The blog post “Hiking Alone” which I wrote last fall elicited more comments from friends and strangers than I imagined. Some registered “atta girls”, some disapproval, and some disbelief that I would go off hiking in less-traveled areas without escort. So some elaboration:
I hike slowly on my own. I get caught up in looking at things along my path, so I’m seldom more than five miles or so from the trailhead when solo. Longer hikes see me pairing up with a competent buddy or two.
I carry stuff. I may not be going far, but I stay out long enough that the weather may change, or I’ll get hungry. There’s always extra clothing (like jacket, rain pants) in the pack. I have a good first aid kit and another emergency bag with fire-building supplies, flashlight, whistle, duct tape and lightweight tarp among other items. And I’ve practiced using them! Though less useful in the wilderness, I also have my cell phone. Yes, my pack is heavy. But I know that the average rescue for our area requires twelve hours, so when self-rescue isn’t possible then things like these can make a huge difference.
I know where I am. I love maps. And I can use them pretty well, although as the old quote goes, “the map is not the territory”. There will be places where the trail has been re-routed, a road has been closed, or a fire or windstorm has changed a canyon bottom or hillside. But I carry a paper map, my trusty compass and often a GPS for confirmation that I am where I think I am. Simple observation and the paper map, however, is my usual pairing so that I always know the way back.
Some locations are asking for trouble. There are two general areas which send up my internal red flags. One is where there is human traffic in remote areas. Regularly used parking areas and trail heads, especially those near paved roads, can be targeted by smash-and-grab thieves or other people up to no good. Of course, this is also true of parking lots at the mall so the same guidelines apply: be aware of your surroundings, don’t leave valuables, and think about when you choose to be there.
The second area is harder for me to admit. But a slip on a snowy boulder in an isolated canyon a few years ago made me re-examine my choices for solo outings. Where I know I’m going to be off-trail in very rough country and falling is pretty likely, I no longer go alone.
I know my limits. I’m not as strong or resilient as I might want, nor even as much as I was twenty years ago. I’m fortunate enough to hike regularly so I have a good idea what I can do now (not what I did during a summer vacation two years ago). I plan solo outings within my modest limits and self-monitor as I go along to make adjustments as needed.
I leave word of my plans with friends. My husband and friends are regularly supplied with information about where I plan to be and when I plan to return. If I don’t show up or call, then they know to look for me and generally where. There are GPS-based locators which allow a user to send a distress call, but they are expensive to buy and require service contracts–I don’t have one. However a new cell phone application called Hiker Alert (http://www.hikeralert.com) seems like a simple and inexpensive solution for folks who may not have responsible, hiking-savvy friends. It’s web-based and the system is accessible via text for non-smart phone folks.
I hope that for as long as I’m around, I’m able to get out and explore the countryside. That there will always be someplace new on my “to visit” list. And that I’ll be able to do some portion of it following my own whims on solo hikes.