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New Solo Backpacker


I know there are probably a million of these on here, but I wanted to throw out to other people: do you have any advice on hiking solo as a young female? I've never imagined that I could be someone to go backpacking, but I really want to get into it. Plus, I don't really know any other backpackers. 


29 Replies

Hmmm., I am afraid that I am going to have to disagree with the suggestion of carrying a knife for self-protection. As a concealed weapons carrier (off-trail), I would note that one should NEVER carry a tool that one cannot use effectively, or, and this is just as important, will not do the job that the one thinks that it will.

Unhappily, I live in a region of the country that has gotten progressively dangerous, and in response, I carry a concealed weapon every time I leave the house. I do like having to do this, but I refuse to move and let the knuckleheads take over the community. And I NEVER want to have to use my weapon.

That being said, I spend many, many hours yearly training my mind and muscles to use the weapon as a matter of reflex. I do not particularly like shooting ranges, but I have come to accept that in the event of an emergency, the only way to use my weapon effectively is to use it very quickly, and with deadly consequences. Again, an outcome that I hope to avoid.  

 So, unless you are going to practice, and I mean lots, how to stab and disable (think, kill) an attacker, wielding a knife is a much greater threat to you than it is to anything or anyone threatening you. First, it is very difficult to effectively disable any adrenaline-pumped, attacking animal, be it the two or four-legged type with a knife. The two-legged types are likely to take the knife and use it against you, and the four-legged types (bears, for example), will just become angrier, assuming that you were able to stab them in the first place. And since a knife is a tool that can only be used after contact with an attacker, it is a very poor tool for self-defense.

IF you feel the need to carry a weapon, I would recommend bear spray, the strongest and nastiest that you can buy. First, you can readily practice how to use it without thinking, "OK, how do I use this?" if you ever have a need to use it. Second, bear spray will more effectively disable all attackers than will a knife, or even in most cases, a firearm. And finally, in the very unlikely event that you need to use bear spray on a person, you do not open the door to all the nasty legal ramifications that come with stabbing or shooting someone. In addition to a concealed weapon, I also carry (at a dear cost to me annually) insurance that gives me access to lawyers, bond money, and coverage for court costs in the event that I have a deadly-force encounter with someone. I hate the whole business, but it has become a matter of necessity while I am off-trail. While on-trail, no. Knives? Guns? No go.

@JBG - I could not agree with you more.

Speaking as a traditional martial arts instructor and self-defense instructor, I would consider a knife to be the absolute worst personal safety tool that a person can carry. I won't get into specifics because I don't want to be the reason this otherwise great post by @kmcook35 derails into a completely different topic. I will simply say that most people (even those who train with them) are not prepared emotionally or mentally to deploy a knife.

I do have a slightly different take on bear spray. 

There are three areas in which we need to protect ourselves: illness and injury, animals, and people. And in that order, too. Illness and injury are the biggest dangers on trail. So we carry first aid. The second most likely scenario is an animal encounter and even those are pretty rare. Bear spray for those apex predators - bears, wild cats (cougars, bobcats, etc.) - works great. As they approach or charge, the bear spray irritant will (or should) get them to stop and turn. The rarest danger is from a human (statistically speaking). Here's where I have concerns about the use of bear spray - it throws out a huge cloud of the irritant. To an animal who doesn't understand, that should get them to stop an attack. A human with truly malicious intent can wait for the wind to blow the pepper cloud away or for it to dissipate enough to charge through it. Pepper gel, OTOH, is intended to be sprayed onto the face (and preferably into the eyes), causing searing pain and the natural reaction is to rub your eyes, causing the gel to become even more effective.

So to anyone who feels the need to carry personal protection (and I won't judge anyone who feels that need), I would recommend a quality pepper gel that shoots a steady stream and is easy to deploy. The canister I carry in  my car weighs about 2 ounces, much less then a decent knife or gun. And if I have to deploy it in a closed space like a tent, I won't be creating a toxic environment in which I am trapped as well!

If you also need to carry an animal deterrent then I would suggest you also carry bear spray. Although the two are similar, they do have different uses and intentions. 

That all said, I am going to come around again and agree with you 110% about the advantage of a chemical deterrent being that you don't need anywhere near the same level of training to use it. Just practice pulling it from its shoulder strap pocket.

Maybe I should do a video...

“Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.” (John Muir)

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@Dad_Aint_Hip Properly used, bear spray hits the attacker and essentially disables it/them. It lasts long enough that you can put some distance between you and the threat. It's serious overkill against a human attacker, but it is quite effective. Also, it doesn't throw out a "cloud", but rather a stream. There's no waiting for it to dissipate... either it hits the target or it doesn't. 

