A Woman Backpacking Solo | Average Hiker
Single Most Frequently Asked Question
As a woman backpacking solo, one of the most frequent questions I've been asked over the years is “Aren't you Afraid to Hike Alone?” My answer has always been no – emphatically no.
I've rarely had a bad situation occur on any of the trails I've hiked, and I have always trusted my instincts. The few situations that have occurred, without fail, have been when I've not followed my “internal voice.”
All this said though, I'm not naive. Wherever there are humans, there is always a certain amount of uncertainty, and over time I've learned to trust my intuition and instincts. I believe that “inner voice,” intuition, whatever you want to call it, comes primarily from experience.
A Woman Backpacking Solo – Camping
My backpacking experience started in the Southern Appalachians, on and off the Appalachian Trail (AT). The AT taught me many valuable lessons, and because it is arguably the most popular trail in the United States, many of these lessons involved people.
Camping comes in many shapes and sizes along the AT. There are shelters, enclosed cabins, tenting platforms, Lodges, established campsites, hostels, and so on, and so forth. The Appalachian Trail has no lack of places to camp, and each one comes with it's own advantages and disadvantages.
Before I continue, and for emphasis, there is one firm guideline I always follow when hiking by myself. I don't camp within 2 miles of any type of road. This includes dirt roads and Fire Service roads that appear to have been used within the last year, or really at all for that matter.
Roads provide easy access. I remember arriving at a shelter in Maine. There were already 2 other hikers I knew there when I arrived. As we all sat chatting a man in khaki slacks and loafers walked up with a leather suitcase. He opened the suitcase, while mumbling angrily to himself, and proceeded to pull out a hatchet and several ropes.
We all glanced at each other, and proceeded to quietly start packing out things. I was the first to take off, and the other two hikers were not far behind me. There could have been a very good reason for the ropes, hatchet and business casual wear, but clearly I was too close to a road.
The most common shelters are the rough three sided structures spaced every 8-12 miles along the AT. These are gathering spots for people and critters. Although this type of shelter is found mostly on the AT, occasionally you might find one or two on other trails. I also meant to mention Yurts. You really only see these out West.
Some of these shelters are incredibly nice, with fireplaces, picnic tables and even a few hanging baskets. The majority though are rough, three-sided structures meant to provide protection from the elements.
I rarely stay in the shelters. Mice are often a nuisance, and even with earplugs the snoring typically keeps me awake. I will stop in to make a meal, get water, or sign the log and visit with other hikers, but I like to move on and find another place to camp.
I'm also conscious of the fact that wherever large groups of humans congregate there is also cause for mischief.
Tip – I ALWAYS carry earplugs any time I travel, no matter where I travel. I can't count how many time they have saved my sleep – including in motels.
Established camp sites are fine, but I always check them closely and walk the entire camping area, not just the site where I want to set up my shelter. Do they appear to get a lot of day use? Is there trash around the sites or in the fire pits? Are they near roads? Is there room to set-up without cramming in next to other tents or shelters?
If the established site is not clean, or it is easily accessed, then I usually hike on for at least another mile. I would much rather find a clean, safe campsite, even if it is not in an “established” location.
The best campsite is one that has not been used, with good drainage and privacy. This is sometimes frowned upon though, since corralling people into one location keeps the rest of the wilderness in better shape. This is not always what is safest, and I always practice leave no trace principles, leaving all sites in the same or better condition than which I found them.
Tip: If it looks like it's going to rain, be careful in established campsites. They may be giant puddles waiting to happen! The earth is often well packed, and they are not elevated. This does not allow water to be absorbed or flow away from the site.
I've grouped Lodges and Hostels together because they often have similar environments. Whether staying at the AMC Huts in New Hampshire, or a hostel in Leadville, Colorado, you are going to encounter some of the same people and situations.
Many of the hostels/lodges I've stayed in are communal. You sleep together, eat together, hang out together. This can be a lot of fun, or a little irritating. Not all lodges are created equal, but a few things I try to remember are listed below.
- I may have mentioned this already – TAKE EARPLUGS!
- Like children – this is a great environment for kids, and they have a lot of energy. They will race the hallways, weaving in and out of your bunk beds and whispering all night, so TAKE EARPLUGS!
- Bring your own sleeping bag and mat. Many provide bedding, but I've heard too many bed bug stories, and had one of my own (picture below).
- Not all hostels are created equal. I've stayed in garages with a plastic mattress on the floor, and in someone's home in a beautiful private bedroom. Check before making the reservation. Often, I pitch my tent in the yard, but some hostels don't allow this so ask.
- Secure Belongings – Secure your belongings if you are going out to eat, run errands, etc. You may think you know everyone where you are staying, but how long have you really known them?
Tip: Bring EAR PLUGS!
A Woman Backpacking Solo – Hitch Hiking
Hitch Hiking is often frowned upon by our parents, the media, and pretty much anyone that has watched a horror movie over the past 30 years. I could probably write an entire post on this topic alone! I'll admit to having one negative experience, but fortunately I was able to extricate myself quickly.
My method for hitch hiking has not changed much over the years. I have a few simple steps that I follow, along with some that other hikers have used successfully.
