Hiking Alone: Everything You Need to Know

Hiking solo for the first time.  It can sound intimidating, especially if you’re new to hiking.  But there are many benefits to hiking by yourself and starting out is easier than you think. 

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Woman in purple shirt and black pants on top of rocky overlook with mountains in the background. Her arms are outstretched.

The Benefits of Hiking Alone

It’s Your Hike:  One of the best things about hiking alone is that you’re in charge of the hike. 

Feel like stopping for a photo where you take the time to set up and click several shots? Check. 

Want to stay and listen to the river for a bit because you like the sound?  Done. 

Out to push your speed because you want to hit a personal best time? All you. 

View of a river from the top of a cliff. It is lined with trees on either side.

Time to Think:  Hiking alone is a great way to clear your head or puzzle through an issue.  It can help put things in perspective and maybe push you in new directions. 

Growing and Redefining Limits: As you continue to hike solo, your confidence grows as you realize you’re a capable individual who can depend on their skills. 

You’ll find that your sense more acute as you hike solo. With no distractions or other hikers to point things out first, you’ll being to develop and hone your skills.   

Limits will constantly be redefined. 

Why Is There So Much Fear Around Hiking Alone?

You think about hitting the trail solo and then the questions start circling your head.  Is it safe?  What if you lose the trail? Do you need to be concerned about animals?

The What ifs have taken hold of your thoughts.

There’s a lot of what I refer to as, “societal concern” around women being alone.  Whether it’s hiking by yourself or traveling to a foreign country solo, women tend to get the “it’s not safe” speech. 

Somehow, society seems to think that a man can fend off a bear but a woman can’t.  A man won’t become lost.  A man can handle himself. 

Well, a woman can too.  (Maybe not the bear thing, because most men can’t do that either – I’m just saying.  But you get the point). 

But because of this conditioning, women tend to be more hesitant to try.  I really urge you to push past the fear because the rewards are well worth the effort. 

My First Solo Hike

When I first started hiking, I was always with a group.  Then, I started scouting trails on my own and discovered I like hiking by myself.  But I was nervous on my first solo hike.   

In my efforts to overcome all the misplaced fear, I turned the hike into this huge endeavor in my head. It became this massive thing I was going to accomplish.

Surprisingly, it was just a hike.  An everyday hike.  At first, it was a little uncomfortable, but then I settled in and enjoyed the quiet. 

Woman in blue shirt and purple pack with sunglasses on her head standing in front of a river at a section of rapids.

Sounds were crisper, the breeze felt great, and I really enjoyed myself.  Other hikers and trail runners I met were friendly.  It was just a day at the park.    

Since then, I’ve pushed myself and done high mileage hikes and unblazed trails.  I always follow basic safety protocols, but I’ve only run into good people and maybe a black snake or two. 

I’ve even done some solo backpacking.

You can read about my trip to False Cape State Park in Virginia here. I was the only person in the park overnight. It was great!

Tips to Help You Get Started and be Safe

Choose a Local or State Park for Your First Solo Hike

Local and State Parks usually have easy parking, good maps, and well-blazed trails. 

Most trails will be well maintained and easy to follow and, even if you manage to jump onto another trail, you should be able to easily determine where you are and how to re-route. 

Go during a time where there will be other people around.  You don’t want it swamped and crowded, but you do want to know you’ll encounter some people on the trail. 

This helps ensure your safety, and you have resources who likely know the park inside and out to help you if you become disoriented. 

NOTE:  With COVID 19 you want to be careful about going to parks during exceptionally crowded times and make sure you adhere to all park and state guidelines. 

Pick an Easy Trail with Less Mileage Than Usual

Start with what you consider an easy hike.  If you’re used to hiking 6-8 miles in a group, look for a trail that’s 3-5 miles.  You can always add on an extra mile at the end if you feel you need more.

Since you’re just getting used to hiking alone, you may stop more frequently and, if something feels off, you’ll be closer to your car. 

Wooden pedestrian suspension bridge over a small river. It ends at a trail lined with green trees.

Hiking alone for the first time, you don’t want to push your limits too far.  Be careful with stream crossings, rock scrambles, and anything else that feels like it would be safer with two people. 

As you continue to hike, you’ll feel more confident and have more knowledge on how to manage obstacles safely by yourself. 

