It’s usually recommended not to hike solo or go to the wilderness alone. But that doesn't mean you couldn't or shouldn't do it. I always run alone on the trails. I go hiking solo. And I go alone to the mountains and multi-day trekking journeys. Most of the time I don’t want to have company. I like the solitude and the silence, the freedom from distraction, being my own boss, and the boost to my self-esteem when I have managed difficult things all by myself. There are some outdoors sports that I wouldn’t do alone, such as kayaking, especially when going to the sea or for several days of kayak camping. But when I have solid ground under my feet, nothing could stop me from going for an adventure just by myself. It doesn’t matter whether I’m running alone in a forest for an hour or hiking two weeks – soloing has positive impacts on all areas of my life.
What did I learn from my first solo long-distance hike?
It was the agonizing first year of quarantines that first drove me to the small forest trails, and soon after that, the idea of extending those moments to an overnight hiking journey was ripe. I bought a new hiking backpack and boots and wrote a big post-it-note: hiking solo the famous Finnish Bear’s Trail in June. The forecast turned out to be challenging, and I made a last-minute change of plans from hiking four days to a three-day power hike. I admit being a bit anxious. How would it feel like walking alone in a forest for so long, 82 kilometers? What if I got injured, how fast could I get help? Would I be scared alone in a tent? What if I got lost or if I lost my equipment or broke my mobile phone? But by the time I reached the signpost of the first kilometer, all these thoughts were faded like clouds in the summer sky.
My decision of hiking a well-marked and popular route was a good choice. I didn’t have to pay so much attention to staying on the right trail, and I could focus more on enjoying the nature and the scenery. Although the trails were not at all crowded, it was comforting to know there were other people in case of emergency. When it was time to crawl into a sleeping bag, I was so tired and my feet hurt so much, that I would not have given a shit if a bear had crawled next to me.
I learned that I like long distances. I learned that I’m fine with a 20+ kg backpack, but I need big hiking boots. I learned that hiking alone is not scary or dangerous. I learned that I’ve got a lot of resilience and pain tolerance. I learned that I absolutely love solo hiking!
Be your own boss and boost your confidence
Over the years, I had sort of lost my courage and also developed some (many) fears, mostly irrational. It was kind of a natural transition from running alone in the woods to adventuring solo. It was something to do with trusting myself and reconnecting with my inner Indy.
Trail running and hiking builds your confidence as you see your abilities to accomplish something, and even more so when you do it alone. When you are out there alone and notice that you can actually manage all the tricky situations just fine, you start believing in yourself. The sense of achievement is a major boost for your self-confidence!
Our society is full of expectations, restrictions, and schedules. When you go solo, you can stick to your own pace. You can eat lunch when you are hungry or skip the lunch altogether. You can change plans whenever you feel like. You are in charge. There’s a huge feeling of freedom when it comes to soloing. Of course, it can be either yea or nay. You can’t share the load, like splitting tent equipment into two bags. You have to rely on you, as everything depends on you, no second opinions. You’ve got only yourself to blame for lousy decisions. If you screw up, nobody will come to the rescue (at least right away). But then again, solo adventuring is great for building up your decision-making and organizing skills.
Solo adventuring is meditative
When you are alone on an adventure, you’ve got only your own thoughts there. Nobody distracts you by talking. I like the fact that I don’t need to maintain a conversation. It’s easier to focus on what you are doing at any given time, whether you want to focus on a challenging trail or your own thoughts. You are able to reach the flow, be totally present and practice mindfulness. I also meditate quite regularly on my trips. Shorter breaks while running, longer when hiking. If I see a beautiful view, I’ll always have time to stop by and enjoy the silence. Being alone in nature is extremely meditative.
I have also noticed that most often when I have stumbled on the trail, almost fallen or just got my kettle upside down, I have met other people and greeted them. Just a tiny distraction may lead to losing focus that you need for every step on an uneven terrain. I can’t imagine how many times I would have already found myself in the bushes if I was trying to walk or run while talking with someone. From this perspective, soloing can be even safer than going with a group.
I don’t mind that I don’t have anyone to talk to. I can walk or run for 20 hours without music or other sounds, other than the sound of my feet when I move on various terrain. And if the trail gets boring, I can always turn on my favorite show, the Silly Radio. That’s basically me entertaining me in my head, bantering with myself and telling jokes that definitely suck!
Meet new friendly people
Whenever I have been hiking or running alone in the Nordics, a bunch of people have approached me. I have engaged in really nice chats with amazing people particularly on trails, sometimes in huts and visitor centres too. People are genuinely interested in you going solo (since most people don’t go solo, especially women). People are curious and ask you questions, and they want to cheer you up and wish you luck for the journey.
