Dedicated to Mara's travel and hiking adventure journals as well as her words of wisdom and suggested resources for hikers and travelers.
Risk management while solo hiking and traveling
[Disclaimer: NEVER HIKE ALONE! It's not just me that says that. Other hikers, all relevant authorities, and hiking organizations agree. What follows are my personal history and suggestions for those that choose to ignore the wise advice to always hike with others.
Also, this page is primarily devoted to tips beyond those relevant for all hikes. General hiking safety is not discussed here and should be found elsewhere.]
Personal history of solo hiking and traveling
My extensive travels have taken me to 48 states and about 40 countries on six continents. I've hiked and backpacked an estimated 5,000+ miles (8,000km) including a six-month long Appalachian Trail thruhike, long segments of the Pacific Crest Trail, and many other trails and mountains. Rarely have I had partners for either my hiking or travel trips. I've backpacked solo and camped alone more times than I can count.
That said, while "technically" solo, there are times when I have hiked with others that I met while on the trail. The same is true for my travels. While primarily traveling alone, I tend to meet people as I go to travel with for short periods of time, whether a couple of hours, a couple of days, or a couple of weeks.
Solo hiking for experienced hikers
Keep your hikes small and conservative until you gain a lot of solo experience. Judging what's safe or not changes when you're on your own.
Cell phones are not a substitute for a partner. They often don't work in the woods or mountains. Batteries can discharge. Don't count on them. Learn how to handle emergency situations on your own.
Until you gain experience stick to popular areas and trails where you are likely to meet up with other people. You won't have a partner to go for help if there's a problem but in frequently visited areas, others going by will be able to go for help on your behalf.
Be prepared. Remember, you're no longer able to share first aid kits and other materials with your partners if you're hiking alone. Be aware of your surroundings. You won't have anyone else to check with if you're not sure if you're retracing your steps or reading the map correctly.
Make sure someone responsible knows exactly what your plans are. Check in with them once you're off the trail. They should know exactly which authorities and their phone numbers to call if you don't check in by the pre-arranged "drop-dead" time you specified. They should have a description of you, including car and license plate information, what you are likely to be wearing, and a description of your gear in addition to your itinerary to share with search and rescue authorities if necessary.
Be most aware of human "predators" near trailheads. Those with bad intentions rarely get very far from the road. If you're hitching to get back to your car or back to town, follow your gut. If it doesn't feel right, "remember" that you just left your camera back up the trail so you have an excuse to back out of a ride. Or remember that you told a friend you would wait for them at the trailhead to hitch together. Be aware of those white lies that can backfire. Don't use the camera lie if your camera is hanging around your neck. Read my page on hitchhiking for more suggestions for safer and more effective hitching.
When you do encounter someone in the backcountry, be careful how much information you share about yourself and your plans. If something doesn't feel right, be vague about your plans. You can even imply that you're with someone else or a group but are ahead of them.
Know the terrain and conditions you are planning to hike in. If they are significantly different than your usual area, talk with others who know both your area and the new area. That way you can get an accurate comparison and know better how to prepare differently for the new area.
If you don't know the area, plan to start slow and with short distances. Be sure to be aware of your bail points. Terrain, weather, elevation, elevation change, pack weight, and trail bed can all have a significant effect on your hiking speed.
Don't be surprised if you have a few uneasy nights at first. All those things that go bump in the night may seem magnified when you are truly alone. After a few nights, you'll get used to it and begin to sleep through it. For what it's worth, I've seen a huge bull moose moving through thick brush without making a sound and tiny mice making a racket. The animals that most novice hikers are afraid of (bears come to mind) are more afraid of humans and will generally keep their distance.
I once had a strange experience when I kept being awakened by what sounded like people running around near my tent. I was the only one camping in the area though there were buildings and a parking lot nearby. I finally took a look out my tent and realized it was the sound of leaves falling. Teak leaves. Teak leaves are huge, heavy, and sound suprisingly like footsteps when they fall. Once I understood what the sound was, I was able to fall asleep and sleep soundly. Once again, it was the unfamiliar that kept me awake. I knew to avoid camping under trees with huge pine cones in the U.S. west and now I know to ignore the "footsteps" when camping near SE Asian teak trees.