Making Sure You Stay on Trail and Don’t Get Lost

Before we dive in to some tips here, I need to confess that I used to be “that” person.  You know, the one that always got lost. 

I could not find my way anywhere in a car and, in the woods, would never see all the blazes everyone else noticed. 

It was easy to fix this by leading hikes from the front rather than just mindlessly follow the people in front of me. Being in the lead, I began to pay more attention to the trail, where we were headed and where we had been. 

Over time, my navigation skills got a lot better.  It just takes a bit of practice. 

Always Have a Map and a Paper Backup

While map apps are great and you can download a route, I advise everyone hiking by themselves to grab a park map as a backup. 

woman in blue shirt and jeans with a paper map. She's looking at the map while walking in the woods.

If your phone loses battery or becomes wet, that app won’t do you any good.  Also, if you realize were following a trail with blue blazes and now you’re seeing white diamonds, that map of the entire park will come in handy.

The park map has every trail and their blazes so you can tell what new trail you’re on and see where they may have intersected.  There will also be other identifiers to help you orient and determine your location. 

With access to information on all of the trails, it will be easier to find the best path to continue your hike. 

Pay Attention to the Blazes

Be observant and keep track of the blazes.  If you don’t see a blaze after 5 minutes, stop and look around.  Are you still on a well-identified trail?  Can you see where it leads in front of you? 

Walk another 20 feet or so looking for a blaze.  Don’t forget to look down.  Sometimes the blaze is on a fallen tree. 

If you still can’t locate a blaze, back up and retrace your steps until you see one.  From this point, check to see if there was a split you missed. 

Look at the map and see if there is anything nearby that matches what you see.  Should there be a river on your left? 

One of my favorite tricks is to locate a blaze, then turn around and see if you can find the blaze on the other side of the tree.  The orientation shows where they expect someone to be coming from. 

Does it look like you should be coming at the tree straight, or from the left? With this new information, you can scan the area and will likely see the trail. 

Keep in mind that it’s entirely possible there’s just a long distance between blazes, but that’s unusual.  If there are other people around, ask. 

You’ll need to pay more attention than usual so you can retrace your steps.  It’s important to know where you’ve been and be cognizant of landmarks. 

Let Someone Know Your Plans

This is the one rule I never break, even if I’m just heading to my local park and a trail I’ve done 100 times.  Always, always, always, tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to return.

If you’re not back by the assigned time, ask them to try and call you.  Phone signal is hit or miss in most parks so they may not reach you.  That’s ok.  Have them wait 30 minutes then try again. 

I usually tell them that if it’s been an hour over the due time, to call the ranger station.  This puts the rangers on alert and they’ll start keeping an eye out for you.  If they know your route, they can walk the trail and look for your location. 

Trust me, they’d rather walk the trail during the day and find you were running later than expected, then have a car in the parking lot at closing and have to scour the entire park in the dark. 

For remote areas where you know you won’t have a signal, consider getting a personal locater beacon or 2-way satellite communicator. 

A locater beacon could be as simple as a friend having access to your phone location. There are several apps that allow you to set this up.

Using a satellite communicator allows you to initiate an SOS signal if necessary, and it connects via Bluetooth to your phone to easily get messages out. 

I have the Garmin inReach mini and like it a lot. It’s small, has great maps, and gives me an extra layer of security. You can click here to learn more about satellite options.

Keep in mind that satellite communication devices aren’t 100% foolproof.  If there’s a storm or a lot of tree cover, they may not be able to get a signal.  Non-emergency messages can also take a while to go back and forth. 

Pack Everything You Need and Then Some

You know yourself and your ability to navigate, but still, be ready.  I always have a small pack with water, a granola bar, an extra shirt in colder weather, a first aid kit, and my headlamp. 

Black backpack sitting by itself on a rock with mountains in the distance.

On your own, you may hike faster and need more water and fuel than usual.  A first aid kit is always a good thing to have for yourself and to help others that may need assistance. 

Headlamps are just hiking 101.  Even if you think you’ll be back well before dusk, if you run into an emergency, you may want a light.  They’re also useful as a signaling device, or to get a close look at something like a splinter. 

If you live in a hot, buggy area like me, sunscreen and bug spray are also necessities. 

