Several weeks ago on Tiger Mountain, a pair of women stopped to ask me a few questions about my experience of solo hiking as a female. Did I feel comfortable hiking with only my dog as a companion? (Yes.) Did he give me a sense of safety and security in bear country? (Definitely.) Would I be hiking if I didn’t have him around? (Not as much.) What hikes would I recommend for women hiking by themselves? (All the ones listed on my Blog.) Such questions got me thinking about nine ways solo hiking enhances my freedom and joy.

Solo hiking with Ajax allows me to set my own pace, rest as long (or short) as I want, explore side routes, and change destination on a whim. Solo hiking is the ultimate in freedom.
Solo hiking with Ajax allows me to set my own pace, rest as long (or short) as I want, explore side routes, and change destination on a whim. Solo hiking is the ultimate in freedom.

Enhancing Freedom

Planning a hike requires checking on roads and routes to and from your destination (including obtaining the necessary forest passes or parking permits). It also involves researching the weather, knowing what gear, food, and clothing you will need, and making sure you have the appropriate skills. The more people in your group, the harder it is sometimes for everyone to agree. Solo hiking provides the ultimate freedom.

  • Start and end whenever you want. I am the only early bird in my family, and I hate burning daylight. When I plan trips with other people — including hiking partners, friends, or family — I nearly always end up waiting. One of my very favorite things about hiking solo is getting up without an alarm (sometimes as early as 4:30 a.m.) and heading out the door. All Ajax needs is a bowl of kibble and he’s ready to go.
The view overlooking I-90 from the gravel trail headed toward Change Peak. We saw four people in the six hours we were out hiking.
The view overlooking I-90 from the gravel trail headed toward Change Peak. We saw four people in the six hours we were out hiking.
  • Change destination on a whim. Sometimes I plan to do a particular hike but change my mind at the last minute. Last week on Mt. Washington, Ajax and I had perfect cool weather at 6:30 a.m., and after reaching the summit around nine, we descended a different way that allowed us to add a few miles exploring Change Peak to the east. As long as I alert my husband to my estimated return time and the approximate area I’ll be hiking, we explore as much as we want.
  • Set an independent pace. Solo hiking is the ultimate exercise in identifying your pace. I like to be first on a path so Ajax can travel off-leash on the trip up. I can always tell from cobwebs tickling my face if we are first on the route. At the summit, whenever the mosquitoes become annoying, we don’t have to wait for everyone else; we simply pack up and leave. If we want to stop for photos or grab a snack, no problem. We can go as fast or as slow as we like.
About the only downside of solo hiking is there's nobody around to snap your photograph. Fortunately, selfies are possible with cell phones, and DSLRs allow outside-the-box creativity such as shadow shots.
About the only downside of solo hiking is there’s nobody around to snap your photograph. Fortunately, selfies are possible with cell phones, and DSLRs allow outside-the-box creativity such as shadow shots.

Unexpected Benefits of Solo Hiking

Sometimes I absolutely adore hiking with a close friend, particularly one on the same wavelength with whom I can share deep, philosophical conversations (you know who you are!) Other times, I celebrate being on the trail alone. Why the difference?

  • Enhance senses. Whenever I hike alone, I pay a lot more attention to the birdsong, shadows, lighting, breeze, temperature, and loamy, earthy smells. Even my protein shake and trail mix taste better in the mountains. Solo hiking often results in far better photos, because I can take my time. And I am more attuned to how Ajax is doing, since he is the only one with me.
Beargrass tufts in the full sun of Chance Peak.
Beargrass tufts in the full sun of Chance Peak.
  • Become self-reliant. In today’s fast-paced and high-tech world where everyone is a specialist, sometimes it feels like there is no room for a generalist such as myself. Solo hiking allows me to return to basics and trust myself in a way that I do not in the city. It provides me with a way to get in touch with my roots, akin to gardening or forest bathing.
  • Meet strangers who become friends. One of my most memorable hikes the past year started as a solo hike with Ajax along the Kendall Katwalk. I met someone who turned into a client and blog follower (you know who you are!) He challenges me with philosophical insights I would never have had without joining forces on the trail. When you are hiking as part of a group, however, such an opportunity might never present itself.
Solo Hiking: Nine Ways It Enhances Your Freedom
Meeting friends like this one in the mountains. Kendall Katwalk, August 24, 2021.

Solo Hiking Provides Carry-over Into Life

Finally, solo hiking enhances freedom in my daily life, by relieving stress, providing a channel for creative problem solving, and allowing me ways to safely explore new areas.

  • Relieve stress. Nothing else gives me as much relief from stress as solo hiking. When I am in the mountains with Ajax, I have zero responsibilities other than taking care of the two of us. We go at our own pace, do exactly what we want, and enjoy nature with mindfulness and freedom.
Ajax at the base of the Great Wall on Mt. Washington.
Ajax at the base of the Great Wall on Mt. Washington.
  • Channel creative problem-solving. Over the past year, whenever I feel stuck (in my blog or creative writing, or even my client work) I set an intention to “mull” over the current problem on my next hike. I’ve started to do the same in town if I can’t spare a half-day. Traveling with a pack has become a form of walking meditation.
  • Explore new areas. Mother Nature has provided numerous trails in the Pacific Northwest. I can bring my wanderlust to city walks with Ajax, by taking familiar routes in a reverse direction or exploring streets I’ve never been down before. A win for the brain!
Cushiony pine and moss trail down the Great Wall route, a welcome break from the rocky, gravely normal route.
Cushiony pine and moss trail down the Great Wall route, a welcome break from the rocky, gravely normal route.

