How to Solo Backpack

In a world with so many distractions, spending time with yourself on a solo backpacking trip can provide the opportunity to disconnect, focus wholly on an objective and create exactly the type of trip you want. Without partners along, you’ll be able to go where you want to and travel at a pace that suits you best.

But, going alone does present some challenges that group trips don’t, such as how you’ll carry all that gear by yourself and what to do if something goes wrong. This article looks at why you would want to go solo backpacking, how to manage the risks, where to go and what gear to bring to help you put together a solo trip that’s just right for you.

Why Go Solo Backpacking

A solo backpacker climbs a rocky slope with a snowcapped mountain in the background

Some people will say that the point of backpacking is to experience the outdoors with good friends. But who’s to say that a solo trip can’t be just as rewarding? There are plenty of practical reasons to consider going alone. Here are just a few:

Because you can’t find anyone to go with: Planning around busy work schedules and a calendar full of other social engagements can make it tough to get a group together for a trip into the mountains. Planning for yourself is simple: Find a free weekend and go.

So you can go at your own pace: Whether you’re always faster than your hiking pals or they’re the ones waiting for you, going solo lets you travel at exactly the pace you want to. You can hike briskly to the summit or take a nap partway there—the decision is entirely up to you.

To push yourself: Doing things alone isn’t always easy. On a backpacking trip, you’ll be responsible for carrying all the gear, making all the decisions and figuring out what’s making that creepy noise in the middle of the night. While a solo trip can certainly be challenging, it will also give you a chance to get outside your comfort zone and find out what you’re capable of. There’s a good chance you’ll learn something about yourself along the way.

How to Manage the Risks of Solo Backpacking

When you tell a friend or family member that you’re going solo backpacking, don’t be surprised if they question how safe the endeavor is. Their well-intentioned worries are likely founded in the long-standing belief that solo travel is just too risky. To their credit, it is generally true that the safety margin with solo travel is narrower; without a hiking partner, it’s entirely up to you to figure out what to do if something goes wrong. But, that doesn’t mean you can never go alone. Before you set out, be sure you understand what you’re getting into and how you can manage the risks. Here are some tips:

A backpacking backpack and first aid kit on a footbridge over a creek

Get trained in first aid and navigation: Going solo means you can’t count on anyone else to help you out if you get injured or hopelessly lost. You need to prepare yourself to be self-reliant, and you can do so by taking classes in wilderness medicine and navigation. If you’re brand new to backpacking, you might want to start with some group trips with more-experienced hikers. You can also check out our Intro to Backpacking series.

Pack the Ten Essentials: On every backcountry outing, whether you’re alone or with a group, you should carry the Ten Essentials. During a trip without any glitches, you may only use a few of these items, but it’s when something goes awry that you’ll appreciate having things that can be essential to your survival. And, it’s even more important to be sure you have them all when traveling alone because you can’t rely on someone else to have an item you forgot.

Always share your itinerary: This can’t be overstated. It’s essential that you leave a detailed itinerary with someone you trust. Include details about where you’re going, where your car will be parked, where you will camp, what time you expect to return and who to contact and when (if you haven’t returned at your expected time).

Stick with your plan: Going by yourself gives you the freedom to roam, but you don’t want to significantly alter your plan once you’ve shared it. If you do, people will have a tough time finding you if they need to.

Know your limits: With no one else along to bounce ideas off or to assess potential dangers with, you need to be very honest with yourself about your skills and capabilities. It’s okay to turn around at any point.

Decide Where to Go Solo Backpacking

A solo backpacker on a trail in the Grand Canyon

Deciding where to go solo backpacking is not very different from choosing a destination for a trip with friends. You can narrow your options by thinking through things like how much time you have, how many miles you want to hike, what scenery you’d like to see and what the weather will be like. (To learn more about planning a trip, read our article How to Plan a Backpacking Trip.) There are, however, a handful of things to consider, especially if this will be your first solo backpacking trip:

Don’t do something too difficult: You need to be self-reliant out there, so be conservative when deciding how many miles to hike each day and what level of challenge to take on. You may find that being alone will present physical and mental challenges that you didn’t expect, so choose a trip that is well within your skill and comfort levels. After you’ve done a couple trips, you’ll get a handle on what’s right for you.