Do learn to bear bag appropriately for your area. You don't want to be the one responsible for bear becoming habituated to human food.
Long-distance hikers should ensure their friends and families know their trail name. Also, be sure to sign trail registers, shelter registers, and even registers found in towns at hostels, post offices, and other establishments. If for some reason you need to be found such as for a family emergency at home or your failure to check in when expected, that will povide a clue as to your whereabouts.
PLBs (personal locator beacons) are common in other parts of the world but their use in still considered unusual in the US. Do your research before buying and/or using a PLB.
Solo hiking for new hikers
Once again, I have to reiterate - NEVER HIKE ALONE! Should you have no choice or choose to ignore such advice, here are some suggestions for getting started.
Start with short day hikes. Look up the ten essentials and be sure to both carry and know how to use them. When you start thinking about overnight backpacking, first do some day hikes with your backpack and slowly get used to carrying the additional weight of the full backpack. Consider taking a Wilderness First Aid class. It's significantly different than its non-Wilderness counterpart.
Before heading into the backcountry, bring your backpacking gear car camping. It can be a good test of your gear and how well it's going to perform for you on the trail.
When you are ready for your first solo overnight experience, rather than thinking about how far you can hike during the day and trying to find a trip where you can hike that far, camp, and then hike that far back, pick a spot where it's only a couple/few miles in from the road where you can camp and perhaps then do a day hike from there. That way, if you do have problems at night, you're not so far from the road that it will be a significant hardship to get out. In case of emergency, you'll be glad if you can use your headlamp to hike out in the middle of the night.
If you really want a bigger effort, do a day hike earlier in the day in one location. Then move to another nearby trailhead with a campsite just a mile or two from the road where you can hike in for the night.
Carrying a backpack will also significantly change how far you'll enjoy hiking. It's more tiring and more "dangerous" in terms of both opportunities to fall and break a leg as well as how hard you fall. It's not worth pushing yourself so hard on your first few outings that you don't have the time or energy to enjoy your time in camp at the end of the day. Hopefully, without pushing so hard on the first day of your overnight hikes, you won't be packsore starting out on your second day.
Even if you prefer a loop hike, plan to do an out and back at first. That way, you'll know what to expect on your way out but it will still seem different.
Not so much related to personal safety as much as environmental safety, be familiar with the Leave No Trace principles. Things like how and where to dig catholes, what you can leave and what you can't leave in a cathole, not to wash yourself or your kitchen gear in or near water sources, camp 200 feet from trails, and water - unless at an established site, etc.
Solo travel can present its own set of problems. When you're traveling with someone, you can watch each other's stuff when one of you needs a bathroom or a shower. When you're alone, you have to be able to keep your stuff safe on your own. If you've got the money to stay in nice hotels with secure rooms and private safes, you've got less to worry about. The rest of us have to think a bit differently.
I limit the items I travel with that others might want. I use a backpack that doesn't look expensive, wear clothes that aren't flashy, and I leave all my jewelry at home. Others choose to use a Pacsafe® and/or stay in hostels that have pack sized lockers that they can lock with their own padlocks.
I carry my camera and a hard drive with me at all times. I carry them in a cheapo fanny pack in front of me where I can get at the camera quickly rather than an expensive looking camera pack. I burn DVDs as backups for my hard drive and mail them home. In a very short period of time, the pictures will be worth more than the camera they were taken with.
Scan or take a photo of all travel documents, credit and debit cards, and other valuable documents. Email the document to yourself to keep in your web based email account. That way, if they are stolen or lost, you can print them from anywhere you can get online. You can read more tips at my Travel Documentation page.
