10 Tips for Solo Backpacking

There might not be a more rewarding outdoor experience than exploring the wilderness all alone while solo backpacking. The physical, mental, and emotional challenges can be immense, and are exceeded only by the feelings of accomplishment and self-reliance that come from thriving in the wilds with help from no one. Whether seeking out a challenge, looking to escape from the hectic modern world, or simply not having anyone to go with, there are many reasons to embark on a solo backpacking trip, especially in this time of uncertainty and social distancing. This article will provide useful tips for both experienced explorers and neophytes alike to have a safe and enjoyable solo backpacking experience.

Note: please follow all local and federal guidelines when getting outside during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Spirit of Adventure: Stars shine above my tent on the wild coast of Olympic National Park. Prints available.

1. Ease into it

Before immediately diving into a multi-day solo trip, incrementally gain experience and knowledge by first backpacking with other, more experienced backpackers. This will instill you with the confidence and skills to venture into the wilderness solo. It’s also far better to make a rookie mistake while in the company of a seasoned vet than to learn things the hard way when you’re all alone. Once you feel comfortable enough to go solo, get a few low mileage, one or two night trips under your belt before biting off that week-long epic you’ve been dreaming about.

2. Tell a friend/family member your itinerary

If things turn bad while you’re solo, no one will be there to provide medical assistance or run out to the road or a ranger station to get help. Leaving a detailed itinerary with a loved one is always a good idea even when backpacking with others, but is imperative to your safety and well-being when going solo. 

Camping in a Dream: Two tents perched above Lake Ann take in a sunset view of Mount Shuksan. Prints available.

3. Consider using a satellite messenger

Along the same vein as Tip #2, carrying a satellite messenger such as a SPOT or DeLorme inReach can be a soothing security for you and your loved ones while you’re off the grid alone. These messengers range in capability, but some good basic requirements if you choose to carry one is a “check-in” feature that lets the people of your choice know that you’re ok and provides your GPS coordinates via text and/or email, and an SOS feature that alerts local search and rescue of your location and that you’re in danger and in need of rescue.

4. Double-check your gear

Extra care and diligence needs to be taken with gear before heading out on a solo backpacking trip, as there won’t be anyone there to lend you spare gear or help with repairs in the event of a gear failure. Opening up your tent, sleeping bag and pad before packing them to inspect for damage or mildew from storage, re-waterproofing rain gear and boots, and checking how much fuel is in fuel canisters are just a few of the things that should be done each time before hitting the trail.

King of the East: Chimney Pond, at the base of Maine’s Mt. Katahdin, is lined with fragile alpine grasses that turn a beautiful shade of gold in fall. Baxter State Park is one of the best backpacking destinations on the East Coast. Prints available.

5. Lighten the load

An advantage of backpacking with a group is the ability to split up gear among multiple people, helping to keep everyone’s pack at a reasonable weight. When backpacking solo, it’s up to only you to carry all that is needed to thrive in the wilderness, and pack weight can quickly balloon to an ungodly level that prohibits efficient travel and personal enjoyment. For high mileage solo trips, the added cost of lightweight gear is worth every penny.  Another useful way to eliminate unnecessary weight is to keep track of what you pack for each trip, and what you actually end up using. This is an easy way to identify the items that have earned a place in your pack, and those that can be done without.  

6. Develop a daily rhythm

Solo backpacking involves much more work than just the act of hiking. Camp needs to be made, water gathered and purified, food cooked, perhaps firewood collected. If such tasks are procrastinated and completed haphazardly, solo backpacking can quickly feel more like a chore than an enjoyable escape. Developing a daily rhythm will ensure that tasks are efficiently completed and free up more time to hike and enjoy the beautiful surroundings.

The Gift: Solo wilderness travel can be challenging, but the awards are immense. Prints available.

7. Mitigate risk

Solo backpacking is inherently more dangerous than hiking with a group, and extra care needs to be taken when solo to avoid danger and taking unnecessary risks. Pushing onward when the weather’s bad, crossing a swollen river, and venturing onto uncomfortably dangerous terrain are just a few of the high-risk scenarios that should be avoided as much as possible when backpacking solo. There’s no shame in turning back when a dangerous situation outside your comfort zone presents itself while solo.

8. Reinforce first aid and emergency kits

In the event of a medical emergency while solo backpacking, you want to be able to rest assured that you have the medication and equipment to safely get you through it. Off the shelf first aid kits are a good start, but it’s best to carefully go through them before a trip and bolster with extra supplies and meds. Items such as a signaling mirror, emergency whistle, prescription meds, and medical tape and bandages are items that can be crucial in an emergency and that often aren’t included in a run-of-the-mill first aid kit.

North of the Wall: A fresh dusting of snow graces the jagged spires of the Rockwall, which rises over 3,000 feet above Floe Lake. The larch trees seen here at Numa Pass and the valley below turn a beautiful golden color in September, and were the perfect complement to the dark mountains and skies on this moody morning. Prints available.

9. Strengthen navigation skills

Even when planning to stay on designated, well-marked hiking trails, having a strong knowledge of your planned route and bringing along a map of the area is crucial. GPS devices and phone apps such as AllTrails can be great navigation resources, but many a backpacker has needed to be rescued after the battery in their navigation device died. Bringing a map and compass, and knowing how to use them, remains a vital skill even in this digital age, especially when navigational choices are up to you alone.

10. Combat loneliness

Getting away from it all, challenging yourself physically and mentally, and connecting to the natural world are just a few of the many benefits of backpacking solo. Having some downtime on a trip can be great, but it’s in these moments that loneliness can creep up on you and threaten to sabotage a solo trip. Keeping the mind active is a great way to stave off loneliness. Writing in a journal, drawing, reading a book, and taking photos are a few activities that don’t require much energy but keep the mind engaged. Grappling with loneliness in the wilderness and overcoming it can be one of the most rewarding aspects of solo backpacking, and the more time spent out in the wilds alone, the more comfortable you’ll become and the more it will begin to feel like home.

A campfire can be a great way to combat loneliness on long nights while going solo.

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