Okay, so that's more my mother's thoughts on hiking solo. But to be honest, one of the first things I learned when I was getting into hiking is that it's dangerous to go by yourself. The reasons were pretty obvious: (1) If there is an emergency, you'll want someone to be there to perform first aid or go and get help (2) Animals are less likely to attack a larger group and (3) Going alone may lead to you dying of sheer boredom. While the last one is probably more for the extroverts out there, you still get my point. For quite a few years, I had it in my head that hiking by oneself isn't very smart (or practical).
That's why it didn't even cross my mind to go solo until I hiked Rawson Lake last summer with Matt. It had been the end of a long day and we were both tired and about ready to head home. While Matt studied the fish in the lake, I laid down on a log for some peace and quiet. And then a man not even 100 yards away from me caught my eye. He was completely by himself. My first reaction was to shake my head at him but I couldn't help but give a double look. He looked so relaxed and not at all bored.
Now, hiking has brought me a lot of joy in the last few years but I have never looked quite like him while on a trail. He was happy and content, so tranquil looking that he almost appeared to belong with the lake (I half expected him to start humming as if meditating). With leathery skin and worn-out equipment, he looked like a guy who had been doing this quite a bit longer than I had.
It was a strange experience. I could literally see his independence in that moment. His confidence. His peace of mind. And I was jealous. I wanted to look that experienced. I wanted people to look at me and think "yeah, she definitely knows what she's doing." Because the truth of the matter is, I've never really felt like I know what I'm doing. I always feel second-best at everything I do. I always feel….average.
Now, I know I'm not unique in that way. There's not one person on this planet who doesn't feel the same at some point in their lives. Who doesn't look at someone else and wish they were as put together? But as I watched the man at Rawson Lake eat his trail mix, I realized he was the exception. And I knew it wasn't because he thought he was better than everyone else. It was because, quite simply, he wasn't looking at anyone else but himself. He was his only focus.
When Matt came back over to me and I tore my gaze away from the solo backpacker, I didn't think about that man again for quite a while- not until hiking season was over and I had more time to think about what I wanted out of the next hiking season. Only then did it hit me- I wanted to try to attain whatever it was that he had attained.
Like me, he didn't have any outside distractions while at the lake. No computer, no TV, no phone. But he also didn't have any companionship. No worrying about whether he was going too fast or too slow. He didn't have to stress over whether his hiking buddy was having a good time. There were no conversations to interrupt the peace and quiet of nature. He had only himself to rely on and his own thoughts to pass the time.
It's a scary idea to only have yourself. The world is so used to co-dependence. It's natural for us to lean on each other and turn to each other when we can't figure something out. Humans are herd animals after all. It's against our nature to completely isolate ourselves from the company of others. But taking a few days away from the rest of the world has also proven to rejuvenate the mind and body. Like pressing the reset button. And that's exactly what I need.
Since my revelation, I've only gone on a solo hike once so far (since this blog was written) and that was Tunnel Mountain. Anyone can tell you that's not really much of a feat. After all, Tunnel Mountain is designed for tourists and it's literally in the middle of a town. Even though I went in the winter, I still wasn't really alone. I was passing someone every five minutes. I still loved it though. Hearing my own breath and not much else as I slogged up the switchbacks was a comfort. Having only myself for company wasn't as lonesome as I thought it would be. And sitting up on the summit with just me, myself and I was…wonderful. I don't know how else to explain it. It wasn't a feeling I expected. And it's not like I never want to have a hiking partner again. Having a buddy with me while hiking the trails is always great. But going by myself gave me a taste for something a little different.
That's why I plan to work on the whole 'lack of solo experience' thing a lot this summer. In fact, I don't plan on just day hiking solo. I want to do a solo backpacking trip as well.
