Some of us women who dig the outdoors are more people-oriented, and some of us relish being alone. If you enjoy solitude, there’s no reason why you can’t extend that time into hiking and backpacking solo. It may be a bit intimidating at first because it’s been culturally ingrained in us that women are more at risk hiking alone than men. However, this is more of a fear than a reality. The first step is to recognize this is a fear only and consider the real evidence on why women shouldn’t worry about hiking alone.
When I was 19, I set out for my first solo cross-country trip. I hiked and camped in some of America’s most jaw-dropping national parks as I navigated my way across the country. Perhaps the passion to do this alone happens to be a part of my innate constitution and how my mother has always told me that I’m fiercely independent. I happily traversed on this adventure, yet I definitely made mistakes. Those mistakes set the foundation for upping my skills and familiarity with being a solo female outdoorswoman. I have learned that the essential keys are being prepared and adaptive. You have to be prepared enough to know what you’re doing out there on a trail, yet being adaptive means you can change the plan as needed. In essence, if you’ve got a good handle on the power of your brain and your intuition, you’ve got this. It doesn’t matter if you were born fiercely independent or not; if you have a true desire to NOW be a female solo adventurer, don’t let anyone tell you it will be too scary or dangerous. Think about it – aren’t some of the most worthwhile experiences you’ve had been the ones that were a little scary? They’re the most worthwhile because you believed in yourself and you did it.
Why to Hike Solo As a Woman
There’s a laundry list of reasons why hiking alone as a woman rocks. Here are some to chew on.
To quote Glennon Doyle from her book Untamed, “We can do hard things.” One of the best ways to overcome a fear if you’re not feeling confident is to just do it. After getting prepared with your research and getting out there on a solo hiking trip, there is no greater feeling at the end of the day than this: when you set up your tent after walking however many miles, you know YOU did this, YOU made it happen. That sudden hail storm you made it through, that huge climb up a mountain – these may all test you and be hard, but you can do hard things. Hiking alone and being self-sufficient gives you a whole new opportunity to learn about how capable you are, and it’s pretty cool to see how this confidence is applied to other areas of your life.
Your Body is a Powerhouse
Hiking solo as a woman has given me a deep appreciation for my body and how powerful it is. Many of us, including myself, have struggled with body image issues in the past. Yet hiking a long day with my gear has afforded me a new love for all that my amazing body allows me to accomplish and enjoy in the outdoors. It gives me the revved up feelings of being strong, determined, fit and indestructible, to name a few. If you want to both challenge and love on your body, hiking solo is an empowering way to do this.
Personal Retreat Time
In a day and age where there is constant stimulus all around us, it can be vital to take time for self-care. As a yoga teacher who has both attended and led many retreats, I know how much more rejuvenated I feel after these experiences. But I’ve got to tell you, I feel just as uplifted and restored after I go on a solo hiking trip. I treat these as mini personal retreats where I’m able to get quiet and tune into me. You can do this as a day hike or a short backpacking trip with a good book, a journal, some inspirational podcasts…or none of these things to truly drop all the noise and just be peaceful in the woods.
You Make All the Decisions
Really, this is actually a good thing! You call the shots. You have no one else’s need to attend to but your own and this can be pure bliss. You think for yourself, considering your needs. If you’re tired and want to stop for the day, you don’t worry about dealing with anyone else’s input. If you want to change the itinerary, as long as it’s a safe choice, you don’t have to run it by someone for approval. Now don’t get me wrong, hiking with others is super fun and sometimes when you’re exhausted it’s great when your friend wants to make all the decisions. On the flip side, it’s well-worth it to occasionally have some solo hiking time so you can enjoy the spaciousness of your own personal agenda.
Empowering Tips for Female Solo Hiking
Now that you’re stoked to get outside alone, it’s a good time to get savvy on some tips that will both educate and empower you on hiking alone as a female. Here’s a list of suggestions that I’ve either learned the hard way from trips like my first one cross-country (always make sure you have extra dry socks on a hiking trip!) or through my research, personal experience and the insight of other fellow women hikers.
Be Prepared and Adaptive
I want to come back to the essential keys I mentioned earlier, being prepared and adaptive. You want to know what you’re in for, while also being open and smart to the idea that sometimes we have to ditch the plan for something that keeps us safe. I try to keep a balance of researching enough for a hike so that I know what to expect, yet I also know Mother Nature has her own agenda and what I ‘expect’ may not always be the case. Being able to adapt by having all the gear you need or a bailout plan if necessary can be a lifesaver. When planning for a trip, I’m open to listening to everything, and then I make my own choice on what works for me.
