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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
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.
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!