Trail Talk | It Doesn’t Always Take a Village

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, Craig Romano shares the great personal reward he finds in solitary backcountry hiking.
Craig Romano Craig Romano
Mountaineers Books Guidebook Author
January 08, 2022

Go to any online hiker forum and after unleashed dogs, playing music, and toting a gun on the trail, the topic of hiking solo is sure to conjure up some strong opinions. What’s particularly interesting is that so many of the folks who are adamantly against solo hiking insist that others shouldn’t hike alone, either. And while an unleashed dog, music on the trail, or an irresponsible gun owner may certainly have a negative impact on others, a solo hiker is not having an effect on anyone’s experience except their own. So why the passionate pleas for solo hikers to partner up?

The myth of increased danger

Perhaps the number one reason many folks frown upon solo adventuring is its perceived level of danger. Many reason that if a mishap were to occur while traveling in the backcountry, the chances for a successful recovery are far greater if you are with others. And while it’s comforting to be among others if something has gone awry, technology today has made it far easier to stay in touch, call for assistance, and be located.

Another passionate argument many make against hiking alone is that increases the chances that a search party will need to be dispatched. Search and rescue teams will be dispatched regardless of the size of a missing or distressed hiking party. Solo hikers do tend to go missing far more often than groups of hikers, but some of the reasons why may not have as much to do with being alone than other factors, such as overconfidence.

Accepting risk

Many vocal opponents can at times come across as nannies. They’re not comfortable with the idea of heading into the wilderness alone, so no one else should either. They feel that they’re looking after your safety. But if the adage of hiking one’s own hike is true, then if someone enjoys being on the trail alone, so be it. If you’re a group hiker, don’t condemn it. I have encountered far more prepared and experienced hikers roaming the hills alone than many groups I have seen, in which some or all members are ill prepared.

Outdoor sports are risky pursuits. But so is getting into a car and driving to the trailhead. When looking at auto accidents in the US, more than 38,000 Americans died in 2020, and over 4 million more required medical help. Although far fewer people hike daily than drive, it is still meaningful to note that hiking accidents are considerably less, and hiking deaths are quite rare. Still, to go through life and get the most out of it, you have to be willing to accept some risk. How much? It all depends on your comfort level and abilities.

Safeguards

I’ve been hiking solo since getting hooked on hiking in my early 20s, after being introduced to it as a teen in organized group settings. I absolutely love hiking with others, and tend to do more of it as I have gotten older. But I still love being on the trail alone and heading into unfamiliar areas, seeking new adventures with no one else in tow. Some of my best and most intense wilderness experiences have been when I was alone.

When I head into the woods by myself, I automatically accept that I need to be more prepared and self-reliant than if I were in a group. I also have plenty of safeguards in place. Regardless of my company (or lack thereof), I always leave my itinerary and possible variations with my wife, leave contact info for the appropriate ranger district, and carry a Spot Satellite Messenger which contains a command that says “I’m OK, I will just be late.”

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Craig taking notes on Dickerman Mountain on a solo hike in November.

Increased caution

 I minimize my risks by not heading off trail or approaching a stretch of trail that may be hazardous, like a raging water crossing or dangerous snowfield. When I am in the company of others I may feel more confident to push on with these challenges. Of course I can just as easily get swept away in a creek crossing or slip on a steep snowfield if I am with someone else. A good hiking partner, however, can offer another perspective that may help prevent you from getting into a bad situation. When solo, you own all decisions.

However, it’s my own confidence and experience that could potentially lead me into a dangerous situation. An article recently published in the SF Gate looked at four high-profile hiker deaths in California this summer. All four of these people were highly skilled and prepared. As this article revealed, many experienced solo hikers get in over their heads. They get into a precarious situation because their experience gives them the confidence to take on more risk. They can become complacent too - rationalizing that because they have negotiated similarly risky situations many times before with success, they will succeed again regardless of current factors. In my younger days of solo hiking, scrambling, and adventuring, I too was guilty of this. A few of my more challenging situations could have easily turned south. I have become much more conservative now in my risk taking, because I absolutely love hiking solo and I want to keep doing it.

The appeal of going solo

So what is it that I find so appealing about being on the trail alone? For me, the self-reliance and subsequent confidence are a big draw. Building character on the trail and in the wilderness spills over into other aspects of life. Being prepared for travel in a rugged environment over long distances, and being successful in that endeavor, helps put real world situations into perspective.

I love that when I’m hiking alone my entire sense of being is amplified. I hear, see, smell, and sense things that I miss when I’m in a group. In a group you are focused on your hiking partners, oftentimes too engaged in conversation to hone in on what’s around you. I have met hikers who have spent years in the woods and have never seen a bear. I saw a bear nearly every week last summer while I was on the trail. I was alone and focused on my environment. And when I’m alone, I’m not talking, which dramatically increases my chances of seeing wildlife. Of course, if you don’t want to see bears, keep hiking in groups and talking loudly!

I have hiked in grizzly country alone. It’s intense. You must be completely focused on your surroundings and read the land and signs before you. You never feel as alive as when you’re constantly aware of every move you make and everything around you. Your senses become keen and you will see, hear, and notice some things for the first time in your life.

I also hike alone for spiritual redemption. And while many folks like to head to houses of worship to pay homage to their deity, I prefer the wilderness. I feel the presence of God in nature. I grapple with existential thoughts when I hike for miles, spending hours alone in the wilderness. Hiking deep into beautiful natural settings puts my mind into a meditative state. It helps me think more clearly about my sense of place and purpose. I have had more than a few revelations while being alone on the trail. Thoreau and Muir did too. Their observations and life experiences would be quite different if they were always tagging along in groups. Hiking alone can be an incredibly intense experience - and maybe that is why some folks shun it. It’s far more comforting to be within the presence of others.

Craig Romano is an award-winning guidebook author who has written more than 25 books, including Backpacking Washington 2nd edition, Urban Trails Vancouver WA, and 100 Classic Hikes Washington (Mountaineers Books). Purchase his titles at our Seattle Program Center bookstore, online at mountaineersbooks.org, and everywhere books are sold.


This article originally appeared in our Winter 2022 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our magazine archive.

Lead image of Craig on a solo snowshoe adventure in the William O. Douglas Wilderness near White Pass. All photos courtesy of Craig Romano.


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Sergio Rojo
Sergio Rojo says:
Jan 11, 2022 09:27 AM

This is an excellent article in such a crowded world. I found parallels to what surfing used to be.
Thanks for posting it online.
Sergio

Mike Kretzler
Mike Kretzler says:
Jan 14, 2022 05:54 PM

Thanks, Craig. I'm a frequent solo hiker and I often have to explain myself to people. For me, it's not about being away from people, it's about being within myself and that awareness of my surroundings that you describe.