As one who has enjoyed the wilderness for nearly 35 years, while I like sharing the experience with others, there's nothing quite like a solo adventure in the wilderness. With every outing, you have a chance to hone your skills and refine your gear, to say nothing of having all that beauty to yourself.
However, while backpacking with others can be a learning experience, backpacking solo can be a master class! Every solo adventure takes you in two directions, onward and inward. But because a soloist is, by definition, alone it makes sense for a soloist to know a few things about being a survivalist.
In fact, soloists frequently follow the same protocols as survivalists! They both even have the same personality traits such as calm, perceptive, decisive, positive, persistent, goal-oriented, independent, resourceful, adaptable, and even improvisational (more on this in another posting).
And since a soloist must already have the gear and extensive experience from backpacking with others, talking gear at this point is both unnecessary and irrelevant. At this point, it's more important to focus on what you need to do, not what you need to have!
A WORD (OR TWO) OF CAUTION
As I've stated before, "Only two kinds of people go solo into the wilderness; those who REALLY know what they're doing, and those who really DON'T!" Unfortunately, many don't understand which group they're in until they have a near death experience (aka, a wilderness survival ordeal). So let's begin with a reality check:
-In the wilderness, YOU are your biggest problem. While you are more likely to have problems with the two-legged animals (in the frontcountry) than the four-legged animals (in the backcountry), this doesn't mean you can be lax, you must have the discipline to keep a clean and orderly camp, not doing so invites problems. And you must have a good routine for getting ready for each outing. YOU will make mistakes, YOU will forget things, so YOU are responsible!
-The biggest mistakes are made before you even leave home. Lack of planning, lack of preparation, and lack of proficiency (both in skills and in particular, physical fitness) are leading causes of survival ordeals and Search And Rescue missions!
-It's not enough to think, you have to think AHEAD. The difference between a smart and dumb person in the wilderness is a smart person anticipates problems BEFORE they become an issue. This is reflected in everything a soloist brings and does.
THE FIVE ESSENTIAL STEPS
This is just the first five of sixteen subjects in a REAL wilderness survival curriculum (REAL wilderness survival is merely an extension of wilderness safety). Although I can, and have, written extensively on each of these topics, I will only lightly touch on each here. However, while these first five are imperative when backpacking with others, they are paramount for soloists each and EVERY time they get ready to leave:
1- PLANNING: This is a research intensive activity! Plan. Plan everything. Plan to the smallest detail, then, be ready leave plan "A" for plan "B" or plan "C" or plan "D".... The point is, things don't always go according to plan, so you should also plan to go home sooner than you want if that's the smart thing to do. Put another way, failure is ALWAYS an option!
2- PREPARING: Planning is about what you intend to do, preparing is about what you intend to do when you get there. It's all about gear and supplies. 'nuff said.
3- PROFICIENCY: The more diverse and deep your skills and experience, the better off you'll be, but special time and attention should be focused on your intended activity and obstacles/problems you are likely to encounter. However, your physical fitness is important, DO NOT think of the wilderness as a place where you can get fit (or "heal", GAK!). You must be in good shape BEFORE you start!!
4- BACKUPS: You need two active and two passive backups: active backups are things that YOU need to initiate to get help, like the SOS function on a Personal Locator Beacon or your emergency/survival kit. A passive backup is something that does not require you to do anything, like telling people where you're going and when you'll be back or setting up a delay-send email with your information sheet attached (don't forget to cancel it when you get back!).
5- BASIC SURVIVAL (concepts and strategies): This is NOT about "signaling, sheltering, fire, water, and food", those are The Five Basic Skills (numbers 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 in the survival curriculum). This is about learning and understanding the psychological and practical aspects of dealing with a survival ordeal. For example, The Basic Survival Strategy:
-Keep calm, keep thinking,
-Seek safety, be ready for rescue,
-Be pragmatically positive, but efficiently active,
-The more you try, the better your odds, and
-Lose your hope, lose your life.
And The Four Cornerstones of Wilderness Survival:
-Knowledge, (this is your mental database, information you need to rely on)
-Skills, (the polished ability to apply knowledge)
-Experience, (without experience, knowledge and skill are just theory), and
-Common sense (the ability to think beyond what you've been told and apply a solution that fits the situation).
GETTING ON THE TRAIL
Before you leave home, you have one last chance to check the weather forecast, check for advisories, check your pack, etc. Create good rules and routines for yourself from beginning to end!
