Sunday, December 1, 2013

Backpacking solo

When Still Waters first asked me to help her with her first solo backpacking experience, I was eager to share what I’ve learned the last 3 years going solo.  But there are also risks to backpacking by yourself.  So we came up with a plan to do a two night trip- we’d backpack together the first night, and then the second night we’d each go solo on the same trail, and meet back up again afterwards.  She’d have a chance to double check her gear on the first night (as the temps got down into the 20’s- burr!) before her first night out on her own.
Still Water, Solo Backpacker.
First night: comfortable into the 20's 
We set off on the Chattooga Cliffs Trail in North Carolina from the Bull Pen Bridge Trailhead (10.2 miles total out and back).  This trail was really beautiful back in July, though I’d recalled it was also technically challenging- several rock scrambles and butt-scoots.  As part of my preparations for the PCT, I was carrying a bear canister for the first time with enough food for several days.   And if that wasn’t enough, the trail was icy so those were ice-encrusted rock scrambles, with the extra 10 lbs in my pack.  This was NOT something I’d do solo, but it was a good challenge with Still Waters.  One of the important things about choosing to go solo is deciding when to take risks and when to play it safe.  When I go solo, I know where my limits are and where I can push things.
Icy and challenging Chattooga Cliffs Trail.
It was great practice carrying the bear canister, seeing how well it fit in my pack, and opening it in the cold with this method.
Selecting a solo campsite
We talked a lot the first night about differences between backpacking with a friend and going solo.  For me the biggest difference is in choosing a campsite.  When we camp with a group, campsite selection is often dictated by space or aesthetics, and is restricted (usually) to established sites.  Going solo, I camp far from trailheads, and I make make myself either highly visible or highly invisible.  If I use an established campsite, if anyone is camped nearby, I’ll be assertive and talk to the other campers and see if I get a good feeling, all before I set up.  Otherwise, I stealth camp.  On our first night, we camped at a stealth site that is typical for me when I go solo- we “went high", halfway up the hillside where it is warmer, and hidden from view of the trail.
The Chattooga is gorgeous, but we didn't camp near it cause it would have been even more cold down along it's banks.
Why go solo?
Everyone has their own motivation for going solo. Still Waters was interested in having a quiet, peaceful experience.  I went solo backpacking at first because I wanted the confidence boost and because I though it would prepare me for a thru hike, but then because I found it made me a more competent backpacker. It allowed me to do more miles than I would with friends or groups.  As I experimented with pace, nutrition, and techniques, my backpacking skills improved by leaps and bounds as I learned to listen to my body and develop my own style that was in tune with what worked for me.  Things I hadn’t learned when surrounded by other people when decisions are made for the benefit of the group.  Guess the important thing is to keep in mind why you want to go solo.

Second night: going solo
The next morning, Still Waters dropped me off at the Bad Creek Trail, which led to the start of my Chattooga River Trail thru hike, while she set off on her solo from the Nicholson Ford Trailhead.  I’ve section hiked the entire Chattooga River Trail multiple times, but this was my first time going in one continuous trip- 40.5 miles in 2 days.  With the bear canister.  With another 20-degree night.  I’m not gonna lie- this trip reminded me about the best and worst of hiking solo.  I hit a low point on the last day when I could tell I was pushing too fast.  My feet were not used to carrying that much weight.  I knew I needed take a break and not get so *freaking obsessed* with my miles per hour, and also not to worry so much about how many extra minutes it took me to get packed up in the morning fumbling around with my gloves on.  When I’m solo, I see more clearly how I can be my own worst enemy.  
At low points, it always helps to take dorky self-portraits, get email messages from friends, and write to-do lists.
But then, soloing has it’s high points too.  One neat thing was seeing a bear as I hiked the last mile to my car in the dusk/dark.  This was cool because not only wasn’t I scared of the bear like I used to be, but it was actually enjoyable seeing this wild creature- yay!  I’ve seen enough bears now that I know what to expect from the bears around here.  The other thing I like about going solo is that it makes me feel like I can take on anything I set my mind to.  For example, I DIDN'T GET COLD HANDS despite the temps dipping into the 20’s. I also felt like I was in good shape, doing these back to back 20 mile days carrying extra weight with really short hours of daylight.  So, happy overall.

After the trip, I met up with Still Waters to hear about her successful solo night on the trail.  She’d found an awesome stealth site and stayed warm.  Way to go Still Waters!  Hope you have many safe and enjoyable nights out on the trail!

Here are some other tIps for going solo that we discussed:

-When first going solo, start small.  I’d go to places where I was very comfortable- state parks where I could sign in at the park office, or the Appalachian Trail where there is a trail culture that I trust.  Start with solo day hikes. 

-Take care of yourself- this is your number one priority- don’t mess around.  Listen to your body, adjust your pace, and be mindful.

-Be aware.  Pay attention to everyone you see on the trail.  Listen to your gut.   Know your strengths and be prepared.  I also took wilderness first aid and self-defense courses

-Enjoy yourself.  Do exactly what you want, when you want.  Linger at waterfalls.  Go swimming.  Take a nap.  Eat dinner at 3 PM.  Savor every moment.  Remember the distinction between being alone and being lonely.
Giving my feet a break and having an early dinner (dehydrated roasted veggies & sweet potato soup).
-Create a safety net.  I tell two people where I'm going, where I'm parking, and when I’ll be back.  I stick to the plan.  I carry a cell phone and a SPOT.  I check back in after I return, so my friends always expect my follow up text.   My friends also have gotten in the habit of sending me foul weather alerts (thunderstorms, ice storms), and this has proved VERY helpful several times.

