A recent thread here asking about personal locater/satellite communication systems quickly devolved into a discussion about safety and whether one should ever hike solo or should always hike as a part of a group. As usual, there were good points to be made on both sides of the issue. Weston1000 seemed to feel that one should never go out alone; to him/her, the dangers of doing so are unacceptable. On the other hand, Aimless and Oregon Mouse both made the point that one can compensate for most of the subjective and objective dangers with a cautious approach, having a keen appreciation for one’s limitations, having proper gear and having some sort of satellite communication device available. To be sure, solo hiking can be more dangerous than hiking as a part of a group. But, in my mind, there are many tradeoffs and that lurking question of just how much safer one is as a part of a group. For the record, I am strongly introverted and much prefer solo walking.
Like OM, I have been backpacking and mountaineering in the mountains, deserts and canyons of the western U.S. for a long time, for me since about 1946. I consider myself to be reasonably experienced, at least for this region. For backpacking trips I prefer to be alone; my mountaineering adventures have mostly been as a member of a small group
Every “adventure” or accident with which I have been involved has been as part of a group. Moreover, the few times I have been called on to render first aid/medical assistance to other hikers the victim has been part of a group. As an aside, when I was in the Army, I received intensive, hands-on, medical training with much of it focused on trauma – I’m definitely not an MD though. In my experience, few hiking group members are trained and mentally objective enough to deal with real trauma; hysteria is not an uncommon response regardless of gender.
One of the problems with groups, from my perspective, is the potential for personality conflict when accidents happen or danger threatens. Too often, for example, a mountaineering group will decide to continue an ascent in the face of a thunderstorm even though the most experienced group member strongly urges retreat (I’ve been there). The decision to continue leaves the dissenter with three unpleasant choices: continue with the party; remain where he/she is; or make a solo and potentially dangerous descent. None of these choices are good. A solo climber would most likely not even be on the mountain and would certainly turn back if confronted with this.
And, in my experience, it is not uncommon for someone in a group to forget some important item of equipment, a stove for example. With campfires banned in the western U.S. almost every summer now the forgetful one will expect to borrow stove and fuel from others in the group. If like me, the others in the group carry only enough fuel to reach the end of the hike so they are unlikely to be happy with sharing; I once camped near a group that faced this very issue and a literal screaming match ensued. I prefer to avoid confrontations.
Oregon Mouse brought up the subject of group pace. That has always been an issue for me as well. When I was young and full of P & V, walking as a group member was irritating because there was always someone who wanted to walk half my normal pace. Now, at 80, the situation is reversed. I can still walk pretty fast but am more prone to injury from strains and falls if I push. If I were to walk as part of a group I would now be the one doing the irritating. I much prefer to walk my own safe, comfortable pace.
So, add me to the sample; “n” now equals at least 3. I think that for a well-equipped, fit and experienced hiker, going solo is only marginally less safe than being a member of the typical hiking group. One item of equipment I now consider essential is some sort of satellite communication device. My preference is the Delorme Inreach but I also use a McMurdo Fastfind for short trips. So, like Oregon Mouse, I feel certain that I experience far more risk on the drive home from the trailhead than I do on the trail. These are just my thoughts, though, so HYOH.
I also fall into the solo group. In the 35 years that I have been backpacking I have gone with another person less than 10 times. If someone suggests a multi person hike I usually find a reason that I am not able to go this week.
As far as getting lost it is not really a big problem where I backpack here in Michigan because there are at least two track roads all over the place. With even a large scale map it is mostly just a matter or heading in the proper direction to hit a know landmark like a major road and avoid things like large rivers etc.
I do wonder if it also an age thing. Like Pika I am strongly introverted but I think the the older generation was raised to operate more independently. The only way to communicate with friends when I was young was to get on my bike and go to see them. No smart phones or social networks. It was just too much trouble to ask another person for help or advice. Today everyone is in constant communications with others 24/7.
It is surprising how many people don't seem to be able to follow a map, as I found out at my daughter's wedding (held out in the country) 15 years ago!
If you don't have excellent navigation skills (without relying on an electronic gadget with batteries that can fail), I strongly caution against solo hiking. Of course if the other members of your group don't have those skills either, the only "advantage" is that you'll have company when you get lost! There are classes available, or you could have a lot of fun by getting involved with a local orienteering club.
