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Looking Out For Number One

by Zaring P. Robertson

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As a lurker on a number of internet bulletin boards related to outdoor recreation, I have learned that many who participate in backpacking are uncomfortable with the idea of going alone. The topic crops up regularly in message threads, and lots of good advice is often generated. Solo backpacking should not be placed in the same category of "extreme sports" as, say, skydiving. There are some increased risks that come with self-reliance, but none that should intimidate any backpacker with a little experience and a sufficient amount of common sense.

At the most basic level, one concern for solo backpackers is the inability to share gear. For instance, a party of two or three might only need a single tent, stove and mess kit between them, and thus all be able to carry lighter individual loads. The lone hiker has to take it all. For this reason, many who venture out by themselves eschew tents altogether, since is not worth lugging a heavy, oversized shelter for a party of one. Bivy sacks and/or tarps are used instead. More serious shared-gear problems faced by solo backpackers are forgotten or broken items. There is no one from whom you can borrow if you leave your matches at home or fail to bring the duct tape. Therefore, it is essential to develop and use a thorough checklist before departing alone on a backpacking trip. A good way to make such a list is to mentally reenact a few previous overnight excursions, and write down everything you used or wished you had. If your only light source is a flashlight, install fresh batteries before leaving, or carry some with you. Better yet, bring a candle instead. Plan for some food that can be eaten without cooking, in case the stove malfunctions and no dry firewood is available.

The bigger concern for solo backpackers is beyond gear, however. It is the increased risk of having no assistance when things go wrong, and a somewhat greater risk that things indeed will. It is easier for one pair of eyes to miss a trail marker, and harder for a single person to scramble over tough/steep terrain without a helping hand. The most common worry voiced on the internet boards is not having someone to provide or summon help in the event of an injury. One answer to this problem is the proverbial ounce of prevention - caution. A solo backpacker needs to recognize his or her limits and be willing to turn around and head back when the little voice inside speaks up. Since backpacking is not supposed to be a competitive sport, there is no shame in quitting. Besides, if you are alone, nobody will know. Another measure is to prearrange for help in emergencies. How? Simple. Just tell somebody where you are going and when you expect to return. (Make sure it is somebody who cares.) If you don't make it home by Christmas, they will send out a search party. For longer treks, try to estimate when you might reach places that enable you to check in, such as developed campgrounds or road crossings. Remember to bring change or a calling card for payphones. Although this author detests them, he feel obligated to mention the option of carrying a cell phone; but please resist the urge to call the office.

In the event of an actual emergency, don't panic. Just because you're not sure of your exact location does not mean you are lost. If you are on a trail, it is a simple matter to backtrack. If not, it is a matter of using, not losing, your head. The solo backpacker needs to have some awareness of the general direction to the nearest town, road or river. A compass comes in handy here, and when in doubt, head downhill. Regarding injuries, the backpacker out alone should have decent first aid skills and provisions. Again, don't panic. Even bleeding is not usually life-threatening. The worst case scenarios are head, leg or foot injuries deep in the backcountry. There is not much an unconscious or immobile hiker can do. So, re-read the parts about caution and prearranged help schedules.

The final concern to address about solo backpacking is, "why do it in the first place?" If you think it sounds crazy, don't try it. Some hikers get the greatest enjoyment from outdoor experiences only by sharing them with comrades. Others, however, are often frustrated by the distractions and compromises that are necessary with group outings. Going alone allows uninterrupted thought, and complete freedom to select routes and timetables. It is wonderful therapy for those with high levels of occupational stress and little home privacy. Generally, too, a solo trip is a much quieter one, making more wildlife encounters probable. Outside of grizzly country, this is considered a good thing! If you have the equipment and a little bit of overnight experience, you may find a trip alone to be very rewarding.

About the Author

Zaring P. Robertson (ziplaw@lex.infi.net) is a sole practitioner of law in central Kentucky who has backpacked for some 24 years off and on.


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