Through-hiking alone: reasonable or reprehensible?
May 13, 2010 6:32 AM   Subscribe

Should I hike the 500mi Colorado Trail by myself?

The Colorado Trail runs 483 miles from Denver to Durango. It is mostly remote wilderness. I have been planning since last year to hike it this summer. I searched for a long time to find the perfect hiking buddy, and I've even booked my flight to Denver (June 12 - August 5). I've also purchased SPOT satellite tracking service that can summon air rescue in case of an emergency.

Now my buddy has informed me that he is $2000 short of what he needs to be able to do this trip with me. I can't afford to subsidize him. However, with a very packed schedule and less than a month until my departure, my chances of finding a replacement hiking buddy are slim. But I really want to do this hike. Would it be unwise to attempt this alone?

I'm 29 and in good shape. I am well-versed in backcountry preparedness and safety. I've spent a month in the wilderness with NOLS becoming Wilderness First Responder certified. And I think I would have no trouble "tagging along" with other hikers to minimize the time I spend hiking & camping completely alone. However, I have never camped alone, especially for this length of time. While I think it could be very rewarding, it could also be lonely and/or dangerous.

Please help me figure out a way to complete this dream of mine! Thanks.
posted by jehsom to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (25 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Absolutely! You're 29. This is the time to do it.

It is often said that you should never hike alone. This is good advice for the less experienced but if you know what you're doing and you plan well there's no reason you shouldn't do it. Solo hiking can be a lot of fun and extremely rewarding.

Sounds like you're more than qualified. You'll also be on a trail that (I assume) several other people will be traveling on each day. Stay on the trail and you'll be fine. Leave your itinerary (including possible bail-out points, possible side trips, expected camping locations) with a friend or two and with the closest ranger station to your trailhead.

Assume your cell phone, GPS and satellite thingy will fail and never put yourself in a position where you'll need them to get you out of a jam. They're valuable tools, and they may possibly help you if you're in trouble, but they cannot be relied upon. Have a map and compass as a backup.

Pack light, but not so light that you're stuck without something you need. You'll have no backup stove, tent, filter or whatever. Bring a small backup headlamp and some water purification tablets. You know what to pack so I won't get into any of that ten essentials stuff.

Contrary to popular belief, the woods aren't filled with weirdos who want to kill you. At least not more than the city. Be cautious of course. Don't be too quick to tell someone your itinerary, especially if you're getting bad vibes from them.

One thing I've noticed when hiking alone is that people seemed more suspicious of me. Who is this lone, unwashed weirdo in the middle of the woods? I just acted polite and tried to act normal and it was fine.

I'm not sure what sort of wildlife you'll have to deal with. Wildlife is a bit more of an issue when you're alone because you'll be quieter and more likely to sneak up on something and startle it. You're not in grizzly country (I think?) so perhaps the only danger is the occasional mountain lion. I think that'd still be an issue if you were with a partner though so there's no use letting that stop you. Maybe whistle or talk to yourself occasionally if you're approaching a blind spot on the trail.

I've spent five days by myself in the New Hampshire wilderness, which isn't much of a wilderness when compared to other parts of the country, but big enough (and I was deep enough in) to really feel like I was on my own for long periods of time. I did manage to camp in designated sites every night so I was never sleeping further than maybe 100 yards from someone else, but there was one night where I really felt alone. The thing was though, I was so tired from the day that I was too tired to get scared or feel sorry for myself.

Enjoy your time to yourself. Enjoy not having to hike at someone else's pace. Enjoy being on your own schedule. Enjoy being able to stop for a snack or photo whenever you want and not having to stop because someone else wants to. Enjoy the people you meet and the animals that won't be scared off by your partner's constant Monty Python quoting.

posted by bondcliff at 7:02 AM on May 13, 2010

I'm sure you've looked at the trail FAQ, but weather and altitude are the things I'd make sure to prepare for if I were you.

Perhaps you can find someone on MeFi or metachat who'd like to join you, at least for part of the hike.

Enjoy your birthday on the trail!
posted by lukemeister at 7:14 AM on May 13, 2010

I don’t know about all of the safety issues, but it seems like you are pretty well prepared for this type of expedition.

One thing you should think about is your personality. Are you the type of person who likes to solo hike and solo camp? I don’t just mean the “commune with nature” type thing, I mean: do you really like to be alone? I love it and I love this idea, so I would do it in a heartbeat. Will you be able to keep your sanity? Will you really enjoy yourself, or will you spend the whole time fighting off loneliness?

But please, go do it for the rest of us and take pictures.
posted by Think_Long at 7:17 AM on May 13, 2010

The alone time will set in after about 36 hours; at that point, depending on your personality, you're either going to really love it or really hate it. It really spotlights a lot of things in your life when you're alone, in an uncontrolled environment, for that long. It's really quite amazing how different a person you are when you have little or noone to answer to. You might scare yourself a little bit.

