Going solo backpacking can be an incredible experience. You get to spend time alone outside in the backcountry, exploring places you have not seen before, and truly find yourself.
However, it is also important that you are well prepared for this type of journey so that you don't end up getting injured or lost out in the wilderness!
In this guide we will cover all the basics of solo backpacking - from what gear you need to how much food to pack - as well as provide a few tips and tricks for anyone looking to go solo camping for the first time.
A Solo Hiker... Why Go Solo Backpacking?
Some people will say that the point of backpacking is to experience the outdoors with good friends. But who’s to say that a solo trip can’t be just as rewarding? Here are a couple of reasons to consider going alone:
So you can go at your own pace
Whether you’re always faster than your hiking pals or they’re the ones waiting for you, going solo lets you travel at exactly the pace you want to. You can hike briskly to the summit or take a nap partway there—the decision is entirely up to you.
To push yourself
Doing things alone isn’t always easy. On a backpacking trip, you’ll be responsible for carrying all the gear, making all the decisions, and figuring out what’s making that creepy noise in the middle of the night. While a solo trip can certainly be challenging, it will also give you a chance to get outside your comfort zone and find out what you’re capable of. There’s a good chance you’ll learn something about yourself along the way.
How to Manage the Risks of Solo Backpacking
When you tell a friend or family member that you’re going solo backpacking, don’t be surprised if they question how safe the endeavor is.
Their well-intentioned worries are likely founded on the long-standing belief that solo travel is just too risky. To their credit, it is generally true that the safety margin with solo travel is narrower; without a hiking partner, it’s entirely up to you to figure out what to do if something goes wrong. But that doesn’t mean you can never go alone.
Before you set out, be sure you understand what you’re getting into and how you can manage the risks. Here are some tips:
Going solo means you can’t count on anyone else to help you out if you get injured or hopelessly lost. You need to prepare yourself to be self-reliant, and you can do so by taking classes in wilderness medicine and navigation.
This can’t be overstated. It’s essential that you leave a detailed itinerary with someone you trust. Include details about where you’re going, where your car will be parked, where you will camp, what time you expect to return and who to contact and when (if you haven’t returned at your expected time).
Stick with your plan
Going by yourself gives you the freedom to roam, but you don’t want to significantly alter your plan once you’ve shared it. If you do, people will have a tough time finding you if they need to.
Know your limits
With no one else along to bounce ideas off or to assess potential dangers, you need to be very honest with yourself about your skills and capabilities. It’s OK to turn around at any point.
Pack the Ten Essentials
On every backcountry outing, whether you’re alone or with a group, you should carry the essentials.
During a trip without any glitches, you may only use a few of these items, but it’s when something goes awry that you’ll appreciate having things that can be essential to your survival.
- Compass & GPS
- Extra Insulation
- Wet weather gear
- Light Source
- Plenty of Water
- First Aid Kit
- Sleeping Bag
We'll cover this in more depth later.
Trust your instincts
If something just doesn’t feel right, listen to that. Most experienced solo backpackers will tell you that at some point they’ve packed up and moved on to another site or even headed home because they weren’t getting a good vibe. Don’t be ashamed if this is what you decide to do.
Decide Where to Go Solo Backpacking
Deciding where to go solo backpacking is not very different from choosing a destination for a trip with friends. You can narrow your options by thinking through things like how much time you have, how many miles you want to hike, what scenery you’d like to see, and what the weather will be like. (To learn more about planning a trip, read our article How to Plan a Backpacking Trip.) There are, however, a handful of things to consider for your first solo backpacking trip:
You need to be self-reliant out there, so be conservative when deciding how many miles to hike each day and what level of challenge to take on. You may find that being alone will present physical and mental challenges that you didn’t expect, so choose a trip that is well within your skill and comfort levels. Start with smaller, easier trips to gain experience and build confidence. After you’ve done a couple of trips, you’ll get a handle on what’s right for you.
Consider going somewhere you’ve been before
By going to a familiar place, you can eliminate a bit of the unknown. Before you even leave home, you’ll be able to visualize the hike and the spot where you’ll spend the night rather than wondering what it will be like.
Choose a well-traveled trail
Some people solo backpack to get away from everything and everyone. But if you don’t want to feel all alone out there, pick a place that is likely to have at least a few other backpackers.
Pack Essential Gear for Solo Backpacking
Solo backpacking requires all the same gear you take on group trips, so you probably won’t need to make any big purchases. But, because you’re going alone, it’s extra important to make sure you have gear that helps you be self-reliant. Here’s some advice for packing for solo backpacking trips:
Double-check to be sure you have all your essentials
That includes the Ten Essentials, noted before, which are your safety net if something goes wrong out there. But this also extends to all your gear when traveling alone because you can’t rely on someone else to have an item you forgot. Check out our Backpacking Checklist for a comprehensive overview of gear to take.
