Go it alone: solo hiking, backpacking and snow shoeing safely
March 14, 2015 8:16 AM   Subscribe

A 500-mile solo hike cured my loneliness
It seemed reasonable to assume that trekking alone for 500 miles, in areas with no cell phone reception and few other hikers, might leave me lonelier than ever.

But loneliness and being alone are two different things. During the five weeks I spent on the trail, I felt less lonely than I have in years.
Willow Belden writes on hiking alone in the always-connected digital age, reflecting on her time on the Colorado Trail. If hiking alone sounds like something you'd enjoy, you should probably start out a bit smaller and work up, and there are plenty of tips and guides for solo hiking and general hiking/outdoor safety (examples from Hiking Dude, Solo Friendly, Boundary Waters Canoe Area on solo backpacking, Snow Shoe Magazine on snow shoeing alone, a broad guide to hiking safety from Hiking Cape Townand a general guide to trekking in winter), but watch out for people touting adventure through irresponsible practices. Tell people where you're going and what you're doing, and if you get lost, stop, think, observe and plan to make sure you are thinking clearly and acting logically.
posted by filthy light thief (14 comments total) 76 users marked this as a favorite
"Hiking more often" was one of my New Year's resolutions so this is relevant to my interests.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:27 AM on March 14, 2015

"But if you judge safety to be the paramount consideration in life you should never, under any circumstance, go on long hikes alone. Don't take short hikes either--or, for that matter, go anywhere alone. And avoid at all costs such foolhardy activities as driving, falling love, or inhaling air that is almost certainly riddled with deadly germs."
-- Fletcher & Rawlins, The Complete Walker IV

I did a 12 day solo trip in Alaska a few years ago and it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
posted by justkevin at 8:30 AM on March 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

Speaking from experience, eat something before deciding to climb up or down cliffs, fjord rivers, traverse glaciers, or perform other life-risking stunts. Low blood sugar dangerously impairs one's thinking and unwise decisions are too easily made.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:31 AM on March 14, 2015 [7 favorites]

Multi-day hikes are my bread and butter. With the advent of GPS and SPOT transceivers there is now very little risk.
posted by furtive at 8:42 AM on March 14, 2015

Loneliness and solitude are very different things.
posted by Daddy-O at 8:46 AM on March 14, 2015 [9 favorites]

Want to echo what FFF said... Did that on a New York trail on vacation, reached a high point and went back down. There was a short, wet, mossy rock ledge on the way, slipped and got my arm reasonably scratched up. Was otherwise exhausted by the end of the day... :/ I had ate, but probably not enough.
posted by JoeXIII007 at 9:05 AM on March 14, 2015

Being alone, solitude, enables one to be truly oneself. One doesn't have to keep in mind what other people think. It provides respite and, if you are not already, it helps you to learn how to become a friend to yourself. It's amazing how many people aren't their own friends.
posted by cwest at 9:08 AM on March 14, 2015 [5 favorites]

"Loneliness and solitude are very different things."

Weirdly, there may be detrimental health effects of both loneliness and chosen solitude. "Loneliness and social isolation can look very different. For example, someone may be surrounded by many people but still feel alone. Other people may isolate themselves because they prefer to be alone. The effect on longevity, however, is much the same for those two scenarios."

However, I like to think and hope taking some time for solitude -especially with nature- still fits into the picture of a healthy and well connected life.
posted by xarnop at 9:10 AM on March 14, 2015

I'm not seeing anything that suggests choosing to be alone is detrimental to one's health. Choosing to be alone is not the same as loneliness. In fact, I'd suggest that it's pretty much the opposite. On a quick perusal of the study that the link that xarnop linked to mentions, it doesn't seem to differentiate between loneliness and solitude at all.

I walk alone pretty regularly, and it's been purely beneficial to my health and mental wellbeing. The only downside has been the occurrence of blisters, before I got a decent pair of socks. I actively look forward to just being on my own, meandering about a footpath. It's just not as fun with people nearby.
posted by Solomon at 10:11 AM on March 14, 2015

However, I like to think and hope taking some time for solitude -especially with nature- still fits into the picture of a healthy and well connected life.

