up to date map as possible, most are not that current. The Wild changes every year, one reason for a ggod map is not many many trails, even well maintained, are marked or signed well. Come to a fork in the trail, map is very nice. I saw where Erika had medical training. If your going Solo, take at least a short course. The Red Cross offers them for $35 where I am, you can also track down Wilderness Survival Schools depending on where you live. Even a sprained ankle can have serious consequences.

  • thepinaysolobackpacker

    wow that’s pretty tough! wish I can do that too. I agree, I used to be so secretive about my destination for security reasons, but then there’s this time when I was alone with some locals heading towards an island, the waves was like swallowing the boat and we have no life jackets, and worst, I don;t know how to swim and nobody knows where I am. Since then, I always make it a point to tell my mum where I;m going, in case something happens, they know where to find me.
    very helpful post. I should remind myself often to be prepared. haha
    keep on exploring! :)

  • Kevin

    I have to agree with Rachelle above. I’ve been backing alone many years. And the thrill can be great, I live in the Rockies, so it can be overwhelming. the 2nd part of what she said is very true. Your cinfidence level soars! Especially if you decide to summit a peak in the mountains. After all these years, it’s still awesome.

  • Rachelle

    Backpacking solo seems like one of those somewhat frightening yet exhilarating experiences that, once you’ve done it, you feel like you could accomplish anything!

    aka @TravelBlggr