You're experienced in the wilderness, so I really have nothing to offer in terms of expertise there.

You're going to be seen as a bit of a threat to groups and/or other individuals on the trail because you're alone. If you got some kind of certification as a first responder, keep it handy, try to alleviate people's inability to understand why someone would be alone in the woods other than to put an axe in their back.

Let people come to you; don't go looking for them. If you're feeling lonely, you'll seem desperate and that's off-putting in the wilderness. Try your best to be confident, friendly and willing to join them without needing it.

If you think you can do it, you should do it. It's the kind of experience you can't replicate otherwise and you will find out a lot about yourself! Good luck!
posted by Hiker at 7:29 AM on May 13, 2010

Going along with Hiker. Maybe you could do a 2-3 day solo hike just to see how you feel.
posted by gregr at 7:37 AM on May 13, 2010

It's been over a decade since I did a NOLS course, but I'm pretty sure I recall them saying that one of the first rules of wilderness travel was not to travel alone.
posted by dfriedman at 7:46 AM on May 13, 2010

This has "search and rescue" written all over it. I don't care how experienced you are, you never know what could happen. If you want to hike it "alone" maybe at least you could find a few others who want to do the same, but then just stagger your hike so that you're reliably within a mile of each other and carry radios. Then if something does happen at least you have the security of knowing someone's within immediate reach.
posted by thorny at 7:57 AM on May 13, 2010

Traveling alone, with the right experience, is fine. I have friends who have through-hiked part or all of the Appalachian trail alone; it's a fairly common experience. I do think it's worth taking a 2-3 day solo trek somewhere, just to make sure that you're ok being by yourself for a few days if you don't run into other hikers on the trail. If that works out all right, go for it.

Oh, and you will be in bear country. Hang your food.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:01 AM on May 13, 2010

There have to be message board for hiking. What about posting - not for a partner for the entire thing, but for parts of it. Or maybe someone else is planning on doing it in a small group, and you can plan to leapfrog each other. Hiking on your own for 2-3 days is one thing. Is this more like 7 weeks of hiking on your own? Have you done even a week of hiking on your own? Do you have experience in those specific hiking conditions, is your gear extremely well-tested and well-prepared, and how's your altitude tolerance?
posted by barnone at 8:13 AM on May 13, 2010

Yes! Long solo hikes can be very rewarding.

...But ditch the SPOT. Whether you know it or not, having it with you will encourage you to take risks you wouldn't normally take because hey, you can always call for help if you need it.
posted by Laen at 8:30 AM on May 13, 2010

From reading the web page, this doesn't sound like six weeks by yourself where you'll start talking to a soccer ball after a few days and you'll be grizzly food if you twist an ankle. This is a trail with many access points along the way. A trail that passes through towns in between stretches of woods. Sections of this trail are used by horses and mountain bikers in addition to day and weekend hikers. Even though there will be times when you'll feel alone, you're not going to be truly Alone for most of the trip.

Even if you bail out after a week, this is the type of thing you'll always be able to look back on. Remember, most people end up regretting the things they didn't do, rather than the things they did do.

I also don't see how finding a random partner on a message board or in the woods would be any safer. You're much safer on your own than someone with no/little experience or whose temperament is an unknown.

Go for it.
posted by bondcliff at 8:30 AM on May 13, 2010

Like craven_morhead said, it's not all that uncommon. You may find it lonely, but I actually found my solo travelling experiences to be great, both as a way to spend time by myself and because being alone made it easier to meet new people.

There are also lot of long-distance hiking or "pack light" websites and list-servs where you could try to find a buddy.
posted by salvia at 8:33 AM on May 13, 2010

...But ditch the SPOT. Whether you know it or not, having it with you will encourage you to take risks you wouldn't normally take because hey, you can always call for help if you need it.

You’re kidding right? OP, if you trust yourself enough to kill this trail on your own, then you can trust yourself to not take stupid and unnecessary risks. Keep whatever backup emergency systems you have just in case.
posted by Think_Long at 8:58 AM on May 13, 2010

Ah, if it's a trail with lots of exits, and somewhat decent traffic, seems like you'll be fine. I'd worry more if it was completely desolate and if you were 1/2 way in, there's no way to turn around or get out, other than walking for 3.5 weeks.

Stick to the trail, leave your expected checkpoints/itinerary with folks, and practice with all of your gear ahead of time. Be extra careful: water tablets, maybe an epi-pen, bear precautions, maybe a bell, the best shoes, a few kinds of fire-making backups.

If you're able to get out into the towns along the way, maybe it makes sense to check in with friends or family or post to a blog or whatever. That way if you fall way behind schedule, someone will know.
posted by barnone at 8:59 AM on May 13, 2010

Solo hiking's gotta be dangerous, but that's part of the reason for going, isn't it? There are tons of people who through-hiked Pacific Crest Trail, which is over 2500 miles. Hiking alone for 6 months at a time. Take a look.
posted by aeighty at 9:38 AM on May 13, 2010

Yes. That would be fucking sweet.
posted by cmoj at 9:39 AM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Totally do it. You have to be even more careful when you're alone than you would with a partner, because there's nobody to go for help, but that shouldn't stop you. Be more cautious and conservative about where you cross rivers, and take your sweet time through trail sections with ankle-twisting rocks and roots. Talk or sing to yourself, to stave off boredom and loneliness, but also to warn the bears that you're coming.

