Tips for Your First Solo Backpacking Trip

I've backpacked for over 15 years, thru hiked the John Muir Trail and have become an outdoor professional. But I've never been on a solo backpacking trip. Until recently. I decided it was high time I change that, and these are some lessons learned along the way.

Gather Support

Tell your friends about your plans. If you’re like a lot of women, you've gotten used to operating in the outdoor world with guys. And while that’s great, when it comes to support, they might not always be the best to ask for advice. Tell your friends that this is important to you and something you really want to do. They will offer support and hold you to your goal. When I told my people that I was about to do something that scared me, but I was excited also, they responded with everything from "that's amazing, something I've never thought of doing but would like to try" to "that's my worst nightmare." They were honest and supportive and looked forward to hearing about my adventure. It made me eager to return and tell them all about it. And when you're ready to leave, tell someone exactly where you're going and when you plan to be back. This is good practice whenever you're going for a trip, but especially important when you're going alone. 

Backpacking in Virginia

Plan Your Route

I chose to go somewhere I was familiar with for my first time — a route close to home that I’ve done multiple times and know what to expect. I knew where the water was and how long it would take me.

It also helps to choose somewhere there’s a payoff … I mean that always helps, right? Find a pretty overlook, some magical water feature or a beautiful view of the starry night sky. 

Backpacking gear for a solo hiking trip

Make Sure You Have the Right Gear

I chose to go on my solo trip during February in Virginia. The low was in the mid 30's and the high was around 50, so I was able to go relatively light with my layering and footwear, keeping in mind that I was carrying all the gear that I typically split with my husband. I was cozy in a 20 degree quilt and 3-season backpacking tent. I decided to try out the new Gravity Expedition 42+ SL. I love a simple pack. I'm not always looking for extra bells and whistles and this pack sure is minimal. Designed for climbing guides, I wanted to see how it would do as an ultra-light backpacking pack. I paired down my gear and I was surprised at how comfortable it was. Granted, I kept the water I carried to a liter or less and carried very light food. I did have to adjust where I carried my tent poles as the back panel is so minimal that they poked me if I didn't buffer them from the back of the pack.

Make sure you have everything you need, make a list and lay everything out to avoid forgetting something your partner typically carries. 

Backpacking with a dog

Bring Your Pup

I decided for my first solo to bring my furry best friend. I mean, who isn’t comforted by their dog? He’s a great trail breaker, listener and carries his share of the gear. He isn’t going to help with the bear hang or dinner but he is a great provider of warmth on a cold night. Bringing your fur baby isn’t a must, but can be a nice transition for your first time backpacking alone.

It turns out my pup (Hoagie) is much more protective when it's just me in the tent and around camp. He woke up a couple times during the night and sniffed the air suspiciously (he's a hound) and listened intently. I have to admit, it freaked me out at first but after rationalizing the situation: a person would be loud in the woods at night and need to use a light, bears are hibernating and I didn't have any food in the tent and honestly I couldn't hear anything except the faint bark of a dog off in the valley. So I decided to snuggle up to him and we both calmed down and went back to bed. He also reacted differently to other hikers the next morning. I was finishing up my instant chai when a couple of guys walked down the trail, Hoagie started barking at them and holding his ground, they quickly hiked off. Next, a couple of ladies passed us and he was alert and watched them but was completely silent. This is unlike him on the trail, he's typically so focused on hiking that he mostly ignores everyone.

Practice Leave No Trace (LNT)

Be a good steward of the trail. My favorite LNT principle is travel and camp on durable surfaces. Hiking can be hard but volunteers put countless hours into trail building and maintenance. A lot of thought and planning goes into trail design and it only works if you stay on trail, don't cut switchbacks and please just walk through the mud. When you go around a muddy section the problem area just gets larger. And secondly, for the love of all things green and living please pack out your trash. That means all trash. Don't burn your garbage — it doesn't magically disappear. Set a good example in the outdoors so your children's children can enjoy it someday.

Camping in the woods

Be Careful

It's always a good idea to have a first aid kit with you but be mindful where step, look overhead for dead branches and trees before setting up your tent and be careful with your boiling water. Don't put yourself in unnecessary danger. I decided to venture out mid-week to minimize the traffic on the trail because I wanted solitude but I also found that humans were the thing I feared most in the woods. I hiked to a site that was over two miles from the trailhead and not accessible from a nearby fire road. I generally think the best of people and tend to think everyone has good intentions, but it's my assumption that most women are fearful of going alone on the trail because they have a fear of others with less than good intentions. I have to admit as the sun went down and I was finishing up dinner, I couldn't help but picture someone sneaking up behind me. But here again, I was comforted that my furry companion would have alerted me. I also just had to get over it, be strong and enjoy the sunset and my mac n' cheese.

Jumping for joy in the Virginia mountains

Enjoy Your Trip

Have fun. Turn your phone on airplane mode and only use it for pictures, bring a book and a journal and relax. You can do this! And maybe don't tell your Mom until you come back. Love you Mom.

In Summary

  • Gather support: Tell your friends. Talk to your local trail group, find like minded ladies who have hiked alone and ask for their advice and what to expect.
  • Plan your route: Know before you go. Where’s the water, where can I park, camp, cook, etc. Go somewhere familiar.
  • Gather your gear: Make sure you have what you need. Take into consideration the season, weather and the fact that you will have to carry everything yourself, pair it down but don't forget the small luxuries; a book, journal, a tasty treat, etc. Make a list, lay it out, don’t forget the 10 Essentials.
  • Bring your dog: OK this is a recommendation, not a necessity. Bringing your furry best friend is a good interim step to going it alone.
  • Practice Leave No Trace: Pack out what you pack in, leave it better than you found it, be a good trail steward.
  • Be careful: Watch your step, check for widow makers before setting up your tent, easy with the boiling water.
  • Have fun: Ultimately you are doing this to better yourself, be strong, detox from the fast paced digital world and enjoy the solitude.
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