10 Tips for Hiking Alone Safely

by Gray Cargill on May 18, 2010

Believe it or not, another hiking season is upon us.  Growing up in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont as I did, I have an appreciation for going for long walks in the woods and hiking mountains with friends and family.  But I’ve never gone alone, because I am hyper-aware of all the bad things that can happen to a lone hiker in the wilderness (particularly one who is a woman).  That may soon change.  Today’s guest writer, Geraldine DeRuiter of the Everywhereist, offers 10 safety tips for solo hikers.  I feel a sudden urge to find myself a walking stick.

Toll Road, Stowe Mountain
When a friend first told me that she was a fan of hiking alone, I promptly started worrying. I was raised by an over-protective mother, and despite all my attempts to be an adventurous free spirit, my upbringing will occasionally shine through.

“What if you get hurt?” I asked, panicked. “What if you fall or break your leg, or get lost, or -” I quickly came up with half a dozen scenarios of disaster. And as I rattled them off, I realized I sounded exactly like my mother.

My friend assured me there was nothing to worry about. She was incredibly cautious about her hiking, always took popular paths (on which she’d encounter friendly families and other hikers) and even remembered to bring a sweater (which would make my mother very happy to hear). Still, I felt the need to offer her some company on her next hike, which she politely declined. She explained that when she went by herself, she was able to go at her own pace. She could stop and take photos, or sit down and reflect on her surroundings whenever she wanted. She didn’t feel compelled to make conversation, when all she wanted to do was go for a peaceful walk in the woods.

After listening to her talk about her adventures, she actually started to sway me. Her solo-hikes didn’t sound dangerous at all. In fact, they sounded fun.

Since then, I’ve done my fair share of exploring on my own. And I have to agree – there’s something magical about hiking all by yourself – as long as you’re careful and put a bit of forethought into your trip. So I’ve compiled a list of tips to ensure that you’ll have a safe – and hopefully fun – hike, all by your lonesome. Tips that would make any mom, no matter how over-protective, breathe a sigh of relief.

Bolton
Know the area.
People take for granted how much they know about the natural environment in which they live. Odds are, you can identify the poisonous vegetation in your area, are familiar with what kinds of wild animals you might run into, and know how extreme the temperatures can get. So if you’re going to start hiking by yourself, it’s best to do so near your hometown. Even better, try a place you’ve visited before with friends. You’ll be surprised at how different things look on your own.

Tell someone of your whereabouts. Be sure to check in with a friend about where you’re going, and when you plan on getting home.  (Don’t forget to call them when you get back – you don’t want to leave them worrying, do you?) In case something does happen (of course it won’t, but if it does) someone will know right away that you’re missing. Once you’ve told someone where you’re headed, stick to that plan! No changing your mind at the last minute and taking a different trail.You want everyone to have an accurate idea of where you are, so that help can find you if you need it.

Check in at the ranger station. This is always a good idea. Whenever you go on a hike, be sure to stop by the ranger’s station. Give them your name, and let them know that you’ll be hiking alone. Tell them that you’ll check in again on your way out.  (Once again, don’t forget to do so!) Be sure to clear your hiking route with the park rangers – they will know which trails are open, and which are the best (and safest) for solo hikers.

Read the weather report
. I live in the Pacific Northwest, where we have a saying: If you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes. I’ve literally seen a sky go from sunny and cloudless to dark and hailing in about 15 minutes. Fortunately, I was inside at the time. But if you’re hiking and the weather turns foul, odds are you won’t have time to get yourself back to your vehicle or to a ranger station without getting soaked first. So check the weather report before you leave, and pay attention to the sky – and your fellow hikers. If everyone else is headed back to their cars, that’s a sign that you should, too.

Choose a busy trail. Trails that see lots of foot traffic are better-maintained and safer than more secluded ones. Plus you’re bound to run into a few other explorers, so if you need it, help will just be a few shouts away. Don’t worry that your alone-time will be interrupted – even on popular trails, you might pass a lot of people, but I can guarantee that few will stop to chat – after all, they’re hiking.

El Portal trail map

Know your limitations. If you rarely work out and get winded walking to the mailbox and back, then maybe you shouldn’t commit to a seven-mile hike. Err on the side of caution and remember that fatigue can creep up on you. Try a neighborhood hike first, to see what you’re able to do and how quick your pace is. This will better help you gauge your abilities (and your time) when you go out alone in the woods.

