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.

Behind the Shot: Layers of Whiteface

Photo Title: Layers of Whiteface

Photography Equipment: Canon 6D DSLR camera, Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM lens, circular polarizer

Exposure Data: 1/200 sec. at f/11, ISO 250, 180mm

Sometimes a photograph comes to fruition at the spur of the moment, with little to no planning or previsualization. Other times, however, much preparation and just the right circumstances are required for a vision to become reality. I came away with photos that fall into both categories from a recent climb of Mount Marcy, including “Layers of Whiteface” which falls squarely into the “spur of the moment” category. The Adirondacks had just been covered with a few feet of snow, and after looking at the extended forecast, it seemed likely that the weekend of March 1st could possibly be the last opportunity this year for photography and snowshoeing in peak winter conditions. I headed out from the Adirondack Loj knowing that I had long day ahead of me, and was at Marcy Dam before I knew it. Even during the first few miles of the hike while still at a relatively low elevation, the fresh snow blanketed everything. I couldn’t wait to see what it would be like up in the alpine zone, but I still stopped often to take photos of the snowy evergreens. As a result, my ascent of the mountain took much longer than anticipated, and in my rush to get towards the summit, I almost didn’t stop to take the photo pictured here. While taking a quick break to catch my breath and drink some water, I turned to look behind me and saw Whiteface looming in the distance between two evergreens, perfectly illuminated by the low angle of the evening sun. I decided that I would snap a quick shot then be on my way, and took a few photos with the 24-105mm lens that was on my camera at the time. Even when zoomed in all the way to 105mm, I still couldn’t quite get the close-up composition that I was after, but I was in a rush to get to the summit area in time for sunset and didn’t want to take the time to switch to my longer telephoto lens. I actually packed up and shouldered my pack, telling myself that I could just crop the image in post-production to get the perspective that I really wanted. The internal battle that ensued in my mind is one that often happens, at least to me, while photographing the mountains, particularly in winter. Is a given photo worth the time and energy it takes to unload your pack, take out your gear, change lenses, compose the shot, make necessary adjustments, etcetera, especially when the wind is blowing and your hands are starting to get cold? Thankfully, I’ve learned the hard way that it’s always best to just suck it up and put in the extra time to get the shot that you want, rather than saving a few minutes in the field and then getting home only to say to yourself “man, I wish I had done this differently” when editing a photo.

Using a telephoto lens achieved a couple different purposes. First, I was able to zoom in enough between the trees to get a composition that didn’t have any tree branches poking into the frame, like when I was shooting at 105mm with my other lens. This resulted in an interesting, almost aerial perspective of Whiteface and the surrounding mountains. Second, longer focal lengths, such as the 180mm I settled on, compress the perspective of a scene, which in this case made Whiteface appear to be much closer than it actually was, and helped it to be the dominant subject of the photo.

Aside from Whiteface, I wanted to include the two other elements that drew me to this scene: the puffy clouds floating above the summit, and the snowy mountain ridges that separated Whiteface from my position on Marcy. I composed the shot so that the ridges would add interest and depth to the foreground while leading the eye towards Whiteface, which I positioned 1/3 of the way down from the top of the frame while centering the mountain horizontally. Since the landscape and sky were both lit with the afternoon sun, I was able to capture this shot without using my tripod. Bumping up the ISO, or sensitivity of the camera sensor to light, from 100 to 250 allowed a faster shutter speed to be used in order to minimize camera shake and prevent a blurry image. Zooming in at 10x magnification on the camera’s LCD screen confirmed that the shot was sharp and in focus from front to back. While I didn’t use my tripod for this shot, I did utilize a different piece of gear that is almost always on my lenses, a circular polarizer. This helped to cut some of the glare from the mountains and deepened the blue color of the sky.

Satisfied with the photos I got, and even more satisfied that I had decided to take the extra time to “work the shot” and switch to a telephoto lens, I pressed on to the summit, where I would thankfully come away with some photos that I had sought for years.

The post-processing of this image was relatively simple and straightforward, as there was no need to blend multiple exposures for depth of field or dynamic range. The main work that was done in Photoshop was some selective dodging and burning to further accentuate the snowy mountain ridges in the foreground and Whiteface in the background. After less than a half hour of work, “Layers of Whiteface” was a finished product, and will always be a reminder to me that yes, stopping and spending the extra time to work a shot to be just the way that you want it is always worth it!

Note: this post can also be viewed on Pure ADK.

“Fire on the Mountain” receives Honorable Mention in 2020 Adirondack Life Photo Contest

The good news continues! In addition to “Follow the Leader” being selected as the Second Prize winner in the Lands, Waters and Wildlife category in the 2020 Appalachian Mountain Club Photo Contest, another photo, “Fire on the Mountain,” recently received Honorable Mention in the 2020 Adirondack Life Photo Contest. This photo features frost-coated berry bushes on the summit of Mount Jo, as the first snow of the season graces the top of Algonquin Peak in the distance on a cold October dawn.

Interested in purchasing a print of this photo? Sizes ranging from 12″ x 18″ all the way up to 40″ x 60″ are available for purchase here.

“Follow the Leader” selected as Second Prize winner in 2020 Appalachian Mountain Club Photo Contest

Exciting news! One of our photos, “Follow the Leader,” was selected as the Second Prize winner in the Lands, Waters and Wildlife category in the 2020 AMC Photo Contest. This photo will be featured in the Spring issue of AMC Outdoors magazine, and can also be found online.

