Updated on December 4th, 2019
“Solo hiking comes with a lot of risks & safety factors which you need to mitigate. I have made mistakes along the way which I hope means by sharing, you can avoid. That’s why this also comes under my title of a “What Not To Do” Guide.”
Mt Warning (NSW), Bluff Knoll & Nancy Peak (WA) in Australia. Kalalau Trail in Kauai, Hawaii.
In October this year, I have signed up to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. This is no mean feat on any level but comes with particular trepidation as I will have just turned 50. I was thrilled 2 years ago when I completed the Inca Trail. Then, I vowed that if I was going to attempt Kilimanjaro, I need to do it sooner rather than later. I know how I have responded to altitude in the past & how much my knees suffered from the downhill sections. But it does mean that training this year is a top priority. Staying fit while travelling has so far been my nemesis so this is a big motivation for me.
Hiking is one activity that I need to increase so I’m looking for all the opportunities I can to get training this year. It got me reflecting on hiking as a solo traveller. I have gone on walks & treks numerous times on my own.
“There is something very special about being alone in the outdoors with only the butterflies (or 1 annoying fly if you’re in Australia) for company.”
I am keen to share some of my favourite walks over the coming months.
However, solo hiking comes with a lot of risks & safety factors which you need to mitigate (I have seen “127 Hours” & couldn’t believe he went off alone!). I have made mistakes along the way which I hope means by sharing, you can avoid. That’s why this also comes under my title of a “What Not To Do” Guide.
Here are some of my top tips for safe Solo Hiking & lessons I’ve learnt along the way.
What are my 10 Top Tips for Hiking Solo?
1. Broadcast Your Plans
When I was on a solo road trip around Western Australia for a couple of weeks, I was determined that being on my own was no deterrent to stop me from getting some hiking action. I developed a foolproof template. I knew it was important that someone knew where I was heading when I went into the wilderness alone.
Before I started each hike, I would send a text message to my sister & my friend who were both in Sydney. The message included when I was starting, how long I should be & photos of the route signs.
“It was a flawless plan…or at least I thought it was until I got to the car park, tried to send the message & had no signal.”
It wasn’t until I reached the highest point of the trail when my phone sprang into life, so I sent a helpful message “At the top”. Again, when I completed the 10km walk I sent a final text to tell them I was down safe & sound.
Unfortunately, it turned out that the first proper signal I got was when I was on the road halfway back to my hotel. All of my messages went at once – “This is where I’m going & how long it will take” “At the top” “Down safe & sound”. They were pleased to hear, of course. However, for future reference, I will always make sure I send as much information as possible when I know my signal is working. And tell someone locally too if possible, just in case.
2. Be Clear on Start & End Points
The worst thing that can happen when you’re hiking solo is to lose sight of how you get home once you’ve finished. For that reason, I will often ask around with locals or Tourist Information offices to identify Circular Hikes. This means that every step you take is on new ground & you know at the end that you will be back to your transport & able to head home.
That said, I also have no issue with walks that actually mean you have to turn around & go back the same way. The return route will always bring another perspective, time of day, weather change or different light conditions. It is never the same & can be even more beautiful in the other direction.
3. Choose More Popular Routes
Although many of the examples here are on fairly isolated tracks, I have learnt lessons & for safety, it’s more a “do as I say, not as I do” scenario. I would never recommend going anywhere if you are likely to be the only person on the track. This is asking for trouble. The more people around, the safer it is from all perspectives.
It may feel frustrating at times that you are not “off the beaten path” but it is the safest way.
“For many of my hikes in Australia, mine was the only car in the car park when I arrived & when I completed the hike. This left me feeling very vulnerable.”
There, I also appeared only to have the 1 annoying fly buzzing around my head for company. It was a great relief when on my final walk he decided to take a break & I was joined by a group of beautiful yellow butterflies.
4. Have The Correct Outfit
I was in Hanalei Bay, Kauai in 2016, travelling solo. I stopped at a small information booth in town for recommendations. He categorically told me that I must walk the Kalalau Trail which started a short drive from the town. He even looked up the weather for the days I was there & advised me when was best to go.
My plan was to start early on his advice. The night before I was getting my outfit ready when I realised how ineptly I had packed for anyone planning a hike. I didn’t have boots, but that was fine, I had running shoes. In addition, I didn’t have a rucksack, but I did have a black leather handbag which was a backpack & could hold a few snacks which were really all I needed. Carrying my large bottle of water in my hands would be fine. In terms of the best clothes, for some reason, I decided that most appropriate was a cheesecloth top. I loved this blouse as it covered my shoulders & kept me cool in hot weather. I was sorted!
“The next morning, I set out in my beaded, frilly top with my handbag ready for whatever the trail had to throw at me! It wasn’t until I started that I realised how ridiculous I must look!“
However, on my return I noticed I wasn’t the most inappropriately dressed person on the track. I passed people in bare feet (the trail was well defined but quite muddy in places) & a couple of guys in just shorts (no tops, no shoes) carrying a glass water bottle. It was scorching hot & sunny by that stage. Clearly the trail attracts the local unprepared hikers.
In addition, make sure all your equipment is well charged & take extra battery power if required. I had the MapMyRun App on my phone for one walk so I could track my progress. It was an older phone & as I approached the 10km mark it went dead. The frustration was that I couldn’t properly show my route anymore. The safety challenge was how would I contact anyone if something happened? These apps drain power so always make sure you have a back-up plan.