Stick to the path. It seems like most disastrous hiking stories begin when someone willingly takes a wrong turn. However tempting it might be, don’t wander off the trail and into the woods. Your trampling could cause a lot of damage to plant and animal life. Even worse, you could step onto unstable ground (think rock slides or avalanches). Not only is going off-trail dangerous (because, let’s face it, you will get lost), it’s also illegal in many national parks.

Bring supplies. Always bring the following with you: a sweater, a snack, a map, a first-aid kit, and more water than you think you’ll need. When you’re alone, you won’t have anyone else to mooch off of. And convenience stores aren’t exactly easy to come by when you’re in the middle of the woods. Be responsible: stay hydrated, keep your blood-sugar up, and take care not to get too cold or too over-heated. Since you’re on your own, it’s up to you to take care of yourself.

Make sure your vehicle is up to it. There’s nothing worse than returning from a hike to the comfort of your vehicle to find the engine is dead. Or worse still, not getting to your hike at all because your car died on the way. And since a lot of hiking areas are away from the city, on rural roads that don’t see a lot of traffic, you could be in a lot of trouble if your car breaks down. So make sure that your vehicle is up to the task – whether it’s dirt roads or highway driving – and will get you where you need to go and back home again, safely.

And finally, Listen to that nagging voice in the back of your head. You know the one I’m talking about: it sounds exactly like your mother. LISTEN TO IT. Because if something seems like a bad idea, it almost always is. Does a path look too dangerous? A climb look too intense? Skip it. Do you keep thinking you should turn back and return to the car? THEN GO BACK TO THE CAR. The time to take risks is not when you’re hiking by yourself in the woods. The time to take risks is when you’re sitting on your couch, watching TV, and your hubby decides to try a new recipe for dinner. That’s a perfectly acceptable time to be adventurous.

I realize that this list looks daunting – but really, it only takes a few extra steps to ensure that you’ll have an enjoyable, stress-free hike. Plus, if anyone worries, you’ll be able to tell them exactly how responsible you are. And don’t forget to have fun (that’s the whole point, right?). You might want to take a notebook and pen with you, should inspiration strike. Or bring a camera and take lots of photos (including those great long-armed self-portraits we’ve all snapped before) to share with your friends. They’ll be incredibly impressed by your independence and hiking knowledge. They might even ask if they can join you next time.

And you can politely reply, “No way.”

Geraldine DeRuiter is the founder of Everywhereist.com, a travel blog for the accidentally adventurous.

Gray March 14, 2012 at 8:20 pm

It can be, for sure, Rich.

Rich March 14, 2012 at 8:09 pm

hiking alone is a great way to soul search.

maier franz October 1, 2011 at 2:59 pm

hi,

i love your page.

thx.

Joearizona September 4, 2010 at 10:46 pm

Great advice!! I always take a GPS since the phone using GPS will drain the battery quick when there is little to no signal. I shut the phone off and in an emergency I can use Google Maps to send a map location as a text message to several friends who are either employed as law enforcement or EMS so they know who to call. Its easier to send a text message than keep fighting the phone for signal to make a phone call, text messages usually go through when a phone call will not. I also carry a two way radio that I can use on ham frequencies or to contact local NPS, USFS, BLM etc depending where I am, and a firearm with extra ammo. Also a good sized first aid kit in my backpack. When I go for a couple hour hike I carry food & water for a day.

Bottom line, always listen to your gut!! It will save your life! If its late, your in an area you are not familiar with and you have no supplies, turn around. If you do not have a GPS mark the trail somehow so you can find your way back. The article is correct, if you have a bad feeling about an area or person, dont keep wondering why you have it.Just get the hell out of there. If you have to start a signal fire, please clear the area first so it does not catch the forest on fire. Know that not everyone hiking or camping may not be there for the scenery and bad things can happen in such a peaceful area.

Pepper spray is a good idea as well as a flahslight or two. Costco had 2 solar lights for 20.00, they last about an hour or so on a charge. Also a good idea to bring a 2nd LED low lumen so the battery will last a while. Most of these items are light. There are several great Youtube videos on survival kits, most are small and also do not weigh much. An EPIRB or a personal locater is not a bad idea, also light and work anywhere they can see the sky.

SoloFriendly July 17, 2010 at 12:48 pm

Thanks for the additional tips, Roozter. Certainly, what we're discussing here is hiking for beginners or laypeople. Serious hiking is a whole other ball of wax. Especially if you plan to camp out, you'd need a lot more gear. I didn't even know they made such a thing as bear spray. :-)

Roozter July 17, 2010 at 4:45 am

Great article! However, I do hope your readers are aware that it's very much “entry level” hiking. Those who really get bitten by the bug & go for more serious adventures need to seek out more in-depth advice.

