When someone talks about camping, you may think of bonfires with people chatting, drinking beer and toasting marshmallows while music blares from portable speakers. The woodsy revelers would, naturally, be coralled by a fleet of vehicles hauling enough modern conveniences to build a small village.
Backpack camping, however, is an entirely different beast. When carrying everything on your back over rough terrain, having the least amount of stuff possible to survive is the name of the game.
But what about backpack camping solo?
The very notion has a horror movie-esque quality, conjuring images of a machete wielding Jason Voorhies like character waiting in the trees for unsuspecting nature lovers to pitch their tent. While the concept of solo travel is scary enough for some people, being alone in the wilderness definitely isn´t high on most people´s bucket list.
Though if you like the idea of quiet sunsets, going at your own pace and morning coffee breaks taken at leisure, then solo camping might just be up your alley!
A few reasons to consider heading out into the woods in the fashion of Reece Witherspoon´s character in Wild include:
- You can make as many stops as you like and savor your surroundings.
We all have at least one overly time sensitive person in our lives who´s constantly rushing us when we´re trying to have fun. Believe me, backpack camping with someone like that is no picnic. Maybe you want to go faster or slower than other people or want to stop and take lots of pictures. Maybe you like to drink a crap ton of coffee and need 10 pee breaks and don´t want to deal with judgy travel buddies (i.e. ME). Regardless of your reasons, the only time table you have to uphold when you camp solo is your own!
- It´s easier to carry gear for one person.
I´ve done group backpacking excursions and no matter how lightweight your gear is or how minimalist you pack, carrying food and water is unbelievably heavy! More people means more gear, food and water that needs to be carried. Not to mention if someone in the group is an over packer, you may end up taking most of the extra weight because some glamazon just HAS to bring 6 outfits into the woods with her (or him).
- You´ll build an amazing amount of confidence in yourself.
It always breaks my heart when people look at my adventures and tell me, “I could never do something like that.” That sort of passive aggressive, self depreciation has become a hallmark of the modern world, but it doesn´t have to be!
If you have the ability to make a plan, think on your feet, be self reliant and love the outdoors, then you can absolutely be a solo backpack camper. Sepending a few days in the woods and surviving by your own wits may be just the confidence boost you need to start reaching for other seemingly “impossible” dreams on your list.
But is it SAFE to camp alone?!
Ok, let´s address that elephant in the room: Yes, it´s perfectly safe to camp alone so long as you make smart choices. I have done it many times in different climates and terrain on 2 continents.
That being said, let´s take a look at some of the things you need to consider when joining the ranks of solo lobos out there in the wilderness.
Pick a place that you are comfortable with (in the beginning).
This may sound like boring advice, but I highly recommend it for your first couple of solo jaunts. The reason I say this is (for example), if you´re someone who has spent their life living in the tropics and plan to camp in the mountains, then you´ll be facing not only different terrain, but also significant climate change. This can make for a rough first experience and keep in mind, you´ll be alone.
Being alone in the wild tends to ratchet up the anxiety factor for many, so picking a place that doesn´t make that any worse will make it a lot more fun.
Save the harder challenges for later; it´s better to walk before you run.
Invest in the right gear!
I´m not saying you need to clean out an REI store, but there are certain pieces of gear you should NEVER cheap out on. When it comes to outdoor gear there are 4 main aspects to consider:
The most important items you need to apply these aspects to are:
- Water filtration
- Camp stove
My personal recommendations based on years of experience of testing gear include:
- Osprey for backpacks (super lightweight and designed for comfort)
- MSR for regular tents or Hennesy for hammock tents (depending on your preferred mode of camping)
- Patagonia or Colombia for jackets (waterproof and windbreaking material are excellent)
- Vasque for boots (amazing comfort and very light)
- Sawyer for water filtration
- Solo Stove for a non-gas camp stove (super light, small and easy to use as a contained fire source. It´s also a more green option than gas and is approved for use in many National Parks worldwide, including the USA.)
