I wanted to go backpacking alone for at least a year or two before I was actually able to muster up enough courage to do so. I'd been day hiking by myself for several years, but there were a couple things keeping me from heading out on a solo overnight adventure. The first thing was not having all the gear. I didn't own a tent or a stove system, along with some other necessary items. The second reason was all mental. What would I do out there... would I get scared, be bored or lonely? How would I protect myself against wild animals? What if I got hurt or lost? So many things ran through my head and kept me from venturing out on my own, but the idea remained in the back of mind for quite a while.
I knew I enjoyed backpacking, but I was always reliant on my male friends to have the all the shared gear, to drive us out to the trailhead (because I didn't have the best vehicle for forest roads), to set up the tent, boil the water, secure the food, etc. It sometimes felt like I was just a passenger, along for the ride... and I didn't want to be. I had this desire to own my experience. I also wanted to be confident enough, that if there was ever a time I wanted to go backpacking but no one was available to join, or perhaps if someone bailed on a plan, that I wouldn't feel like I could no longer go. I didn't want my desire to get into the mountains to be dictated by anyone else's schedule. So I got the gear, I chose my destination and I went. But this isn't about me, this is about you...
SO WHERE DO YOU START?
1. WALK BEFORE YOU RUN. I'll start off by saying that if you haven't ever gone on a day hike by yourself, then I think it's smart to at least start there and get comfortable with that. If you've never been backpacking before, I would highly recommend finding someone or a group of people you can join first. There are so many organized groups and people getting outdoors, that going with someone and just getting familiar with overnighting in general is going to help dramatically when it comes to venturing out by yourself.
2. GET THE GEAR. Backpacking isn't cheap, but it doesn't have to be expensive if you're willing to buy secondhand items. One of the reasons that kept me from overnighting initially (not just by myself), was not having the appropriate gear. At first I borrowed. I borrowed a friend of a friends backpack and sleeping bag for my first couple trips. I wanted to make sure it was something I really enjoyed before I invested in it. I didn't get everything at once. It took some time. When you're ready to start purchasing gear, head over to your closest REI type store and chat with an associate. They are literally paid to help you choose the appropriate gear. Here's a list of most of the items you'll need:
- Overnight Backpack: I have a few different sizes, but a good place to start would be 60-65L. You can always size down later if you become more of a minimalist.
- Tent: If you're purchasing a tent for yourself, a lightweight 2 person tent is an excellent option. You'll then have space for another person for future trips, and plenty of space for yourself. My first tent was the REI Quarter Dome, which I still have and love. I also have the Nemo Dagger and Blaze, which are great options.
- Sleeping Pad: Most outdoor gear stores will have sample pads blown up for you to try. Test several out and see what you like. I'm a side sleeper and like to keep my hips off the ground as much as possible, so I prefer thicker pads. Chat with an associate to get their take on the different options available.
- Sleeping Bag: My first sleeping bag was the REI Women's Joule, which is a 3-season bag rated at about 22 degrees and I still use it to the day. I now have a couple other options and utilize those depending on the season and/or temperature.
- Stove system: I'm a fan of my MSR WindBurner, but there are a lot of different options for you. It depends on what you think you'll be making for meals. I usually bring snacks and dehydrated meals, so the extent of my cooking is really just boiling water.
- Water Filtration: You can purchase iodine pills, a Steripen or a water filtration system/pump. I use the MSR Outflow Gravity Filter mainly. It's incredibly lightweight and easy to use. I prefer to use the gravity bag at camp and a small steripen type set up for on-the-trail use.
- Clothing: It's all about layers. Being prepared and ready for extreme temperature swings and changing weather conditions will help to improve the experience. You can start a day in shorts and a tank top, and end it with two pair of pants, a base layer, fleece and an insulted jacket, along with a hat and gloves. You want to find a balance of bringing enough clothing, but also not overpacking. It's about covering your bases... not having a different outfit for each day. Items to consider: Tank top or t-shirt, shorts, long sleeve top and pants, thermal top and bottoms, hat, gloves, insulated jacket, soft-shell for rain and/or wind, and rain pants. If you have a good handle on the weather forecast you can sometimes omit the rain gear, but as most of you already know ... weather in the mountains can change quickly.
- Food: How much food you bring will vary based on the duration of the trip, but let's say you're just heading out for a single night. You'll want snacks for both days of hiking, a light lunch, dinner and breakfast for the next morning.
