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.
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.
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.
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.