Published by Courtenay Schurman

Co-author of The Outdoor Athlete (2009) and Train to Climb Mt. Rainier or Any High Peak DVD (2002), author of Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills/conditioning chapter 4 (3 editions), and Peak Performance column for the Mountaineers Mag (2014-present). Member of PNWA, SCBWI, EPIC. Served on the steering committee for WOTS (2019-present). Completed UW Certificate program for Children's Literature and Memoir. Co-owner of Body Results, Inc. in Seattle. Climb leader with Seattle Mountaineers for over 15 years. Volunteer at Woodland Park Zoo since 2014.

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6 Comments

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  1. I second Silvie Marie’s suggestion to consider writing another 50 blogs; no pressure 😊 I also could not agree more with the profound benefits of solo hiking… and some of the associated challenges. Out of the “nine ways solo hiking enhance (our) freedom and joy”, the one I least expected beforehand was that “Solo Hiking Provides Carry-over Into Life”. I knew I wanted the freedom to start as early as I desired, the ability to reshape my journey as it unfolded, the benefits of controlling my own pace, or experiencing nature in as intimate a way as possible, etc. I also hoped that the sense of wellbeing and freedom I seek and find on the trail would somewhat “bleed” into my life off-trail. I did not anticipate, however, how profoundly solo hiking, and even more solo backpacking, would improve my ability to navigate my “big picture” life better, freeing me from old and unhelpful habits. I can relate these improvements to some of the discussions you fostered through a few blog posts, including the latest one about Complaining. Living by myself, outdoors, in a deliberately self-sufficient way… made complaining a very difficult habit to sustain. Who can I complain to when I am solo and my feet hurt, rain doesn’t stop, I cannot find a ‘good campsite’, a piece of gear breaks, I am low on food, etc. ? The futility and ineffectiveness of complaining becomes painfully obvious, and I shed the habit quite NATUREly, replacing it with new/effective coping mechanisms… and new brain connections are built. These newly acquired coping skills, these new brain connections, remain available after I am ‘out of the woods’. I complain less, I take action more promptly when I notice something needs doing (sorry, old procrastinating me), I am more compassionate towards myself and others, I appreciate more “what works” (Gain) and dwell less on “what doesn’t” (Gap), I try to focus on the essentials and ignore the “noise” (isn’t ultralight backpacking a form of KISAGE?), etc. The breadth and depth of the positive changes that carried over into everyday life truly astonishes me… but it could be that there was so much “wrong” about me to start with 😊 Note: When hiking solo, I am never truly alone it seems; somehow, my inner critic appears to ALWAYS know of my plans in advance, no matter how carefully I try to hide them. He waits for me at the trailhead with a smug expression on his sunscreen lathered face. I have more work to do on that front…

    1. Thanks for the vote for more blog posts. At the start, I wasn’t sure I could do 50, but now I am pretty confident I can keep going at roughly one a week. And mind you, I am NOT moving the finish line, just interested in engaging further. HA. 🙂

      Love your tie-in of “benefits of solo hiking” with “stopping complaining.” You are right there — you can complain but nobody is going to hear it. And yes, the more you get out hiking (for anyone still wondering whether solo hiking is worth it) the more you develop your brain and experience. (And no, there’s nothing “wrong” with you or with anyone. We are all doing the very best we can at any given moment with the tools we have. I firmly believe that.)

      And I add one other benefit, which pure solo hikers cannot quite relate to: hiking with a dog gives me a sort of “checks and balances” — if he’s too hot, or limping, or tired, it helps me reality-check the situation and adjust accordingly. I get tremendous joy at seeing his joy of being off-leash, staring down chipmunks or squirrels, alerting me to deer, etc.

      A reminder to blog readers: have you named your inner critic yet? I am getting more familiar with Gooky and why she’s showing up. We’re becoming much more comfortable with each other AND today is day 30 without chocolate, day 14 without fructose. Progress. Rock on, solo hike on, and keep reading!

      1. 30 chocolateless days and 14 days away from fructose! YEAH!!!!! And a big electronic high five!

  2. I am also a solo hiker and love it. I notice that more and more woman adventure alone in the backcountry. This is great. There are more advantages than disadvantages to solo hiking. This is not for everyone. There are so much skills you need to feel comfortable with. I also solo backpack and love it as well. If you have a great hiking partner who will be the mirror of yourself, this will be great. I haven’t found the perfect hiking/backpacking partner. This is more challenging to find someone as you age. Lots of people stop doing activities as they age. They prefer to stay home watching TV or doing something less strenuous than hiking. Hopefully I can hike until I expires. 😳🙄

    I hope you will sign for another 50 blogs!!!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Silvie Marie! Yes, sometimes it is a real challenge to find the right hiking partner. There’s also the issue of introversion and extroversion; in my experience introverts find solo hiking more comfortable and natural, but I also know extroverts who hike and gravitate toward meeting others on the trail or in camp. And you bring up a good point about aging making people stop — I’d say aging provides experience, but yes, also trials and tribulations. I also hope you can hike well into old age and from what I’ve seen of your habits and training you have a great shot.

      Thanks for the comment on continuing with blog posts. I’m contemplating taking a few weeks off at the end of the summer, when we take a family vacation before my daughter starts college, and then back at it in a new direction, though what that direction will be is anyone’s guess. “empty nest” (in quotes because that’s what it’s known for but I am redefining it for myself) brings a lot of change, growth, and opportunity! Keep posting, keep hiking, keep finding joy!