Taken while on a trip to Maine’s Machias Seal Island, home to the largest puffin colony on the coast of Maine, “Follow the Leader” is one of several photos of these majestic animals that I was able to capture last June. More puffin photos and images of coastal Maine can be found in the New England gallery of our website.

Interested in learning more about experiencing and photographing the puffins of Machias Seal Island? Stay tuned for a blog post on the topic in the near future!

Behind the Shot: Flamethrower

This is the first installment of what will be a recurring column on the blog, where I’ll take you “behind the shot” and dive into the the technical and creative background of a given photograph.

Photo Title: Flamethrower

Photography Equipment: Canon 6D DSLR camera, Canon 16-35mm f/4L IS lens, Gitzo GT1532 Mountaineer carbon fiber tripod, Really Right Stuff BH-40 ball head, remote shutter release

Exposure Data:

Exposure 1 (foreground): 1/200 sec. at f/11, ISO 400, 16mm

Exposure 2 (midground/background): 1/200 sec. at f/11, ISO 400, 16mm

Exposure 3 (sunstar and sky): 1/100 sec. at f/22, ISO 400, 16mm

The winter season has quickly become my favorite time of year for photography in the Adirondacks, and out of the seemingly endless array of subjects found in the mountains in winter, nothing is more captivating to me than when the hardy, stunted trees at tree line, known as krummholz, become caked with snow or rime ice. Capturing a photo that highlighted this beacon of winter was my focus this past MLK Jr. Day, when I headed out to Cascade for sunset. I arrived at the trailhead pullout around 1 PM, and whether it was the fact that the morning hikers had already gone home, not everyone got the holiday off, or most people didn’t feel like subjecting themselves to the -30 degree windchill that was forecasted, I was pleasantly surprised to find only a few other parked cars. I made haste towards the summit, wanting to allow myself some extra time to scout out the terrain before sunset, and had the trail largely to myself. One of the joys of winter climbing is watching the snow grow deeper and deeper as elevation is gained, and as the amount of snow built, so did my excitement. After stopping to change into a dry baselayer, my trusty Eddie Bauer Peak XV down jacket, a balaclava and ski goggles, I broke into the alpine zone. The wind was even stronger than I anticipated, and I was nearly knocked off my feet. Trying to scout out a creative composition while the simple act of staying warm and upright is a struggle was challenging to say the least, and after a while it felt as if the fierce wind was blowing the inspiration right out of me. As I aimlessly looped around the summit, I found myself continually returning to a particular grove of ice-coated krummholz that was on the western edge of the summit area. The brilliant orange sunset light was perfectly illuminating the krummholz, and I was particularly drawn to the way the low-angled light brought out the intricate detail and texture of the rime.  After testing out several different compositions while handholding the camera, I set up my tripod after settling on one that showcased the stunted trees in their hostile yet incredibly beautiful alpine environment, as they soaked up the evening sun and gazed out towards the Great Range on the horizon. The contrast between the warm glow of sunset and the ice-encrusted landscape was especially pleasing, and while it did little to warm my body, the bright sunshine warmed my heart and soul.

Capturing this photo presented several technical challenges that were exacerbated by the high winds. Upon zooming in at 10x after taking a test shot, my initial settings failed to freeze the motion of the krummholz swaying in the wind and was blurry. To decrease the exposure length in order to get the trees in focus, I bumped up the ISO, or sensitivity of the camera sensor to light, from 100 to 400, which allowed the exposure time to be shortened enough to freeze the krummholz without introducing excessive noise that can be an issue at higher ISO values.

Once the exposure was dialed in, the next obstacle to overcome was depth of field. I wanted the entire photo to be sharp, which wasn’t possible given the close proximity of the foreground to the lens. To overcome this, I took one frame after focusing on the krummholz closest to the lens, and another focused on the more distant layer of trees that were farther from the lens, knowing that I would blend the two photos together in Photoshop to ensure the photo was tack-sharp from front to back.

The last piece of the technical puzzle in the field was the sun. Since the sky was clear, I wanted to create a “sunstar” effect with the sun in order to add visual interest to the sky and provide balance with the sunlit krummholz in the foreground. The aperture (f/11) that I used in the previous frames wasn’t yielding the effect that I desired, so I stopped the lens all the way down to f/22 to intensify the sunstar. Shooting into the sun can often result in unwanted flare and sunspots showing up in the image, so to combat this I hovered my hand above the lens to shield it as much as possible from the sun to minimize unwanted flare. When it was all said and done, what began as a somewhat frustrating photo outing ended up being one of the most productive evenings of photography I’ve ever had, and I ended up with numerous portfolio-worthy shots in addition to “Flamethrower.”

Once back in the warm and cozy confines of my apartment, the second phase of the creative process commenced: bringing the artistic vision to fruition in the digital darkroom. After making initial adjustments in Adobe Lightroom, I loaded the three images into Photoshop, and blended the first two together to attain maximal depth of field. After blending in the sunstar from the third exposure that was taken at an aperture of f/22, global and localized adjustments to the blended image could be made. After dialing in the overall contrast to my liking, I selectively burned/dodged (darkened/lightened) particular areas of the image to put an increased emphasis on the two main subjects of the photo: the sunlit krummholz and the warm glow radiating from the sun. Before long, the image resembled what I had envisioned, and in my mind the final product perfectly captures the essence and beauty of winter in the Adirondacks.

Note: this article can also be found on Pure ADK.