Alone time in the wilderness
April 15, 2007 11:41 AM   Subscribe

I would like to go on a solo backpacking trip for the first time and I need some advice.

I’ve backpacked on and off since I was 14 but always in a group of some sort (I didn't have to plan much). I haven’t been on many trips lately since it’s really hard to coordinate a bunch of people with difficult schedules. So, I’ve decided to do a trip in Big Sur next month (I’m thinking Ventana Wilderness; I'm open to other suggestions if you have any) by myself.

Obviously I want to be well prepared before I do something like this. Last thing I need is being totally unprepared for a bad situation. And, I don’t want my family and friends to say “I told you so”.

I've seen this thread but I am not concerned about snakes. I'm looking for more general advice (like say how to deal with a broken arm, you'd should definitely bring x or y etc.)
posted by special-k to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (23 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have a lot of advice, but if you have any kind of local camping/backpacking specialty store, I'm sure they would be happy to help. Especially because there are probably things that would be particularly useful in Big Sur (or wherever you end up going) that they're more likely to know about. Your local Sierra Club might also be a good resource.
posted by crinklebat at 11:48 AM on April 15, 2007

Another resource might be the activities departments of local universities, who often have cheap rentals of equipment, classes on wilderness safety, and other stuff you might want to check out - here's UC Davis' Recreation Department's "Outdoor Adventures" page.
posted by mdonley at 11:53 AM on April 15, 2007

There are about a thousand lists on the web of backpacking essentials. Browse through a few of them, and pick and choose. A lot really depends on whether you prefer ultra-lightweight or more comfortable living (with a heavier pack).

Oh, and if you're going solo, please do two things.

1) Leave a copy of your route with someone at home. Tell them when you'll be back, etc.

2) Bring a cell phone if there will be service. Leave it off in the bottom of your pack. As much as I love getting away from it all, they can be a lifesaver in an emergency.
posted by chrisamiller at 11:53 AM on April 15, 2007

chrisamiller's Number 1 reason is the most important. After that, hike within your limits.
posted by YoBananaBoy at 11:58 AM on April 15, 2007

A SAM Splint is an invaluable thing to help deal with broken extremities and very lightweight. Pack some Tylenol with codeine as well (your doctor should give you a scrip for your backpacking kit). Make sure and give a detailed itinerary to someone who will be checking to make sure you return on time, though you might want to build in a little slack time so they don't call in the cavalry prematurely.

Second the cell phone, and pay attention to the last place you can get service. I've noticed that my little adapter I use to connect my mp3 player to my tape deck picks up the signal when the cell phone checks in with a tower so it's a handy way of staying aware of the nearest place to call for help.
posted by Manjusri at 11:59 AM on April 15, 2007

The AMC has a good collection of essential hiking tips:

REI has a good list of essential items to bring. They also have a number of other hiking good articles, like backcountry health topics.

I'd say the most important thing is to have appropriate clothing. Following that, clean water. With just those two things, you can probably survive being lost/injured until rescued.

From my experience, things I've found myself wishing I had on various hikes:

More water. Nothing sucks more than having to ration your water.
More food. I've underestimated how many more calories I need while hiking.
More clothing.
Less weight.
posted by justkevin at 12:01 PM on April 15, 2007

A couple more thoughts:

If you are allergic to bee/hornet stings, an epipen is essential if you are stung on the neck. You should have some oral antihistamines in any case. If you are not already using trekking poles, get some. They are great for hiking, but can be essential after twisting an ankle. You'll want some duct tape for blisters (way better than moleskin) and emergency equipment repair, and some athletic tape is also a good idea for sprains though the duct tape can work in a pinch.

Make sure you have enough clothing/insulation to handle anything mother nature can throw at you, and that it can all be kept dry. Bring more than one light source and firestarter. Some parachute cord for a variety of reasons, one of the main being spare shoelaces. Find out what the bear situation is where you are going and make sure you have gear to deal with it. Bear canisters are heavy but work very well. Whatever you do, don't forget the toilet paper, sunscreen and chapstick.

Have fun, I love solo trips for the introspective flavour.
posted by Manjusri at 12:15 PM on April 15, 2007

I'd suggest that carrying less weight is even more important when hiking alone, because you don't have anyone else there to help carry your pack if you hurt your ankle or whatever.

There are a lot of pretty good online forums about this (one that I really like; another one). The one real danger with reading these sorts of forums is that people get really focused on the gear, not so much on the backpacking part. But that happens with pretty much all online interest-groups at one point or another; you just have to take what works for you and move on.
posted by Forktine at 12:37 PM on April 15, 2007

Best answer: If you go to your local outdoor retailer/climbing club, you'll discover that many of them rent satellite phones for surprisingly low fees. Whenever my Dad and I go on our more adventurous trips (last summer included a three-day walk in, bush-wacking 80% of the time, followed by several days of class 5 climbs) we bring a satellite phone, rented from the Mountaineers, or his ham radio.