- Ten-Essentials: It's important to have these with you at all times when you're in the backcountry. Instead of going through these one by one, I'm just going to direct you to REI's website. Hopefully you are already familiar with the Ten-Essentials, but if not, I encourage you to know these and understand why they are important.
- Other items (in no particular order and some more optional that others): Water bottle or hydration reservoir, eating utensil, mug, toiletries, pillow, solar lantern, large ziplock baggy for garbage, bug spray, trowel and toilet paper (or my favorite - Coleman Biowipes), camp shoes or sandals, small travel towel, blister kit or moleskin, camera, external battery charger + appropriate cables, nylon cord (for hanging food), headlamp, stuff sacks and/or compression sacks, hammock, pack cover, extra gas canister and a camp chair or sit pad.
3. WHERE TO GO? When I'm going on a backpacking trip by myself, I make sure to pick areas that are popular amongst the hiking and backpacking community. Just because you're going by yourself, doesn't mean you have to be alone. In fact, you might not want to be. Being able to see a tent and other campers in the distance may give you some peace of mind. It might also be a good idea to head out to an area you are already familiar with. Maybe there's a day hike you went on that you'd like to revisit?
4. ANIMAL SAFETY & GENERAL PROTECTION: Many of the questions I get are about bear safety and how to protect yourself. I think the first thing to do is to research the area you are in or heading to and figure out what you're potentially dealing with. Learn about what to do if you encounter or are bit by a rattlesnake. Know the signs of a mountain lion and what do if you see one. Take time to understand bears, their behavior and what to do if you come across one. Food-storage and proper safety are huge. Do not cook near your tent and do not keep your food in your tent. This isn't just to keep bears away though, this goes for all wildlife... from mice to mountain goats. If you want to take bear spray with you, by all means. Whatever makes you feel safe and more at ease is priceless and worth the extra weight. I however, do not take any with me. Although Washington has plenty of bears, in all my years of hiking, I have only seen one while on the trail. It was a Grizzly, but it was quite a distance away and there was a river between us. Here are some links that might help in regards to learning more about the wild animals you could potential encounter.
As far as other animals go; I've seen deer, elk, mountain goats, marmots and a ton of critters. However harmless they might seem, it's always best to keep your distance, to not make sudden moves and it's very important to not feed the animals. I get a lot of questions about mountain goats, and for the most part, they are beautiful and harmless creatures. Many are so desensitized to humans that they will tromp right through your camp and get fairly close to you. It's a neat experience, but just because they seem tame, doesn't mean you should try to pet one or walk up to it. Make remember to do your business away from camp, as mountain goats are drawn to our urine.
Other forms of protection (because let's be honest... there's still the human element), are entirely up to you. If you want to bring mace, a knife or if you know how to use and own a handgun, bring it. When I'm in the backcountry I'm there to push and challenge myself, as well as to recharge and reconnect with nature. I live in Seattle and I am more uncomfortable and afraid walking downtown at night than I am in the mountains. The people I encounter in the backcountry are energetic, cheerful and happy, and most are there for the very same reasons that I am. Generally speaking, I feel as though I'm amongst friends, even if I don't know them.
5. TELL SOMEONE YOUR PLAN: It's important when day hiking or backpacking (especially alone) to have a plan and stick to it. Know where you're going, what time you're leaving, the route you'll take (if there are various options) and when you plan on returning. I usually give all that information to my sister and at least one outdoor capable friend, and when I get back into service, I shoot them a text to let them know I am safe.
SO YOU'VE GOT THE GEAR, YOU'VE DONE YOUR RESEARCH, YOU'VE MADE A PLAN AND YOU'VE TOLD SOMEONE WHERE YOU'RE HEADING... NOW WHAT?
Before you leave home, test everything. Make sure you can set up your tent, that your sleeping pad doesn't leak and that you know how to use your stove and water filtration systems. You don't want to be trying to set up camp and reading instructions at the same time. Know before you go and tackle any confusion and frustration at home.
Assuming you've been backpacking before and have the logistical aspects handled, now it's just about overcoming mental obstacles. I remember my first solo backpacking trip being filled with internal struggle, and you can read that story here. When you're out backpacking you'll have a lot of time to yourself, but hopefully you are someone who sees that as a good thing. You'll have time to explore, photograph, read, write or draw, or to just take it all in and be one with your thoughts.
