Party of One: Overcoming the Fear of Hiking Solo
Words & Photos by Rebecca Sperry
In the past six years since I started hiking, I've spent over 90% of my time on trail hiking solo. I choose to go solo for a variety of reasons (it's easier, I can go at my own pace, I like being alone in the woods, etc.). However, the original decision to go it alone was not because I was trying to prove something to myself; it was because my husband didn't feel like hiking one day, and I did! There's nothing quite like spending a few hours (or days) alone in the wilderness, and I highly recommend everyone try it at least once in their life. However, many people have reached out to me over the years (mainly women) expressing anxiety about going solo. They will ask how I overcame the fear of being alone in the woods, with concerns ranging from worrying about getting lost to being afraid of the "monsters" lurking in the forest. I, too, spent the first few years worrying about the "monsters" in the forest, but the more time I spend hiking solo, the less afraid I became.
In 2019, I spent my first night alone in the woods on a backpacking trip. That experience, and the many subsequent ones I've had, have taught me a lot about how to manage anxiety in the backcountry. With almost 3,000 solo miles under my belt, there are a lot of strategies that I've developed to not only hike successfully on my own but also to enjoy it.
General Tips for Solo Day Hiking
First and foremost, before you even think about stepping into the wilderness alone, make sure that you're carrying the necessary gear and wearing the right clothes. Going solo means that you're taking a bigger risk and need to be prepared in the event that something goes awry. You won't have someone else to count on if you get hurt or lost, so it's imperative that you're carrying the right stuff.
To start, I recommend taking a wilderness first aid class and a backcountry navigation class prior to setting out solo. This will give you the soft skills that you need to feel more comfortable with being alone in the woods. Carrying the Ten Essentials, educating yourself about LNT (Leave No Trace) Principles, and always telling someone your itinerary is also extremely important.
Once you've got the navigation and soft skills down, focus on wearing the proper clothes and carrying the proper gear. Depending on the season and climate, you will need to adjust what you're wearing. Synthetic or wool fabrics, moisture-wicking, and quick-drying materials are all your friends. You don't necessarily need to spend top dollar to dress for hiking, but there are some pieces of gear that it's worth spending a bit more on because they will last longer and weigh less. For example, your outer layer, wind layer, and shoes are pieces of gear that you will want to make sure are of good quality because, if you find yourself in trouble, these will be items you need to rely on to keep you warm and dry.
Now that you're dressed properly, carrying the right gear, and have the basic outdoor principles and navigational skills, you're ready to hit the trail solo. But as you pull into the trailhead, a wave of fear washes over you. You begin to play the "what if" game and can't seem to bring yourself to get out of the car. Here are some of the strategies that I use both on day hikes and backpacking trips to manage and overcome the feeling of being afraid in the woods.
Managing Anxiety - Things That Go Bump in the Night
Things that go bump in the night (or the day) are some of the leading causes of anxiety for me as a solo hiker. What I "can't hear (or see) can't hurt me" has long been my philosophy when avoiding anxiety-provoking situations, and this goes double for hiking. I'm not suggesting that you block out all sound because you want to be aware if someone approaches you on trail, but I've found a significant amount of solace by simply listening to music, podcasts, or books on tape while hiking. I find this strategy is especially helpful when I'm scared or stressed out on a hike, and on those occasions, I tend to listen to podcasts because they take my mind off of feeling afraid more than music.
Trying to fall asleep when you're alone in the woods can also be daunting. I've taken to wearing earplugs when I sleep for two reasons; they block out the silence (or potential scary sounds), and wearing earplugs mimics white noise. (As someone who needs the noise of a fan to sleep, this makes sleeping without one a little less difficult.) Another way to minimize the silence (and settle your imagination) is to sleep near moving water to have a consistent sound in the background. Then you're not relying on your mind (and imagination) to fill the silence.
Navigating When Lost or in Poor Weather
Being mentally prepared, knowing how to use your gear, feeling comfortable with navigating the trail, learning what your triggers are, and then developing strategies to manage them are all key to an enjoyable solo trek. If something goes wrong, though, the most important thing to do is not panic. I've had a few experiences where I've got off-trail, gone the wrong way, or had to make tough decisions about whether or not to continue forward in harsh weather, and in each of these instances, I had to make a conscious effort not to panic.
If you're lost, ask yourself, can you go back the way you came until you recall your location? Are you lost, or are you just not where you thought you were going to be? Taking a break, referencing the map, and, if necessary, retracing your steps are some of the most important things to do when you're not sure where you are. The worst thing to do in a situation where you're off-trail or lost is to continue going forward in the direction that is unfamiliar or to start heading down into the woods away from the trail altogether.
In the event that you find yourself in poor weather, depending on where you are (above treeline or below), the most important thing to do is find your way to safety. If that means getting off-trail, though, make sure that you are able to find a way back to the trail after the weather has passed. Checking weather conditions prior to leaving for a hike will minimize the likelihood of this situation occurring, but if you're in bad weather, and especially if you're above treeline, getting below it is key.
The more time I spend alone in the woods, the more comfortable I become with it. Experience is the best teacher, and the only way to overcome feeling unsure, afraid, and inexperienced with solo hiking is to solo hike. Start with short hikes and go places with lots of people so that you're not all by yourself. Set mini, easily attainable goals (hiking to the next viewpoint) and then reassess how you're feeling both physically and mentally. Continuing to push yourself a bit farther out of your comfort zone with each hike will make going solo easier and easier, and before you know it, you'll be the one offering advice on how to do it!
Rebecca Sperry is an avid hiker based out of New Hampshire. She hikes almost exclusively solo, prefers the less-traveled trails, and is working on hiking all of the trails in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. You can follow her journey on Instagram: @sockedinhikes or on her website: sockedinhikes.com