While we've never needed to use it in an emergency, we've been in several hairy situations that made us glad that we had it, should the situation have worsened.

On the medical side, while IANAD, my Dad is, and I've been a Firefighter/EMT since high school. For the most important safety item, refer above. I also carry a portable medical stapler (lightweight and great when you don't have time for stitches), an EPI-PEN (you need a prescription, but if you explain the situation to your family doctor, you should have no problem), two triangular bandages, Neosporin, an ACE bandage (helpful for so many things), a miniature sewing kit (like one receives at a hotel), Tylenol, Ibuprofin, Cipro (or any other broad-spectrum antibiotic), TUMS, Immodium AD (I use this with caution; for the most part, I'd prefer to have the diarrhea and get better, but balance that with the knowledge that diarrhea results in dehydration, not always a preferred outcome in the wilderness) and a very sharp pocket knife.

I package this up in a heavy-duty quart-sized plastic bag, along with extra plastic bags (ziplock), a pencil that can be sharpened by the pocket knife, 100 feet of flagging tape, water purification tablets, several safety pins, an underwater emergency whistle, a cup of cat food (dry crunchy- tastes fine in an emergency) an extra boot lace, a small packet of wind-proof water-proof light-anywhere matches, and a twenty dollar bill. I may have forgotten something, but I think that's about it.

This weighs only a couple of pounds, and I try to use it as truly emergency equipment (e.g. the bag only has gotten opened a couple of times, and I always immediately restock it upon arriving home)

Please be careful. Your comment, above, that you haven't had to plan much while hiking previously makes me nervous. There are a lot of great clubs where you can gain some experience leading/co-leading hikes before taking off on your own: being responsible for the planning and execution of climbs will help you more accurately judge your abilities and what equipment is vital to your survival. That said, solo hiking in the backcountry can be incredibly rewarding- have fun!
posted by arnicae at 2:02 PM on April 15, 2007 [3 favorites]

All the first-aid and emergency tips are great, but in 99.9 percent of solo trips, (and all of mine so far) (knock on wood), the biggest problems are more basic things like 1) boredom and wishing for company, 2) a heavy pack, and 3) no back-up.

Boredom & wishing for company -- I always get these primal fears ("it's getting colder and darker") for about ten minutes at dusk. And often, I'd enjoy resting and shooting the breeze with someone. This was less intense on trips when I was already used to spending time alone outside. Always, paper and pen were good comfort. (I'd write letters or journal entries.) Sometimes I've taken a small paperback (I like philosophy I can then ponder while I walk, like the I Ching). Other people bring field guides, but I think they're too heavy. One of those circular constellation charts weighs nothing and is entertaining at night.

Weight -- you have to carry everything yourself rather than sharing the weight of the stove and tent, etc. I've tried skipping the stove and eating almonds, PB&J, etc. But I like the cooking. You could skip the water purifier and just carry iodine. I usually skip the tent and just carry a tarp in case of rain (except when I think the mosquitoes will be bad).

No back up -- no one can take care of you if you push yourself too far. Not a big deal in the summer, but on a winter trip this could be a big deal. If you're too tired to feel like cooking or setting up camp, no one else will do it. Sometimes, I've been so exhausted that when I found my campsite at 5 PM, I took a "nap" and woke up at 11 PM shivering and hungry. So I try to give my common sense side more votes when I'm alone.

Have a great trip! Where are you going?
posted by salvia at 2:23 PM on April 15, 2007

15 miles in, dog-tired and winded is a heck of a time to find out your stove doesn't work or your pack is too heavy. If this is your first time out alone, do a shakedown trip beforehand: Pack what you think you'll take along on the real trip (including your full food supply), hike a couple/five miles in, camp overnight and return the next day.

Also track your mileage vs. time, and assume you'll be doing no more than 60% of that rate on the actual trip. All sorts of things happen that can hold you up, and you never want to be in a situation where you feel you're behind the clock. It's therefore better to estimate on the low side until you get a better idea of what you can handle by yourself.
posted by Opposite George at 2:32 PM on April 15, 2007

Arnicae's list sounds, um, extensive. It depends, I think, on how long you plan to be gone. I can't imagine taking Cipro with me or a medical stapler(!), for example, on a short trip. However, if you're doing route-finding, will be gone for multiple days and the hike is treacherous then a more extensive first-aid kit may be necessary. A couple things I haven't seen here: burn cream (if you're a clumsy cooker like me), a whistle (hello, this ravine sucks!), itch-eraser for bug bites, and iodine tablets just in case you need water and can't filter it for whatever reason.