On a bright note, adapting also can leave room for unexpected fun. Yes, I want to feel prepared, but I also like being surprised. For me, a happy medium is being prepared and knowing enough in advance so I feel safe, with leaving room for the wonder of the unknown. Leave space to abandon the itinerary for an hour to check out that viewpoint you didn’t know about. When I got on the Appalachian Trail for my thru-hike, I had no idea there would be ponies in the Grayson Highlands and had never even seen a picture of Katahdin, the northern terminus, in Maine. But I had a guidebook, compass, adequate gear (perhaps a bit too heavy though!) and a trowel to practice Leave No Trace principles. I knew what I needed to survive and do the right thing, yet I was still able to marvel along the way at what I didn’t know when I had the chance to witness it.
In terms of being prepared, here are some helpful points.
Know Your Gear and Care For It
Let’s just say it’s a really good idea to know how your new tent sets up before you take it out on a trail and you have to set up in a rainstorm; that’s a solid example of knowing your gear. You can spend a ton of time researching fancy clothes, tents, sleeping bags, etc. – but how do they work for YOU? Try things on before you go hiking to make sure they’re comfortable, flexible and not too tight. It is the worst thing ever to have a pair of underwear that continually gives you wedgies when you hike, let me tell you (been there). If you’d like more info on the best hiking underwear, check out this article here.
There’s a huge array of hiking clothing out there, but be sure to look for either polyester/synthetics or merino wool fabrics for breathability and wicking properties to keep you dry.
Another essential point to consider as a woman is whether you run cold or hot. I say cold first, because many of us females are cursed with this plight and I know that’s the case for me. Put me a in a zero degree sleeping bag in all my clothes and I’m still freezing…and it’s not even 30 degrees out. I’ve figured out my layering system by now and know what I need to stay warm, and this is why I say be prepared with enough clothing/gear for your body’s unique needs.
Caring for your gear is also important so it lasts a long time (that stuff ain’t cheap, right?). Some examples including drying your sleeping bag in the sun if you woke up with tons of condensation in your tent and always remember to air out your tent after a trip to prevent mold and mustiness.
What to Pack (and NOT to Pack)
What to pack will depend on the trip itself. Is it a day hike? A multi-night trip? What season are you hiking in? Once you narrow this down, you can determine the essentials needed.
When I think back to my first week-long hike in Nepal’s Annapurna region when I was 21, I laugh at what I had in my pack (c’mon, what the heck was I doing with jean overalls?). Nowadays, I go way lighter with my gear because it allows me to hike more comfortably. I recommend carrying what’s truly needed and thinking twice about the rest of the stuff.
With that said, depending on the type of hike, sometimes I include so-called ‘luxury items.’ I would never do this for a long-distance hike of many months when I really want to hike big mile days and care a lot about my pack weight, but I certainly love carrying a book or journal when I’m out for a night or two. This all comes down to personal preference and what’s going to keep you comfortable, sane and let you enjoy your hike. This feeds into a well-known mantra, ‘Hike Your Own Hike.’ The bottom line is that your trip, whether it be a short or long one, is your experience. If you want to carry extra stuff, do it! Let your personal happiness level be your gauge of how you’re doing out there on a trail.
Another popular saying is, ‘Don’t Pack Your Fears.’ I’ll go a bit further to say not to pack anyone else’s either. It’s completely normal to have fears about something we haven’t done before or feel nervous about going into the wild. It can be helpful to journal on what your solo hiking fears might be and then examine them, whether they’re rooted in something real or if they’re based in myths. This will make it a lot easier to deliberately choose to not pack them when it’s time to head out for your adventure.
Okay, so this topic kind-of has to be covered because it’s such a prevalent theme as to why women often opt not to hike alone.
Here’s my overall spiel: A woman’s keen sense of intuition is one of her greatest gifts – use it. “There is power in the present moment; you will know what to do,” – My Godmother said that to me once when faced with a big decision. Listen to your gut, your instincts, your intuitive third-eye center—whatever you want to call it. If you’re alone and that river crossing doesn’t look like a good idea, don’t do it. If you’re tired and it’s late, stop for the day to avoid an injury. Trust that there is power to know when you get quiet and listen while in the present moment.
Here are some more useful tips regarding safety.
