Conquering the Solo Hike

By Rachel Shannon, Girls Who Hike North Carolina Ambassador

I can’t begin to say how many times I have encountered the conversation of, “I really want to try a solo hike, but I’m terrified of (insert any number of fears). How do I get past that?” Having been in that same state of mind about two years ago, I empathize with these women completely. In all honesty, I feel invigorated when this topic comes up because it means the adventure seeker I am encountering is looking to broaden their experiences and challenge themselves. 

The fears they express are completely sound examples of things that can, and sometimes do, go wrong in the outdoors. Bringing them up is simply asking for a solution to a problem like any normal human would do. So I say the best way to conquer the fear is to be prepared for it. Through my own experience I have been able to develop a pretty simple approach to conquering the fears that preface a solo hike.

Here is my 5-step process that will have you solo hiking in no time!

Step 1: Pick a popular location or trail system.

If you have a fear of feeling alone out in the wilderness, start somewhere local. This might mean a small park that offers a simple trail system giving you more of an “urban hike” experience. Or, choose a popular state or national park and select a trail you’ve completed before. This will allow you the benefit of knowing the terrain you’re up against and being comfortable with the route. Either choice will begin to build confidence in the idea of a solo hike. If you own a dog that hikes and don’t want to feel completely alone, bring your pooch along for the adventure. Just make sure you pack enough food and water for them too!

Step 2: Create a plan, and COMMUNICATE your plan.

This step should be viewed as most important because this is where people who fail to plan sometimes plan for failure out in the wilderness. Always, communicate your hiking plans to someone you trust and who you know will be diligent in following up on you. When I first started hiking I would text one of my gal pals and give her a time range (usually within an hour time period) of when to expect a text from me; if she didn’t receive a text by that point she was instructed to call me. If she wasn’t able to get a response from me with 1-hour of our agreed upon time slot she was instructed to contact the park office or the police and provide them with the details of my hiking plans.

Step 3: Be aware of your environment.

Another fear is wildlife. This situation is almost completely unavoidable. Think of it this way, you are entering the home of thousands of different species of animals, and to not consider an interaction is a little crazy. Although, most of the time you aren’t aware of when the interactions occur because the animal has heard you a mile away and already removed themselves from your path. That isn’t the same for every situation though and there have been several occasions, although rare, of animals being spooked because they did not hear the hiker. That is why it is so important to be aware of the types of animals native to the area you’re visiting. It could be poisonous snakes, black bears, brown bears, scorpions, etc.

Research how to protect yourself from each species and follow these simple tips: create noise/vibrations through using hiking poles or walking with a more firm contact to the ground, sing or hum while you hike, talk out loud to yourself. (Yes, people will think you’re crazy if they overhear, but hey, the animals will get the picture!) You can also look into things like ‘Bear bells’ which jingle on your pack, or shoe whenever you walk. I find the bell to be a little distracting personally and prefer my horrid rendition of Christina Aguilera’s ‘Genie in a bottle’ instead.

Step 4: Protect yourself.

This will mean multiple things to different people so, in the context of this piece it simply refers to being aware of the options and choosing one that will bring ease to you out on the trail. I also understand this step can become controversial when we get down to the different options, so understand I am in no way condoning carrying weapons on the trail. I am simply supplying you with all the approaches people will take. 

Some people carry guns or knives, while others opt for a can of bear spray or pepper spray, or even a stun gun. Some even carry Personal Locater Beacons which won’t necessarily protect you from any attacker, but will provide emergency personal location details should you become missing or lost. I think any of the aforementioned items are options as long as you are very well trained in their use. I grew up with a father who always told me that, “Protection you are not properly trained to use is protection that becomes a weapon against yourself.” Whether you choose a gun or bear spray, be aware of local, state, and federal laws regarding their use. 

I personally like bear spray. It can be used on a human or animal, depending on the situation, and it clips right to the front of my pack. If you choose bear spray purchase a training can which excludes any active ingredients, so you can practice and become comfortable with the spray distance, strength, and how to use it as quickly as possible during an emergency. Again, if you aren’t trained and prepared to use your weapon you could end up only hurting yourself.

Step 5: Trust your gut.

We all know when a situation doesn’t feel right; we just have to make the conscious effort to listen to our gut and sometimes get out. This is true for the trail. If you don’t feel comfortable, or you’ve just passed someone who makes you uneasy, or the trail starts getting unfamiliar, or less well-marked remove yourself from the situation. This could mean you turn around and head back down the way you’ve come without completing your hike. No matter the situation it is always best to err on the side of caution and keep yourself safe. 

Keep in mind that solo hiking is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. If you’re not comfortable with any part of the idea, don’t feel like you need to be. It’s not an unspoken requirement of the hiking community where you aren’t considered a legit hiker until you’ve conquered it. Some people just like other humans and want to be with them on the trail as well, that’s totally ok!

At this point the majority of my hiking is done solo and I have learned to enjoy the solitude. I bring a journal and my hammock so I can stop midway through my hike, take nice break, and write about anything and everything. Being a person who is constantly set on an anxious hyper-mode I have found this practice has some very therapeutic results, but that’s another blog post for another time!

These steps are offered as an approach for building confidence towards solo hiking; please be sure that you’ve always got your ten essentials with you on every adventure in the great outdoors. Don’t know what those are, check out this article. I hope you have found these steps to be a simple and approachable method to preparing yourself for your first solo hike.

Happy trails my friends.

Rachel is the ambassador for our North Carolina Chapter. You can follow her adventures @rachelswild. You can join her local meetups and discussions through the North Carolina chapter by clicking here.

To become a member of Girls Who Hike, click here.