The Pros and Cons of Hiking Alone
I have gone on seven National Park adventures in the west (and a few shorter ones out east). I traveled with my wife twice, a friend twice, and by myself three times. There are certainly advantages to each method of travel. These, in my opinion, are the pros and cons of solo hiking:
Pro: You hike on your own schedule. When you’re hiking alone you can start and stop whenever you choose. On my solo National Park trips I would typically wake up early, and be hiking soon after. I would have a granola bar or power bar for breakfast while packing my backpack, then brush my teeth, fill my water, and then hit the trail. The main reason I like getting on the trail early is to avoid the crowds. I usually hiked in the summertime, so hiking early also usually meant it wasn’t too hot out yet. Thirdly, there is usually better lighting for photography in the morning than in the afternoon. If you’re hiking with a friend you have to take their schedule into consideration. They may want to sleep later or have a bigger, more time-consuming breakfast or whatever else.
Con: The possibility of loneliness. Sure you’re hiking alone, but that doesn’t mean you have to be lonely. I really can’t think of a single time when I was hiking alone and I really felt lonely. However, that’s not the case for everyone. There are plenty of people that are not too comfortable being alone, especially if they’re out in the wilderness.
Pro: You hike at your own pace. I like being able to hike as fast or slow as I want, when I want. I’m a big fan of outdoor photography so I stop a lot to take pictures. When I’m hiking by myself I don’t have to worry about slowing someone down when I’m stopping and I don’t have to worry about them having to keep up when I’m walking normal. I’m tall and have long legs, so I typically move pretty fast on the trail if I’m not taking many photos.
Con: It’s easier to get lost. Theoretically, if you’re in a group, it should be easier to navigate. You could (or should) have multiple people knowing which way to go in order to avoid losing the trail or making a wrong turn. There are also more people to find the correct way in the event that you do get lost.
Pro: You are only responsible for yourself. It can be nice to be out on a hike and have nothing to worry about, except for yourself. If you’re out with others you have to keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t get injured or lost. If they’re young you also need to make sure they’re eating and drinking enough. But when I’m hiking alone I only have to worry about myself. I know what I’m capable of and what I can handle on a hike. If you’re with someone else you have to consider their fitness level, fears (heights at least), and skill level.
Con: You can get in big trouble if you get injured. Even if you’re well prepared, have good gear, and know what you’re doing you can still get hurt. You can trip over a tree root or slip on some mud. In an instant a freak accident can happen and you can sprain your ankle, break a leg, or even lose consciousness. It should be obvious just how happy you would be if you have someone with you to help. Whether they get you out of the unfortunate situation on their own or have to get help. Either way, travelling with a companion can be very valuable in this case. Thankfully, I’ve been on many solo hikes (knock on wood) without incident. That’s not to say it can’t happen though
Pro: You have a better chance of seeing wildlife. This is certainly no guarantee, but I would have to say it’s more likely you see some wildlife if you’re out on your own versus being with a loud group. If you walk slowly and quietly you might not scare something off that you otherwise would in a group. I’ve walked close to rams, marmots, deer, and lots of mountain goats. If I were loud and obnoxious I imagine they would have avoided me.
Sometimes it’s not ok to walk quietly. If you’re hiking in bear country you want to make sure you don’t sneak up on any unsuspecting bears. You should make noise while hiking whether you’re singing, banging your hiking poles together, or occasionally yelling the popular phrase “Hey Bear!” You need to be smart, too. If you’re hiking in bear country, be prepared. Bring bear spray if it’s recommended and you’re worried about bears. Also, be loud and know what to do if you see a bear. I’ve never carried bear spray before, but if I were hiking with my family I would.
Con: There is a higher chance of bad wildlife encounters. No matter how prepared you may be and how loud you are you can still have a bad run in with a bear or possibly a different kind of animal. Maybe you’re downwind of a bear and you’re near rapids or a waterfall so the bear doesn’t smell or hear you coming close. All of a sudden you inadvertently get in between a sow and her cubs. You better be armed with a lot of bear spray and a lot of luck should that ever happen. Thankfully, I haven’t come across that situation.
Pro: It’s easier to connect with nature. It may not be the case for everyone, but I notice a lot more in my surroundings if I am alone and not walking and talking with someone else. Being on a good solo hike can totally free my mind of any other thoughts. It’s like it is just me and the wilderness. It’s more peaceful and calm.
Con: You have no one to share the experience with. It’s nice to be fully immersed in nature, but if you come across something truly magnificent you’re going to wish you had someone to share it with. I love hiking alone, but if I spot some wildlife or see an amazing waterfall or sparkling alpine lake I can’t help but think about how nice it would be to share the moment with someone special to me. I feel that being able to share any experience with someone you care about makes the experience itself exponentially better. My favorite parts about traveling with a friend are those instances when I have already been to a place, but it’s their first time there. I like playing tour guide and being able to show people around. Seeing someone else fall in love with a park the way I do makes my time there extra special.
Pro: It is easier to meet others on the trail. You can certainly meet other hikers if you are hiking with someone else or are in a group, but I find it’s less common. While out solo hiking I find that people are more likely to approach me. I have a theory that the farther you are from the trailhead, the more helpful and friendly other hikers seem to be. I’ve met a lot of different people out on the trails and have hiked for a decent distance with many of them.
Con: You have no one to help in tough or stressful times. I’m not talking about injuries this time. There can be other issues though, often more psychological in nature. When you’re out there on your own you could get scared, tired, or simply bored. I, like many people, have a fear of heights. I would contend that if I weren’t with a couple of friends on Half Dome I probably wouldn’t have made it up the treacherous cables. On the other hand, I was alone on Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and I froze on the trail and ultimately turned back before the summit. Maybe if I were hiking with a friend or two their encouragement could have gotten me to the top. I’ll never know. There are other times; too, when you might just feel like giving up and turning back, but if there was someone there with you, they might just change your mind.