Check the weather forecast and be prepared for rain.  In the summer, I don’t worry too much, but I’ll throw an extra shirt in the car for the ride home.  In colder weather, it’s a good idea to pack your rain jacket. 

Consider an extra pair of shoes for driving home.  Hiking boots can be heavy and uncomfortable for driving, especially if your feet are swollen after a hike.

Know What to do in a Wild Animal Encounter

In most parks, you won’t need to worry about wild animals.  Snakes and squirrels are probably the most common animals you’ll run into. 

Know how to identify any poisonous snakes in your area and keep an eye out.  You’ll find that on your own, you’re more observant.

If you do happen to live in an area where bears, mountain lions, or other animals could be a problem, read up on what to do should you if you encounter one. 

Solo hikers are often quieter than groups and run a greater risk of “sneaking up” on an animal. 

If there is a known issue, most parks will post that an animal has been seen and the location. Be extra careful in those areas and make sure to follow any instructions from the park. 

General Safety on the Trail

I’m not a fan of using headphones while hiking.  Music and podcasts can be distracting.  You may not notice an animal rustling in the brush or the bicyclist behind you who thinks you heard “passing on the right”.

Pinterest pin with photo of black pack on a rock with mountains in the background. The text reads, "Hiking solo. Safety tips so you can enjoy your hike."

Set a good pace that feels comfortable. This isn’t the time to rush.  Stay within your ability or a little below. 

Follow your instincts.  If it doesn’t feel safe or right, then leave.  You really want to explore a cave but the trail is wet and it’s down a slippery hill and you’re not sure you can get back up?  Save it for another day. 

If you feel that something is off, even if you can’t put your finger on it, but your body goes on alert, stop. Turn around and head back the way you came or route down another trail.  Honestly, this is really rare, but just know you should always trust your instincts. 

What to do with Your Phone Before and During Your Hike

Map your Directions To and From the Park

If you’re in a rural area, I highly recommend downloading the to and from directions on your phone before heading out. 

Photo of a mock screenshot of a blue cell phone with a mapping app open.

More than once I’ve found myself in a parking lot, ready to head home, no signal, and unsure where to go past the first three turns. 

Tip: You can put in the directions to your location, then reverse them, go to the step by step directions and take a screenshot.  

Map your Trail Route

Trail route apps like AllTrails or Gaia require a signal to download, so make sure you get the map of the trail downloaded before you head out. 

There’s nothing worse than getting to your location, having no signal, and now you can’t access the map you spent all night locating. 

Take a paper map if they’re available.  It doesn’t hurt to have the park’s map handy.

Save Battery with Airplane Mode

Put your phone on airplane mode as you hike. 

If you don’t have a good signal, the phone will continue to search for one which quickly drains the battery.  An older iPhone can deplete its battery in less than 3 hours.  Trust me on that one. 

As long as you downloaded all your maps first, airplane mode won’t impede your ability to use GPS and follow the map.

Keep on Hiking

As you gain confidence, you’ll find yourself pushing your limits further.  Always be honest with your abilities and comfort level.  Hiking is a journey and you’ll always be learning and adapting. 

There are places I hike that I know so well, I don’t usually follow all the steps above.  One favorite trail is a 5-mile loop in a state park that‘s well-traveled and has at least 10 other hikers on it at 9 am on a weekday.

When I hike this trail, I don’t worry about carrying extra gear because I know this park.  I know a ranger can reach an emergency in less than an hour.  I know I’ll be to my car before dark.  And I know the 10 different cut-throughs to bypass the trail and get to my car. 

Then there are the locations that aren’t as well blazed and where I may not follow a defined path and it’s not regularly staffed with rangers.  Here I take extra gear and my inReach. 

Think about what would make you comfortable hiking solo.  The steps above are tips and advice to help you accomplish those first few solo hikes.  They’re also good recommendations for any hike. 

I promise you have it in you to hike solo.  It may take 3-4 hikes before you feel “normal” hiking alone, but you’ll begin to enjoy the solitude and make it part of your routine. 

Don’t forget to sit back, relax, and enjoy your hike.  Take photos.  Stop and watch the waterfall.  Listen to the quiet and breathe.  This is the wondrous part of hiking solo, being one with nature. 

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