Hiking Solo and Not Dying: 5 Tips
As a solo traveler always in search of the next best outdoor view to photograph, hiking alone is typically an inevitably. But, prior to the past 8 months, hiking, national parks and being outdoors were things relatively new to my world. I’ve always admired these things, but from afar. Like Instagram far.
It just wasn’t a part of my culture, environment or even on my radar as “interesting”. So, after being immersed in this world from almost no background in it, a lot of the things I’ve done during my adventures (I’m now starting to realize) were pretty dumb. Like, dumb dumb.
Hopefully my near-death experiences can help my fellow prospective solo-hikers (both experienced and otherwise) avoid my same tears (the blood and sweat you can’t avoid, though).
Plan Around Nature’s Light
If you’re going to be out on the trails by yourself, know that your light is always limited (like the sun, not the existential light within you). And if you’re like me, chasing sunrises and sunsets, you HAVE to hike in the dark for some portion of your trek.
The number one rule with the sun and its light is that: it’s never as consistent as you’d like.
Cloudy skies, the direction you’re hiking (whether towards or against the sun), rain/snow/haze and elevation all play a role in whether the sun comes or goes faster or sooner than expected. With that in mind, give yourself a reasonable spread of time outside of how long you expect to be in the dark.
On top that, still remember that you’re hiking! Things get more hectic in the dark. The trail becomes harder to see, even with a headlamp. Your mind starts playing tricks on you and, all of sudden, you “notice” a mountain lion stalking you along the trail. This is less of a problem when you have company with you to occupy your mind and reassure you you’re being a lunatic.
But, remember, this is you hiking by yourself in all of its glorious paranoia. However, outside of bringing several different light options (headlamp, flashlight, EXTRA batteries) the moon can be your emergency back-up (if you plan it right).
Granted, the moon only gives off significant light around it’s fuller phases, and tree canopy’s can ruin that for you. But hey, if you have the luxury of being that specific in your planning, that extra measure of protection always brings more peace of mind.
Most of my “advice” comes from severely learning from my mistakes and I had never been as close to dying on a hike as I was on the Highline Trail to Grinnell Glacier in Glacier National Park. Doing a 12 mile hike close to sunset means a lot of hiking back in the dark, in bear country.
Which was all fine and good, until a storm decided to roll in on my trek back. This storm included hail. This was no picnic and I honestly felt like giving up a few times. Freezing, exhausted & paranoid, the only thought that kept me going was, "I NEED to edit these pictures!"
The hail soon stopped, but the rain was constant and the darkness had come much, much earlier than I planned. And bears were now all around me the whole way down (in my mind, anyway). I managed to get myself lost several times on the trail because the rain was so heavy, making it hard to determine where the trail was, and wasn’t. It was hell.
Which leads to my next point.
Know. Your. Route.
There’s more than one way to get up a mountain, always. That can be both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes one path can shortcut your journey, if you’re looking for something easier after getting more winded than you thought. But, more often than not, those other trails lead to places you don’t want to be.
And when you’re alone, sometimes it’s hard remembering whether to go left, right or straight. Sometimes maps makes things more complicated. And, sometimes, the other folks on the trail aren’t worth asking for advice. And, as I’ll continue to emphasis, low/no light will always make your life twice as difficult.
The way to avoid the pitfalls of getting lost and frustrated is, first and foremost, research your route online! Google, Alltrails, blogs and the like will always give you every tip, trick and most common mistake there is to be found on your trail. Remember, when you’re going out by yourself, you can’t do too much research.
When it comes to maps, redundancy is key. Paper maps, digital ones and even pre-downloaded GPS maps on Google Maps are all great to have, when used in conjunction with one another. And if you do plan on using any sort of GPS devices, or anything electrical, bring a battery bank!
Mentally, be prepared for frustration: getting lost, reading a sign or trail incorrectly or just simply not paying attention. These things happen and the biggest hindrance towards getting back on track is allowing your mind to shut down from frustration.
Be Prepared to Be Rescued (Insert Gasp Here)
Okay, time for the really scary part. You’re hiking: broken legs, sprains, pulled muscles and wildlife attacks are all very probable and should ALWAYS be prepared for, mentally and resourcefully. Expect the best, but prepare for the worst!
I was hiking North Dome in Yosemite National Park, getting the absolute best view of Half Dome I’d seen up to that point. Needless to say, my excitement literally had me edging the side of this mountain to find that perfect angle for my shot.
I was sliding, tip-toeing and hopping along the jagged, bouldery edge of this cliff. As my ambition got the best of me and had me jumping from one huge boulder to the next, I slipped and fell. Off the side of the mountain, camera in hand.
And, for about 2 seconds, I accepted death as my fate.
But then I came to an abrupt stop on a small lip just a few feet below. I was bloodied and scratched up everywhere, but safe, and somehow a scuffed (not broken!) camera body was the only damage done.
But that could’ve been a lot worse, especially considering the fact that this was right after sunset, and there was no one else around or even headed back down the trail to assist, had I not been able to walk.
So, tell SOMEONE where you’ll be and when they should expect you back. There are usually places around the trailhead, or even at visitor centers, where you can leave your information for Park Rangers for when you’re going solo.
But even still, it could be well into the next day until someone comes looking for you; it ain’t like you’re Malia Obama. Which means, bring overnight gear! An emergency tent, water (which you should already have!), first aid kit and some kind of food to hold you through the night.
Remember, these are all emergency resources, so you aren’t packing a steak and shrimp dinner and an air mattress; you want something light enough to reasonably carry but still help your survival through the night, if need be.
The name of the game is redundancy. Gear Up x2! (kind of).
From having someone know your location, to the emergency shelter and the different maps, these all ensure that if something happens, you are protecting yourself with another resource. Nothing is fail-proof, but prior preparation prevents poor performance! (Corny acronyms are useful, sometimes.)
Know Thyself, Bruh
Listen people, DO NOT go on a 20 mile hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon so you can stunt on all your internet friends, knowing dang well you still have issues with going 20 minutes on the stairmaster.
Hiking is no joke. It uses both aerobic and physical aspects of your conditioning, but even more so, it taxes your mental toughness.
The factor of being outdoors in the elements combined with being alone is a serious mental workout. This puts a strain on your body in ways unknown to you until you get out there and start to see that it’s just you and your mind on that trail.
Go on smaller hikes to understand your body and mind more, and so that, if something were to go wrong, the consequences are much more diminished.
Always have a purpose in mind for doing something like this. For me, it was more or less necessity; I’m traveling around the country in a van, solo. So, I hike solo. Always ask yourself what the real reason for doing something like this is and if you’re willing to accept the consequences that come with your choices. If it’s because you don’t have any friends, that’s okay, I don’t either.