I wrote an article back in 2015 with tips for soloing, but since then I’ve grown older and wiser. Well, at least that’s what I like to tell myself! With the passing of my beloved adventure dog Jake in January, these days I really am out there on my own. My perspective and experience has changed a lot since that 2015 article.
The path to becoming a serial soloist.
I often jokingly refer to myself a serial soloist. There is something I find immensely exhilarating and rewarding about ambitious solo adventures. The last few years especially, I’ve had some incredible moments soloing part of the John Muir Trail, exploring remote backroads in the far reaches of Washington, and backpacking 30 miles or more into the mountains of the North Cascades.
Although I’ve built a bit of a reputation for what some friends call crazy solo outings, it’s taken me years of small steps to expand my comfort level, build my experience, and feel confident on my own. I certainly didn’t start out doing this kind of stuff!
I think back to some of my first nervous trail runs at Tiger and Cougar Mountain on my own and would have laughed if you had told me that someday I’d be sleeping by myself in the middle of the North Cascades.
Part of the reason I ended up doing so many solo outings was because my freelance lifestyle allowed me to be free for adventure when other people typically worked. It was often tough to find a partner, so I started going alone. At first I was apprehensive but then I fell in love with the freedom.
I also excel at going places that others seldom go. I like finding the path least traveled, bushwhacking through alder, or discovering remote forgotten trails that keep me far away from the crowds. My type of fun isn’t often other people’s type of fun and I have a short list of partners willing to sign up for that kind of torture.
Nowadays, the reason I travel solo is because I find something supremely magical about being on your own timeline, your own schedule, and having a place all to yourself. Don’t get me wrong, getting out with friends from time to time is fantastic, but I love the immense thrill and satisfaction of a solo outing. I can travel whatever pace I want, stop whenever I want, turn around wherever I want, and enjoy absolute silence or a summit all to myself. That’s incredibly powerful stuff and solo adventures teach you a lot about yourself.
Opinions and judgments.
I’ve seen first hand the judgment that is often passed down to people who make mistakes or find themselves in trouble, especially solo adventurers.
I dated a search and rescue volunteer for a number of years and what I find really humbling about SAR teams is not only their dedication, but also their non-judgmental attitudes. Yes, people make mistakes and yes, people can be just plain dumb and reckless, but accidents and misjudgments can simply be that—accidents and misjudgments. We all make them. It’s part of being human.
Accidents can certainly result from reckless behavior or a blatant lack of preparation, but oftentimes people simply don’t know what they don’t know and bad stuff can happen to even the most experienced and prepared of us. It’s mighty easy to play an armchair quarterback from the comfort of your couch.
I’ve grown accustomed over the years to the mixed reactions that soloing attracts. If only I had $1 for every time I’ve been asked, “You’re out here all by yourself? Where is your boyfriend/partner/husband?” I’ve been told that I’m being risky, or that I’m crazy, reckless, or dangerous. Other times I’m praised and admired for my willingness to go it alone.
Everyone has an opinion and most aren’t afraid to express it. Honestly, I’m simply doing what feels natural and comfortable to me and I often wonder how many solo guys on the trail or in the backcountry are met with the same questions, disbelief, or admiration. I’d bet far less than a solo woman.
The “don’t go alone” advice.
One of the most circulated tips I see about hiking is “never go alone”. If you’re not comfortable hiking alone, then no, don’t go alone, but personally I think it’s terrible advice. I think the better advice would be “never underestimate nature.”
I do believe that yes, solo travel can come with some increased risk. Obviously, if you do get into trouble you have no partner to help; however, I think the bigger issue isn’t necessarily about being solo, but more about being prepared. In fact, I would argue that being with others can make you more complacent and willing to act outside your personal risk boundaries.
I often read about search and rescue missions, mostly because I think of them as an opportunity to learn. There are plenty of cases of people with partners getting lost, getting in over their heads, and having life threatening accidents and animal encounters. In fact, even a recent tragically fatal mountain lion attack here in Washington State, the first in 90 years, involved a party of two traveling together.
Having a partner certainly isn’t the magic bullet that guarantees your safety. Sometimes shit happens and if you get lost, fall, make a bad decision, or find yourself up shit creek, it might not make a difference whether you’re solo or not.
Soloing brings heightened awareness.
As a solo adventurer, I feel much more prepared and aware of my surroundings. I’m completely dialed into what I’m doing and the choices I’m making. Perhaps most importantly, I know my limits and I’m never afraid to turn around.
When I head out on my own, I’m rarely out there on a whim. I’ve spent a lot of time researching the area I’m about to travel through. I know the terrain, likely conditions, landmarks, and weather.
I carry an emergency beacon and GPS maps, but as a technology professional in my day life, I know technology fails and provides a false sense of security. Reliance on technology is often a mistake. I always tell people where I am, communicate my itinerary, bring paper maps, and pack smart emergency gear that allows me to spend an unexpected night or two out. There is nothing foolproof in the outdoors and the only thing you should rely on is yourself. It also doesn’t require a huge pack to bring smart emergency gear.
Can I prepare for every possible scenario that might happen out there? Definitely not. Is soloing for everyone? Nope. While I think “never hike alone” is terrible advice and soloists shouldn’t be vilified as being reckless risk takers, I also believe that soloists have a duty and responsibility to be smart and prepared, not just for themselves, but also for their loved ones and the heroic volunteers of search and rescue who may be called on in the event of an emergency. I think that advice applies to everyone, solo or not!
The subjective nature of risk.
Adventures alone and with other people are completely different experiences and I think both are incredible. I have great memories of fun outings with friends that resulted in some amazing camaraderie and laughs. Alternatively, the days I spent solo on the John Muir Trail were some of the most transformative of my life. I will also never forget the solo backpack I had to Miner’s Ridge lookout last year. I scored the entire summit to myself with no around for miles. I’ve never been witness to a more quiet, serene, and deeply stirring sunrise ever and I wouldn’t have traded the experience for the world.
Is going solo risky? I think risk is a completely subjective thing. I believe that it’s much more likely I’ll meet my demise walking across an intersection in downtown Seattle. Have you seen how many inattentive drivers blow through red lights!? Given my track record, I’m also far more likely to seriously injure myself slipping in the bathroom.
At the end of the day, the only person in the world who can make a judgment about what constitutes an acceptable level of risk is you.
I love the empowerment that comes from being out there on my own and any risk is absolutely worth the reward. I also understand that soloing seems crazy to others and isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. That’s perfectly fine! My solo adventures have been some of the most memorable, life changing, humbling moments of my life and I will continue to do them hopefully for a long time.