Consider going somewhere you’ve been before: Sleeping under the stars solo is foreign to most people and commonly causes some amount of worry. By going to a familiar place, you can eliminate a bit of the unknown. Before you even leave home, you’ll be able to visualize the hike and the spot where you’ll spend the night rather than wondering what it will be like.

Choose a well-traveled trail: Some people solo backpack to get away from everything and everyone, but if you don’t want to feel all alone out there, pick a place that you know will have other hikers. Even if no one else is spending the night, it can be comforting to know you’ll cross paths with day hikers.

Go solo car camping: If the idea of sleeping alone in a tent makes you extremely anxious, then try a night of solo car camping. You’ll get a feel for what it’s like to be on your own but without the commitment of hiking in several miles. If you decide you don’t like it, just take down your tent, hop in the car and drive home.

Pack Essential Gear for Solo Backpacking

Solo backpacking requires all the same gear you take on group trips, so you probably won’t need to make any big purchases unless you’re completely new to backpacking (see our Backpacking for Beginners article if you need help getting started). But, because you’re going alone, it’s extra important to make sure you have gear that helps you be self-reliant. Here’s some advice for packing for solo backpacking trips:

Don’t forget the Ten Essentials: We said this already, but it’s worth repeating. The Ten Essentials are your safety net if something goes wrong out there, so it’s important that they accompany you on every trip, solo or not. Double-check, even triple-check, that you have them all before leaving home.

Don’t skimp on first-aid supplies: Give yourself a safety buffer and pack plenty of first-aid supplies so you’re prepared to treat a wide range of injuries. Also, make sure you know how to use the supplies you’re bringing (sign up for a wilderness medicine class if you need training).

A backpacker holds a satellite messenger while on the trail

Consider carrying a PLB or satellite messenger: In the mountains, where cell service can be spotty, a smartphone can’t be relied on as a sure way of calling for help. A personal locator beacon (PLB) or satellite messenger is a better option. There are differences between the two, but both allow you to send an SOS in an emergency from just about anywhere on the planet. Learn more about them in our article How to Choose Between a PLB and a Satellite Messenger

Lighten up where you can: Since you can’t share the load with your hiking buddies, your pack will likely be a bit heavier on solo trips than on group outings. To keep it from getting unbearably heavy, it’s smart to look for ways to lighten the load. This doesn’t mean you have to purchase expensive ultralight camping gear just to enjoy a night of solo backpacking. Simply leaving behind some luxury items, like a camp chair or hardcover book, can make a dent. If you’re looking for ways to significantly lighten your pack, read our article Ultralight Backpacking Basics.

Tips for Solo Backpacking

A backpacking tent glows against a starry sky

Solo backpacking can be freeing and fun. But, it can also be stressful and even scary at times. Here are some tips to help you have a positive experience:

Stay calm: The snap of a twig in the middle of the night can send your mind wandering down all sorts of scary paths. In these situations, try your best to stay calm. Take some deep breaths, bring yourself back to the present and think logically about the situation. A forest makes all sorts of noises at night, most of them caused by completely benign things, like critters crawling around or just a simple breeze. The more familiar you become with these sounds, the less spooked you’ll likely be when you hear something.

Bring distractions: To keep your mind from wandering too much and to stave off boredom, consider bringing something to entertain you for a while, such as a book to read, music to listen to or a game to play.

Find companionship: If you’re lonely and not having any fun, make some friends out there. This will be tough on a desolate trail, but on a popular route, such as the Pacific Crest Trail or Appalachian Trail, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to strike up conversations with fellow hikers.

Trust your instincts: If something just doesn’t feel right, either about where you’re camping or someone you’re camped near, listen to that. Most experienced solo backpackers will tell you that at some point they’ve packed up and moved on to another site or even headed home because they weren’t getting a good vibe. Trust yourself and don’t be ashamed if this is what you decide to do. Our article on Backpacking for Women has lots of safety advice applicable to anyone out on the trail. 

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