I recently went out on a solo backpacking trip in the Roan Highlands of the Appalachian Mountains, the first time I’ve gotten out on my own since I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2022. I had intentionally been trying to give my body time to rest and recover after the nearly 2,200 mile trek from Georgia to Maine, which meant I spent a lot of time daydreaming about my next outing and not a lot of time hiking. It took several months for my knees, hips, and feet to stop hurting, and even now they still ache a little. But spring is coming around, my legs are feeling better, and we’ve got some warm weather in east Tennessee, so I just had to get a little adventure. As I began planning my solo trip and going through all of my backpacking gear, I remembered how nervous I used to be about hiking and backpacking alone as a small (i.e. 5 foot nothing, easily tackled by bears) female. Growing up, I never let my petite size or gender get in the way of what I wanted to do. I always felt like girls can (and should!) do all the things boys did. But I didn’t get the same experiences as my male peers, particularly when it came to the outdoors. I remember being jealous of my brother, who was only a year and a half younger than me, whenever he went on a boy scout camping trip. The boys always seemed to have so much fun building fires and forts, fishing and tipping canoes. Meanwhile, the girls were making crafts and singing Christmas carols in the old folks home. I’m sure it’s different now, but when I was a kid, I felt like I was missing out! Since then, I’ve had a lot more experience in outdoor recreation, but it still feels like a male-dominated hobby. Although I never had any terribly bad experiences on the Appalachian Trail, I’ve realized that I have to be a bit more cautious about my safety when I’m hiking and backpacking alone, particularly as a woman. And even as an experienced backpacker, being alone in the woods still has a way of making me feel a bit more vulnerable. I still worry about getting lost, sick, or injured, getting eaten by bears, and being kidnapped and murdered in the woods (ok, maybe not so much, but sometimes my mind gets away from me). So this post is for anyone else that might feel a little anxious or vulnerable about backpacking solo, too. Here are 8 backpacking safety tips for the solo travelers out there looking for some wilderness adventure.
1. Do Your Research
Take time to research your backpacking destination, routes, and maps. If you’re a beginner, choose a trail close to home and go try a day-hike on it first. You can read comments on hiking apps like AllTrails to get an idea of what to expect, or join a hiking Facebook page in your area to ask for trip suggestions. Research your water stops, any potential hazards (bears, snakes, water crossings, etc.), and weather in the area. Fear of the unknown can be the worst, so do your research beforehand!
2. Make Your Backpacking Itinerary
Once you’ve chosen a destination and route, write out a detailed itinerary for yourself. Ask yourself these questions to help guide your itinerary:
- Where do you want to start and finish? Is it an out-and-back, a loop, or a point-to-point trail? If it’s a point-to-point trail, you’ll need to arrange transportation back to your car at the end.
- Where do you want to camp?
- Where are the water sources located?
- How much food will you need?
- Are there any sights you want to see along the way?
- How many miles will you hike each day? If you’re driving a long time to get to your starting location, you might schedule yourself a shorter hike on the first day. If the terrain is relatively flat, you might be able to hike longer, but if there’s a lot of steep ascent, you might need to plan for lower miles. In general, most people can plan to hike around 1.5-2 miles per hour. Consider how many hours you want to spend hiking versus hanging out at camp.
3. Share Your Itinerary
Once you’ve got your itinerary, share it with a trusted friend or family member. Make a plan to check in with them before you leave and when you finish your hike, so if you don’t check in, they’ll know to contact the authorities. You can also leave a paper copy of your itinerary face down in your locked car when you hit the trail in case someone needs to locate you. I’ve personally never felt the need to do this, but I know some people recommend it. And don’t post your itinerary on social media before your trip- you never know what kind of internet creeps are out there. You can share all the details of your trip when you get back.
4. Pack Wisely
In addition to my other backpacking gear, here are a few safety items that I like to carry that give me some peace of mind:
- Emergency GPS
- Pepper spray or bear spray
- Pocket knife
- Emergency blanket
- A whistle (my pack has one on the chest strap)
- A strip of brightly colored construction flagging tape- this non-adhesive lightweight tape can be torn into pieces and tied to trees. If I need to get off trail for something (like a bathroom stop), I can tie it up to find my way back onto the trail. A trail angel on the Appalachian Trail gave me some and I think it’s a great idea.
- Back-up water filtration
5. Get Comfortable with Your Backpacking Gear
Practice using all of your gear at home before you head out on your first backpacking trip. I even like to practice out in the backyard if it’s been a few months since my last trip to refresh my memory and check that everything is in good working order. Make sure you know how to set up and take down your shelter, filter water, use your cook kit, and operate your GPS if you carry one. The trail is not the place to test new gear for the first time!
6. Backpacking First Aid
I had a lot of fear about injuries and illness before I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. I did a lot of research about what to carry in my first aid kit and I took an inexpensive online Wilderness First Aid course through the University of Utah. The course was only $35 and I learned a ton about how to handle emergency situations while backpacking and what to keep in my first aid kit. My kit includes a few bandaids, an ACE bandage, blister tape, a needle, an emergency blanket, Vaseline, Ibuprofen, Benedryl, and Immodium. Your first aid kit may vary, but you should know how to use everything in it. Think through some different scenarios and research how to handle them. What will you do if you get a blister or sprain your ankle? What are signs of hypothermia and how do you treat it? What if you get bit by a snake? Be prepared to help yourself if you get hurt.
7. Be Aware of Your Surroundings
When you’re hiking alone, it’s good practice to check in with yourself and be aware of your surroundings.
- Check your map or GPS frequently. Take note of trail signs and road crossings. I like to take pictures of trail signs and information kiosks to look at later if I need to.
- Always check which direction you walk into a campsite so you can leave the right way in the morning.
- If you need to get off the trail for a bathroom break, take note of your surroundings before heading into the woods and look back frequently to keep your bearings.
- If you like to listen to music or a podcast, only use one headphone instead of two so that you can listen for changes in weather, falling trees, and people or animals passing. I saw my first rattlesnake while I was hiking with headphones in, and I actually heard it first! I was happy that my music was turned down low enough to hear it and respond quickly.
- Before setting up your tent or hammock at night, check the trees above you for dead limbs; there’s a reason they’re called widow-makers.
- Be on the lookout for bad weather. If you notice a storm coming in, try to get off open mountain ridges and make your way to a lower elevation.
8. Trust Your Gut
I think this one is the most important, and it’s something I definitely learned to do on the Appalachian Trail, mostly through my own mistakes. If something doesn’t feel right, take a moment to pause and assess the situation. If a creek looks too swift, don’t cross it. If a campsite looks too exposed to bad weather, don’t camp there. If the trail doesn’t seem right, check your map or GPS. And if someone gives you the creeps, don’t share your hiking and camping plans with them. You can change your pace or change directions if someone tries to hike near you that gives you a bad vibe. They may be totally innocent, but you never know! Don’t feel like you need to be polite to strangers. If someone on trail asks if you’re hiking alone, it’s ok to lie! Tell them your boyfriend, husband, girlfriend, wife, best friend, mom, dad or whatever is meeting with you soon. Trust your gut and make the best decisions you can for your own safety.
It sounds like a lot, but a little preparation goes a long way to feeling safe while backpacking solo. It takes a lot of time and practice to feel confident spending a night out in the wilderness alone, but it is so worth it! Nothing beats the freedom of moving at your own pace, taking that side trail for a lunch with a beautiful view, or catching an early sunrise from the comfort of your tent. If you’re not ready to dive into a solo trip yet, find an experienced friend to hit the trail with or hire a guide to show you the ropes. After you get a few trips under your belt, you’ll be exploring independently in no time!