I have a US bank account that reimburses me for my ATM fees. That way, I rarely feel the need to carry much cash. I use a money belt to keep my passport, extra cash, tickets, and other small paper items safe. Neck wallets that people wear under their shirts aren't nearly as theft proof. Leg pouches are an option for those who will always wear pants. I keep just the cash I need for the day handy in a small pouch. Use ATMs inside banks where possible. Those outside or independant of bank buildings are more likely to be spoofed though bank ATMs are not immune.
Pack as small and light as possible. It's easier to move around with such a pack and it's often possible to bring it inside vehicles when it would otherwise have to be put in the baggage compartment. At the hostel, I usually choose to at least partially unpack my backpack so that it's not so easy to grab and go.
Your behavior can play a large role in your experiences. Many of those I've met who have been robbed were out late, partying and got drunk. That made them easy targets. I've been out late plenty of times, but since I was sober, it was easy for me to stay alert and concious of my surroundings.
Always look alert and project an air of confidence. Even if you don't feel it. Look around as you walk, make brief eye contact with people and nod to an occasional passerby. Study maps before you head out on the town and leave it folded to your area of interest. If you need to look at one while you're out, try to make it brief. If possible, step into a business to do so.
Ear buds can also make you a target. Music is a distraction and may limit your ability to hear what's going on in your surroundings. They may make it easier to be robbed while on buses or identify you as a target on the street.
Be aware of local mores. Men traveling alone rarely raise an eyebrow but women should be aware of any area specific problems they might encounter. Sometimes just saying you're married or wearing a wedding ring fends off unwanted attention. Sometimes, you might want to find one or more people in your hostel with whom to travel to certain areas. Be aware of local dress customs and avoid wearing clothing which may be perceived as too revealing. Additionally, some men and women may be able to adopt local dress to fit in and avoid attracting extra attention. As a 6'1" woman, that's never been an option for me as I always stick out in a crowd.
Talk with other travelers to find out about areas of cities to avoid. That said, don't let their insecurities keep you from places that may seem scary to them but otherwise be both safe and interesting to you.
If I go into a restaurant or store, I take my pack with me. In a restaurant, I try to get a booth where I can keep my pack out of the way of wayward hands. Some stores will not allow you to carry a pack around, but will often have a safe place to store it while you shop.
If you're traveling with a car, try to keep as much stuff as possible in the trunk and out of sight. My older station wagon had a cover for the back but I felt like that may indicate that there may be something worth hiding underneath. Instead, I opted for a Mexican blanket that I "absentmindedly" threw over anything I didn't want to be visible.
Another trick I use to make my car look less desirable is to throw (clean) garbage around the car just to make it look messy and look like it's probably all garbage. I do this in unfamiliar neighborhoods in towns and cities as well as at trailheads where I may have to leave my car for days at a time.
Don't get taken by other travelers' hard luck stories. If you meet someone who has had everything stolen from them and is asking for money, instead, offer to have your friends or family at home get in touch with their family or friends, consulate, etc. to help them out. A legitimate traveler will welcome all help. The scam artists will find an excuse to refuse and be on their way. I have helped many travelers along the way but never with money. Anyone who has ever asked me for money because "everything was stolen" beat a hasty retreat anytime I offered assistance other than money.
If you keep an online journal or blog, think carefully about how much information you want to share about your present whereabouts. If you are concerned about people finding you based on your online presence, wait some period of time, like a week, before posting. That may be enough to keep your current location a mystery.
Keep my solo travels in mind during further explorations of my web site. It's got travel and trail journals, gear info, and more, almost all from a solo perspective.
Keep in mind that we, as people, are generally more fearful of the unfamiliar. The more time you spend outdoors, the more comfortable you'll be. The same is true for travel. The more time you spend traveling, in a variety of locales, the more comfortable you'll become. These experiences will only serve to help you gain the self-confidence to do more solo travel and hiking and know better how to avoid bad situations while being open to wonderful experiences.
Last updated, January 4, 2016.
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