After one long and snowy Black Hills winter had just drawn to an end, “cabin fever” got the better of me, so I decided to do a few hours of hiking and rock scrambling on the Little Devils Tower. Though most of the snowpack had melted, I heard there was a small blanket of new snow. However, I figured the wind and the sun would clear most of the south-facing rock, so ignoring all cautions about solo hiking, I headed for the Little Devils Tower.
When I arrived at Sylvan Lake, there were no cars at the trailhead and there was about 5-6 inches of snow on the ground. I assembled my gear and started up the trail, noticing that while there appeared to be two sets of footprints on Trail 4, a comparison of the prints showed them to be made by the same hiker – one set going up and one set coming down. What really grabbed my attention, though, was that there were periodic drops of blood always along the side of the downhill footprints. Obviously, that hiker-climber had been injured, but made it back to the parking lot OK and was gone before I ever got there. Since the drops of blood were evident all the way to the summit area, I speculated that the person had slipped on icy rock and did some damage to some part of their body.
The repeated reminders of blood drops along the trail had a sobering effect on me, and when I arrived in the rock scrambling area, I was much more careful than I would have been otherwise. The rest of the day was good and the incident went into my mental files for hiking safety and solo hiking.
Solo hiking is not a new topic and the SummitPost Forum has had past discussions on this topic. For myself, when I am contemplating a solo hike, I think back to that event and how having one or more partners along would probably have been wiser. The same goes for the two times I got lost on solo hikes. Or the time I came across the largest mountain lion tracks I have ever seen while on a solo hike though Hell Canyon.
Sometimes the value of having good hiking partners really pays off, like the time my fellow climbers and I were caught in a July snowstorm on top of the Continental Divide in Colorado, or when my companions and I were confronted with armed and unfriendly hikers in Jawbone Canyon in the Mojave Desert. James Peak photo below was taken by JonBradford.
And then there are times when you might encounter problems that would be difficult whether you are hiking solo or with a group, like the two times my hiking groups were forced to reroute our hikes each time because of an aggressive “sentry” bison moving to block our route.
These incidents represent only a very small percentage of my otherwise mostly uneventful hiking and climbing experiences. However, they serve to remind me that problems can happen and when one has the choice to hike or climb with a good group or to go solo, choosing the group is normally the safest decision.
Regardless of the increased risks, the truth is that a great many people will continue to solo hike despite all the standard warnings, and that they will do so for a variety of reasons. Some hikers love the solitude and the time to think. Others, photographers especially, like to go at their own pace and stop at the times of their own choosing. Many like to be alone with nature. And some people who cannot find partners will go solo anyway because they do not want to miss an opportunity.
Many standard safety guidelines apply to solo and group hiker-climbers alike, like studying maps and guides ahead of time, checking weather forecasts, knowing your limitations, making sure you have all the gear appropriate for your plans and checking with managing agencies for fire, flood or avalanche warnings. Of course there are more considerations, but you see the point. It’s like what Benjamin Franklin said, “those who fail to prepare are preparing to fail”.
So what kind of special considerations are needed if you choose to go solo? Perhaps the top consideration is what plan do you have in place for rescue should you get lost, sick or injured? Some solo hiker-climbers choose high-traffic destinations and go early so that they might have a better chance of encountering someone to help should the need arise. Others use a Spot Messenger or similar GPS to improve their options. Leaving a written plan and map with a dependable friend is also a good idea.
In regard to solo rock climbing, rope soloing is possible, but not advisable. Free soloing is very dangerous, with many injuries and fatalities in recent years. For considerations on climbing by yourself, please check out this article on the Climber News:
Solo hikers can also face greater risks from wildlife. Often, but not always, there seems to be “safety in numbers” for group hikes. Notable exceptions to this would include an angry herd of bison or a mother grizzly with her cubs. Careful planning can help minimize wildlife risks. There is something to be said for the old saying, “the best defense is not to be there”. I’m not advocating bypassing a trip to Yellowstone, rather just to stay clear of the areas posted for bear or bison warnings.
Finally, another risk of solo hiking that many people do not like to think about is in regards to threatening people (and sometimes even their dogs) that you might meet on the trail. News reports seem to indicate the problem of assaults and robberies are even more frequent for ladies hiking. Rapes, robberies, assaults and even murders of solo hikers have been reported in various place around the country, especially, but not entirely limited to metro areas. It is certainly well worth the time spent to investigate the safety of trails ahead of time, and to take adequate measures to protect youself. Law enforcement offices in the area you are considering would probably be your best resources of information and advice.
Perhaps it is hypocritical, but I will still probably solo hike sometimes, safely as possible of course. However, whenever I have the chance to go with friends or family, that will always be my preference. While safety is a factor in the choice to group hike, the opportunity to share time in God’s creation with people I enjoy being with is an even greater reason.
Best wishes for safe hiking and climbing!