One of the central tenets of backcountry exploration is never venture out on your own. The conventional thinking is hiking/backpacking is a group activity, where individual achievement must take a backseat to safety. This remains a well-held belief, but is it valid? Do the risks of solo backcountry travel outweigh the benefits?
There are many reasons for traveling through the backcountry in a group. Communal meals, sharing equipment, division of camp duties and basic human companionship are just a few advantages of trekking through forests and over mountains with other individuals.
Although there are many advantages of companionship in the backcountry, the main reason for its popularity as a backcountry rule is safety. The thinking is hiking in groups is much safer than traveling alone. What if you break a leg? Or get sick? In case of injury or severe illness, some in the group can stay with the injured/ill, while the rest seek assistance.
Fortunately, some of the increased risk of traveling alone in the backcountry can be ameliorated with the help of modern day technology. A personal locator beacon (PLB) can be used in case of emergency, and in some cases may be more effective than sending members of a group for assistance. A PLB is especially important for those exploring little used trails or bushwhacking off-trail through the backcountry solo.
Although hiking alone may be more risky than doing so in a group, it also contains many unique rewards impossible to enjoy in the company of others.
Going at one’s own pace is one of the most rewarding aspects of journeying through the backcountry solo. There is no worrying about holding someone up while taking pictures of wildflowers, identifying an uncommon bird or sketching a pretty landscape. Being alone allows for traveling at one’s own pace without inconveniencing anyone else in the process.
Peace and quiet is another benefit of hiking without any companions. When traveling with others discussions are inevitable; typically including topics such as current events, artfully done television shows hardly anyone is watching and endless recitations of classic Monty Python skits. These conversations often obscure the natural sounds of birds, insects, etc.
The resulting quiet of traveling solo allows for being alone with one’s thoughts. This notion is increasingly difficult in the modern world where the constant din of automobiles, music from one’s iPod and the ever-present ring-tone of a cellphone are ubiquitous.
Unfortunately, hiking or backpacking solo has some disadvantages too.
When traveling alone there is no one in which to share the experiences. Many people take pleasure in sharing the sights and sounds discovered in the backcountry and this is not possible when exploring solo. Solo backcountry experiences can be shared with others by taking notes and using the notes to produce reports or a blog of the adventures.
With no one to talk to there is the risk of loneliness. This often manifests itself at first in having conversations with one self. This can evolve into talking to animals, plants (specifically trees) and in extreme examples one’s own equipment. For example, I have had many a conversation with a cleaning sponge before (affectionately called Mr. Sponge). A small radio can often alleviate any possible pangs of loneliness in the backcountry, but bring a sponge that is a good listener, just in case.
Is exploring the backcountry alone fraught with too much risk? Is the standard convention about only hiking in groups still applicable? Or is a combination of skills and technology enough to ameliorate such risk?
Solo backcountry exploration can be a highly rewarding activity, where self-discovery and communing with nature are the norm. The proper skills and current technology can help ameliorate much of the added risk of being alone and far off the beaten path.
Photos: Robinson River by Dan Crane.
Dan Crane blogs about his bushwhacking adventures at Bushwhacking Fool.