Baby Steps Are Just Fine
We all start in the baby pool first, so there’s no requirement to jump into the ocean when it comes to hiking solo. Taking small steps to build your confidence is completely valid. Consider these:
- If you’re not ready for an overnight trip, do a day hike alone to get a taste for it.
- If you feel prepared for your first backpacking trip, invite another woman or two along before you dive into going solo.
- If you want to try backpacking solo, stay on a popular trail that leads to a developed camp area where other people will be.
- Always let someone know your itinerary of where you’ll be going before you head out.
- Learn skills from other women or men you know who are experienced hikers.
- You can also utilize the incredible resources online through sites like YouTube, blogs and guides. There are classes at outdoor outfitters like REI or independent shops to help educate you – learn anything from how to pitch a tent to how to combat blisters. In addition, you’ll find great sources out there for gear lists, food choices and more.
- Stick to well-marked trails if you’re new to hiking; there’s no need to try to replicate life on the show Alone.
Know the Trail Conditions and Weather
Before you set out on any hike, find out what the trail conditions are and what weather you’re predicted to have. This will vary with the season and where you’re hiking. Some factors may be if it’s a low water year with not much rainfall or if wildfires are an issue. Talk to people about the trail or hike you want to do and put in some research. Know the terrain of where you’re going so you have an idea of what to expect. There are plenty of online resources to find out the weather and get trail updates.
One thing to add is that weather can change on a dime, especially in the mountains. Hypothermia can happen even in the summer if adverse conditions arise, so be prepared. I never go out without a raincoat and gloves to be on the safe side.
Once on a trail, be aware of your surroundings by paying attention. It can be pretty easy to space out while hiking, but try to keep a sense of where you’re at so you don’t miss a turn. If you use headphones, keep one earbud out so you can hear any potential need-to-be-aware-of noises, like a rattlesnake making its presence known.
Often times when people get into trouble on trail is when they don’t have enough food, dry or warm clothes and water.
Avoid the food problem by always packing a little extra food – you don’t need to bring your entire cupboard, but it’s always smart to have a meal or two extra in case. I’m a big advocate of eating healthy while hiking so I can nourish my body with the fuel it needs to kick ass. Here’s my guide to healthy backpacking food that’s inexpensive, lightweight and tasty.
Clothes: don’t skip out here to save weight. As I’ve said, I get cold really easily, in particular my hands. This is common for many women and even if it’s summertime, it can get cold at night and in early mornings up high in the mountains. Here’s a pair of gloves I always keep with me that are both lightweight and warm and I can’t recommend them enough.
Be sure that the trail you choose has ample water access if you’re going out for more than a day hike. And don’t skip on carrying enough water because it’s heavy! Dehydration is no fun. If you’re looking for a reliable, quality water filtration system that’s lightweight, check out the Sawyer Squeeze here or our guide to backpacking water filters.
Carry a Spot Beacon or Satellite Phone
Carrying a spot beacon or satellite phone may give you the extra feeling of security you want when venturing out solo. A spot beacon is lighter and less expensive. Many people (men and women included) like the idea of being able to call for help in an emergency. This makes a lot of sense and offers solid peace of mind.
Where to Camp
If you’re backpacking, you want to camp at least a mile away from a road to avoid those late-night party folks who may keep you up at night or bring unwanted attention.
You can still call yourself a solo female hiker and camp near people, I swear. This is often the way on popular trails and it can add some comfort knowing people are near by, but far enough that you have your own space. I’ve done both – sometimes I camp close to people and other times I find myself far away in my own little tent. When I first started backpacking solo, I used to prefer knowing people were close, but now I find I seek the solitude of my own tent site. See how you feel as time progresses, and remember it’s what you prefer, not what anyone else does.
Know the Animal/Pest Situation
Become familiar with what animals live in the area you will be hiking. Some hikers like to carry bear spray as added protection, and it may be necessary to carry a bear canister in certain regions – just be sure you know how to use whatever you carry.
For the record, I’m not a fan of the notion of carrying a gun for general safety.
Depending where you hike, animals you may find yourself dealing with the most are the ‘mini bears’ – critters like mice and rodents who love to chew up your tents and food bags. Yep, been there.
Mosquitoes, gnats and flies can ruin any hiking trip if not prepared for them. I carry a head net which I find to be a real game changer.
Beyond Traditional Safety Tips: How Else to Prepare
Safety goes beyond the things we often think of. Here’s what else is important to reflect upon before setting out solo.
