What Solo Hiking Is Really Like

The Morning Routine of a Solo Hiker

It’s 5 a.m. on a Saturday morning when my alarm starts going off. I inhale deeply, turn off the incessant beeping that has interrupted my sleep, and slide out from under the warm covers on my king-size bed. My eyes remain shut as I fumble with my phone and stumble out of the bedroom. The fluorescent lights in my bathroom blind me as I blink hard, trying to adjust to the false daylight that streams from their bulbs. The steam from the shower beckons me and I climb inside the curtains, replacing my warm bedding with the heat pouring out of the faucet. By the time I emerge from the plastic-sided sauna I’m more awake, although still feeling a little hazy.

Out in the living room, I begin dressing. My mind wanders to the part of A Christmas Story when the mother is dressing her son for school. The line, “extended deep sea diving,” always comes to mind as I pull on multiple layers of clothing in preparation for the cold that lies ahead. As I eat my cereal in the quiet of a still-dark morning, I check the weather forecast again, reset my GPS, and finally pick up my pack and set out the door. The first steps are always the hardest—those first steps out of bed in the morning. Every step after that gets easier and easier until I find myself smiling as I roll up the highway to the trailhead of whichever peak I’m hiking.

It doesn’t sound that exciting to tell the story of what it looks like to get up voluntarily on your day off to go on a multiple-mile, daylong hike, especially in winter. And when my friend asked me why I do it, I had to sit and think. Why do I choose to go hiking on my days off, especially when it’s winter? The truth is, nobody’s making me do it. Nobody says to me, “Rebecca, you’ve gotta get up and go hiking” on my days off, in the winter, or on my vacations. There’s nobody waiting for me at the trailhead; it’s entirely on me. I choose to either get up and go, or stay home in bed. And there are many times when I do choose to stay in bed. There are also times when I turn around on-trail before reaching the summit because I’m just not feeling it. (Although, these days, turning around on trail happens very rarely.) So why do I do it? Why do I choose to set out to put my body through extraneous exercise, in less-than-ideal weather, on cold winter days, or in the blistering summer heat. Because when you describe what hiking is really like to people, it sounds miserable. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows; and in my case it’s almost always cloudy and chilly.

What Solo Hiking Is Really Like

It’s getting up before dawn, to put on layers and layers of clothing, and driving hours away from home. It’s pulling into the trailhead with the temperature gauge in your car reading ten degrees (or -10 degrees) and you know that’s the warmest it’s going to be for you all day. It’s strapping on a 15-pound backpack (that reeks even after many washes), stuffing in your earbuds, and heading into the forest. It’s heavy breathing and shaky legs, burning calf muscles, and dripping sweat. Taking off layers, then putting them back on, then taking them off, dozens of times, to try to regulate your body temperature. It’s drinking cold water and trying to protect it from freezing, eating rock-hard granola bars, and gummies, all while continuing to hike.

It’s not stopping for more than five minutes at a time because it’s just too cold for that and you don’t want to risk getting too cold. It’s hitting the summit and only being able to take a small handful of pictures (or none at all) because the frigid temperatures mean your phone battery may die (and has died before) within minutes of exposure to the below-zero wind chills. It’s eyelashes freezing and sticking together, gear developing its own layer of rime ice, winds whipping so hard that any exposed skin can become frostbitten in minutes. And sometimes, it’s downright scary.

It’s pushing your body far beyond what you ever thought you were capable of both physically and mentally. Talking yourself through every single step for the final push to the summit because you’re exhausted and dehydrated, but the top is so close you can taste it. It’s falling down and getting right back up like nothing even happened, stepping in mud and water because there’s no way to avoid getting your feet wet. It’s crossing dozens of streams, swishing through fallen leaves, losing the trail, then finding it again. Sweating so much that you can ring out your shirt and then sweating even more. It’s sunburns and heat rash, friction burns, blisters, cuts, scratches, and bruises. It’s all of these things and more.

So Why Do I Do It Again and Again?

Why do I choose to go out there and put my body through all of this over and over again? And why do I do it all alone; why don’t I go with someone? What’s the point of spending hours alone in the wilderness, pushing my body to the limits both mentally and physically? These are the questions I’ve been asked dozens of times by fellow hikers, friends, family, complete strangers, coworkers, etc. And even after all these years and the hundreds of miles I’ve spent in the woods, I still can’t find the right words to describe what it’s like out there for me. I can’t put words to the beauty I’ve witnessed around me. I can’t find a way to communicate to others how it feels to look out over a sea of fallen leaves and know that it’s just you and the wilderness. To stand there all alone and listen to the hush of the wind through the trees, to have tears come to your eyes because you’re so overwhelmed with emotion at the world around you.

And yes, it’s just trees, rocks, sky, leaves, water, elements that you could see just as easily in your backyard. But it’s more than just those things to me, and the more time I spend out there the harder it is to describe to others what it is that keeps drawing me back again and again. So when someone asks me why, when my dear friend asked me why I go hiking, after I described what it’s really like, I failed to find the words to explain why. You see, it’s more than words to me. It’s more than what I see when I’m out there. And I no longer try to put words to the emotions the forests evoke in me. Not only because it’s impossible to describe those feelings, but because I no longer feel obligated to try to explain my desire to seek solitude in the wilderness to anybody. What I experience during those brief hours spent alone with my thoughts, walking through the forests, belongs to nobody but me. 

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Comments 6

  • Avatar
    Cordell : Dec 30th

    Great post. You are brave hiking all by yourself especially in winter but you are probably in tip top hiking shape . I wish I can do it by myself unsuccessful several times in the past, got into some bad situations….

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Paul : Dec 30th

    Thank you for a well written article that puts into words how I feel exactly. Actually fails to put to words exactly how I feel.

    I also hike alone, frequently, backpack for days and nights alone. And I get the same questions as you. And I also am unable to put words to the feeling of climbing a steep pitch, my breath hard, deep, and fast. My muscles aching with each hour that passes, the exhaustion at the end of the day. How alive I feel. The sounds, and frequently, the lack thereof. The smells, the sights. Just being.

    Here’s the thing. I honestly believe I would be an intolerable person if I didn’t do what I do. Hiking and backpacking alone is necessary for my life.

    Thank you for also not putting to words that which cannot be communicated with words.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Chris : Dec 30th

    Getting up most morning at or near 4am to start your day is indescribable. The solitude is thought provoking and opens the mind.
    Your hikes sound intriguing. Look forward to more of the same.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Marinkov Diane : Dec 31st

    Great posts Becky. You are an awesome writer.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Ruth Anne Collins : Dec 31st

    Exactly!

    Glad to know I’m not alone in these feelings!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Gary Stell : Dec 31st

    Great post! Thanks for the inspiration! Safe Travels and Happy Trails! OneWay

    Reply

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