I spend a lot of time in the backcountry alone. Almost all my trips adventuring into the woods are solo and if I waited around until someone was ready to go with me I would never get outside. Obviously by doing this frequently I get a lot of comments from friends and family about how backpacking or hiking alone is dangerous and should not be done. I am always seeing people argue about it in backpacking forums and lots of people cancel their trips because of it. This saddens me because life is too short to cancel adventures solely because you couldn’t match your schedule with somebody else. This is also a great time for people to find solitude and a real escape to be with their own thoughts and reflections. With the technology that we have along with common sense you can still have a relatively safe trip with just about the same risk factors as you would with a partner. I am obviously not stating that hiking alone is as safe as staying home, but I am saying it is not anymore dangerous than hiking with a partner when taking the proper precautions.
Here is what I do to mitigate risks and stay safe on the trail when alone. I obviously always tell my fiancé and parents about where I am going that weekend and what my plans are. When I get to the trailhead and camp spot that I selected at night I also drop a GPS pin on my iPhone that I send to my fiancé. Now obviously this only works as long as you have cell service. Luckily cell service is advancing like all other electronics and more remote backcountry areas are growing their cell range (this does not mean you want to plan on having service). This is where GPS messengers/beacons become a very valuable tool to carry even when you are not alone. I carry the Garmin Spot device which is an amazing tool for how small it is and very affordable at around $120 regularly. However you do need to
buy a service plan, but it is extremely customizable and very economical. The Spot only weights 4 ounces and works off of 4 AAA batteries. Meanwhile this has an SOS button that goes directly to SAR as well as a lower grade help button that you can program to send to whoever you designate, for less serious rescues like a sprained ankle and not something that warrants a $10,000 helicopter ride. Besides the two rescue buttons it has three interactive buttons for whoever is programmed to receive messages from you. One of them is a generic “I’m Ok” button and the other is a button where you preprogram whatever message you want on there. I have mine programed to say, “This is where I am camping and I am not moving anywhere else today”. That way my mom and fiancé know I am safe in one spot and climbing in the tent pretty soon. The third button turns on your tracker so you or your family can watch your track live from google earth.
The next electronic device that is making solo backpacking safer is the Garmin In-Reach.
This is a very powerful device that is also quite versatile. This device looks like a handheld GPS and can even do some navigating and route keeping on it. But the impressive part is that you can send txt messages on it. My fiancé is always saying she wishes I had this one but only so she could give me updates on our dog. I don’t find that worthy of the extra cost even as cool as it is. What also makes the In Reach stand out is that its SOS function is “two-way” meaning that you can alert an SOS and state the nature of your emergency over txt and the dispatcher will send a confirmation that help is on its way. When you are sitting in the middle of the woods, with a broken leg and night is falling, that is a huge piece of mind. The In Reach also gives weather updates where it is customizable to how detailed you want your reports as well as the plan you purchased. That is the one down side to this device is that it is much pricier than the Spot or a normal handheld GPS listed at $450 and then has a service plan that you need to purchase in addition to that. However, this device essentially does all the functions of a Spot and handheld GPS all in one so you can’t really bash the price.
The most important tool that I used to stay safe while solo hiking is my common sense. I take great care not to push myself into a dangerous situation and do not hesitate to turn around if I have any doubt at all that the situation has a chance of going sideways. I also only go to places that I have taken the time to do extensive research and essentially have the trail map memorized from studying it intensively. I carry more clothing, food, and water than I would if I was with someone else because now I have no one to rely on if I forget something or fall in a stream or any of the endless dangerous possibilities occur. I believe going alone has made me a better backpacker because I have to be so meticulous when it comes to planning but it also challenges me mentally by having to pull myself out of those ‘lows’ that sneak up on you from time to time on the trail. You also only have yourself when you hear the bear like noises of chipmunks in the leaves when you are laying in your tent (everybody has a little fear of the dark). I have had some great trips by myself and will continue to go on them because I would hate to think I missed out on these experiences because my schedule didn’t match with my buddies.