I hike and adventure often with friends but realized early in my freelance career that to enjoy the flexibility this lifestyle affords me I’d need to occasionally go it alone. Phoning up friends at random times on weekdays and saying, “Hey, my day just opened up! Want to drive to the Mountain Loop and go for a hike?” usually results in a grumble about being stuck in the office on a sunny day. It can be tough to find adventure buddies with flexible schedules on short notice.
A few weeks ago I went to Cougar Mountain on a sunny weekday for a quick trail fix. As I threw on my backpack and leashed my dog a woman and her friend were returning to their cars. One of them asked me, “Do you hike and run here a lot by yourself?” I told her that yes I did. Then she said, “Aren’t you scared? I’m not sure it’s safe to be in the woods by yourself.” I told her I wasn’t by myself at all, that my 80-lb Black Lab Jake was with me. I waved goodbye and she yelled after me “Please be safe!”
I spent the next hour on the trails thinking hard about what she said. At first I was annoyed. Why shouldn’t I be able to go out in the woods by myself? If I were a guy would I have been asked that question? Should I be scared?
How many of you hit the trails alone? Do you think it’s unsafe?
Gender aside, I think everyone has to consider the risks when embarking on solo outings. Being alone gives you less room for error and a smaller safety net but I don’t think that’s a reason not to do it. There are so many places and experiences in my life that I would have missed out on had I not been willing to do them alone. And going alone gives you a special freedom to truly connect with your surroundings.
I’m lucky to have a big protective dog who joins me on most of my outdoor adventures but even so the truth is that yes, I do sometimes get scared. But I think it’s more like a child’s fear of the dark. Your imagination can run wild when you’re alone. I remember one of the first times I went to Cougar Mountain with just my dog. I ran a few miles, really spooked that no one else was around. I kept looking behind my shoulder. For what? Who knows!? I ran so fast back to the car I probably set a PR. Then I got out a few more times, each time getting more comfortable with being alone.
Back in December when a break in work aligned with some sunny days I grabbed Jake and headed to Blanca Lake off U.S. 2. It had been on my “to-hike” list for much too long. Blanca is popular and frequently swarming with people on weekends so I figured a weekday with freezing temps and gusty winds would be a bit more peaceful. I pulled into the large parking lot and couldn’t believe there wasn’t a single other car in sight. I expected less people but I didn’t expect zero. I had no cell service and was miles down a forest service road. All by myself.
Is this adventurous or dumb?
I only knew that I really wanted to do this hike and I was here, so I went for it. Halfway to Blanca Lake I stopped for a trail break. I heard absolutely nothing but the wind ripping through the trees. There was no one out here but us. Quite amazing and eerie at the same time. I definitely got a little spooked. So I asked myself “What is the worst possible thing that could happen right now?”
“I could fall and maim myself and I have no cell service”
It is me after all and I’m a klutz. I could be hurt and unable to get help. A scary thought but I had communicated my itinerary to friends and they knew where I was and when I was expected back. They’d know exactly where to find me if I didn’t check in and I was carrying enough gear to spend the night if needed.
“I could fall victim to some crazy axe-murdering rapist”
I’m sure guys never have these thoughts. Or maybe they do? For women I think this is usually somewhere in the back of our minds. Yes, violent crime on trails has occurred. It’s horrifying but incredibly rare and in most cases the victims were hiking with partners. Could I be the target of a violent crime while hiking alone? Yes. I could also be a victim while sitting home alone watching TV. Or running around Greenlake during broad daylight. Or standing at the bus stop. Being outside alone in the woods doesn’t increase those chances, in fact, it probably lowers them.
“I could be attacked and killed by some wild animal”
I had a black bear encounter at Mount Rainier many years ago and the bear happily ambled off and paid us no attention. Most of the time it seems the animals are trying to get away from us faster than we’re trying to get away from them. Yes, it could happen but attacks are incredibly rare. Plus I carry bear spray.
“I could get lost”
I use the Green Trails app on my phone and had a full battery. And… I had a paper map for backup. And what if I did get lost? Again, people knew where I was and would hopefully know where to find me. I had extra supplies and a big warm dog!
“My Jeep might not start”
I drive an old Cherokee with 265k+ miles. Oh yeah, she takes a licking and keeps on ticking! Yep, I could get back and have a dead car. But I have blankets and supplies in my Jeep. Worst case I’d have to hike a few miles of road to get cell service and call someone.
“I could have a Bigfoot encounter”
You’re probably laughing now. I know it’s ridiculous. But somehow, every time I hike with someone a Bigfoot story comes up. And then I found this dumb website about Bigfoot encounters and weird noises and smells and as stupid and hilarious as it sounds I’m convinced that Bigfoots are out there and the only time I’ll find one is when I’m by myself. Instead of the typical childhood fear of monsters in the closet, I have a fear of Bigfoot in the woods.
“Uhhh, I can’t think of any more”
So that was my exhaustive list of “OMG, what are the worst possible things that could happen to me out here?” Honestly, I’m not sure if it made me feel better or worse. But I continued. Then right before reaching Blanca Lake an elk went running across the trail in front of us. It gave me a start but as we watched each other cautiously I realized most things in the woods aren’t really out to get you. It’s mostly in your head.
Having Blanca Lake all to myself was pretty fantastic. Even though this wasn’t my first solo hike it was my first time hiking solo on a trail I’d never been to before. And it was my first time knowing I wasn’t likely to encounter anyone else.
I do enjoy adventuring with friends—the conversation, laughs, and shared experience is so much fun. Of course there is safety in numbers but I just can’t turn down hitting the trails on a perfectly gorgeous day because I might have to go alone. Is the woods a safe place to be alone? I say yes but there is reason to be wary and cautious when hiking or traveling alone, especially as a woman. I just don’t think that caution should become unbridled fear that prevents us from exploring. I do think as a solo hiker you have a larger responsibility to be thoroughly prepared and self-sufficient and to know what you’re getting yourself into. I’m very choosy about where I hike alone. If anything gives me a creepy pause, and most of you know what I mean, I don’t do it.
My tips for hiking alone
Start slow. Go somewhere you’re familiar with and where you’re likely to encounter other people. As you get more comfortable seek out new trails. If you get spooked don’t be hard on yourself. It takes time and hiking alone isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
Always tell someone where you are and when you’re expected back. Make sure they know who to call in the event you don’t check in.
Pack more than you need. If you’re stranded, caught in bad weather, or injured and in shock, conditions can become serious quickly. Bring more gear than usual: extra warm clothing, lights and batteries, first-aid, matches, extra food and water. Consider carrying a beacon and emergency bivy.
Have a map or knowledge of the area. I download CalTopo maps to my phone but always carry a paper backup. I thoroughly research and study areas I’m heading to solo.
Be aware of your surroundings. Pay attention to what’s happening around you. Don’t wear earphones. Look around, pay attention, notice things.
Listen to your gut. Women are amazingly intuitive. We should always trust our instincts. Pushing through some fear is good. But there are places I’ve been where at some point my gut has told me to turn around. The mountain will always be there for another day. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it!
Don’t take chances or unnecessary risks. Related to the above, we all have very individual ideas of what’s risky and what’s not. If something in the back of your mind is saying “Wow, this sounds like a great start to an epic story” you might want to save it for a time when you’re with friends.
Get a dog! Getting a dog is a big decision and hiking with one comes with its own set of requirements but my dog has been one of the best trail buddies I could have ever asked for!