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solo adventures

How to Build Confidence as a Solo Hiker

By Laura Reyes

I didn’t set out to become a solo hiker. My own solo hiking progressed naturally. Rather than a step by step guide, these are observations and suggestions, to help you become aware of own readiness and progress your own solo hiking easily.

The Getting Started Stage

I started hiking inauspiciously enough. Four years ago, I started getting away to spend some time alone and clear my head. I went to the driftless area of Wisconsin, a short drive away, to a place I had enjoyed for years.  I wanted unstructured time to do what I wanted: if I wanted to hike, I hiked. 

I felt comfortable there. It was close to home and I looked forward to my trips. I revisited favorite trails and tried out new ones. My hikes were all low stress and did not require any special gear or advanced planning. I could head out with water and a sandwich and enjoy.

McCullough Wilderness, outside Las Vegas, Nevada 2018

When you are starting to hike by yourself, start close to home. What appeals to you? What would you look forward to? Are you someone who likes to hike the same trails repeatedly or do you prefer the experience of hiking something new each time? Considering these questions can help you get started

What do you want from your solo hikes? Make those arrangements. Start to learn what you want and trust that.

I did this for years, until it wasn’t fun anymore. In your progress of building confidence as a solo hiker pay attention to when your current hikes stop being fun.

The It’s Not Fun Anymore Stage

Last year I visited Alaska with my family. While there we viewed glaciers by boat and by bush plane, had a rafting trip on the Kenai river. We kayaked and we hiked. Feeling blue after coming home from any trip can be very common. Sometimes it’s just takes time to transition back to your everyday life and see how a recent trip makes sense in your life. 

For me, this is where my hiking changed. My usual Wisconsin getaway was no longer enjoyable. Post-Alaska I booked a few days in my usual place, but the trip was full of frustration. 

I continually got lost. One of my favorite spots was thick with wasps. I would set out to find something as simple as notebook paper or a trailhead, and I couldn’t find either one. Everyday of this getaway held one roadblock after another. 

Winner Creek Trail, Girdwood, Alaska, 2018

After this trip, I continued to hike locally. I investigated state parks and nature preserves close to home. But, the underlying message was NO. These weren’t simply less than stellar hiking days, but a real frustration of energy and effort. 

In this way, dissatisfaction was my guide. During this time, I hiked with a small journal to jot down any ideas that came to me while I hiked. I wanted to get clear about what I wanted. What I wanted at that point was to hike in the mountains.

In your progress of building confidence  as a solo hiker pay attention to when your current hikes stop being fun. Give yourself a little space and time to start to imagine what or where would energize your solo hikes.

The Big Leap Stage

When it’s time for a change, ask yourself, “What is the easiest way I can make this happen?” My change was to travel to the mountains to hike. But, it was December. The easiest choice for me was to choose a spot that didn’t yet have snow on the ground so I could avoid the need for any special winter hiking gear. 

To research last minute tickets I concentrated on major airports that were surrounded by mountains with mild winters. This led me to book a flight to Las Vegas where there would be ample desert and mountain hikes close by. Planning this trip felt doable–only the location had changed. I was still heading out on day hikes with no special gear. Again, because I made this leap in the easiest way I could imagine, I was confident in my abilities. 

After you change up your routine, let that experience guide your next steps. For example, from here you can make informed choices to invest in any new gear if you desire. The good days, the successful days, the inspiring days will start to show you what you particularly enjoy. Let the newness of this place inform you as well. Do you want more of this? Less of this? 

What worked? What didn’t work? The reason I sought to make my mountain hiking getaway so simple and cheap was to prove to myself that it could be done easily, and that way could be repeated when I wanted a quick hiking getaway.

Ice Age Trail, Southern Wisconsin, 2018

Common Sense

This is a good time for a reminder not to hike above your ability. When you change things up, you are out of your comfort zone. As a solo hiker you have to be able to remain aware of your surroundings. That is harder to do if you are physically struggling on the trail. 

This is one of those do as I say, not as I do suggestions. On my trip to Las Vegas, I hiked beyond my ability, and it was humbling. I had one hot mess of a day and I’m lucky I didn’t hurt myself. 

For your safety as a solo hiker, you need to control of the elements that you can. Putting yourself on a trail that is above your ability while alone is not a good plan. It is hard to enjoy your experience or take in the amazing scenery along the trail if you are short of breath or overcome with worry. 

Both the successful and challenging days have something to teach you. Those days you would rather forget will show you what you need to learn, and the stellar days will show you what you most enjoy. This is an iterative process of seeing for yourself where your likes and dislikes are leading your hiking.

It’s taken years for me to get here. Paying attention to my experiences on the trail and really listening to what I wanted informed what would come next. What moves me is hiking in the mountains and the wilderness. My current cycle of hiking, experiencing, and seeing what I need to learn is helping me become a more confident and experienced hiker.  You can start close to home. It is as easy as picking a trail and getting started.

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