A sweater is not adequate protection in any climate except the city park. Rain gear is essential, even if it's just an emergency poncho. Invest in some non-cotton clothing for hiking, especially if you aren't good at firebuilding like myself. Lots of websites sell discount. HYPOTHERMIA IS DEADLY & I take it seriously on the simplest dayhike.
As you say, know the area. I became mildly hypothermic on a simple beach walk on a sunny day in July @ Ocean Shores because of inexperience with the climate. The wind was pervasive & I didn't go prepared.

All hikers, no matter how novice, should carry the ten essentials (search it for a list) & have some knowledge on how to use them. I'm poor with a compass, in spite of class, but with that & a map should be able to find my out.

Bear spray is an essential in bear habitats so I just carry that everywhere. The little mace thingy is for the city.

Another essential item for me is a set of hiking poles, which have kept me on my feet numerous times. And they might come in handy as a self defense item.

As I am a night owl & have a terrible time getting up for an early start (translate – finish in the dark) I carry, at minimum, 3 light sources…LED headlamp, a Mini Maglite (AA size), & keychain Maglite (AAA). With extra batteries.

Just my 2 cents for other safety conscious ladies that want to head out on their own.

And thanks for the great links…I will enjoy investigating!

SoloFriendly June 11, 2010 at 10:50 am

Me too, solo one. I think self-defense courses never hurt, and trying to hike a popular trail in the middle of the day on the weekend when you know plenty of other people will be around is probably the best way to go.

solo one June 11, 2010 at 7:57 am

My fear of hiking alone is a fear of meeting up with a lone creepy guy. Once when hiking w/ my husband in NH, USA, we came upon a man wearing only a Speedo bottom, talking to himself. He was on the trail and I was glad that I was not hiking alone. It was fall, it was cold. This was a creepy guy . Thanks for the reminder to carry pepper spray. Any other ideas about hiking safely alone, in regards to meeting creeps? The woods can be scary when you are hiking solo. It's too bad that we have to have this fear but it is an unfortunate reality.

hikebiketravel May 23, 2010 at 9:49 pm

I hike alot by myself and really don't give it a second thought unless it's really rough country. I love the freedom but I also always carry the '10 essentials', a compass & map (don't own a GPS yet) and I do leave info with people on where I'm going. I bring a phone but don't rely on it. I worry more about meeting some weirdo than I do about wild animals. Last year I hiked the Kerry Way in Ireland over 8 days and felt a great sense of accomplishment. Start with the easy hikes and work your way up. It's very liberating when you have the confidence in yourself to hike a route solo.

ukdestination May 21, 2010 at 1:33 pm

good tips, we deal with a lot of hikers and walkers and you would be suprised how easy it is to get yourself in a jam. best to be prepared in advance

virginia bed and breakfast May 20, 2010 at 12:55 pm

These are all the great tips , suggestions and worthwhile advices, which are very much informative, useful and praiseworthy as well.

everywhereist May 19, 2010 at 5:13 pm

You are totally right – I think that even if you are hiking with a friend, it's never a bad idea to stick to these rules.

everywhereist May 19, 2010 at 5:12 pm

Trisha – excellent point! In the Seattle area, there have been a few incidents of women getting attacked while up in the woods by themselves. But pepper spray – or even bear deterrent spray – would be very handy in any situation like that.

Andy Hayes May 18, 2010 at 11:22 pm

Great tips – I don't know how many people come to Scotland only to enjoy our free healthcare and leave with a wobbly ankle! As an avid hiker, I do encourage people to take the classic advice about an ounce of prevention, or whatever it is they say :)

joanna_haugen May 18, 2010 at 9:49 pm

I don't normally hike alone, but these are all good suggestions, whether you're a solo hiker or not. Regarding bringing supplies, I would also add that, not only is it important to bring a first aid kit, but you should know how to use it properly. Do you know how to treat bites or sprains? Having the supplies is good … knowing how to use them could save your life.

Trisha May 18, 2010 at 6:21 pm

Excellent advice, Geraldine! I would only add one more item to your supplies – a small pepper spray (aka mace)….the one thing you can't control when hiking alone is other (potentially malicious) hikers or wild animals – disabling an attacker with a quick spray to the eyes could save your life. The small keychain-sized ones are easy to keep in a pocket within reach. Don't keep it in your day pack – that hungry mountain lion or bad guy won't wait while you take it off, unzip it, and rummage around to find your pepper-spray. On a super-popular trail this will likely not be necessary, but it's good to have on hand in any case.

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