Why You Should Do a Big Solo Hike This Year

Shake up your fitness routine — while getting some much-needed one-on-one time with Mother Nature — with these expert tips for trekking safely on your own.

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Why You Should Do a Big Solo Hike This Year
Photo: Photo by Holly Mandarich on Unsplash

For fitness-obsessed folks [raises hand], 2020 — with its rampant gym closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic — was a year filled with major changes to workout routines.

And while some people gravitated toward online exercise classes with their favorite instructors and built dream home gyms, many others took their workout outside. Data from the Outdoor Industry Association revealed that folks flocked to the outdoors in record numbers this past year, looking for a socially distanced way to exercise. Many of these outdoor-trekking newbies were female, younger than 45, and living in an urban area, according to the OIA report.

What's more, data from outdoor app AllTrails (free for iOS and Android) and RunRepeat, a running shoe review database, shows that the number of solo hikers skyrocketed nearly 135 percent in 2020 compared to 2019.

If you happen to cohabit or be partnered up with a Paul Bunyan-type, adventuring in nature might seem like just another weekend activity, but if you're uncoupled or a novice to the great outdoors, the thought of trekking alone into the wilderness might be a particularly bewildering thought — and fodder for endless horror movie scenarios: What if I'm forced to throw down with a mother bear à la Leo in The Revenant? What if I end up like Reese Witherspoon in Wild and encounter some gnarly, inbred hunters hell-bent on murdering me? Likely? No. Still scary? Heck yeah.

But don't let your nerves get in the way of what nature has to offer. Gaby Pilson, an experienced mountain guide and outdoor educator with Outdoor Generations, an online hub for outdoor education, says that while those fears are understandable, they're not usually based in reality.

"Much of the fear that women have about hiking solo stems from societal pressures and norms, rather than actual data about the likelihood of getting hurt or assaulted while in the wilderness," explains Pilson. For example, Yellowstone National Park reports that dangerous encounters with bears occur in just 1 in 2.7 million visits to the park.

Pilson adds that, while there's no national database on crimes committed against female hikers specifically, statistics show that your risk of being the victim of a violent crime is far less than what it is in a non-wilderness area, regardless of gender. For example, data from the Pacific Field Office of the Investigative Services Branch shows that you're about 19 times more likely to be the victim of a sexual assault crime in Los Angeles County (yikes) than in one of the 76 National Parks on the western half of the county.

While there is some inherent risk in venturing out for a hike alone (especially in the backcountry or in a particularly treacherous area or climate) as long as you come prepared (more on that below), there's so much to gain from the experience that will encourage you to go for it.

With more folks hitting trails than ever before, if you've been resorting to the same medium-length, moderate-intensity (and now crowded) routes for some time, it's natural to begin to crave more. And with vaccines out in full force and warmer weather arriving, there's never been a better time to set your sights on longer or more challenging trails that you can crush entirely on your own.

To get you ready for your next adventure, take a deeper look into all the benefits of solo hiking — and pro tips on how to do it safely.

The Benefits of Solo Hikes, According to Those Who've Done It

Hitting the trails with friends and family can provide a peaceful environment for catching up or quality time, but venturing out on your own offers its own unique benefits, says Janel Jensen, program manager of Adventure Travel for REI. Logistically, "you can go at your own pace and not feel pressure to keep up or wait for others," says Jensen explains. But metaphysically, solo hiking "gives you plenty of opportunities to learn about yourself and what you enjoy outdoors."

What's more, "[hiking alone as a woman] can help provide a sense of self-sufficiency," adds Pilson. "You can feel confident in your own ability to handle challenges, without being forced into feeling like you need to have someone there to support you." (Related: These Benefits of Hiking Will Make You Want to Hit the Trails)

So, what constitutes a big hike? Although that comes down to individual comfort and experience (a seasoned mountaineer might consider a 14er challenging while someone entirely new to hiking may view anything off a paved, flat path as a level-up), checking for reviews from past hikers can be a good way to gauge intensity, notes Pilson. Apps such as AllTrails and Gaia (Free for IOS and Android) categorize trails by difficulty (easy, moderate, hard), elevation, and length. So, if you've only completed "easy" hikes, aiming for something more moderate (in length or steepness) might be your best bet. Similarly, if you're bored with moderate, multi-mile trails, something "big" might be tracking your first "difficult" hike solo.