Pan-n-Scan, pan left-and-right and back again to be sure of your steps, scan up-and-down the trail to be sure of your path. The idea is to remain aware of anything that can ruin your day! Remember The Trekking Rule:
-Rest before you’re tired,
-Drink before you’re thirsty,
-Eat before you're hungry,
-Remove layers layers before you're hot,
-Replace layers before you're cold.
Granted, this is the ideal, but it stresses the importance of addressing problems BEFORE they develop. Otherwise, keep confirming your course so you don't get lost, expect obstacles and try to avoid becoming frustrated (that may cloud your judgment), and leave the trail better than you found it.
You don't have to clear every tree fall or pick up every piece of trash, but if everyone who uses the trail does this, EVERYONE'S experience will be better and the trail volunteers won't be overwhelmed.
Again, Pan-n-Scan! Just because you're not on the trail that doesn't mean you can't still have a bad day. Camp before dark, sure, sometimes you just need to hike all day, but you're just making it harder on yourself at the end when you're most tired. You NEED sleep, for that to happen, you need to make camp, that means not putting your tent on an ant hill or on a slope, if you use a hammock (like me) and there are ants on the tree, you need to put petroleum jelly on your lines or make an ant bridge. All of which is harder in the dark, to say nothing of getting water and/or firewood.
Keep a clean, organized camp. A clean camp won't encourage bears and a clean YOU won't encourage mosquitoes. An organized camp will make things easier to find and harder to lose.
ALWAYS multitask, use your time and energy wisely and efficiently; while your're charging your batteries, filter your water, set a fishing line, AND wash/fix something. Keep your hands and mind busy. NEVER return to camp empty-handed, you should always have water or wood in hand.
And of course, leave the camp better than you found it. Pack out what you pack in! I always repackage my food into plastic bags to minimize trash, what trash I do have is burnable (makes great fire starter!!)
And finally, look before you leave, after you have your pack on your back and your poles in your hands, crisscross your campsite at least once to make sure you have everything and left nothing. And if you see a bit of trash some jerk left behind, put it in your pocket, burn it at your next camp.
THIS IS ALL JUST A TASTE
If you think this is all too much, maybe you shouldn't be out there in the first place. The truth is, this all just scratches the surface of soloing. Soloing, like survival, is a serious undertaking! You could DIE out there! Let's restate the obvious, soloing means ALONE!! You need to rely on your own knowledge, skill, experience and common sense to stay safe (or alive!!), your alternative is to rely on survival (that happens when you screw up!!!)
But IF something happens, not only are you the only one to blame, you're the only one who can make it better. You say you'll just hit the SOS button? What will you do if your signal can't get out and you have no cell reception? YES, that happens!!
What if your signal gets out but they can't get to you for days? YES, that's possible!! What if you're injured? What if you're sick? What if you're out of water? food? What if you're hot? cold? scared?
For some of you, I bet your couch and bed are looking better every minute! Soloing isn't for everyone, and it's DEFINITELY not for some!! But for those who have the right personality, background, experience, focus and dedication, you'll never look back.
For those who don't, try the mall.
@SurvivalGalSolo hiker here also. I really like how you covered the mental aspect of solo hiking. I read a great book--a collection of short stories, really--that covers the breadth of experience of solo trips. It's called "SOLO on Her Own Adventure" edited by Susan Fox Rogers. I do not wish to downplay the seriousness of getting out on your own AT ALL--everything you said about that is spot on! I only want to expand on the experience. This book talks about some lower-stakes adventures as well, for very experienced hikers/backpackers who might not yet be ready to go full-bore survivalist.
By the same token, I don't want to discourage women from going solo, either. But as I say, the destination is NEVER the goal, the goal is ALWAYS to get home alive, the destination only marks the HALF-way point.
Still, the benefits and advantages of going solo are various and sundry. Women are only recently discovering what guys have always known, that the wilderness can be both dangerous and divine, inviting and intense, breathtaking and eye-opening.
Over the decades, I've gone from being the only girl in the wilderness, to one of the few girls in the wilderness, to one of the few solo girls in the wilderness, and over that time, I've seen women of all ages; girlfriends, mothers and daughters, grandmothers, more now than at any other time, venturing farther into the backcountry.
Even the largest wilderness of all, the Pacific, is no longer out of the question for wondering women! I say, it's about G** D*** TIME!!
There's nothing to fear out there but the limitations you put on yourself. But it's at the limits of your vision, the edge of your endurance, and the end of your ingenuity where you can finally meet yourself.
@SurvivalGal I have enjoyed reading your articles and have been challenged by them. would you please remind me what the red had your description of the emergency items that you always have on you I want to double-check that against my gear. I read so many things a day I read that that I can't remember where it was.
