solo backpacking
High-alpine pack trip in the Swan Mountains of Montana (2017)

Backpacking Alone Is for Everyone

It can feel overwhelming to go out into nature alone. That’s a good thing.

I embarked on my first solo backpacking trip in 2014. It’s no small admission to say that the effort changed the course of my life.

That trip was — perhaps — overkill for my first shot at backpacking solo. I completed 150 miles, combined over multiple trips on the Continental Divide Trail in Montana and Wyoming. But I dialed in my system and wilderness skills, powered through blisters, and faced my fears over the course of those miles.

In a world filled with noise, constant companionship, phones that never power down, and internet advice coming at us incessantly, here’s one more bit of advice I’d like to impart — turn it all off. Take a walk in the dirt.

This summer, go backpacking alone.

Why Backpack Alone?

A very short pack trip in the Anaconda-Pintler wilderness. I walked in less than a mile to this spot (2019)

Why backpack alone? It’s a question worth pondering. It can seem scary and risky and, certainly, there are risks. It can seem lonely, and it can be that. And it can sound like it’s too much of a challenge. Well, it is and it isn’t.

I’d argue you this — if, for any reason, the idea of backpacking alone sparks the tiniest amount of excitement, then it’s for you. If dread or fear accompany excitement, then it’s still for you.

There’s a world of benefits to finding out what you’re capable of alone and outdoors. And in taking on challenges that are both physical and mental, you’ll emerge a different person.

It’s not about self-esteem or even self-confidence; it’s about resilience. Weather, physical exertion, wild critters, feeding oneself, sleeping away from civilization — these experiences encourage us to revisit what it means to be vulnerable, and human.

How to Backpack Alone: First Steps

Packing alone in the Wind River Mountains (2014)

Previous backpacking experience is certainly helpful, but I want to underscore that it’s not required. Backpacking can also be as difficult or as simple as you’d like to make it.

Initially, I made it very difficult. Time and miles forced me into a routine of simplicity that made things a lot more enjoyable. I am not easily foiled by my own stupidity. There’s a live-and-learn aspect to my outdoor life that I’m constantly figuring out after 7 years of adventures.

Anyway. The basics I bring are pretty simple. Here’s a summary of my current pack list and fave items. (Editor’s note: This is what I have on hand and would pack with today.)

This is simply the gear that I’ve come around to after years of heading outdoors and working in the industry’s gear side. My first backpacking tent was a $20 secondhand Walmart special. My first trekking poles came from Costco. Each lasted a few years.

Please don’t spend a couple of grand on your first setup. Figure out your budget, and then work within it.

Ask friends if you can borrow gear. Buy things secondhand. Figure out where you want to invest.

In my opinion, a good pair of shoes, a decent pack with hip and chest straps, a great sleeping pad, and a warm sleeping bag probably matter the most. All of these, sans the boots, can be bought secondhand for decent prices or borrowed from friends.

When Should You Go? Where? And for How Long?

Backpacking with my border collie in Idaho’s Sawtooth Wilderness (2016)

Personally, I like to backpack in Montana in late summer. The mosquitoes and biting flies have died down, and there’s usually a glorious stretch where the mountains are the most welcoming. The nights aren’t too cold. Storms roll through, but they typically don’t stick around. It’s a sweet spot, for sure.

Wherever you are, there is likely a prime time to be outside. Figure that out. Then, make a plan.

The length of your trip, in my opinion, should be more than one night. The first night outside is often the hardest. Critters move around at night. And they’re curious about you and your tent in their space.

It’s not out of bounds to think your imagination works overtime, and that the “bear” outside your tent is probably not a bear, but a rustling branch or a porcupine (or some other little creature) checking things out. After the first night, you’ll likely be tired for the second night.

I’ve heard and seen moose, black and grizzly bears, elk, deer, coyotes, foxes, marmots, pikas, birds, and many unknown footsteps and sniffers come through my camp. I’m OK. You’ll (most likely) be OK too. No risk, no reward. I’ll add that my bear spray and Garmin inReach Mini offer exceptional peace of mind. Highly recommend.

A note on safety. Obviously, you’ll want to bring safety items like a first aid kit and bear spray. But, if the idea of being truly alone in the wilderness makes you nervous, bring whatever makes you feel safe. A satellite device or GPS to keep in touch. A lantern, a cozy blanket. A pocket knife. Whatever that “I feel ready” item is for you.

Who Backpacks Alone?

Backpacking solo in Glen Canyon Recreation Area (2018)

Really, if you can boil water and set up a tent, you can backpack alone.

So, the “who” is you, whoever you are. You don’t need to be an ultrarunner to backpack; you don’t even need to be that outdoorsy.

Your body can be how it is. Your gender and personal identity don’t matter in the woods. Even your fitness level doesn’t have to be at peak form.

When you’re alone and walking, you’re the one who makes the call. Rest when you need to rest. Move when you need to move. Set realistic goals for yourself.

A 10-mile hike is fine and dandy for some of you, but even up to a 2-mile trip to a lake can be just as good for many of us. Sometimes, the shortest trips are the sweetest.

And this I promise — the world will receive you, one step at a time, as you are.

Solo Backpacking: Final Thoughts

View in the Sawtooths (2016)

Backpacking alone, in turn, helped me receive myself.

As strange as that may sound, I was marred by anxiety for much of my life. Backpacking helped focus that anxiety in a new way.

What I realized was that the fear and anxiety I felt in the woods was my well-oiled instinctual survival response. It was my body’s clear way of telling me that I was in danger, and it was also its way of telling me that we — both my mind and my body — wanted to survive.

It was also no different than the fear and anxiety I felt in my daily efforts. The anxiety of emails piled up was heavily dulled compared to the very real anxiety of a grizzly coming my way. That perspective, although it sounds crazy, tempered my mental health for the better.

I think the final point to walk toward in this effort is this — backpacking alone helped me get a bird’s-eye view of my own sense of being.

For me, the rewards have far outweighed the risks. Backpacking solo became a foundation on which I have laid my outdoor life and, these days, my career.

What I learned gave me the courage to tackle life in new ways, to relish what it means to be human, to advocate for who I know I’m capable of being. I now fish, hunt, and pack in ways that engage the outdoors far beyond a simple overnighter.

I count down the days until my next trip. My HOKAs, my pack, and my pups await.

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Nicole Qualtieri

Based in Montana, Nicole Qualtieri is GearJunkie's Hunt + Fish Editor. She also serves as a Board Director for Orion the Hunters Insititute, a non-profit promoting fair chase and hunting ethics nationwide. A DIY hunter, she comes from a non-traditional hunting background and began hunting and fishing in her 30s. She's been a voice for hunting, fishing, and conservation since 2014, when she got started working on the television show MeatEater. She's an avid horsewoman, bird dog aficionado, snowboarder, hiker/backpacker, food nerd, and all-around outdoorswoman. Find her online at @nkqualtieri.