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!