Know Your Limits and Accept Them (with Love)
Keep in check that you’re not out there in nature to prove anything to anyone. We all have limits and the best thing we can do is accept them rather than beat ourselves up. If you’re not solid on using a map and compass, it’s best to avoid technical trails while hiking alone. This doesn’t mean you’re any less than; it means you’re smart and you know where your skills are at today. Sure, this can change down the line with knowledge and practice, but don’t put yourself in an unsafe situation to prove something – it’s not worth it.
Make peace with yourself and you’ll have a much better time hiking than when you’re caught up with ego. Try to leave ego behind; it’s too heavy for your pack anyway.
Take Care of Yourself
You know your body more than anyone else and it’s up to you to take care of it. If carrying a backpack is new to you, take some time to train beforehand. I’ve had plenty of neighbors laugh at me as a I carried a loaded pack to train up and down a big hill in my parents’ development, but I don’t mind.
Take time to stretch, rest and go slow. Know your hiking style and pace so you don’t push yourself. If you don’t know this yet, be kind to yourself while you figure it out. This is where being adaptive comes back into play – if your knee is bothering you or you’ve got some serious blisters developing, there’s no reason to keep going! Carry a first-aid kit that’s appropriate to your needs for added security and care.
Many women wonder about how to deal with that time of the month while on a backpacking trip. I’ve been using a menstrual cup for years because I believe it’s more sanitary while on trail and it’s better for the environment in terms of generating less waste. Plus who wants to carry out soiled pads or tampons?! Read our guide on backpacking hygiene for more information.
Hiking solo is more about the mental game than the physical preparation. I learned through my yoga and meditation practice that the body is capable of enduring way more than the mind is. So we’ve got to train our minds to endure – if you have the will and determination, you can do anything.
No doubt, there will be tough moments and adversity for sure. ‘Embrace the Suck’ is another mentality that can be useful. Accept and dive into the brutality, and see what you can learn while there. I have learned more about myself and my immense capacity through my challenging hiking experiences rather than with the easy ones. I wouldn’t trade out those valuable lessons, even if they pushed me to the limit in the moment. With the ups come the downs and they’re ever shifting while on a hiking trip. Nothing is permanent, so those tough moments will eventually be replaced by something else.
With mental prep, I want to comment that being brave or courageous doesn’t mean doing something no matter what. I talked earlier about fears and overcoming them and how sometimes the best way to tackle them is to go for it. However, a paramount point is that true bravery and courage is when you choose to listen to your intuition. Yes, you may feel disappointed if you have to use your bailout plan and not complete the route you wanted because a terrible storm is rolling in. But to be brave is to not equate your choice with your self-worth. To be brave is to know when to keep going and to know when not to. Mentally prepare to be willing to adapt by going with alternatives when needed.
Find Supportive Community
There are many phenomenal women who have started resources to build community for us to grow and learn from each other. I’m always in awe of what other women hikers teach me, either women I know or ones I read about. Blog posts, books, YouTube videos, Facebook groups – all of these foster community for female solo hikers and the encouragement and inspiration that goes behind doing it. Check out the book Thirst by Heather ‘Anish’ Anderson, Women Who Hike: Walking with America’s Most Inspiring Adventurers by Heather Balogh Rochfort and Girl in the Woods: A Memoir by Aspen Matis.
Female Solo Hiking Wrap-Up
We are often taught to fear the unknown. While it’s important to be prepared, I believe there’s something curiously wondrous in the unknown. Perhaps we can change our viewpoint to excitement rather than fear of the unknown, in learning new skills and ways to savor this life. Trust yourself. Believe in yourself. Do what you need to be prepared, yet leave some wiggle room to adapt and be free while in the wild. As women we are built to be survivors; we are more capable and powerful than we often act.
I encourage you to act and give female solo hiking a try. You already know you can.
Heather Rideout has been a life-long outdoors woman. Her pursuits and passion with hiking and camping have taken her around the world for many long distance trips; such as backpacking in Nepal, India, South America, Morocco, Europe, and North America. Heather has hiked the Appalachian Trail, 2,250 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, and a route of 1,500 miles combining several Camino routes through Spain and Portugal. She has been a blogger for ‘The Trek,’ and recorded an episode with one of her outdoor stories for the podcast ‘Out There.’ Heather shares some of her writing on her website, www.wanderyoga.com