So far, I have met only incredibly friendly and great folks on my journeys. I have been in a tough place and people have been extremely generous offering their helping hand. In general, you get tips where to go and which places to avoid. I have had enormous support from meeting people in wilderness. The trail may have been challenging and the journey difficult but talking with other people has been like a mental push-up. If that woman with her dog made it wading to the other side of the wide river, I’ll make it too! (My special thanks to all you guys, talking with you has meant so much to me.)
Is solo hiking safe?
Is it safe (for a woman) to be alone in the woods? Are you not scared? A few people have asked me how I have courage to wander alone. So far, I have wandered alone in Finland, in Norway and in Sweden. And I also plan to stick to the Nordics. Basically, it’s one of the safest places on the planet. Crime rates are low, and extremely low when looking at the crimes occurring somewhere in the backcountry bushes. There are no dangerous wild animals either. Well, there are some, but they take a hike when they hear you stomping on the trail. Except one time I met a moose family that came really close to me (way too close!). But, overall, it’s safe to go through the forests, it’s safe to pitch a tent and sleep in it. (But if you are scared of weird sounds, using some earplugs might be a good idea, as there will be sounds from lullaby-like humming of a stream to crazy-making bleating noise of a reindeer.)
I think safety issues are mostly related to your wilderness skills in general. You need to have enough dry and warm clothes and enough food. You need to be able to tell where you are all the time and not get lost. You may need to be able to safely cross a river. If you are going to the mountains, you need to know about safety in the mountains. Etc. I’m actually very careful, I watch my every step and I don’t take selfies on a dangerous cliff edge. I think that’s the only option to keep going solo safely.
Planning your first solo hiking or running adventure?
I’ve collected some tips for planning your first solo outdoor adventure that I have found most useful or essential myself (a small disclaimer: I’m a 100 % self-made outdoor woman). There’s absolutely nothing new, and more experienced outdoors dudes could say these are no-brainers. But beginner and solo in the same sentence means that you should carefully focus on the basics. If you get the inspiration from Instagram where people smile in sunshine in shorts and sneakers in the mountains, you may end up being rescued at midnight in a freezing temperature from your trip to the Northern Latitudes.
- Pick a well-marked route. It’s OK to use popular signposted trails. Untouched wilderness, such as backpacking in Sarek National Park, is not for everyone, and definitely not a starting point for beginners. Choose a route that has no river crossings or wading. (Difficult routes should not necessarily be the goal when your skills improve either, it’s OK to enjoy nature in many ways.)
- It’s easier to start exploring outdoors in the summer than in the winter.
- Familiarize yourself with the trail and local nature: going to a forest is different from going to the fells, and different from going to the mountains. Think about water sources in advance. Always check the weather forecast before you go, if possible, also during your trip.
- Learn basics before you go: suitable clothes, packing your stuff, cooking with a stove and making a fire, pitching a tent, first aid etc. and test your gear before the trip. Use other hikers’ and runners’ packing lists in the beginning. When you’ve got more experience, you’ll know what works for you. I listed and evaluated my own equipment that I had on my first solo hike.
- Buy a paper map and learn how to use a compass. I’ve got three different GPS devices and I use a topographic mobile app that helps incredibly navigating, but a paper map is always the most accurate (e.g., for checking up water sources) and it never runs out of batteries.
- Know your physics. I think one of the most crucial skills to have is to know your physics, to know what you can do and what you can’t. If you can run marathon distances or walk 12 hours a day with a heavy backpack, you can plan for longer and more challenging stretches. If you can’t, you can’t.
- Tell someone where you are going and what is your route and schedule. Always, no exceptions. Consider a satellite communication device if you are going alone in the middle of nowhere even if the trail is marked.
If knowing your own physics is essential, so is knowing how your mind works in a difficult situation and in moments of heightened stress. But it’s easier to know your physics than to know your brains before going to your first solo journey. That’s why starting from easier trails and gradually adding challenges is a good strategy to increase your knowledge. You’ll learn a lot about yourself and how you react to things when you are alone in the woods.
Why would anyone want to be left to their own devices to find out if they can make it alone in the wilderness? Exactly because of it: finding out how it feels like to make it. Most of the time nothing (crucial) goes wrong, and you come back from your journeys safely but with new amazing experiences and the feeling that you made it. You survived alone. And that feels great!
Solo adventuring is perhaps not for everyone. I’d encourage to try it at least once, even if the whole idea feels scary, unpleasant, or just plain stupid. The Nordic Region is one of the best places to start soloing, because of safety, cleanliness, and the beauty of the Nordic nature.
If you are anything like me, going solo will probably change your life!