My biggest issue when backpacking solo is the night-times. With a group I love to sit up by the fire into the night, but by myself I just start imagining what's out in the dark creeping up behind me. If you're the same, I'd recommend plenty of headlamp batteries, some notebook paper for journaling, and an interesting, lightweight book. If you're going to be picking up supplies along the way, include pieces of your book at each stop -- you can cut it apart at the binding and only carry sections to save weight.

If you find yourself in a situation where you're scared, remember to stop and take some deep breaths, and count to 10. People get into trouble in the backcountry when they panic, when they act from fear instead of logic in a sticky situation. I'm sure you already know this from your WFR course, but it bears repeating. Obviously it can be harder to maintain your cool when there's nobody else around, but you can do it.
posted by vytae at 9:54 AM on May 13, 2010

It's not like you're attempting 30 14'ers or out rock climbing multiple pitch 5.10 assents solo in a blizzard.
This is a well traveled trail and if you've done NOLS you must be pretty well prepared for backpacking a well laid trail. does some amazing solo through hikes at very fast paces. Reading his blogs at various sites or just his site in general might give you some great packing tips\mental preparedness.

If you're doing 17.5 miles a day you'll hit one access point every day. This all seems very safe and sane to me.

Just make sure you are prepared but not over prepared and you'll have an awesome time.

Leave your game-plan with someone and check in with them at roundabout predetermined times. If you're nervous it will help you feel more reassured as well as your loved ones.
posted by zephyr_words at 10:01 AM on May 13, 2010

I'm planning on doing the CT as well this summer, leaving July 3 going west-bound. I'm alone as well, and wouldn't have it any other way. Besides, its a trade-route - you are almost guaranteed to see people (maybe even me!) every day.

I've a little kid and wife at home and am mitigating the distance with them by renting a sat-phone, which is a popular option for solo thru-hikers. Much better than a spot when the shit hits the fan.

have fun!
posted by H. Roark at 10:22 AM on May 13, 2010

I think people saying you shouldn't do this because hiking alone is ultra-dangerous and you might die may not have much experience in the back country or with long-distance trails like the AT, the PCT, and the CDT, all of which are routinely solo-hiked by people of widely varying skill and experience levels. The OP is going on a very popular, accessible trail, not out into east bumblefuck nowhere Alaska with the grizzly bears and mosquitoes the size of seagulls.

I think you should do the hike and have an awesome time. Just remember that your personal health and safety are more important than arbitrary goals like daily mileage targets, needing to camp by that cool-looking lake you saw on the map, or even finishing the trail at all.

And I'd bring some trekking poles, even if you don't usually use them, just in case you mess up a knee or ankle.
posted by Aizkolari at 10:47 AM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I had a roommate who solo-hiked the PCT twice, and we had a constant stream of visitors to our Seattle house, all people he'd befriended along the trail. You won't be alone, that's for sure. And you're going to be there during the most popular time of year, so I don't think you're going to have any trouble at all meeting friendly folks you can hike and camp with along the way.

I am extremely cautious and risk-averse when it comes to backpacking, and I would have no qualms about what you're doing. I think it'll actually be a great challenge for you to do it by yourself, just in terms of finding out what it's like to be relatively on your own for nearly two whole months, where the only friends you have are the ones you make. I'm not sure how my extroverted self would do at that aspect of things since I get antsy when I go on day hikes alone, and I've been thinking hard about taking a few weeks to solo-hike the John Muir Trail, just to find out.

Plus, this is going to make an awesome story. I vote yes, and even think hiking it alone is preferable to hiking it with your buddy in a lot of ways.
posted by adiabat at 11:14 AM on May 13, 2010

Do it!
posted by amanda at 11:50 AM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

"This has "search and rescue" written all over it. I don't care how experienced you are, you never know what could happen. "

This is such phenomenal bullshit. I've been on many parts of the Colorado Trail and I've served on a number of Search and Rescue teams. The CO Trail is hardly a super remote wilderness - especially in the summer when there will be many other through hikers. If you know what you are doing you will be fine.
posted by fieldtrip at 8:56 PM on May 13, 2010

It's totally doable.

One of the girls I'm doing the Grand Canyon with tonight did this hike solo... if you wanna chat with her, hit me up and I'll put you two in touch.
posted by ph00dz at 2:29 PM on May 14, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the feedback, everyone. I've decided to do it solo! If you want to know how it went, you can email me in August and I'll be glad to let you know :)
posted by jehsom at 6:59 AM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

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