As you hike, remember to take it easy, drink lots of water and snack a lot as you go to keep up your strength and spirits.
posted by amanda at 3:55 PM on April 15, 2007

I would say to plan a route for yourself on a topo map or something similar. Give a copy of the route you will follow to someone who knows when to expect you back. I know it sucks to make a route beforehand sometimes and reduces the serendipity of a solo journey but giving people an idea where to look for you is the best plan. Second I would stop by the park or ranger station and chat with them. They are always very helpful and will give you all of the local information you need. Let them know your exact plans and when to expect you to stop back in. Most times they will be happy to know you are around and will go the extra little step to look out for your welfare. Also you may find out there are some permits or something you may need. Many people avoid the stations for just this reason but don't. The permits cover the extra things they do for everyone.
posted by occidental at 4:07 PM on April 15, 2007

There are wonderful little devices for people in your kind of situation. Personal Locator Beacons. You can buy one, or you can even rent them. But I wouldn't do a solo trip without one. They save lives.
posted by bigmusic at 4:17 PM on April 15, 2007

That first link is a great site about being prepared with survival kits. Lots of good information there.
posted by bigmusic at 4:20 PM on April 15, 2007

Be prepared for the freakyness factor.

I'm not predisposed to being freaked out. I live alone an enjoy it, but for some reason when I'm backpacking alone, surrounded by the forest at night, there is a level of anxiety that takes a few days to dissipate.

As far as medical situations go, this book is excellent, but a bit heavy to carry on the trail.

The three things I do to prevent really major disasters are:

1. Leave a detailed plan of where I'm going and don't stray too far away from it.

2. Use a fully waterproof stuff sac for my sleeping bag. (I've always assumed that hypothermia is the biggest threat and if I fall into a river I want to have something dry to crawl into. The down side of this is that the sleeping bag does stay a little more damp from the night's perspiration.)

3. Have a backup tarp. (I don't use tents, so I always carry two tarps. One functions as the ground cloth under normal circumstances and the other keeps the rain off but in a pinch I really only need one of them.)

Other thoughts:

For medical purposes and general purposes at least some duct tape is hard to beat (but you probably already know that)

Do you know how to handle bears? If not, there are many good books on the subject and you should read at least one.

Boredom prevention:
Have you ever seen Survivorman? If not, check it out before you go.
posted by 517 at 4:20 PM on April 15, 2007

If you're going to Big Sur I wouldn't worry about being all alone out there, probably your biggest problem will be getting away from all the other people. An emergency whistle would almost certainly draw someone to you if you were on a well traveled trail within a few hours. Blow it three times for distress!

Main thing on a solo trip is not to go off route or do anything unusually risky as if you twist an ankle you are going to be one miserable puppy and may have to abandon a bunch of your stuff out there to make it back.
posted by fshgrl at 5:04 PM on April 15, 2007

has trail reports and maps plus a helpful forum.
posted by hortense at 5:15 PM on April 15, 2007

actually the map views are here
posted by hortense at 6:16 PM on April 15, 2007

Be prepared for the freakyness factor.

Word 'em up. I can't tell you how long it took me to get past the noises at night thing except that it took many, many nights of sleeping alone in the woods. Yeah, I'm a girly-man.

If you think this might apply to you, be prepared for a few days of little-to-no sleep and their effect on your physical stamina and judgement (i.o.w., don't push yourself when you're tired.) Earplugs and/or music through headphones can help (then again, if not being able to hear the outside makes you feel vulnerable they could make things even worse.)
posted by Opposite George at 7:31 PM on April 15, 2007

I think the most important thing when you're backpacking solo is to be conservative about what you do. A rushing stream that you'd ford with a group of people might be too dangerous on your own. Climbing around on a big rock pile is fun with a group, but getting home alive with a broken ankle or a snake bite is a lot more difficult when you're by yourself. It kind of sucks to play it safe, but you can console yourself with the fact that solo backpacking is already pretty adventurous to begin with. This is not the time to push yourself.

And yeah, what everybody said about the night-time heebie-jeebies. I get over them by telling myself funny stories to distract myself from the things that go bump in the night. These stories are usually set in well-lit, highly populated cities, and must not involve bears, serial killers, etc. If I'm feeling especially uncreative, I try to visualize all the scenes from a favorite movie (The Princess Bride, typically).

Good luck, and have fun! There's nothing like some time alone in the woods.
posted by vytae at 7:41 PM on April 15, 2007

Another thought: My first "solo" backpacking trip was along a trail with heavy hiker and backpacking traffic. Even though I was hiking by myself, it was reassuring to know that if I did get into serious shit it wouldn't be long before somebody came along. Dunno anything about the area you're considering but maybe you should think about something like that your first time out.
posted by Opposite George at 10:22 PM on April 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Get a metal frame backpack, and pack light. You didn't say how long you'll be hiking, but take the bare minimum of necessities. Backpacks have a way of getting heavier after a few hours and staying really heavy after a week or two. Take just pair of clothes and alternate days wearing them. Take a small towel, etc. Think minimally.
posted by zardoz at 5:55 AM on April 16, 2007

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