That being said, regardless of where you fall on the experience scale as an outdoor adventurer, any trail beyond your current comfort zone is likely going to present you with a number of new hazards — from blisters thanks to extra mileage and/or tough terrain to being so off-the-grid that you lose cell service. Before setting out on your own, understanding how to prepare for those obstacles is key, both for your safety and enjoyment.

Here, Pilson, Jensen, and other outdoor experts share their top tips for preparing for your first big solo hike.

1. Join a Hiking Group First

Look — the wilderness can be an unsettling place if you're inexperienced and by yourself. But if you embark on adventures alongside fellow female trekkers first, there's a big chance you'll be more confident and prepared by the time you head out on your own.

Pilson's top tip for true beginners? Join an all-women hiking group. "If you're relatively new to hiking, joining hiking groups, training courses, or expeditions can be a great way to build these skills in a supportive environment." These skills might include navigation tips, what to do in the event of injury or wildlife encounter, and even just recommendations for buying the right outdoor gear. A few of her favorite groups: Wild Women Expeditions (which coordinates guided hikes specifically for women across the globe) and NOLS (a non-profit global wilderness school that specializes in outdoor skill classes for women and LGBTQ+ adults and youth). Sites like Meetup.com also offer hiking groups (some specifically for women) that can be tailored to your local area. (More here: Outdoor Adventure Trips That Are Anything But Relaxing)

2. Build Up to Bigger Hikes

Before embarking on a bigger, more isolated trail (you know, the ones where no one can year you scream — kidding!) or even going off-trail by yourself, it's helpful to build up your confidence on shorter, more popular hikes, says Jensen.

While shorter, less steep paths might not describe your ideal hike, they're necessary prerequisites if you have a longer or more challenging solo hiking goal, says Jensen. "Try a few short, popular trails nearby or, go on a pseudo solo hike by starting with a friend, but keeping your distance on the trail," she says.

From there, you can work your way up to more difficult trails with larger elevation gains, as you feel more comfortable. Navigation apps such as AllTrails allow users to filter searches for hikes by location, intensity, mileage, and elevation gain. With AllTrails, you can also sift through user reviews — which can be super-helpful if you're wary about an unfamiliar trail.

3. Choose Your Solo Trail

Although there's no hard rule as to how many training hikes you should complete in preparation for a bigger trek, Pilson offers this rule of thumb: "Understand your physical ability level and choose a trail with mileage and elevation gains or losses that you know you can achieve," she says.

Also, ask yourself: Can you complete the hike in the time that you've allotted? Keep in mind that hikes that require camping overnight are an entirely different ballgame both training- and risk-wise — and may be best not to do for your first solo adventure. Some apps (including AllTrails) offer a feature that allows users to see other hikers' GPS recordings of the route, which includes the time it took them to complete the trail, how much elevation they gained, and their average pace. You can use these to help you estimate how long it will take you to complete the trail, too.

You'll also want to keep the terrain in mind when choosing a hike, adds Jensen, who stresses to "never attempt a technical hike solo. These are best done in groups or, better yet, with a guide." What qualifies as technical? Think: anything you'd need special equipment for, such as shoes designed to move across ice and snow, or ropes and pulleys to move up steep cliffs.

Although your ideal adventure might not include hordes of other hikers alongside you — it's called a solo hike for a reason — Pilson notes that, for your first big hike alone, it might be best to choose a popular trail where you other people aren't miles away.

Oh, and don't forget one last major consideration: weather. In other words, don't choose a trek with little to no shade in the summertime or the chance of snowfall in the winter, as inclement weather could increase your chance of injury or illness.

4. Have the Appropriate Gear

After selecting your perfect trek, all that's left is to pack your bag and hit the trails. And while what's in that bag depends on the type of hike you're doing, there are some must-haves in any pack, according to Jensen. These include a first-aid kid, items that will help you be more comfortable in the conditions (i.e. hand warmers for the cold, sunscreen and bug repellent in warmer areas), and a way to communicate with the outside world. (Related: High-Tech Tools for Your Next Hiking and Camping Adventure)

Investing in a two-way communication device, such as the Garmin inReach Mini GPS Satellite Communicator (Buy It, $319, amazon.com) is a necessary purchase for any solo hike as you may not always be within range of cell service, says Pilson. "[It] can connect with your smartphone, so you can text family and friends using satellite technology during your travels," she explains. Another less costly option: the goTenna Mesh Text and Location Communicator (Buy It, $179, amazon.com), which pairs with your cell phone to allow you to send texts and calls when WiFi is sparse. In addition to a communication device, also make sure to tell someone exactly where you're going and when.