Of course it does, with the key words being solitude and nature, not loneliness, not social isolation.

To take a slightly tangential approach to the main points in the articles above.. I walk long trails alone. I fairly often bump into Christians. They seem to be mostly from one of three schools of thought. Some of them seem to be approaching their time in the wild as an extension of church related religious and social activities ("Baptists you say? No. No, I.. I think I'll stay here. But it is a nice waterhole, you should definitely go have a look.") Some of them seem to be of some kind of school of muscular Christianity that I'm not particularly familiar with except to observe that maybe it has something to do with Seton and Baden-Powell and wandering around with a hat but no shirt. And the third type I'd gently characterise as stark raving mad ("Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness you know!!!" Yes!!! He ate locusts, he did!!!).

Mocking them though I am, I do think I get where they're coming from. All of them. There is a sense in wild places, particularly when remote and alone, that the barriers between self and the natural world just break down and disappear. And in that dissolution you become something simultaneously tiny and huge. You realise how insignificant you are, yet feel like the first and only (or even greatest) being in the universe.

Whether standing on the lip of a breakaway above a steep forested valley, or waking before dawn on an exposed desert dune with a million stars in the sky and ice around the mouth of your sleeping bag, or floating in a pond in a crystal clear jungle lined stream while tiny iridescent fish and shrimp nibble on your toes, there can be such immense wonder and joy, such awe and amazement, that you're fulfilled, complete, whole. There's no room for loneliness in those moments. There's spiritual refreshment and renewal there that just doesn't require others.

And a parting thought about safety. Sure it's important to balance your knowledge, experience and skills against the risks that are likely to be present. But it's easy to take that preparation too far, to protect yourself too well. It's easy to end up carrying too much baggage, both literally and figuratively. If you take your house with you in your backpack how are you going to sleep under the stars? Being too risk averse installs a set of barriers against the sense of primal connection that is the point to being there, and is the very thing that ensures that you aren't lonely.
posted by Ahab at 10:28 AM on March 14, 2015 [10 favorites]

I agree that you can take preparation and safety too far, but… I meet a lot more folks on the trail that aren't carrying water or any weather protection. I talked with someone from Search and Rescue and he was almost apoplectic about the frequency of rescuing ill prepared hikers. It really isn't hard to get into a jam in the wilderness when the weather turns or you get lost.

Great post. Inspires me to get my boots back on the trails.
posted by jabo at 10:45 AM on March 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

As an extremely experienced remote back-country, self-supported backpacker, I gotta say you can not over-prepare. I have always packed appropriate gear to ensure my safety, yet have personally experienced misadventures that had the potential to easily have had dire outcomes.

Issues that are small when you are close to civilization can be deadly when you are remote.. In town, the worst that happens when dressed in cotton and caught by a downpour is that you're miserable until you get home. At the top of a mountain pass, you can easily die of exposure. Skip a meal in town and you're a bit of a low blood sugar hazard as you tool around in your seatbelt and airbag equipped car. Skip it out in the wild and suddenly that glacier traverse looks like a good idea. Break an ankle in town, no problem. Break it 200km from town and you are fucked.

Underprepared people not infrequently die from their decision. Don't be one of them.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:58 AM on March 14, 2015 [11 favorites]

I'm just an inexperienced day hiker, but I've got a few rules of the trail that are probably helpful:
- be comfortable with the fact that you are limited. When you see your limits, act accordingly.
- before you do something difficult, ask: is this going to be harder on the way back?
- most man made disasters are caused by an accumulation of small errors. Be vigilant against ramifying mistakes.
posted by wotsac at 12:17 PM on March 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

500 miles in a little over 5 weeks... 12-14 miles a day, at altitude, with ~40lb pack, with all the ups and downs, she was hauling ass.
posted by smcameron at 10:01 PM on March 14, 2015

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