I was on a high of confidence, joy and a little disbelief in the days after completing a solo thru hike of the John Muir Trail (JMT). Just over 6 weeks later, the strength of the feeling has faded somewhat, although it returns as a warm tingle in my belly and a smile whenever I think about it.
I expect I’d have still felt amazing had I done the trail with someone else. And in reality I met and was supported by many people along the way. But there was something about turning up to that trail-head alone and knowing that essentially, I was on my own for the next three weeks, that made me both a little scared to begin and completely exhilarated to finish.
I loved the freedom I had to start and stop where I liked each day, to hike as fast (or as slow) as I wanted and to take the breaks that I needed. Not having to answer to anyone was very freeing.
I also valued the sense of accomplishment that I got from doing so many practical things for myself day in and day out; from putting up my tent to filtering water. Frankly I felt like a bit of a badass.
I enjoyed meeting so many new people and found – as is often the case when you share incredible experiences – that I bonded with new friends very quickly. I only camped alone (and by choice) twice and if I wanted a few hours or a day of hiking with just my thoughts for company, that wasn’t an issue.
It’s not all roses, surely?
Even though I was pretty sure that I wanted to go it alone, I still had some questions and concerns.
Heavy bags & big price tags
Hiking alone will almost certainly mean a bigger and heavier bag, as you won’t have anyone to split larger or spare items with. The same applies for your budget, as you won’t be able to split the cost of shared items or accommodation with someone else (#singletravellerwoes).
Being in charge all the time
I actually loved making all the decisions on the trail. But there were a few times throughout the planning process where I’d have really liked someone to please just sort it out. Especially for decisions I was less confident about, or that were a bit boring (I can’t get excited about water filters).
What if I don’t make any friends?
As with any type of solo travel, there is always the risk that you won’t meet people who you bond with. I’d be lying if I said that there weren’t any times that I wished I was with someone, particularly the night before I started (although that was before I met the Spanish woman with the red wine). And if you’re not a complete extrovert meeting new people all the time can be quite tiring.
However, the JMT is full of some of the most supportive and friendly people who I’ve ever met. It’s almost impossible not to make friends and you will see and spend time with, the same friendly faces along the way. As an English person used to ignoring people most of the time (slight exaggeration), it was also a little unusual but very nice to see just how friendly and welcoming Americans are. It encourages you to be a lot more outgoing than you might naturally be.
What if I get injured?
You may be concerned about who can help you if you injure yourself or get sick. This was my main concern, but I rationalised that if I was mobile and not seriously ill or injured, I’d either treat myself, or be able to reach a ranger station. If I’d not been able to do this, I felt confident that someone would find and help me, as the trail is pretty busy and I didn’t intend to go off trail. You may want to consider carrying a GPS device with an SOS function to help ease any worries that you have about this.
The concern of others
Family and close friends could understandably be a bit worried about you taking this on alone (whether you are male or female), and there are things that you can do to mitigate their concerns, including sharing information about how popular the trail is, emailing your itinerary and having a plan to check in with a GPS device. Luckily my friends and family were very supportive, although I did still have to field a few annoying comments from acquaintances and strangers (thanks guys).
Preparing for a solo hike
Here are some of the things that you can do to prepare for a solo thru hike.
Build your confidence & experience
If you are not familiar with overnight backpacking, or doing it solo (as I wasn’t) I’d strongly recommend building in some practice trips as part of your preparation for the JMT. I started with a one day hike close to home, and worked up to a couple of multi day solo trips, in amongst trips with more skilled friends. Not only were these crucial in helping me to build my skills, fitness and confidence, they allowed me to be clear on my comfort levels and what I needed to improve or change in terms of both gear and skills. This in turn helped me to make informed decisions about what I actually needed to spend my money on and how to trim my bag weight.
Lastly, these trips also helped me to see how sociable trail hiking is and that I did really enjoy and value the times when I was alone.
Learn first aid
A decent first aid kit is important to have, but it’s only worth taking it if you know what to do with it. Becoming familiar with what’s in the kit and taking a mountain first aid course is a really good idea. Whilst you shouldn’t have any problem getting help on the JMT if you need it, you should know what to do in the first instance or until help gets to you.
Improve your navigation skills
A map and compass are less crucial for the JMT, as you should be able to follow it quite easily. I primarily followed the trail and used a GPS app. However, its good practice to be able to be able to use a map and compass and they may become necessary if you wander off the trail by accident, the trail’s covered in snow, or your GPS fails. I signed up for short and inexpensive map reading course and whilst I didn’t need it on the JMT, I felt more confident knowing that I could navigate if I needed to. Especially as my natural sense of direction is pretty terrible!
I read a lot about the trail and the sort of things that I might have to deal with, including weather, wildlife and terrain. This enabled me to run through a few scenarios and to have an idea of what I’d do to reduce the risks and mitigate the impact of anything that might go wrong.
For example, my broken ankle hadn’t been healed for very long and I was worried that I might have an issue with the terrain. Therefore I decided to wear hiking boots rather than trail shoes and to bring poles and a support bandage. I also packed an emergency blanket in an accessible pocket, to allow me to keep warm easily, if I was injured.
Signing up to online groups and reading books about people who had taken on similar solo adventures gave me some extra tips, reassurance and inspiration.
Share your plans
I shared my itinerary with friends and family, along with the details of my pre and post trail travels. I didn’t have a SPOT device, but had let them know that I’d be un-contactable and when they could expect to hear from me, so they weren’t too worried.
As well as easing worries, it’s important that somebody knows where you are likely to be, and is able to raise the alarm if you don’t check in or return when you were supposed to.
Telling friends and family about my adventure also helped to bring it to life for me, and their enthusiasm and encouragement eased my quite considerable nerves.
Reducing your risk on the trail
These suggestions could apply to anyone doing the trail, but become even more important if you are likely to be alone.
- Carry and wear suitable clothing to keep you from getting cold, particularly if you have to stop unexpectedly or are injured. Hypothermia is your main risk on the trail.
- Make sure that you bring plenty of food and the fuel to cook it (I always carried a spare can). This is particularly important in the second half (SoBo) where you have very limited resupply options if you get caught out.
- Keep track of your water and stay hydrated. It’s easy to get dehydrated, as although water is generally plentiful (bar a couple of 3-5 mile stretches), you’re working pretty hard out there.
- Stay on the trail so that you’ll easily be found if you get injured and to reduce the risk of injuries from the tough terrain of cross-country hiking.
- Wait for someone to come along before attempting a river or creek crossing (they’ll be there soon!) and look for a diversion sign or alternative routes if it looks dangerous.
- Be aware of weather patterns and your surroundings. Being struck by lighting is a genuine risk on some parts of the trail, particularly Big Horne Plateau (we practically ran across it as storm clouds were rolling in!)
- Stay within your comfort and skill levels and take a break when you are tired. The only time that I rolled my ankle was when I was tired and rushing to get to Red’s Meadow (red wine was on the horizon).
- Practice good camp hygiene (antibacterial gel is your friend) and filter your water to avoid getting ill.