Backpacking Solo

Advice for the Yearning Adventurer

Words & photos by Alexandra Garcia

In 2017, my partner and I set an audacious goal: by the end of the fall, we expected to summit Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in the African continent and one of the coveted Seven Summits. The trek itself would be challenging – coming from the tropical lowlands of Puerto Rico, this elevation would be by far the highest I’d climbed in my life – but there was an additional caveat, a minor dent in my experience. For all the hiking I’d done in the past few years, I’d never once backpacked or backcountry camped.

In the same slightly overconfident spirit I tackled hiking when I moved to Virginia from Puerto Rico, I decided to prepare for Kilimanjaro physically and mentally. Addressing my backpacking knowledge gap was one of my focus areas.

I backcountry camped a total of 7 nights, spread across 3 trips, before I boarded the plane that took me to Moshi, Tanzania. I went alone every time, camping along the beautiful Berg Lake Trail in British Columbia, on the rugged paths of the Pemigewasset Wilderness in New Hampshire, and on the bald paradise of Roan Mountain in the Northern Smokies. I made mistakes and learned how to address situations as they came, but overall I felt my preparation fared well. Being in a proactive planning position allowed me to revel in the beauty of my surroundings and fully immerse myself in this brand new experience. From these and many other solo backpacking trips I’ve taken since, I gathered my key pieces of advice so that you can do the same this hiking season.

The author, Alexandra Garcia, on her first-ever backpacking trip in 2017.

Before: Set Yourself Up for Success

Create a Trip Outline

  • Choose a trail that excites you but does not overwhelm you. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a trail you’ve done before, but that’s usually the best choice to start out with. 
  • Once you’ve chosen a trail, do some research. There are forums, threads, blog posts, and many other resources to find information on the trail details. Do you need a permit? Can you park at the trailhead? What are the trail’s current conditions? Can you camp anywhere, or only in designated spots? These questions can mostly be addressed online. 
  • Define emergency contacts/facilities such as ranger stations, local hospitals, park check-in/visitor’s centers, or any other place nearby that may be important in the event you need assistance with planning before your trip or help during your trip.

Gather Your Essentials

  • Pack the 10 essentials, and remember that as a solo backpacker, you may consider more items “essential”. It could be more than one pair of footwear, specific protection gear, a “luxury item” for entertainment, etc.
    • Footwear makes or breaks a backpacking trip and so does the backpack. Since you won’t have a buddy to split gear weight with, it’s important to find a pack that fits you. Brands like Deuter and Osprey make ergonomic packs that help you distribute weight and feel comfortable at all times.
    • Technology’s awesome but not perfect. Since navigation is crucial, I suggest downloading the trail map through your preferred trail app and bringing a physical topographic map as a backup.
    • Bring foods that you’ll want to eat, and plenty of it to last at least one extra day. It’s best to estimate your caloric needs and meal plan to have enough macronutrients to stay fueled properly. I personally try to eat between 3,500 – 4,000 calories per day on most of my backpacking trips. However, your numbers will be unique to you.
  • Check your gear. Make sure your first aid kit is stocked with items you may need, and test out your sleeping pad and tent before going out. Trust me, nothing risks your trip like having incomplete gear that puts you in a potentially dangerous situation! The following are some of my all-time favorite pieces of gear, which I’ve used on every backpacking trip since 2017:

What’s in Alex’s pack (from a 2020 trip)

Practice Some “Risk Management” Thinking

Thinking of everything that could go wrong sounds like a guaranteed anxiety attack, but it’s the backbone of proactive risk management. By preemptively considering worst-case scenarios you can create systems or contingency plans to mitigate or eliminate certain risks from occurring. Just like I do before I solo hike, I ask myself the following questions before a backpacking trip:

  • What are 5 things that could go wrong?
  • What can I do to prevent those situations from happening?
  • If one or more of those things still happen, do I feel confident in my tools and abilities to manage the situation?

Leave Details of Your Plan with Someone You Trust

  • Sharing details of my plans supports a safe trip by providing a point of contact with the details needed to look for me if something went wrong.  I send my partner the name of the trail, its length and elevation gain, where I intend to park my vehicle, expected camp spots, and any other details that I may find valuable.
  • Out of caution, I don’t share details of my plans on social media.

During: Getting into Flow on the Trail

Follow Your Plan

Leave the spontaneous decision-making for a post-backpacking meal. You prepared, planned, and relayed information of your whereabouts based on a certain trail – distance and time, and adding mileage, going off trail, or camping in a different spot than where you planned, are all deviations of said plan. 

Stay Calm and Trust Yourself

You’re doing the thing! Stay calm and rooted in your preparation. Find distractions on the trail to occupy your mind if and when it defaults to negative thoughts.

Camp Close to Others

You may find that while you set out to camp on your own, you may share the camp area with other backpackers, and you may enjoy the company of total strangers in the backcountry. Open up to new experiences and camp nearby or spark a conversation.

Dinner on Berg Lake Trail in 2017

After: Celebrate Your Successes and Ponder the Learnings

Appreciate Your Growth

Solo backpacking is a physically and mentally demanding activity. BE PROUD of what you accomplished! Use your fresh memories and recent experiences to think about ways you overcame challenges, and consider what (if anything) you could have done during planning to reduce or eliminate said challenges. Continuous learning will make you a more knowledgeable, trustworthy backpacker!

+ Honorary Mentions

I can’t close this article without sharing some additional resources that helped me tremendously in my own solo backpacking journey, or that I wish had been around when when I started:

  • REI offers free, in-person courses on solo hiking and backpacking for females. These are beginner-friendly and safe environments to ask questions or meet other women interested in the same activities you are. There are a few online educators providing similar resources. Check out Allison and Heather’s work on the topic!

While going out on a solo hike or solo backpacking trip doesn’t require any additional gear, some people feel more comfortable knowing they have a communication device for emergencies. The Garmin inReach Mini and the SPOT Gen4 are popular options.

A Note on Personal Safety

It seems like whenever a woman asks a question relating to solo backpacking (or solo hiking, for that matter), the number one suggestion is to NOT do it. Well-meaning loved ones and ill-informed strangers on the internet come up with all sorts of horror stories about what can happen to you in the wilderness on your own. Remember every activity you do in the backcountry, whether alone or accompanied, carries risk, and that you have tools available to reduce the negative risks.

Whether to carry a firearm can be a passionate debate on both ends. I personally do not bring a gun when I go hiking or camp on my own. I have followed and believe in Nicole Snell’s self-defense tactics as a way to mitigate harassment or attacks by a person on trail. Nicole talked to Gale about her approach to personal safety and her organization Girls Fight Back on episode 178 of She Explores!

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