Ask Me: Should I Go Backpacking Solo?
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,
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. You could carry a personal locator beacon (PLB), like a Spot transmitter, that would allow you to signal for a rescue (assuming you’re conscious and able do that). The Spot also enables you to send a nightly message to someone back home to let that person know you’re fine. 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.
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, if 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. I think backpacking solo actually helps you become a more aware and careful hiker.
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.
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, 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.
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 other stories on my Skills page. And as you’re thinking about other trips in the future, revisit my All Trips page and my stories “New Year Inspiration: My Top 10 Adventure Trips,” “My Top 10 Family Adventures” (not just for families), “Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites,” my gallery of photos from every national park I’ve visited, “My 10 Most-Read Adventure Stories,” and “Photo Gallery: 20 Big Adventures in Pictures.”
Good luck. Let me know what you end up doing.
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