@DaxigaitHi, and thanks:
I'm not sure, but I think you're talking about my post, "The 10 Essentials, Time for an Update": https://conversations.rei.com/t5/backpacking/wilderness-safety-and-the-truth-about-wilderness-surviv...
Let me know if this is not what you had in mind. MY 10 essentials:
1- Survival kit (Carry on your belt, NEVER in a pack)
2- Smartphone (in a waterproof-shockproof case & spare battery or battery bank)
3- Water for the day/duration (may include water filter/treatment)
4- Appropriate clothing (base and outer layers PLUS a thermal layer and a rain shell)
5- Sleeping pad with a good R-rating (head-to-hip mandatory, head-to-heel optional)
6- Area topographic map (printed on waterproof paper)
7- Personal Locator Beacon (feat. ACR RescueMe, Garmin inReach Mini)
8- Food for the day/duration
9- Necessary prescriptions (i.e. glasses, medications, etc.)
10- The Five Essential Steps
By sheer coincidence, I was just writing a response to another reader (on another forum) about this very topic. His oopinion was most of these essentials are not nessessary, here's my response:
"W-e-e-e-ll, I see what you mean, but much of what you're saying depends.
First, keep in mind that the VAST majority of Search And Rescue missions are because of DAY HIKERS! And the top reasons for those SAR missions are lack of planning, lack of preparation (no gear and/or supplies, this is where the 10 essentials fits in), and lack of proficiency (not in good shape and/or lack of skill).
Next, what kind of conditions (terrain and weather) are you taking about? Mountains, desert, ocean? Hot and humid? Cold and rainy? In any case, it could be hot during the day and cold at night wherever you are! So far, that already blows away most of your assumptions!
But okay, the map I'll give you, HOWEVER, every time I pass through the frontcountry, I'm inundated by DAY HIKERS asking for directions (in other words, no MAP!).
A hammock? I happen to be a hammock camper, and unless you are in Arctic-like conditions, you STILL need a sleeping pad! (an ultralight tarp over the top would make a huge difference, but not absolutely necessary).
Water, ABSOLUTELY necessary, no matter the conditions. Food, not so much (unless maybe for "entertainment"), people have lived for almost two months without food, so NOT important. But SLEEP is by far more important, that makes a sleeping pad essential.
LOL take shelter from the rain under a TREE? LOL, ya, good luck with that!
Ya, getting hurt is possible, but dehydration is far more likely (exposure if things really go south), but ya, a smartphone is a KEY essential! FAR more people are rescued because of a phone call than PLBs, satellite phones, and EPRBs put together. If I go with others, I INSIST everyone has one (in a shockproof, waterproof case, with a spare battery). Of course, if you have a smartphone, you already have a compass, a MAP (and GPS), just sayin'.
LOL! Day hikers who pay attention, that's a good one! It's not unusual for people to be lost within eye-sight of the city!!
Fire is good... IF you know you WILL be able to light a fire.
Bottom line, much of what you assume depends on the person's experience, unfortunately, most day hikers are NOT experienced!!!"
I think I can use that list though. I just thought I remembered you detailing it in more detail somewhere.
I appreciate the help as I get ready for my biggest trip by myself yet to the Teton crest. I sincerely hope my conditioning can hold up.
AH, of course! Some notes on the "core" survival kit. Depending on how soon your outing is, this may be short notice for building your survival kit! Assembling the kit takes time to order and/or shop the items. That's why I specifically named many of them, so people know what they're looking for, KNOWING they will fit together in the mess tin AND carrying pouch (If they want to follow my particular set up). But here are some additional notes...
A survival kit already implies that you may be separated from your pack, so:
NEVER put your survival kit in your pack!!! ALWAYS keep it on your belt!!! Even when you go to sleep!! You can be separated from your gear at ANY time, even if you have to relieve yourself in the middle of the night!
The kit needs to be big enough to make a difference, but small enough to carry on your belt. It MUST be convenient or you are less likely to keep it with you.
It MUST be able to assist, that's ASSIST you in The Five Basic Skills (Signaling, Sheltering, Fire, Water, Food). "Food" in this case means 3 soup bouillon cubes, but a knife, a spool of snare wire and a micro fishing tackle is standard. However, that STILL means you need to know how to use everything in your kit, that means you should have EXPERIENCE in using everything in your kit!
Items in your kit ARE your backup items. For example, you don't need a knife on your belt and a backup knife in your pack, the knife in your KIT is your backup. Same with your lighter, head net, compass, etc. But just because it's in your kit, that doesn't mean you can't dig into it if you have to (just make sure you replace it).
Good luck on your solo trek. Be smart, be safe.