Solo or No Go
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Ken Helwig
(kennyhel77) - MLife

Locale: Scotts Valley CA via San Jose, CA
Solo or No Go on 05/23/2006 17:50:08 MDT Print View

As I get older (I am 42), I am finding less and less friends able to go into the backcountry with me. The alternative for me is to think about solo travel in the backcountry. Some background on me: Started backpacking again after 20 some odd years of doing other pursuits. Started backpacking the traditional heavyweight way 50-60 lbs backpacks and traveling with friends on week excursions in the Sierra's. My style over the last 4 years has been dedicated to lightweight backpacking with a baseload of 12 lbs when going with friends and even less when my wife joins me on an overnighter. I love hiking by myself and solitude does not bother me. I am the only one outta my group of backpackers left that hike in a lightweight manner. I also like to hike most of the day and stop for sleep after 12-20 miles in a day. Would A. My style lend itself to solo travel B. Traveling on trails in The Sierra's, is it safe? and C. What would things out there could I do to make my wife comfortable with me doing this.

Also in general what are YOUR thoughts of backpacking solo?

David Bonn
(david_bonn) - F

Locale: North Cascades
Re: Solo or No Go on 05/23/2006 18:49:12 MDT Print View

Is solo travel safe?

Well, on the average, most any given solo hike would be less safe than the same hike with a partner. Of course, it would be safer still if that partner was a talented emergency room doctor. It would be safer still if you had a team of porters carrying supplies for every imaginable and some unimaginable eventualities. But that negates the point.

It all boils down to what you perceive as risky and how much of that risk you can tolerate. We humans are very bad at evaluating risks, and certainly if you stay home rather than hike next week you run the risks of being in a horrible auto accident, being a victim of a violent crime (on the average more likely in the city than in the wilderness), and perhaps additional health risks associated with breathing polluted air, not getting enough exercise, or being depressed because you aren't out in the wilderness where you know you belong.

Optimizing risks is ultimately a futile task.

I make quite a few solo hikes. They are fun and in some ways a very different experience from a trip with partners. Not really better or worse, just different.

I'd recommend starting with shorter trips to places you are familar with. Big, aggressive solo adventures are probably more appropriate after you've built up some confidence and some sense of limits. For your first solo trips, I'd also consider more popular and populated hiking venues than I would normally consider, just for the psychological protection of knowing that someone will probably come along the trail in a few hours if you do trip over your feet and fracture your femur.

As for reassuring your spouse, a satellite phone is a nifty investment. You can call her twice a day while out on the trail you have completely annoyed her and probably reassured her too. It also is very, very handy for arranging pick-up at a distant trailhead. In an emergency (like that aforementioned fractured femur) you could theoretically call someone with the satellite phone and arrange a rescue.

Douglas Frick
(Otter) - MLife

Locale: Wyoming
Re: Solo or No Go on 05/23/2006 19:31:15 MDT Print View

I'm in the same situation with a similar history, and my solution is the same: go solo. (A) As long as your 'style' is being self-sufficient and skilled enough to recognize and competently deal with serious issues (such as hypothermia, getting lost, etc.) then solo travel should be fine. I also prefer to hike long days; sitting around alone is boring, so I go to sleep when I'm done making dinner and camp. But I also don't have peer pressure to hike further or faster than I want. (B) I don't know about the Sierras, but I doubt they're significantly different than the Cascades, Rockies and other places that people hike solo. I prefer not to hike solo in grizzly country, and I tend to keep alert and watch my back-trail in areas with a history of cougar attacks. As for two-legged predators, most of them are too lazy to hike more than 1/4 mile past the trailhead. I haven't ever worried about them. (C) Globalstar GSP-1600 satellite phone (13.2 oz) in SealLine electronics zip-lock bag (1.8 oz). A quick call home each night makes my wife much more comfortable about me being alone, and if the only alternative is death then I can make a call to emergency services; never count on it working, though. (In my case, the sat phone isn't an option: checking that my computers do their job every day is the condition for getting away from them.)


