A Woman Alone in the Wild:
12 Principles of Solo Hiking
BY RACHEL CAVANAUGH
“I grew up in Greater Los Angeles and I could see, like, seven stars at night,” she recalled of her urban childhood. “It really wasn't until I started hiking and backpacking that I realized what was out there. I started night hiking because I wanted to have the experience—I wanted to see the Milky Way; I wanted to see the meteor showers. I really love catching sunrises, especially with no one else around me. So it just all became very addictive.”
Ali Wunderman, guidebook author and founder of “The Naturalist”, said hiking alone has offered her lessons in self-reliance and taught her to trust herself more. Her most profound outdoor experience came when she spent two weeks alone in the Belizean jungle fighting macaw poachers.
Emily Davenport, a nature lover and wilderness guide for the Appalachian Mountain Club, said she too has gleaned similar skills and insight. One of her most poignant wilderness experiences took place on a solo backpacking trip in southern Texas’s Big Bend National Park.
“I remember that felt just incredible to be out in the desert and under the big, big open sky—to be out there alone,” she said. “I felt very empowered.”
“Hiking alone allows you to listen more,” said Wunderman. “To the trees, to birds, to animals. You're less likely to scare wildlife away and more likely to see them a little bit closer.”
Davenport said that people frequently ask if she’s scared to be alone—and many have suggested she carry a gun.
It’s different from the feedback men get, she said. With them, people express excitement and encouragement, often praising their intrepid spirit, while she finds her judgment is often called into question.
This spring, for example, she and a male coworker were both sent to backcountry wilderness huts and, although they both spent week-long stretches alone in the wilderness, the reactions from people were vastly different.
“The first thing they asked me was, ‘Were you scared? You were by yourself? Did you have a gun? Do you have a weapon?’” she said. “No one asked my male partner those questions. They just assumed he was fine. It made me almost question, like, ‘Should I be more scared?’”
The cumulative effect of all of these messages, Davenport said, is that women begin questioning their decisions—even ones they believe to be sound.
“It's like the classic, ‘This woman was attacked and she was in an alley—she shouldn't have been in the alleyway at night alone.’ That kind of thing where I still subconsciously question, ‘Am I putting myself in an unsafe position?’"
The unsolicited feedback discourages women from having meaningful experiences outside, Wunderman said. When you pair that with broader stereotypes around women in the wilderness, it creates self-doubt.
“The messaging is that women do not belong in these spaces,” she said. “There's a lot of internalized misogyny when it comes to the outdoors. Women are raised to believe that we're less capable, we're less strong. We're less able to cope with the challenges that the outdoors present.”
Given this connection, it’s no surprise that none of the women expressed fear about wildlife during their hikes. And the statistics back them up: Wildlife deaths in national parks are extremely rare—just four people were killed by bears in national parks between 2007 and 2013, one from a snakebite, and one by a mountain goat.
In fact, when it comes to national parks, if you exclude suicides, your chances of dying from any type of cause is staggeringly low—about one in 2 million, according to the Washington Post.
According to the solo hikers, there are 12 key principles to remember when you’re hiking alone in the wilderness:
- Tell someone where you’re going: Explain exactly where you’re going and when you’ll be back. Have them alert authorities if you don’t return by the specified time.
- Dial in your navigation system: Be sure to always carry a compass, maps of the region, and a GPS tracker (and know how to use them).
- Never wander off the trails: That’s how people get lost. Stick to marked trails and don’t be tempted to wander off the beaten path.
- Check the weather: Look at the forecast the morning of your hike since it may have changed and pay attention to the weather throughout the day.
- Have an emergency kit: This should include a headlamp, knife, first-aid kit, fire starter, rope, and emergency blanket. You don’t have to assemble this yourself—there are lots of lightweight, pre-made kits out there.
- Bring a small survival book: If you don’t already have strong wilderness survival skills, bring a tiny handbook. That way you’ll know what to do with the emergency supplies if you need them.
- Prepare to stay longer than you planned: If you’re on a day hike, bring enough food and water to stay the night. On two-day trips, pack for three or four.
- Bring a solar charger and batteries: This will help keep your phone and other electronics charged.
- Consider carrying a locator beacon: They’re on the pricier side but can be life-saving in an emergency. Satellite phones or inReach devices can work too.
- Talk to a ranger: Never underestimate the power of a local to have the inside scoop on the most up-to-date tips, weather forecasts, and trail hazards.
- Start small: Don’t feel like you have to summit a mountain on your first solo hike. Start with short day hikes to get comfortable with the feeling of being alone in the woods.
- Start with other people: If you haven’t hiked a lot before, don’t start alone. Have friends, family, or local hiking clubs show you the ropes first.
Once you’ve properly prepared, a whole new world will open up for you, they said.
“It’s just you and the trees, you and the animals, you and the earth,” Wunderman said. “You really get to see who you are and the context of that environment.
“It’s also sort of meditative. You’re alone with your thoughts and you just have to be your own company. In some ways, that can help you develop a best friendship with yourself.”
Not only that, in addition to hard skills like reading topographic maps or treating bug bites, you’ll gain character-building skills.
“What hiking alone really teaches you is how to rely on yourself,” Wunderman said. “When there’s no one to turn to—no one to solve your problems for you—you have to look inward.
“You learn how to turn off that panic and find your calm, find your breath, and realize, and witness, that you truly have the strength within yourself to solve the problem that you’re facing.”
Plus, unless you’re in an extremely remote place, you’re likely to come across other hikers on the trails, Addis pointed out. Even when you start off hiking alone, you often end up meeting other people and hiking with them along the way.
“If you want to make more friends, hiking alone gives you that opportunity.”
Given all of the joy that solo hiking brings to her life, Addis said she’s stopped listening to the naysayers.
“Over the years I have learned that a lot of what can hold a person back is fear,” she said. “So I actively try to do the things that I would be hesitant to do, so that I can just get past that. Because it’s such a big limiting thing.”
Wunderman agreed, saying that she takes what people say with a grain of salt and makes her own judgment calls. Life is full of risks and solo hiking is hardly near the top, she said.
“The messaging always has been, ‘This is going to be a dangerous, scary experience for you.’ And my answer to that is: ‘So is all of life—and I’m still here to live it and have a good time.’”
- The 10 Most Gorgeous Solo Hikes: Learn about some of the best trails in the U.S. for hiking alone.
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): Stay up to date on all of the weather forecasts.