Ask Me: Should I Go Backpacking Solo?

Hello Michael,

I’ve read through a lot of your blog, and it really has inspired me to get outside more and look for greater adventures than what I’ve already done. I have never been anywhere in the United States and so I have my sights set on Rocky Mountain National Park, in Colorado. I’m looking to do some backpacking, and with so many trails and options to choose from, I’m at a loss and honestly confused. I’m looking for something that will take me about four days. Sadly, I haven’t been able to find someone to tag along with me, and although I have quite a bit of camping and hiking experience, I haven’t done it by myself. What are your thoughts on backpacking solo?

I have been dayhiking almost every weekend for about two years from spring to fall, and I have six backpacking trips under my belt in Canada’s Algonquin Provincial Park and Bruce Peninsula National Park. I am able to use a compass along with reading a topographical map, so I can hold my own in that sense. I am also in possibly the best shape of my life. I exercise every day, including cardio sessions. I run about 10 miles three times a week, but this is in flat terrain.

Thank you so much for your time,

Toronto, Canada

A backpacker above Pine Creek Canyon in Wyoming's Wind River Range.
A backpacker above Pine Creek Canyon in Wyoming’s Wind River Range.

Hi Santiago,

The question of backpacking solo is definitely a personal one about how much risk you are willing to accept. The biggest concern, of course, is that you have an accident and there’s no one around to help you.

I’ve backpacked solo more times than I could estimate over the years, without any serious problems—although a few close calls. It can be really enjoyable and rewarding and feel like a bigger adventure than backpacking with one or more companions. Plus, it frees you up to follow your own itinerary, unconstrained by the limits or interests of others.

But it requires a high degree of caution and awareness of your environment’s hazards, some of which you can easily not think about. For instance, the most common cause of accidents among hikers and backpackers is a fall, which is more likely to happen late in the day, when you’re tired, and to happen when hiking downhill, especially on rocky, wet trail with slick tree roots in it.

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I think backpacking solo actually helps you become a more aware and careful hiker. Plenty of long-distance hikers and long-trail thru-hikers do it, of course, although they often also develop a community of fellow thru-hikers who, even if they’re not hiking together constantly, watch out for one another.

Nonetheless, accidents happen, and backpacking solo presents greater risks. Only you can make the best judgment about whether to do it.

You could carry a personal locator beacon (PLB), which would allow you to signal for a rescue (assuming you’re conscious and able do that). Various models offer different features, such as the ability to send a nightly message to someone back home to let that person know you’re fine.

Leading PLB models include the Garmin inReach Mini, Garmin inReach Explorer SE+, Spot X, and Spot Gen3 Satellite GPS Messenger.

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A backpacker on Mount Rainier National Park's Northern Loop.
Me backpacking Mount Rainier National Park’s Northern Loop solo as a major storm was brewing.

Whether solo or with companions, it’s a good idea to give your itinerary to someone reliable, along with the phone number of the park ranger station or local authorities, and tell them to report you missing if they haven’t heard from you within a day after you expected to finish your trip. With a PLB, you significantly reduce the rescue-response time if you do have an emergency.

You may be interested in my story “Completely Alone on Mount Rainier’s Northern Loop,” about my experience with a severe storm blowing in during a solo backpacking trip.

Based on your description of your fitness and experience, it sounds to me like you’re capable of solo backpacking in a national park like Rocky Mountain, where trails are generally well marked and easy to follow. You’re likely to see other backpackers in most areas. Going off-trail, of course, means greatly decreasing your likelihood of getting help from passing hikers if you do have an emergency. But going solo is a decision that, ultimately, you have to be comfortable with.

Look into reserving a backcountry permit as soon as you can; Rocky is a popular park, especially trails on the east side of the Continental Divide, where the terrain and scenery are more dramatic, and which is easier to reach from the cities of the Front Range. But you can see some of the best scenery on the east side on one or two dayhikes, while the west side of the park has some great backpacking and somewhat more remote stretches of trail.

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Ouzel Lake, in Wild Basin, Rocky Mountain National Park.
Ouzel Lake, in Wild Basin, Rocky Mountain National Park.

I’ve backpacked a loop from the Summerland Park trailhead near Grand Lake on the west side, going up Tonahutu Creek Trail and down Hallett Creek/North Inlet Trail, seeing lots of waterfalls, a herd of elk in the Haynach Lakes valley, and views of Longs Peak; I also, on that trip, took the short side hike to the 12,324-foot summit of Flattop Mountain, on the Continental Divide, overlooking the glacier-carved lakes basins of the east side. The loop ranges from a bit over 20 miles to close to 30 miles, depending on whether you make side trips to Haynach Lakes and Lakes Nokoni and Nanita.