Important: The gear recommendations listed here are based solely on personal experience. I recieve NO compensation for promoting these items.
You´ll need to carry more stuff than what I listed above, but those are the items worth blowing the budget on for quality. As someone who has nearly died from amoebic dysentery in Peru, suffered near hypothermic conditions in Ecuador and Patagonia, cracked and bloody heels on my feet from trekking across parts of East Africa and suffered a flooded tent in the Caribbean; I can tell you just how important these things are in relation to your survival and comfort.
Leave the sale rack bargains for your other gear.
Learn to navigate without fancy gadgets.
Having the MapsMe app downloaded on your phone is a good and fairly accurate navigation tool, but you should definitely carry and learn to use a compass. Having a physical map (or photo of an actual map) of the area you plan to camp is also important.
I know what you´re thinking…what kinda dinosaur, outdated boyscout crap is that?
Well, there are good reasons to have a back up navigation method with you. A few examples include:
- Your phone gets destroyed. (Happens more often than you think.)
- MapsMe and other navigation apps are not 100% accurate. Even slight errors can send you way off course. I saw several tourists who were completely lost while on a trek to the Maragua Crater (Rural Bolivia). They were using MapsMe.
- You can use a compass in the rain without ruining it.
- When it comes to survival, take a page from the US Green Beret manual, which is: 2 is 1 and 1 is none.
Also, use obvious and distinctive visual landmarks to help orient yourself. (i.e. If there´s a funny looking rock, tree or body of water on your left about an hour into your hike, then you should see it around the same time going back, but on your right side.)
Remember, you don´t have a sounding board when hiking and camping solo. Best to be prepared!
Make sure someone knows the exact area you plan to be and set up a checkpoint.
Remember that movie 48 hours? You´d be surprised how often professional hikers and outdoor athletes find themselves in a similar situation. Download the GPS coordinates and contact information for local law enforcement or SAR (Search and Rescue) and send it to a designated person you can count on to start the recovery process if you don´t check in at the agreed upon date and time.
This may sound a bit morbid, but when it comes to being lost or injured in the wilderness, the first 24 hours are absolutely critical to your survival. Any information you can provide on the front end to expedite that process only helps you in the long run.
Bring a good camp knife.
As someone who lived in the Caribbean for 10 years, I can´t even begin to tell you how important and practical a machete was in my daily life. I used it in my yard (jungle plants are no joke), as much as camping. When it comes to camping, you absolutely need a good all purpose camp knife for a number of tasks.
I usually carry a small, lock-blade folding knife that I can operate with one hand (clipped to my pocket and easy to grab) and a machete for heavier camp chores.
However, a machete can be a bit intimidating and clumsy for those without much experience, so a smaller multi-purpose knife may be more useful.
Before making a decision on a camp knife, make sure it has:
- A full tang blade (which means the blade runs the full length of the handle). This ensures the blade is more durable for hard chores. (like cutting wood)
- Double sided with both types of edges (smooth and serrated). This allows you to multi-task better with your blade.
- Sharp point vs. Curved. (it works better as a weapon)
- Fits well in your hand and isn´t too heavy.
A good camp knife or machete is the most useful multi-purpose tool you can bring. It should be easily accessible at all times and able to operate with one hand.
Try to camp in areas that are popular.
When rollin´solo, it helps to pick an area that sees a lot of hikers and campers. In the event something goes wrong, this increases your chances of someone hearing you call out for help or being found if you end up injured or lost.
(FYI: Most of the above listed information also applies to solo camping with a vehicle.)
Well there you have it! A few simple steps and some planning ensures you´ll have a more enjoyable experience in the wilderness. This is in no way a comprehensive list of everything you need to know or carry with you, but it´ll definitely get you started.
And hopefully wet your appetite for a solo adventure!
Until next time, keep wandering folks.