-Know where you can get cell signal.  I don’t normally advocate relying on cell phones in the backcountry, but I have found it very helpful to know the locations of cell service on various ridges or gaps on some of my favorite trails.  Where reception is faint, text messages are more reliable than calling or email.

-Don’t get lost.  Until I was very comfortable going solo, I’d stick to routes I knew.  I always pay constant attention to my location and where I am going.  I take extra time at all trail junctions, I backtrack if I have any doubt, I take photos of signs and trail junctions (with time stamps so I keep track of my pace so I can calculate expected travel times to various places).  I bring multiple maps and trail guides.  I research my trips throughougly, calling the local ranger station a few days before, reading blogs, forums, and websites.  I have backup plans and I know alternate routes.

-Bring music or podcasts to listen to before you go to sleep.  Or bring earplugs.  Helps keep away the sounds of night-time monsters.  This doesn't creep me out anymore (much) but it used to.

-Take advantage of the extra time and freedom to cultivate your backpacking skills.  For example, spending extra time exploring when looking for campsites has provided me with a better understanding of  how the wind moves over gaps and ridges and which plant communities are found on warmer vs. wetter slopes.  I also spend more time taking photos and looking at plants when I’m by myself- all things I enjoy.
Gentians still blooming on Thanksgiving weekend.
Read more on solo backpacking:

From Roam the Woods- more great tips for solo backpacking

The Girl Who Goes Alone, by Elizabeth Austen- this piece is awesome and inspiring and tells it like it is!!!   (another link to the full poem here)

Article about solo paddling that touches on many issues about safety.


  1. I've backpacked solo for years. Since before a lot of women did it. I really enjoy it. I find it hard to find companions who want to take on as much as I do. That being said, I find myself a little lonely in camp sometimes. The ideal would be to meet up with folks then. But people always want to hike together. Anyway. good for surviving 20 degree nights. I need to get better at cold.

  2. I really enjoy it too! I totally agree with you about the loneliness in camp- especially in winter when there are so many hours of dark. I try to alternate social trips and solo trips, but it’s hard to get the right balance, and even harder to find hiking buddies who want similar things.

    And yes, I’m always humbled going in the cold and feel like I need more practice too. Everything takes so much longer, and then there is the where to put the water and filter so they don’t freeze, dealing with wet-foot water crossings, how to adjust pace to avoid slipping on ice. Ah what good fun!

  3. Thanks for the insight and references. Still lots to learn, yet the comfort level of being alone is high so, I know everything will come in time. It just feels right for me to be alone in the woods.
    Solo hiking for me has an added layer of cultural factors that I am learning to negotiate.

    Thanks again for your support.
    Still Waters

  4. Really appreciated our lengthy discussions on safety while solo backpacking, Still Waters. Delighted to have been able to provide some support. I sure think you're courageous to be out there. :)

  5. The first time I ever went b-packing was solo, since then the majority of my trips are solo. I too carry a SPOT and I leave a written trip plan at home. Earplugs are a must for me..the woods are noisy. What are these monsters you speak of? :-)

  6. JJ- You know, the monsters that rustle around in the night with the grey-brown fur and little tails, scurrying around and gnawing holes, doing their bear-cable acrobatics. The stuff of nightmares. Usually can be avoided by camping well away from shelters.

  7. ooooooh thooooooose…I have a rather large hole in my hiking skirt compliments of those little beasts and I was camped away from shelter. I guess the ones in MA don't know the rules. :-)

  8. Great post! I went on my first true solo (no dog!) this past February. It was a snow camping trip, and I loved it! I learned a bit about some gear I brought and had a "bump in the night" situation in my hammock that scared the crap out of me! I love going by myself. I don't usually carry a SPOT, but I do leave a detailed itinerary with my roommate.

  9. Hi Heather- Wow that your first solo was in snow! I've had a one of those bump in the nights too with a squirrel- now I just try to sleep through everything- something that's much easier in a hammock for me, since it's so comfortable. :)

    Agree about the detailed itinerary. I did that for a long, long time, but started carrying the SPOT when the "alternate plans" on my itinerary got excessively long, and I started doing more risky off-trail travel.

  10. Good for you all! Erin Saver is another great example of a woman on the trails. She has done the PCT and CDT, often alone. Now she is getting ready to do the AT in April 2014.

    She has a wonderful helpful website, (Her trail name is Wired, both for her energy and her constant web connection. She will respond to your emails!)

  11. Thanks, Walkser! Yes, Erin Saver's website sure is a wealth of information. Reading her trail journal of the PCT was very inspiring to me.

  12. if, and thats a big if here, you need backpacking companions when your friends are eternally cityfolk, is the way to go. they have several meetup groups devoted to backpacking, run by very organized, knowlegeable, and sociable people, in my experience. that said, these arent big thru-hikes. they tend to be 3 or 4 day weekenders, but adventurous ones

  13. Great post Joan. I love the Chattooga River and your trip reminds me why. Glad you were able to beat the cold. I carry HOT Hands hand warmers. Those little orange packs you find in the hunting sections of stores like Walmart. On a night like you had, I would wear a flannel shirt with two chest pockets. One warmer in each pocket keeps the core nice and toasty. You can also toss one in the bottom of your sleeping bag or quilt.


  14. Swampfox- there is something so wonderful about the Chattooga River area. And thanks again for telling me about that Fork Mountain Trail- another winner. Yes, I am a huge fan of Hot Hands, and use them like you do- tucking them into pockets at night especially when I wake up at 3 AM cold. :)