Don’t skimp on first-aid supplies
Give yourself a safety buffer and pack plenty of first-aid supplies so you’re prepared to treat a wide range of injuries. Also, make sure you know how to use the supplies you’re bringing (sign up for a wilderness medicine class if you need training).
Consider carrying a PLB or satellite messenger
In the mountains, where cell service can be spotty, a smartphone can’t be relied on as a sure way of calling for help. A personal locator beacon (PLB) or satellite messenger is a better option. There are differences between the two, but both allow you to send an SOS in an emergency from just about anywhere on the planet. Learn more about them in our article How to Choose Between a PLB and a Satellite Messenger.
Lighten up where you can
Since you can’t share gear with your hiking buddies, your pack will usually be heavier on solo trips than on group outings. So, you need to look for ways to lighten the load.
This doesn’t mean you have to buy expensive ultralight camping gear just to enjoy a night of solo backpacking. Just look to swap items for lighter equivalents, hardcover book for an e-reader, or read on your phone.
Also, simply leaving behind some luxury items, like a camp chair, will help.
Your First Solo Hike
Solo backpacking can be freeing and fun. But, backpacking alone is not for beginners. It is not without mental, emotional, and physical challenges and can be stressful and even scary at times.
We’ll look more closely at how to manage the risks, where to go, and what gear to bring. With the right planning, you can put together a solo trip that’s just right for you.
But where do you start? Here are some tips to help you have a positive experience:
Stay Local and Pick an Easy Trail with Less Mileage Than Usual
For your first solo hike make sure you pick a location close to home. If you start out with a shorter hike, it will be easier to manage the challenges of solo backpacking such as staying on the trail and finding your way back.
Start small and work your way up! There is no need for an epic overnight trip in the beginning!
Pick a busy Trail
If you are on your own, pick a busy trail so that you are not as likely to get lost.
A busy trail will also have more people around so there is a better chance of help being available if you need it.
Always Have a Map and a Paper Backup
Don't rely on a GPS device, always make sure you have a map with you on your solo hikes.
Although most of the time it is very easy to find your way, there are times where GPS can fail and it is good to have another backup plan in place.
Let Someone Know Your Plans
Finally, before you set off, let someone know where you are going and when to expect your return.
This is also crucial for solo backpacking trips in particular as it is an easy way to be found if something goes wrong.
Not only that, but it will make the hike more enjoyable knowing there's someone else out there hoping for our safe arrival!
Your First Overnight Solo Hike
Once you have got confident hiking by yourself, it is time to start looking at some overnight trips.
Try and pick an easy first solo hike that is close by so you can check into a hotel if the worst-case scenario happens (i.e., getting lost), or try car camping for the first go.
Go solo car camping
If the idea of sleeping alone in a tent makes you extremely anxious, then try a few nights of solo car camping. You’ll get a feel for what it’s like to be on your own but without the commitment of hiking in several miles. If you decide you don’t like it, just take down your tent, hop in the car and drive home.
The snap of a twig in the middle of the night can send your mind wandering down all sorts of scary paths. Try your best to stay calm.
Take some deep breaths, bring yourself back to the present, and think logically about the situation.
A forest makes all sorts of noises at night, most of them caused by completely benign things, like small animals crawling around or just a simple breeze.
The more familiar you become with these sounds, the less scared you’ll likely be when you hear something.
To keep your mind from wandering too much and to stave off boredom, consider bringing something to entertain you for a while, such as a book to read, music to listen to, or a game to play.
Despite the mental and physical challenges, numerous backpackers have explored the wilderness on their own and have rewarding stories to share.
So if you’re lonely and not having any fun, make some friends out there.
This will be tough on a desolate trail, but on a popular route, such as the Pacific Crest Trail or Appalachian Trail, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to strike up conversations with fellow hikers.
Leave No Trace
Naturally, when you head out on your solo backpacking trip out in the backcountry, you need to make sure you are following the “Leave No Trace” ethic.
This means that you pack out all your trash and leave nothing behind, especially food scraps.
If possible, you should bring a lightweight trowel to bury human waste in an appropriate spot away from water sources and trails while on the move.
Solo backpacking is a great way to find yourself and reconnect with nature, but it's also important that you are well prepared for this type of journey. We hope the information we've provided will help make your solo hiking trip enjoyable and safe!
- 1 A Solo Hiker... Why Go Solo Backpacking?
- 2 How to Manage the Risks of Solo Backpacking
- 3 Decide Where to Go Solo Backpacking
- 4 Pack Essential Gear for Solo Backpacking
- 5 Your First Solo Hike
- 6 Your First Overnight Solo Hike
- 7 Summary