Also, most humans, no matter how malicious, have a healthy sense of self-preservation. Just knowing how to defend yourself, and giving that impression, goes a long way to preventing any trouble.

@kmcook35 I think the best advice I can give is, stay within your limits. Don't get too tired/cold/hungry. We make mistakes when we're tired or stressed, and when you're alone the consequences of even a minor mistake can be serious. Knowing your gear helps. Knowing the area helps (so study the map before you go). Knowing things like the early signs of hypothermia and altitude sickness and dehydration can help you detect problems before they become dangerous. And, I recommend finding a group to hike with, at least some of the time. They can help you expand your limits so that you can do more on your own.



While it contains similar chemicals, Bear Spray is not the same as personal pepper spray. While bear spray might make an improvised self defense weapon it is not designed to be one, may be illegal to use as one (cans are specifically marked "Not for use on Humans" so you had better have a convincing story) and since it is heavy (11oz in the smallest effective ~8oz size) expensive ($40+) and only generally worth carrying in Grizzly country it is a very specific tactic.

Since it is generally useful information for anyone considering a visit to bear country, here are some guidelines on using bear spray against bears which to be the most thorough and well thought through I have found.  One thing that I did not know is that bear spray is only really intended to be used on charging bears or mauling situations and not general discouragement for a curious bear.   Gratuitous spraying at merely curious bear can trigger them to charge.

If you're acting in self-defense, I really don't think anyone is going to argue that the stuff you use is too effective! Let's face it, you're assaulting someone... you'd better be justified! And no, I wouldn't carry bear spray specifically as a substitute for "Mace", but if I'm carrying bear spray I'm sure not going to carry something else to deter a human assailant!

(I suspect the "not for use on humans" warnings are in response to some of the stories you hear about people doing stupid stuff. It's a liability thing, not some kind of legal prohibition. Sure, the stuff will put someone in the hospital, but so will most other effective self-defense measures.)

And yes, you're supposed to wait until a bear is actually attacking you before using bear spray. Why would you use it if you're not being attacked?


Recommend going to Youtube and watching Dixie.  Her channel is Homemade Wonderlust.  She is a triple crowner, female and has great advise for everyone.  

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LOVE that channel!

REI Member Since 1979

@JBG @Dad_Aint_Hip Thanks for your opinions, however I'll choose not to judge.  Hike your own hike and I'll hike mine.  @kmcook35 figure out what you like the best and go with it.  



You and I are on the same page - I was addressing the effectiveness of the tool, which is a largely subjective matter. AND, I agree completely, HYH on trail, which is one of the things I love about wilderness. 

Your proud public landowner friend...




As a father to a young woman who just yesterday returned from a hike with her BFF and BFF's BF, here is my advice.

Don't try to go all-in on your first trip. Start with day hikes, camp in a campground next to / near your car with additional supplies available. Get used to your gear when you have an easy backup solution. Camp in your backyard as mentioned earlier - or even in your living room. Keep track of what you needed or wanted that you didn't have.

Invest in quality footwear. My preference is boots, but plenty of more experienced hikers use trail runners or other. Do not under any circumstances buy a new pair of footwear and hit the trail for a long trip. Break them in, let your feet get used to them. My wife and I go to our local parks carrying full backpacks with trekking poles and hike the trails next to the dog walkers and family hikers. It's good exercise and keeps us in shape for the couple times a year we get to actually go hiking. We sometimes get weird looks, but we are over what others think of us.

Invest in a map app. I use GaiaGPS - there is a free version that allows you to track your progress as long as you have signal, and a subscription version (~$50 / year) that allows you to download maps in your area and track your progress even without signal. I highly recommend this, especially for new hikers as it allows you to more accurately track your progress. My daughter has the app on her phone, but balked at the cost for downloading maps, and then 'forgot' to open it up when she got on the trails. As a result, they wound up going SUBSTANTIALLY farther than they expected due to wrong turns and poorly marked trails. I have a very good internal map and compass and carry a paper map, but the app runs on my phone so I can track our hikes, and be able to prove to my wife why "that-away" is the right answer. I can also take a photo of a campsite and be able to nav to it next time we are on this particular trail.

As to self defense, I can't speak much about that. I can tell you I have never felt unsafe on the trails, I have had an uncomfortable confrontation with some steers who felt confident that while my wife could pass, they had the right of way on the trail and would not let me by, I yielded to them by going off trail, likewise what I believe was a timber-rattler sunning on a trail, my wife passed by giving a wide berth while I watched the snek, then we switched. Whatever tool you use for self defense - IT IS NOT A MAGIC WAND. Gun, knife, bear spray/gel - staying aware of your surroundings and using your head is much more important.