Edited by OregonMouse (09/17/1710:42 AM)
May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view--E. Abbey
I frequently wonder if some folks are just not able to visualize a map and no amount of training is going to change that. I have worked with drawings my whole life, primarily machine drawings, but I can look at other drawings like architectural drawings and get a mental picture of what they are trying to show. I have seen many folks who when presented with the drawings for their new house do not have a clue as to what the final product will look like no matter how many time it is explained to them. Today even drawings are no longer a 2D representation of a 3D object. Today drawings are rendered as solids which can be rotated, moved and presented as pictures using CAD. Likewise maps are frequently presented as satellite images which are really just a picture as taken from an airplane. Many folks have no idea how to read a road map let alone a topo map.
Loc: Portland, OR
I backpack solo almost exclusively. When I am not solo I am hiking with my wife. I have no qualms about my safety, but I do follow all the basic rules. I leave an itinerary, bring the essentials every time I hike and I am very cautious about accepting risks.
It helps immensely that I have been hiking in the forests and mountains of Oregon and Washington since I was five years old (I'm 62 now) and 99% of my hiking during my lifetime has been in those same environs. By now, the terrain, weather and plant and animal life around me are extremely familiar and I have deep knowledge and experience with them to draw upon.
I began backpacking at 16 and first went solo when I was 19. I made my share of mistakes back then, learned from them and survived them. I was not as knowledgeable nor as safe during those early solo backpacks, but I was not a babe in the woods, either. I had much more than a decade of hiking experience and several years of backpacks under my belt by then. I studied, read books and articles and planned meticulously. I was serious about it.
Most beginners do not have the advantages I had when I began to solo. I would not recommend going solo to anyone who doesn't have a good solid base of information and experience to draw on. I just happened to get an unusually early start on creating that base of experience. It has been invaluable to me.
My kid has no sense of cardinal NSEW direction or understanding of maps. I have failed her miserably there but suspect there's a visual processing component at work. She's also not enthused about hiking but when I take her I always find opportunities to take her off the trail then after a bit, lead us back. There was also a lot of discussion of what to do if ever separated, e.g., stay put (hug a tree), use the whistle and don't hide from searchers thinking you're in trouble. Fact remains that in heavy woods off trail she'd be hopeless finding her way.
First, I backpack in the East, where trails are perhaps easier to follow through the woods, and you're rarely more than a few miles from a trailhead, road intersection, or other "handrail" such as creek to follow. That automatically lowers the level of risk you have to accept to hike solo around here.
Although I generally agree that it's a good idea to have experience on group backpacks before that first solo hike, I have to admit that my second backpack ever was my first solo trip. My first backpack (no prior camping experience) was with my son's Scout troop, led by a well-intentioned Scoutmaster with (I know now) questionable expertise. (SM: "We're not taking tents; they're too heavy. We'll sleep under the stars." Me: "What if it rains?" SM: "It won't." Me: "OK") Fortunately, it worked out well, and I got totally hooked.
I then found a copy of The Complete Walker (the original), and read it cover to cover. My knowledge grew exponentially, and Colin Fletcher made it seem eminently do-able.
So, my second trip was a solo trip to a park in southern Ohio that had a 12 mile and 25 mile backpacker's loop. I picked the twelve mile loop, put out a water cache, and hiked me and my 30-ish pound pack (light, by 1980s standards) successfully down the trail to the campsite. Along the way, I found myself lost for a few minutes; I followed Fletcher's advice to stop, calm down, and figure it out, at which point I discovered the blaze I was looking for was on the tree I was leaning against. I found the water cache, right where I left it. Slept under a tarp, cooked a simple meal, and had a great time (even though it rained lightly for a bit during the night.) And, in the process, I gained a lot of self confidence.
My point: It's possible to go solo almost from the start, but if you do, make sure you do everything you can to limit the risks involved and do your homework. Learn to read too maps, plan, make lists, and choose a very obliging season (early September in Ohio is pretty obliging.) Don't set overly difficult goals (mine was 8 miles on day one, and 4 on day two), and ease into it. But don't sit home waiting for someone to ask you on a trip-if you can't find someone, venture out on your own, but be smart about it.
Loc: Portland, OR
I appreciate that different areas present different levels of risk. Around here, the mountains can definitely kill you if you don't respect them. But there are other places that are harsher and more demanding than OR and WA, which make our mountains seem positively benign. Where you hike can make a big difference in terms of risk.