My friends and family aren't as thrilled about this idea as I am and I completely understand why. But I also know it's something I want...no...need to do. Everyone's reason for hiking alone are different. Some people just can't find a hiking buddy on that particular day. Some people don't like the added weight of another person. For me (and without getting too much into it) it's because I want to prove to myself that I can do it. That I am strong enough to take on nature. And most importantly, I want to find a peace of mind. I want to get to a place in my head where I truly believe in myself again (yes I know, super cheesy). And I know the only way I can achieve that is if I separate myself from everything but the mountains and the trees. It may not work. It may not make a difference. But I will at least have the knowledge that I accomplished something amazing all by myself.
That doesn't mean that I'm on some sort of suicide trip. Going solo doesn't mean you have to be reckless. There are precautions you can and need to take. Some I researched and some are common sense. Here are some things you need to make sure you do before going on a 'do it yourself' adventure:
Emergency Contact- Always make sure you arrange to have an emergency contact. This person will be contacted if something goes wrong on your trip. So they need to know when you're going, where you're going and when you'll be back. Try to make sure it's someone close to you (i.e., someone who will actually remember they are your contact person).
Itinerary- create a detailed itinerary and then give a copy to two different people (first being your emergency contact and the second being a spare just in case) while also leaving a copy in your vehicle at the trailhead. Make sure the itinerary includes the following information: Which trail you are hiking, what time you will be starting on the trail, how long you think you will be gone for (day hike- hours, backpacking hike- days) and what time you will be finished the trail. If you are doing a backpacking trip, include the campsites you will be staying at and specify which night for each. Lastly, include a list of all of the things you have packed and are taking with you on the trip so that if something goes wrong, emergency crews will know how prepared you are or what you might have with you to help you survive. Matt gave me a great idea in regards to the packing list. If you don't feel like writing everything down, just take a picture of everything while it's laid out before you put it in the backpack. That way, not only will people know what you're bringing, but they'll know the brand and make as well (and thus know it's reliability or how it works).
Know Before You Go- This is something that you should be practicing whether you're hiking solo or with six other people. Always know how to use your equipment and make sure it's working properly before setting out. Nothing would make a trip more miserable than finding out your stove isn't working and thus you're stuck with nothing but Cliff Bars for the rest of your trip. Take everything out for a test run a few days before you hit the trail. Camp in a backyard for a night by yourself to make sure you know what you're doing. Set up your tent, cook yourself a meal with the stove, test out the GPS. Make sure everything works and that you know how to use it properly without any outside help.
SPOT- This is something I hadn't heard of until I started doing some research on how to stay safe while solo backpacking. It's a satellite messenger that is especially useful for people who want to go on a hike by themselves. Essentially, it allows you to somewhat communicate with the people back home. You can summon for emergency assistance in bad situations, send messages to give others peace of mind and track your unforgettable routes and it doesn't require cellular range. While SPOT is incredibly useful to have, it doesn't come cheap. At the time of this blog, it was listed at $169.95 and you need to buy a service plan on top of that. However, if it means the difference between living or dying, I would say it's probably worth the purchase. I plan to buy one of these come summertime so I'll include a detailed blog review on it once I have it.
Wilderness First Aid- Another suggestion given to me was to make sure to have the proper training before going. This doesn't mean you have to become a wilderness expert or a forest ranger in order to be considered "trained". Just take a weekend and attend a Wilderness First Aid course. That way, if something does go wrong, you'll be better equipped to handle it. Most Wilderness First Aid certificates last for three years and then after that, you need to update. Like SPOT, the First Aid course isn't exactly cheap (about $250) but it's definitely worth it to get the training.
Keep in mind that the only that you can depend on when you're out in the middle of nowhere is yourself. Make sure you're ready for any situation. Map out out a plan in regards to where you're going and where you could likely run into trouble. Go over in your head what you would do if you encounter a wild animal. Strategize escape routes for when a thunder storm hits. Know the trail you're about to explore like the back of your hand. Decrease your chance of running into any surprises, and if you do encounter an unexpected situation, have the confidence you need to deal with it.
So there you have it. Those are my thoughts on solo hiking. As with anything, there are risks and benefits. But when I stand on the Notch while hiking the Skyline Trail sans company this summer, I already know the benefits will far outweigh the risks. I'll know I did something for myself by myself.