> Also in general what are YOUR thoughts of backpacking solo?


I like being able to hit the trail, mid-week or while on vacation, without arranging it with anybody besides my wife. I haven't seen anybody on my last eight trips, several of which were winter off-trail ski and snowshoe trips. I suppose one of those could have been a bit dicey (a blizzard ate my maps) but I had previously tested my equipment at much lower temperatures and I had everything necessary for the extreme conditions so I could have holed up for an extra day if necessary.

The crucial issue, as I see it, is being able to do for yourself that which you would usually hope your companions would do for you. Take a Wilderness First Aid course, so you can quickly and competently deal with a serious injury without panic. (You can't give yourself CPR but you can stop major bleeding and prepare for shock, and hopefully self-evacuate.) Carry the Ten Essentials, since you can't borrow them from somebody else. I know I'm a bit more jumpy when solo, but it beats sitting around at home. I tend to discuss my options and mistakes with myself ("You idiot! What are you going to do about your frozen toes?"), but I try to not do so out loud :-) Still, I prefer hiking with friends.

Edited by Otter on 05/23/2006 19:39:27 MDT.

Mark Verber
(verber) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
Re: Solo or No Go on 05/23/2006 19:53:39 MDT Print View

Hi Ken:

We are in somewhat simular situations: over 40, live the the bay area with a heavy emphasis on the sierras as a destination, tend to hike 12-20 miles (the last couple of years it was more like 15-30 for me... but I am backing that off a bit). The only difference is that I often seek solo trips for the quiet and solitude.

As to risks... in the sierras the biggest issue would be getting injury and the time it takes for someone to detect you are in trouble and find you. In some parts of california there is a slightly higher risk of mountain lion attacks... but statistically you are more likely to get killed in a car accident. On any of the better travel trails I don't think this is a significant risk. Just make sure you have a whistle and flag people down. If you are going cross country then the risk goes up.

I think the way to maximize the wife's comfort would be to carry a satphone and call her 1-3 times per day to say "I am doing well and I am at location X". So of the modern satphones can get down to around 8oz and would have plenty of battery life if you only power up the phone to make a <1 minute call with an update and then power the phone off again. So find my wife has been comfortable enough that she is happy with a detailed agenda and a phone call as soon as I come out of the backcountry. As some point I might need to break down and do the satphone.

Vick Hines
(vickrhines) - F

Locale: Central Texas
Re: Solo or No Go on 05/23/2006 21:30:19 MDT Print View

As I get older... lots older than 42, thank you... I tend to go solo because I'm a solitary sort and prefer not to deal with social situations except when I choose. And I prefer to set my own pace and trail time. Sound familiar?

A) Obviously, solo lets you go as far or as fast - or as slowly - as you like. Sounds like you already travel solo.

B) Solo on trails in the Sierra's? Dunno, not my line of country, but if you are on a trail, sit down and see how many folks pass you in an hour. There are not many places so isolated that you won't see at least one party per day.

C1) My significant other (when she isn't with me) and aged mom like for me to carry a cell phone. The understanding is that sometimes I will be out of service range and batteries don't last forever. No contact is not reason for concern. Sometimes the contact schedule is daily, sometimes weekly, depending on where I am. Whatever, it makes them feel better.

C2) Convince your wife that you won't show up unannounced, and C3)make sure she knows the life insurance is paid up. If that helps, maybe you need to spend lots more time on the trail or lots less, depending.... Or, as I told my mom once (C4) I always carry ID so they know where to send the body. OK, maybe not for you.

General thoughts? For me, it's the best way to travel. I can goof off or bust butt according to how I feel that day. I can bore myself with my conversation or not. It is more challenging and potentially a little dangerous, so I stay more aware, and I like that. (Whether it is more dangerous to travel alone is open to debate because each partner tends to rely on the other, and when everyone is responsible, no one is responsible. Also testosterone judgement is exacerbated in proportion to group size and leads to bad decisions.) I like feeling self-sufficient and self-contained. You have to think of everything, and that awareness becomes a background for the experience and heightens it.