Review the Location
When leaving a trail to hitch hike into town, there can be multiple locations from which to exit the trail. If you have an APP like Guthook then check out the comments from other hikers. There are other guides that provide information also – Yogi's Town Guides, Pmags End to End Guides, etc. Information in these resources will tell you the best places to catch rides.
Location, location, location! Most of the information will tell you where it is easy to get a ride and where it is notoriously hard. Rest stops and trail heads may sound easy, but if they have a high number of tourists (like on busy highways) it may not be as easy as you expect. We look a little scary wandering out of the woods all dirty and smelly.
Asses Your Spot
Once you arrive at the location where you will be hitching from, take a look around. I always make sure I situate myself so a vehicle can see me as they are approaching from a distance, making it is easy for them to pull over. I also make sure I'm on the side of the road where the car or truck is traveling.
Passive Hitching Communication
Tidying up is the first thing I do when getting ready to hitch hike. Hikers can be pretty smelly after a few days on a trail, so I usually put on my semi-clean town/sleeping shirt, or my jacket.
I brush off the mud and take off my sunglasses and hat. I'll put on a bandanna if I have one. Being able to see my face and eyes always seems to make drivers more comfortable, and improves my odds of getting a ride.
Many small towns also know there are trails nearby. This means that I usually don't have to wait long for a ride. It also helps that I'm a female, but not always.
Colorado has always been a difficult hitch for me. You would think it the opposite since it is perceived as an “outdoors” state, but all my rides have been from “locals” that have lived there a long time. The longest I've ever had to wait for a ride was outside of Steamboat Springs and Leadville, Colorado. The easiest hitches – every state but Colorado.
In places where there is not a popular trail, and locals have very little knowledge of the nearby trails, I've used signs. “Hiker to Trail” has always proven effective. Cardboard, bandannas, paper – anything you can scribble “Hiker to Trail” will usually work.
Active Hitching Communication
Then there is the more aggressive approach to hitch hiking. Trail heads are often a good place for this method. The assumption is that people parked at trail heads are of “like mind,” and this is usually the case.
Working the parking lot in the late afternoon when people are returning from their adventures is usually the best approach. Many hikers just begin asking until they find someone willing, or convince someone unwilling.
Actively pursuing a ride also allows you to choose your ride. It is always nice when you can decide who you want to ride with into town.
My Other General Don'ts for Hitching
I'm more of a passive hitch hiker. It is probably the southern in me – the ingrained sense of politeness, feelings of guilt at making someone do something they really don't want to do, thus feeling uncomfortable. Southern guilt is a powerful thing.
Because I take the more passive approach, I follow a few simple rules.
- Turn down a questionable ride, politely of course. Because I of course don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, even scary people, I will usually tell them “I'm waiting on my friends behind me on the trail.”
- Turn down all vehicles with drunk drivers, or evidence of drinking, like cans, bottles, etc. A positive out west is that they usually give me a beer before driving away.
- I always hold my pack in my lap, or at my feet, with my poles strapped to it. I don't put it in the trunk, bed of a truck, or back seat.
- I keep my money and cards in my pocket, not my pack.
- Don't ride on the back of a flat bed truck, even if there is a chained spare tire to hold on to – just don't do it.
Town stops are one of the joys of long distance hiking. I love the people, food, and general experiences I have in the small towns in this country. I'm still always aware of my “soloness” though, even when in town.
Many hikers like to visit restaurants, bars, etc., and chat with the locals. I'm a little more social after being alone for several days, so I'm no exception. In social situations though, I try to make sure I don't provide too much information.
I typically don't tell someone I'm hiking alone or when I'm leaving town. There are of course exceptions – if I'm talking with other women, hikers I know, or couples over 80, but I'm always conscious of the information I give out to people.
Less is more, and it's easy to change the subject of a conversation. I've had a lot of great conversations!
Final Hitch Hiking Comments
There have been instances where I've broken my own guidelines, but not often. I've met some pretty amazing people on the trails, and had some fantastic experiences. Mostly though, even after a few beers, I've stuck to what I know to be safe.
There are advantages to hiking with other hikers, and I think hitch hiking is when it is an advantage. On the Appalachian Trail it is fairly easy to find other hikers to hitch hike with into towns. In many instances they are also waiting by the road when you arrive.
Many times, male hikers will ask females if they can hitch together. People are more likely to pick up hitch hikers if there is a female also hitching.
Unfortunately, many of the trails and places I've hiked have not always had a large number of hikers. Because of this I mostly hitch hike solo. I've probably hitch hiked over 300 times or more, and had one negative human experience and one negative flat bed truck experience.
A Woman Backpacking Solo – Final Thoughts
Ultimately, everyone has to decide what constitutes their own level of safety. I would be fibbing if I said I did not find myself in some stupid situations when I was young. I will say though, that I would never dream of putting myself in those same circumstances now.
In most cases where I have found myself in bad situations, I knew I was making a bad decision, and did not listen to my “inner voice.” Now, I listen and trust the experiences driving my intuitions. They rarely steer me wrong.
In all my years of travel, the safest I feel is when I'm in the Wilderness or Back Country.