For all the hikes I mention here I started early. The advantage is that you can easily get your place in the car park, particularly important for popular trails. If you’re on your own then it’s better to be first in, than last out. And you never want to get lost or still be out if it starts to get dark.
By leaving early I have often completed my hike as one of the first & am back to explore more areas for the rest of the day, self-righteous in my achievement!
6. Know the rules
I was in Byron Bay in Australia when my friend persuaded me to join her in a climb up Mount Warning nearby. She had completed it alone on her last visit & said it was a good climb but tough. You have to pull yourself 30m up a sheer cliff face on a chain to reach the summit. After being pleased to have almost made it to the top we started this ascent with a firm grip on the chain.
“If it was hard going up the cliff, it was even harder going down. I made slow progress trying to stay balanced & clinging on for grim death to what now felt like a very inadequate chain.“
Finally, at the bottom of this section, as we got ready for the now easy walk back to the car, I spotted a sign. The summit is an Aboriginal Sacred Site & they actually request that you don’t climb to the top. I was gutted. This goes against all my beliefs about respecting local cultures.
On a physical level I was very proud of my achievement, but I had also trampled all over my belief system in the process. As we came down, we saw a family who had almost made it but been put off by the sign & chosen not to summit. Most disappointingly there was no indication at the start of the hike to warn you that this was the case. The family clearly felt short-changed that they had climbed in the heat for 2 hours, only to turn back before the final chapter due to their principles.
“Therefore, do your research. Know the rules & limitations. Stick to your principles.”
On another note, we met a guy back in the car park who was clearly stoned. He had lost his shoe & was asking if we thought it would be OK for him to make the climb with a pillowcase on one foot?! After considering this for a second, we told him he would probably find it tough. I have no idea if he tried! See Point 4!
7. Make Friends & Be Memorable
I love hiking as wherever you are in the world, taking part is an open door to a friendly conversation. Hiking solo can be lonely & just having the opportunity to speak to like-minded people can be the highlight of your day. Be memorable so that the conversation can continue as you walk along the route. Wear something that stands out. If the worst happens, they will know they’ve seen you.
8. Make Sure The Paths Are Clearly Marked
I was hiking Nancy Peak, Porongurup NP in Western Australia. On the way up it was a very clear path, with butterflies as my only company. I reached the summit as it opened to a magnificent view of the surrounding area & crossed the bare rock which marked the top. As I followed the (faded) yellow arrows they led my route through a very tight space between two big rocks. I was very grateful that I hadn’t opted for a big breakfast that morning as I shimmied my way through. I confidently crossed the rock to look for the next arrow to designate my route down.
“There were 3 or 4 places where I felt the path could be but without any markers, I was reluctant to make any decisions & commitment until I had some kind of reassurance. I felt very alone & started to experience mild panic.”
After walking backwards & forwards & almost making a decision to go through a gap in the hedge & hope for the best, I spotted it. Well over to the right-hand side was a very faint yellow arrow. Huge relief swept over me as I now confidently started scrambling down the rocks. It may not have been a clear path, but at least I knew it was the right one. It was a huge relief when I made it back to my car. Not an experience I would want to repeat again, however. Big lesson – turn back if you are in any doubt.
9. Know When To Give Up
I was on the Kalalau Trail in Kauai. I had left early so I was one of the first to complete the initial 2-mile section to Hanakapi’ai beach. The beach was stunning & covered in rock piles which made for fantastic photos as they were backed by the lively waves behind them. I sat & rested for a while before I started the second part of the hike – to Hanakapi’ai Falls. It was an extra 2 miles, but I was keen to do the trail justice.
“My inappropriate footwear (see Point 4) started to take its toll. My running shoes had great laces which had knots in the elastic to keep them in place, rather than being tied. Or they usually do. As my feet started to disappear & the mud got deeper, I almost lost my shoes about 3 times.”
Trying to stay intact, took its toll on my balance. When I nearly lost my water bottle down the hill, I made a decision. Maybe it was OK if I didn’t make it to the waterfall?
Although it was only another 2 miles, at the current pace it could take me forever. I reluctantly headed back to the beach, while on the way adjusting my plans. As I sat, I made a photographic study of Hanakapi’ai beach. The sun was now resplendent, making it even more spectacular. I praised myself. For once I had made the sensible choice. I took my time on my return to Hanalei Bay. My camera was at hand every step of the way to capture the beauty of the Na Pali Coastline. I have never regretted my choice, sometimes you just have to admit that you’re not invincible.
10. Take the signs seriously
Hiking is synonymous with scary signs. In Australia, they take this to the extreme. One thing I do recognise is that you need to take them seriously. I was hiking up Bluff Knoll, Stirling Range NP in Western Australia. Luckily, I had followed Point 5 & arrived early. Again, mine was one of the few cars in the car park. I barely saw a soul as I made my way towards the summit. Then the scary sign caught my eye, telling me to turn back if you see clouds coming over the peak.
I had started my walk with clear skies & the clouds built as I climbed. By the time I made it to the highest point they were starting to set in. I took a few pictures & then headed down. Better to be safe than sorry. Trust the signs, they are there for a reason.
I hope you find these Tips useful & please feel free to add your own in the Comments below. I will be sharing more of my hiking stories & favourite trails over the next few months as I continue with my training. Why not Subscribe & keep your eyes peeled for Podcasts & Video Diaries as well? You can also see my fitness progress moving forward. I’d love you to join me on my journey!
What do you think?
What advice would you give to anyone who is planning a solo hike?
Where would you recommend as excellent locations for hiking alone?
What have been your close shaves when walking a trail?
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