And I like coming home.

AS to safety, Frick and others have covered the practical stuff such as first aid training - all good advice. One more thing on that. Get your family doc to prescribe or give you some serious pain killers - Darvoset, Roxicet, Oxicontin... some opiate way heavier than Vicodin. If you are seriously injured, heavy duty pain management will keep you from going into shock and will let you function well enough to take care of yourself. Tell your doc to imagine having to wrangle shelter, food and water for a day or two with a broken femur. If he doesn't understand that, get another doc. Good drugs are one secret to surviving serious injury. The other is experience with being seriously injured, but that don't come in a bottle. When taking painkiller in tablet form immediately after an injury, the way to get quick relief so you can deal with the injury is to chew 1/2 the dose and take it and the rest of the dose (intact tablet) with lots of water. The chewed tablet will hit you really fast. Otherwise you will wait 20 minutes for relief. And the first 20 minutes can be critical for avoiding shock - the greatest danger in these situations.

Edited by vickrhines on 05/23/2006 21:52:33 MDT.

Ken Helwig
(kennyhel77) - MLife

Locale: Scotts Valley CA via San Jose, CA
Solo on 05/23/2006 21:53:45 MDT Print View

Thanks all. All valid comments and enjoyable to read. For those that don't know, I met Mark Verber when he was solo hiking in Yosemite. Valued thoughts Mark and thank you. As for comforting the wife? Oh yeah, I think a Sat Phone and a detailed plan would suffice. I have never done a solo trip but think that I would enjoy and benefit from the experience. I think that I could gain soooo much more solo, and be able to be a more complete trekker with this experience. In a group, I tend to rely on my partners more, solo will obviously change that.

Robert Miller
(procab) - F
Re: Solo or No Go on 05/23/2006 23:07:24 MDT Print View

Two more observations for you Ken.

We both do similar mileages and I've found on weekend trips most people will be within 5-7 miles of the trailhead. On less popular trails I frequently don't see anyone for 3/4 of my hike.

The only bears I've ever seen, other than campground bears, were when I was solo wearing trail runners. Unlike Vick I don't talk to myself :o) so there is less noise to scare them away but more importantly there are fewer things to distract you from observing the subtle cues to their presence.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Solo or No Go on 05/24/2006 17:43:11 MDT Print View

I sure hike better alone-- the pace is so different.

My wife worries a bit, but I'm hiking on pretty tame trails-- no technical stuff. I leave plenty of info on my "flight plan" and a time to call for help if I don't report in.

I wouldn't ford fast water or go off trail in an area I wasn't 100% familiar with. I carry all the essentials and keep an eye on my map and take a GPS I'm not familiar with the area.

IMHO, you're in more danger going to work during the week. If you can relax in Bay Area traffic, a lil' ol' bear isn't going to be any problem :)

Mark Regalia
(markr) - MLife

Locale: Santa Cruz
Re: Solo or No Go on 05/25/2006 13:50:24 MDT Print View

I soloed hiked in the Sierra for years until I finally hooked up with fellow backpackers. Now as we age I am being force to go solo more. The Sierra is pretty darn safe for mountains. Outside of a hot areas in the parks bears are really not that big an issue. Besides I can't remember the last time I heard about anyone being attacked. There are snakes in the lower country and occassionaly up higher, but rare and not aggressive. Giardia in rare instances can incapacitate you very quickly. But I do mean rare, and it is avoidable. Injuries are the biggest issue. If your wife is like most I don't think anything is going to really assure her. Carry a cell phone and convince her you can easily get service. Not true of course. Buy a satellite phone. That is extreme, but it is better than not backpacking.
Mostly be careful driving to and from. That's probably where the biggest danger is.

