Late last summer, I wandered off on my own to Aroostook County to check out Deboullie Public Reserved Land, a wild and lonely 22,000-acre parcel of state land that few Mainers have heard of and fewer yet have visited.
For four glorious days, I hiked all over the place, over craggy mountain peaks, through dense forest and around a host of lakes and ponds, never seeing another soul in some 30 miles of trail travel. But for a handful of other car campers, I was the only person there.
I’ve gotten pretty used to such solo hiking adventures over the years, having logged plenty of trail miles in the company of just me, myself and I. When I want to get out on the trail and there’s no one else around, well, I just go, whether it’s for a short hike close to home or a big trek somewhere farther afield.
Most times, I’d much prefer the companionship of a few others, to share the drive to the trailhead, the view at the summit, lunch on a log or a ledge with some playful bantering, a pizza on the road home. But I figured out long ago that life’s too short to let the availability and desires of others shape your hiking plans.
The benefits of solo hiking are many. Hike planning and coordination are simplified, for sure, since you alone decide where, when and how to go. Out on the trail, the pace is all yours; you get to stop and stand and stare at will. And if you’re quiet, you’re likely to see more wildlife, a nice bonus.
One of the downsides of solo journeying is loneliness, especially on a long hike. On your own there’s no one to talk to, to share the experience as it’s happening, to pose for photos, to offer support or add levity on a hard climb or a rainy slog. Going alone also means always taking an extra measure of caution to help keep the margin of safety in your favor.
The old hiker maxim takes on added significance when it’s just you in the backcountry: “Getting to the top is optional, but getting safely back to the car is mandatory.”
Murphy’s Law applies as well, because if something can go wrong miles up the trail from the car, it often will, especially when you’re alone.
As a solo hiker, you need to do your homework. Prepare by assessing the intended route, studying the map and trail descriptions, and noting any potential hazards. Know before you go that you are a good match physically and mentally for the intended hike. Tell someone where you’re going, post your plan on social media, leave a note on the dash of your vehicle.
Carry a compass and map and know how to use both. In the pucker-brush in bad weather, off-trail and mildly confused is no time to be reading the little “how-to” compass booklet.
Bring a small first-aid kit and be experienced with the use of its contents. Every hiker should have the confidence booster of a good wilderness first-aid course under their belt.
Carry a smartphone, but don’t count on it, as cell service can be spotty to nonexistent. Self-reliant, you’re on your own if something happens. Download a good GPS app and get familiar with it; it’ll work in airplane mode. Carry the hiker’s “10 Essentials” and maybe a few extras.
The most important item to pack along for every hike, solo and otherwise, is your brain. Use common sense and make good choices. Summon all your experience and expertise and put it to work on the trail to help keep you safe.
Solo hiking isn’t for everyone, but if getting out more into the wild places is important to you, it has to be part of the mix. Meet your fear head on and beat it – one time and then again and again. The “I did it” feeling of accomplishment will change you forever. Besides, it’s fun.