A few other items you'll want to plan for:

  • Hiking Backpack: "When you're choosing how much to carry, your fitness and training is a much more important variable," Michael O'Shea, Ph.D and outdoor enthusiast, previously told Shape. "You have to experiment. Start with a lightweight pack (20 to 25 pounds) and hike for an hour, see how you feel. You'll either discover you can take on more, or find your limit."
  • Shoes: "The best way to find a proper hiking boot is to go to a store and actually try on different pairs of boots," explains Pilson. "While it may seem easiest to purchase boots online, doing so only works if you're already familiar with a boot manufacturer's sizing and fit. Plus, many smaller outdoor retailers have experienced staff on hand that can help you find the perfect boots." Consider trail running shoes or hybrid hiking-running shoes depending on the terrain you anticipate. (For short, flat hikes in the future, you might also even grab a pair of hiking sandals.) Consider purchasing your hiking boot or shoe of choice a few months in advance of your solo hike to break them in on nearby trails. (Related: The Best Hiking Shoes and Boots for Women)
  • Socks: "People always talk about the protection their boots offer their feet and forget that socks can provide some great built-in protection, too," Suzanne Fuchs, D.P.M., a podiatrist and ankle surgeon in Palm Beach, Florida, previously told Shape. Your first rule for the best hiking socks? Stay away from cotton, as the material can hold in moisture and lead to blisters. Instead, opt for hiking socks with merino wool, which will help regulate the temperature of your foot and keep you cool in extreme heat and warm in cold weather, says Fuchs. Oh, and pack an extra pair just in case. (More here: The Best Hiking Socks for Every Type of Trek)
  • Extra Layers: "At a minimum, all hikers should bring with them a rain jacket, a set of rain pants, and one to two warm jackets, just in case the weather turns sour," says Jensen. "What's important is that you find the clothing that's comfortable and functional enough for your needs." Nylon and spandex clothing, for example, are moisture-wicking and lightweight, allowing you to move comfortably on particularly hot, muggy days. Wool, on the other hand, is super-durable and can hold in warmth, making it helpful as a base layer when the temperatures drop.
  • Water and Snacks: Plan to snack every 60 to 90 minutes while out on the trail, Aaron Owens Mayhew, M.S., R.D.N., C.D., the backpacking meal planning expert behind Backcountry Foodie, previously told Shape. "A hiker can be at risk of burning through their glycogen stores — aka hitting the wall or 'bonking' — within one to three hours of hiking if the body isn't fueled adequately," she explains. (Check out the list of the best hiking snacks to pack no matter what distance you're trekking.)
  • Safety tools: "As a general rule, anyone traveling in bear country should have a can of bear spray (Buy It, SABRE Frontiersman Bear Spray, $30, amazon.com) accessible at all times," says Pilson.A first aid kit (Buy It, Protect Life Small First Aid Kit, $14, amazon.com) is also non-negotiable, and it should contain, at minimum, bandages and gauze, antiseptic towelettes, an emergency blanket, a tourniquet, and safety pins, says Jensen. While a bit pricier, the VSSL First Aid (Buy It, $130, amazon.com) fits into your pack easily and contains an LED flashlight on one end.

5. Know That You Can Do This

While taking the necessary steps to prepare for a big solo hike is important, the most critical factor in enjoying your trip (and keeping yourself safe) boils down to one factor, says Pilson. Confidence. "There are so many societal pressures that tell women they can't do things like hiking alone," she says. "Building up your self-confidence with knowledge will be absolutely key."

After all, you did the hard part already: You trained your body, you prepped your gear, and you plotted your course. You're ready to crush some mountains safely and with pride. Still, know that if moderate hikes that don't require you're whole day and a can of bear spray are more your speed, you can still reap all the benefits of the outdoors your way!

And as for the notion that you might be so far down a hiking trail that no one will hear you yell out if an ax murderer jumps out of the bushes, try not to worry about that too much, says Pilson. "In reality, the further you are from a trailhead, the less likely that people on the trail will really want to do anything more than enjoy the mountains in peace."

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