Sunny Waller
(dancer) - M

Locale: Southeast USA
Re: Re: Solo or No Go on 05/25/2006 14:06:23 MDT Print View

When I go SOLO I leave a "flight plan" On it I put where I am parking..where I am hiking..my car type and Tag number. I leave my flight plan with a hiking buddy with a predetermined SOS call time if I do not come back. I have the number listed of the authority to call..I call from my cellphone as close as possible to the trail head and call back as soon as I am on the way out. I do not change my plans unless I can call in to advise my buddy of my change in plans. This ensures a quick search in the right place should I turn up missing and respects the time of search and rescue volunteers. BUT I hike in the southeast..there are several places you can go SOLO and minimize the risk should something go wrong.

Michael Wands
(walksoftly) - F

Locale: Piney Woods
Solo or No Go on 05/25/2006 18:16:10 MDT Print View

I lost most of my hiking buddies when my backpacking philosophy changed to ultralight. I was no longer satified with hiking 5 to 7 miles a day and making a "home away from home". This is legitimate backpacking, but just not for me.

Now I love going solo and can't imagine ever giving up the freedom that I have gained. I get up when I want, eat when & what I want, hike at my own pace, etc., etc. I also get much more intelligent conversation now. How liberating it is to just grab you pack and take off thataway.

My wife won't hike with me for any great length. She thinks I'm an absolute animal when I'm on the trail. I do let her look at any literature I can find regarding where I'm going and am sure to leave her an emergency number of some sort. So far she has been supportive.

When you are out by yourself it is even more important to follow the cardinal rule of outdoor activities - DON'T DO ANYTHING STUPID!!!! That varies greatly per person, but should always be on your mind.

Try it. Find a loop trail somewhere and spend the night. Some people really get spooked with the quiet and the solitude. However, some really, really like it.

Edited by walksoftly on 05/25/2006 18:16:57 MDT.

Ken Helwig
(kennyhel77) - MLife

Locale: Scotts Valley CA via San Jose, CA
Solo on 05/26/2006 07:52:20 MDT Print View

Thanks for all the comments. Been thinking about solo in Point Reyes (I am from The SF Bay Area) or waiting for the melt and hitting the Sierra's. No worries about bears, because the only time I have seen one was near Sunrise High Sierra Camp in Yosemite a few years ago. Can be dangerous but at times I think they're overgrown dogs in a sense. I think that leaving a detailed itinerary, with trailhead, which spots you would generally be sleeping each night, leaving detail map with coordinates, emergency phone numbers will make her feel better. Basically I am planning "safe" hiking on trails, keeping my head about things (like not fording swollen streams) being prepared and just using commen sense and error on the conservative side.

Michael Wands
(walksoftly) - F

Locale: Piney Woods
Re: Solo on 05/26/2006 10:20:19 MDT Print View

Just an observation that has nothing to do with you.

Seems like "common sense" just isn't very common any more.

Ken Helwig
(kennyhel77) - MLife

Locale: Scotts Valley CA via San Jose, CA
solo on 05/26/2006 19:46:22 MDT Print View

no kidding!!!

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Re: Solo or No Go on 05/26/2006 20:06:17 MDT Print View

"Injuries are the biggest issue. If your wife is like most I don't think anything is going to really assure her. Carry a cell phone and convince her you can easily get service. Not true of course."

She knows what the cellular service is like and she's a very experienced hiker. She's crossed the Olympics and done the Mt. Rainier Wonderland Trail, among others. Injuries and particularly falls are her worry. I'm not a technical climber and I don't like heights, so the chance of my getting into trouble are slim. I'm proudly chicken when it comes to cliffs an' such.

Sandra Smith
(sandrams@olypen.com) - F
Hiking alone--a female perspective on 06/01/2006 23:17:34 MDT Print View

I noticed no women replied. I've backpacked alone a couple of times, but my MOTHER worries when I do...even though we live in a remote area of the Olympics where I day hike with bear and cougar sighted often. (If you want to see bear, try the upper Duckabush trail and Marmot and Hart Lakes area of the Olympics...saw 17 different bear in 4 days a few years ago). The only really bothersome creatures I've encountered have been bugs. But I do carry a GlobalStar 1600 sat phone (from Outfitter Satellite, and about 12oz), a spare battery for it, and I call every day. I'm much more worried about snow slopes and stream crossings, and especially car campers at trailheads than about any dangers from animals on the trail. 35 years of living 2 miles past power and paved roads have convinced me the real dangers are getting to and from the trails!

