“Never walk alone” is a refrain most commonly heard from Park Rangers, Liverpool football (soccer) fans and Rodgers and Hammerstein aficionados the world over.
In so much as it relates to hiking, it can be considered sound advice for beginners and/or experienced hikers venturing into unfamiliar conditions. However, it should not be taken as a universal blueprint. Whether or not you hike solo or with a group depends on three principal factors:
- Your level of experience.
- The prevailing conditions.
- Personal preference.
Walking alone in the wilderness can be immensely rewarding. However, problems can arise when hikers venture solo into terrain and conditions for which they are not prepared. It is therefore important to always balance intangible considerations such as freedom and connection with nature, with a realistic assessment of your backcountry skillset.
Hiking in a Group
- Comradeship with like-minded people.
- Opportunity to learn from those with greater experience. Especially helpful for folks that are new to hiking/backpacking.
- Lighten your load: Possible to share certain gear, such as shelter and stove, thus decreasing pack weight.
- Injury or illness: Stuff happens, and when it does it can be comforting to know that assistance is close at hand.
(L to R) Dirtmonger, Malto, Swami, Bobcat | Lowest to Highest Route | CA, USA, 2014 | This trip represented the first time I had started a hike with more than one companion. I ended up having a great time!
- Compromised sense of freedom. Pace, campsites, breaks, food choices, starting and finishing times are often determined by the group leader or by general consensus.
- Impact: You create a bigger wilderness footprint when hiking with a group
- Wildlife Viewing: More people means more noise, more odours and less chance of spotting wildlife.
- Size Matters: If you choose to hike in a group, make it a small one. The bigger the group, the larger the environmental impact.
- Know your fellow group members before setting out. The last thing anyone wants is for their hike to be ruined by a personality clash out on the trail.
Kiwi Dave – Great friend and frequent hiking companion over the past two decades | Pictured at Banyuls on the Mediterranean sea, the finishing point of our Pyrenees High Route hike (1999).
- Freedom: The freedom to choose the pace at which you walk, where you camp, what you eat and when you take a break.
- Connectivity: Heightened sense of connection with your natural surroundings. Not only will you see more wildlife, but with no one else to talk to, you also gift yourself the opportunity to tune into Mother Nature’s incredible soundtrack.
- Reduced impact on the environment.
- Skills: Enhanced opportunity to improve your wilderness skill set. When heading out with more experienced hikers, it is often easier to let the senior partner/s take responsibility for route finding, campsite selection, etc. When you are hiking solo, this isn’t an option. In addition to being the mother of invention, necessity is also a pretty good way of accelerating your backcountry learning curve.
- Contemplation: One of Mother Nature’s happiest knacks is her ability to help us put stuff into perspective. With no external demands on your time and free from the tumult of urban life, the simple act of walking by yourself in the woods can offer an ideal opportunity for reflection and clarification.
Sunset over the Indian Ocean | Southwest Tasmania Traverse, 2016 | During this challenging solo trip, I saw only one other person during the first two weeks; a cray fisherman off the coast on Day 4.
- The Onus: You are on your own if injury or illness occurs.
- Weight: Your pack may be heavier as sharing equipment is not an option.
- No directional safety net: When you are ambling along easy to follow, manicured pathways, the only skill you will probably require is the ability to locate your vehicle at the trailhead car park. However, when venturing off the beaten track, you will need to up the ante on the awareness front, as there is no one else to point you in the right direction if you happen to drift off with the fairies (Note: Not really a disadvantage for folks that embrace the navigational side of things).
- Loneliness: There’s an undeniable romanticism about going solo into the wilderness. Channelling your inner-Thoreau or Muir. Theoretically speaking it sounds great. However, for many people the reality is a different story. If you don’t enjoy spending a lot of time by yourself in your everyday life, then chances are those same feelings will be magnified whilst out in the woods. That being said, there’s only one way to find out for certain!