As for sleeping, as long as you've done everything you can to ensure proper food storage and safety, then you should be able to rest easy. But even if the fear of animals is minimized... it doesn't necessarily mean you'll sleep well, so I have a few additional tips to take into consideration. When I'm out backpacking, either alone or with friends, I usually bring a variety of medications with me. Often times after a hard day on the trail, I'll have some pretty intense hip pain that worsens when I lay down and try to rest, and in those instances it causes me to wake up frequently and to not rest soundly. So, I'll take one Aleve and one Aleve PM to help ease my aches and get me to sleep. I also bring Melatonin in case I'm not feeling achey, but still want to help myself fall asleep. Melatonin is natural and isn't like traditional sleep-aids, it just helps you fall asleep. I've also brought Sleepy Time Tea with me as well and had a cup of that before bed. It worked wonders! ...but it also meant I had to get up in the middle of the night to go the bathroom. My intention is never to "drug" myself, but to be able to fall asleep and hopefully get a decent night of rest. A couple other medications I bring with me are Excedrin and Benadryl. I find Excedrin to be excellent for tension headaches and Benadryl (which also can help with sleep) is good to have on hand in case of any kind of allergic reaction. Quick story, a bumble bee once crawled in my sandal and stung the bottom of my foot. It was incredibly painful and swollen and caused me to limp. A fellow camper ran over with a med-kit and crushed a Benadryl up with a rock, added a touch of water and made a paste, which he then applied to the affected area. Within a few short minutes, the swelling and pain were significantly reduced. ...ok, back to sleeping soundly.
Another item I always bring with me are ear plugs. This started mainly because I've had a couple tent mates that snore, but now I bring them with me every time. I may not always use them, but I like to have them on hand. If the weather turns and it's raining or windy, it can sometimes be really loud against the rainfly. Or, if you're near other campers, you may want to drown out the sound of their voices. Additionally, another potentially helpful item is a sleep mask, especially on full moon nights. It's pretty incredible how much the moon can illuminate your tent and keep you from sleeping soundly. I have one from Sea to Summit and it's perfect for backpacking and any kind of travel.
My rest is important to me, whether at home or in the mountains. I hate when I can't sleep and the night seems to last forever. It can make for a rough hike out the next day and just generally feel pretty miserable. You just have to find what works for you and if any of the above make you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, then by all means, leave them at home.
One other thing to mention is a spot beacon. I don't have one just yet, but might just click "buy" once I'm done with this post. A spot beacon allows you to send out an SOS, and some are capable of sending check-ins to your friends or family....which will not only help give YOU peace of mind, but anyone back home that might be concerned about you.
OTHER QUESTIONS PEOPLE HAVE ASKED
1. HAVE I EVER BEEN SCARED WHEN I'M OUT ALONE? The answer is yes. I once was hiking back to my car in the early evening hours and I heard gun shots in the distance. I immediately stopped and assumed it was hunters, but then my imagination ran away with me and I thought a murder could have been taking place. LOL. I didn't know whether I should make myself known or hide in the bushes! I cautiously kept moving but also kept an open ear.
2. WHAT IF YOU HURT YOURSELF AND NEED EMERGENCY RESPONDERS? This is one reason to not choose destinations that are not well-known or popular. I broke my ankle while out hiking alone and had no service, but I was lucky that a couple hikers were a few minutes behind me on the trail. I undoubtedly ruined their night, but they were able to help me and eventually make the call for help. A spot beacon or Garmin inReach device would be a great thing to have in a situation like this.
3. DO I PREFER TO BE OUT ALONE OR WITH OTHERS? I enjoy both very much, as each experience is different. I'm as much an introvert as I am an extrovert. Backpacking with someone else or a group of people is extremely fun and social, and obviously there's safety in numbers... but being out alone is generally more therapeutic and fulfilling for me. When thinking of different trips I want to do, there are some I wouldn't opt to do alone. Maybe there is a fair amount of route-finding and previous trip reports mention getting lost or confused. I save trips like that for when I know I'll have someone else joining me.
Hopefully after reading all of this, you feel a bit better about the idea of getting out by yourself. Start small, start easy. If you've been wanting to try backpacking alone, but have been too scared to go for it, just know that this isn't something you should force on yourself. You should want to go, but also remember... you don't have anything to prove. This is just about you gaining confidence, being self-suficient and hopefully learning a little more about yourself. Any more questions?? Just ask! But also, you should really check out all the information REI has to offer on their website. There's a lot to sift through, but if you really want to get out there, then you should want to invest time into doing your own research. Lastly, don't forget to brush up on LNT! Happy adventuring friends!