I’ve also backpacked with my kids into the Wild Basin area in the park’s southeast corner (photo above and lead photo at top of story), which is more wooded but has beautiful, sub-alpine lakes with views of big peaks. Much of the hiking there is more protected from weather because you’re in forest, and you’re closer to the trailhead than on parts of the Tonahutu-North Inlet loop, so you’ll see more dayhikers and be closer to help if you have trouble. The trails there are out-and-back, so you can fashion a trip of varying lengths and modify it once out there.

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Backpacking Peavine Canyon in southern Utah's Dark Canyon Wilderness.
A backpacker in Peavine Canyon in southern Utah’s Dark Canyon Wilderness.

Keep in mind that the Rocky Mountains are known for violent, if often brief thunderstorms almost every afternoon in summer, so lightning becomes a threat in exposed, alpine terrain. Try to hike those areas in the morning; or if you see a thunderstorm approaching, descend to lower elevations—but stay on the trail, don’t put yourself at risk of falling by hiking steep and difficult off-trail terrain because you want to escape a thunderstorm more quickly.

You may want to see my stories “10 Tips For Getting a Hard-to-Get National Park Backcountry Permit” and “Are You Ready For That New Outdoors Adventure? 5 Questions to Ask Yourself”.

And see my Trips page for ideas for future backpacking trips.

Good luck.



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10 thoughts on “Ask Me: Should I Go Backpacking Solo?”

  1. Michael,

    Was checking on your site to see if you had any recommendations or stories about food storage protection. I found your notes about the Bear Vault BV500 and tips on how to pack it in your gear to pack article. Rocky Mountain National Park requires bear canisters or bear bags with aluminum inserts. Did some research and found information on Ursack.

    We have never had trouble with bears in our food, with or without a bear canister. Of course, some sites have bear chains, we have used bear canisters when required, but other times just filled a sack and secured it over a tree limb. We never carry fresh food, only the freeze dried stuff. I have always been more concerned about the smell of the pouches after meals, not the smell of the pouch before it’s opened.

    So was wondering: Is all food, freeze-dried or otherwise, an attraction for bears? Bear canister vs. bear bag? Should we worry more about the used food pouches and not the unopened freeze dried and plastic packaged stuff?

    • Hi Barry,

      Good to hear from you again and thanks for the great question.

      I’ve used all the methods for protecting food from bears and other critters numerous times: bear canisters, hanging from a tree branch, and the ultra-convenient and effective fixed cables for hanging food (as found in some national parks, like Glacier).

      I’ve also lost food to bears, including on my first backpacking trip in Yosemite, many years ago, when two friends and I were absolute novices and hung our food poorly (from a high branch, but too close to the tree trunk, where a black bear climbing the tree could easily reach the bags and tear them open with a swipe of a claw). That was in the days before bear canisters were required in Yosemite and throughout the High Sierra.

      I’ve also used the Ursack and reviewed it for Backpacker magazine in the past. It is effective when hung properly in a tree, because it’s tough fabric makes it harder for a bear to rip it open while it’s hanging and swinging with each swipe at it. But if a bear gets it on the ground, while it can pin the sack down, it’s likely to tear it open easily.

      But to your specific question: In truth, we can’t really know what smells a bear will detect, and they reputedly have the most powerful sense of smell of all animals. According to the Yosemite National Park website, a black bear’s sense of smell is seven times more powerful than a bloodhound’s, and based on the park’s size and bear population, any backpacker anywhere in Yosemite is always within range of at least one bear’s nose.

      Your assumption seems intuitively correct, and I’ve made that assumption, too. But I’ve always assumed that a bear can detect any food, so all food should be stored properly. That said, if I cannot fit all of my backpacking food in my canister on the first night or two of a trip, I will definitely place the smelliest, freshest food in the canister, and any food I consider the least odorous in the bag that I hang (properly). And I would include in the canister any packaging that contains traces of freeze-dried food that’s already been cooked and largely consumed.

