Beginners Guide to Solo Backcountry Camping
I don’t think I necessarily wanted to venture into the backcountry by myself: full disclosure. There was no burning desire or hurdle to leap over, a box to check. But, when my go-to hiking partner made alternative plans for a beautiful weekend in August, I decided that it just might be the opportune time to give it a try.
I made a few personal decisions to push outside of my own comfort zone including being dropped off and picked up so that I would not be able to bail if the weather turned or I got scared. I also chose not to go to a traditional campground and instead opted for a less common backpacking area (but still legal - don’t worry). The site that I chose had a backcountry alpine hut that was showing to be booked online - so I knew that there would likely be at least one party in the area (they also ended up being the only party in the area) and it is short enough that it is frequented as a day hike. I meticulously packed my bags and brushed up on my Bear 101 knowing that I would be alone in the middle of a grizzly bear habitat, said goodbye to my friend and started a two night backpacking trip alone in the mountains.
The perfectly clear forecast I read as I dipped out of service down a forest turned out to be a lie. Aside from a few patches of sun on my first full morning, the clouds rolled in thick and dropped sheets of rain the entirety of my trip. I secretly hoped that the inhabitants of the hut had decided not to show and that I would be able to bail and hide inside as the rain poured down. There was no such luck and they showed up a few hours after I arrived (although they did kindly invite me inside for dinner so as to not have me sit alone outside in the rain). I set up my tent in the rain and laughed at the misadventure I had embarked on. My first day was spent inside of my tent watching Netflix that I had pre-downloaded onto my phone and reading a book sent to me by a friend months earlier that I had not made a priority to read, until now. It was a weekend filled with new friends, a lot of time alone and a few animal visitors that (thankfully) didn’t want too much to do with me.
And so, I compiled a list of the things I learned and the advice I was given (and a few of my backpacking essentials) worth considering if you are thinking about venturing out into the backcountry alone. In all honesty the most commonly asked question about this experience was if I was scared at any point in time and, in all honesty, I was not. I have spent hundreds of nights in the backcountry and have lived alone for nearly a decade at this point. There was a familiar comfort in the quiet I found on this trip.
planning your trip:
choose your trail
The best thing to do on your first solo trip is to go somewhere that you are familiar with. Choose a trail that you have hiked before or even backpacked with friends. The more comfortable you are with your surroundings the less likely you are to miss a turn or feel uncertain. Pick a trail that is relatively popular - seeing other tents in the distance might offer a little peace of mind when you’re out alone in the wilderness.
TELL SOMEONE YOUR PLANS
This one was easy for me as I had a friend drop me off at the trailhead and pick me up two days later. I also let my parents know where I was going and when they should expect to hear from me. If there is a registration at your trailhead make certain to write down your contact information and route; in the off chance that something does happen this will help first responders find you quickly.
CHECK THE WEATHER
Hope for the best but plan (and pack) for the worst rings exceptionally true when solo backcountry camping. When hiking in Canada I will use sites such as SpotWX, Windy and even a simple google search of the weather to give me an idea of what to expect. Remember, mountain weather is notoriously unpredictable so take all of that information into account but always be prepared for a freak storm to blow in.
be realistic about YOUR ABILITIES
For this trip I chose a trail I had never done before but was well within my ability level. With no river fording, crazy elevation gain or major exposure, it made for a very pleasant hike in and out. I also researched and found a trail that I knew would have a moderate amount of day hikers as well an Alpine Hut so that, if something were to happen, it was very likely that there would be people around to help. This made me feel a little bit more comfortable being out in my tent alone but also pushed me far enough outside of my comfort zone (being in a protected grizzly habitat and also knowing there was a chance I would be alone if I encountered one).
I am used to carrying a lot of weight on my backpacking trips with friends but being able to share the weight of the tent, cooking equipment, bear canister, medical kit and other miscellaneous items is something I took for granted. I would recommend choosing a shorter trail with less elevation gain if you are not used to the added weight. When you’re out backpacking with friends make a mental (or physical) list of the things that you actually use. Being able to omit things that you don’t need (and aren’t vital for your safety) make a difference when you toss on your pack.
PLAN FOR “WHAT IFS”
Before deciding to tackle a trail alone, do your research and think about everything that could realistically go wrong. Set up your tent in your living room if you normally have someone to help you. Could you get back to safety if your cell phone battery died? What if your tent leaks or your physical maps get wet? I like to pack a warmer sleeping bag when I am out alone because another person in the tent adds a lot of body heat. If you’re injured, are you somewhere that has cell phone service, do you have a personal locator beacon, will someone come hike in and find you? After how long?
Pack an extra day worth of food
An extra dehydrated backpacking meal will take up virtually no weight in your bag but could come in handy if you need to spend an extra night in the backcountry. I also like to purchase a new canister of fuel so that I don’t need to worry about running out.
purchase or rent a personal locator beacon
Devices such as the Garmin InReach or a Spot Tracker allow you to call for emergency assistance if need be and some even offer a two way texting ability that, for a few dollars subscription a month, will give you as well as your loved ones a of peace of mind.
The weather forecasted blue skies for three straight days when I dropped out of service on Friday morning. In reality I had nothing but torrential rain with the exception of a few hours on Saturday morning. Thankfully I had brought a small book and downloaded a handful of podcasts and movies/TV shows from Netflix onto my phone. It can be dark and cold and a little bit scary being outside in the wilderness alone so having a few things to distract you from every noise that may or may not be a grizzly lurking outside of your tent is never a bad idea.
It is easy to get wrapped up in making sure you are safe, eating enough food, drinking enough water, making noise to scare off wild life etc… but take a few minutes to enjoy where you are and appreciate being out in nature alone. It is a really special experience that not too terribly many people are fortunate to experience.
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