Sunny Waller
(dancer) - M

Locale: Southeast USA
Re: Hiking alone--a female perspective on 06/02/2006 12:42:51 MDT Print View

Hey Sandra I am female. I am 48 years old and have hiked solo for several years. I was out of action for awhile due to a car wreck but because of ultralite gear I am back on the trail. I have been car camping since 2 years old and backpacking since 14. I led outdoor trips for years. SO I am embarassed to admit that I still get nervous at night when I hear stuff scurrying around. But I also know I am not the only one with this issue :). I think my biggest fear is that I will get immobolized by injury and then die slowly. I deal with that fear by leaving that flight plan, sticking to it, and staying on the trail. Search and Rescue people can find you fast when they know where to look. OF course I do live and hike in the southeast. Our wilderness areas are much smaller and there are people everywhere.

PS...oh yeah...I never tell my mother when I go out SOLO..I am not that crazy...

Edited by dancer on 06/02/2006 12:45:54 MDT.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Hiking alone--a female perspective on 06/03/2006 01:09:28 MDT Print View

I try to give solo women a lot of space when I meet them on the trail alone. I say "hi, nice weather" or something like that and keep going. It's as much respect for their solitude as it is gender.

Now, car campers. Drunks and druggies. One with a shotgun (it was empty-- we found out after he passed out). State park campgrounds are like a weekend in a low rent apartment complex-- drinkin' and fussin' and fightin' and roarin' 4x4's. Ahhhh, the Great Outdoors. Not!

Michael Wands
(walksoftly) - F

Locale: Piney Woods
State Park Camping - Solo on 06/04/2006 16:23:27 MDT Print View

Fortunately, I live in Texas which has a wide variety of environments for its State Park system. Piney Woods, High Prairie, Hill Country, etc. Each park was selected to "show off" the best of the local flora & fauna (although all are extremely hot in the summer!!!)

I only visit parks that have "primitive campsites" far from the mass campgrounds. Bubba never visits these areas to get obnoxious. It is too much like exercise to get to them and would take over a six pack for the whole trip.

In all my years of backpacking in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and New Mexico I have never encountered a solo female or a solo black person of any gender. Just an observation.

When I volunteered with the BSA many years ago, we had many blacks and some women who would camp with us. I wonder why some of them did not continue on the solo once their Scouting tenure was over.

Sunny Waller
(dancer) - M

Locale: Southeast USA
Re: Re: Hiking alone--a female perspective on 06/06/2006 06:22:58 MDT Print View

Hey Dale..I really appreciate your attitude there. Something else you may consider is a positive comment. I suspect most of the women hiking solo are very experienced. I do not look like a rookie, hike like a rookie, or camp like a rookie but I get bombarded with comments and critiques about my gear, my campsite setup ect ect ect. This "advice" always comes from the more experienced male hikers on the trail (including the rangers). I met a nice couple on my last solo hike. They had hiked and treked all over the world and had top notch (and heavier) gear. They were very interested in my lightweight rig. I was testdriving several new things on this trip including Aqua Mira. The husband was not impressed with my choice of shoes over boots. He questioned the durability of some of my gear and we both agreed that a beer can stove might not be a good choice as your only pot-mug on a long trip. The husband did like my Lunar Solo tent and his wife offered to buy my DAM on the spot because it was lighter than her thermarest but 1.5" thicker. The next morning we both filled our water bottles from the spring. I was very excited to be trying out Aqua Mira for the first time. The husband argued with me and offered me water pumped thru his filter. I politely declined and explained for the 3rd time that I needed to try out this new product. While I was drinking coffee with his wife and some other hikers the husband emptied out my water bottles and refilled them with filtered water in front of us all. He stated that the risk was just too high since I was hiking solo. I said nothing..just finished my coffee..picked up my pack and hiked on. At the next spring I dumped his water and did it my way :) I doubt he would have done this to a male.