      As for choosing between a canister or hanging, I follow the land management agency’s recommendation or requirement. If there is no recommendation or requirement, I’ll try to find out whether there’s any recent history or reports of bears attempting to get food from backpackers. I’ll use a canister anywhere there are grizzlies or brown bears, but I often just hang food in mountains where there are only black bears, which are less dangerous, and where there’s a very low incidence rate of those bears taking human food. Frankly, in areas that receive high human use, especially if those people aren’t hanging food properly, black bears tend to start recognizing that people bring food with them; while areas with lower human use and/or where good food-storage practices are commonly followed, bears seem to be rarely a problem.

      I hope that’s helpful. Thanks again for the good question. Safe travels.

  2. Hi Santiago, if you are well-prepared (physically conditioned / orienteering skills), there is no reason you should not backpack alone. Definitely leave a copy of your itinerary with a trusted friend, and I recommend the In-Reach (I have witnessed a Spot send out false “there’s a problem” messages to my friend’s contacts, when the button cover was still on! The other friend used her In-Reach to correct the confusion). You may want to carry bear spray if there are active bears in the area (while rare, I understand bears are more likely to approach the fewer adults in a group).

    You should probably go more conservative for your first solo trips, as Michael suggested (more popular trails where there are other hikers). I did not start doing off-trail backpacks until very recently, but now I think I would definitely carry a beacon like In-Reach if I did it again. I prefer having company for off-trails navigating because you often don’t know exactly what the conditions will be like… and the conditions tend to be more dangerous than groomed/maintained trails.

    As a side note, please everyone do me a favor, and don’t discourage someone from solo hiking or backpacking just because their biological sex is female. No, bears are not attracted to menstruating women. No, the wilderness is not full of rapists and serial killers looking for single women. Women are already told “you can’t” and “you shouldn’t” enough every day; let’s be encouraging instead.

  3. A woman was recently found dead in Ohio just two miles from the parking lot. When we walk away from civilization and into Mother Nature we need to be prepared for all contingencies. Everything you need has to be in your backpack. I let everyone know my exact itinerary. I check in with text updates. I memorize my map. I carry map and compass. I check the weather and the weather two days out in case disabled. I carry the ten essentials on my person and in my back. I check all required equipment and re-check. I do all of this plus much more. I do all of this for day hikes. I love to hike and hope to section hike. I realize the risk in solo hiking but the gain for me is well worth it. When I am ready for section hikes I expect to hike solo at times. Part of being ready will be a Satellite phone. Go when you are confident and God bless.

  4. HI Santiago. I am a loner by nature, as is my husband, In our younger days neither of us would have hesitated in in going alone in the wilderness. Speaking from the perspective of a couple now well into their sixties, we both consider the risks with more forethought.

    I haven’t hiked the Rockies alone, ever. It doesn’t mean I haven’t wanted to do so. We like the Whites in New Hampshire, and while the acreage and mountain elevation does not equal anything in the Rockies, the Whites can still supply hair-raising adventure if you get into trouble.

    I would look at your skills set, equipment, and physical strength. While not 100% failsafe, had you considered/do you own a PLB? Then keep in mind, that all of those may still not matter if you encounter carnivorous wildlife, or simply slip and fall. My husband thinks of those things with greater care than I, as he has had several knee operations and must weigh every decision, every footfall. I am still more cavalier and always want to head out, whether or not I have companionship.

    There is beauty, a sense of completeness, and rest in solitude. I understand the drive to go. I also understand that you wisely attempted to find hiking buddies. I have nothing I can add to the suggestions that others have already done, other than our perspective on this issue. That being said, if you are having any misgivings about going it alone, you may want to postpone your trek until you can get together with other hikers for a planned trip. When everything works out as hoped, you feel like you can conquer anything. When it goes terribly awry, all you can think about is getting the heck out of Dodge alive.

  5. “I think backpacking solo actually helps you become a more aware and careful hiker.”
    I could NOT agree more and it’s something I repeat to anyone questioning why I backpack solo.

  6. I’ve never hiked or backpacker in a group. It has always been solo. That said, I can’t think of a day on trail that I didn’t see at least one person. I have spent many nights camping alone with nothing but the stars above and the wildlife around me to keep me company, and it has generally been wonderful. In a national park you may find yourself hoping for some solitude. As long as a person knows their abilities and limitations and doesn’t try to push those boundaries too much, i see no reason to fear solo backpacking. Just enjoy the moment and you might learn something about yourself while your at it.

    P.s. I wish I could run 10 miles, and yet I’m still in good enough shape to hike 20 mile days in the Sierras. This guy should be fine.