The Case for Hiking Alone During the Coronavirus Pandemic

solo hiking
Brooks Erickson - Columbia

Solo hiking is a fancy name for walking alone. In this era of social distancing, it makes a lot of sense. If you are working from home with kids, multiple roommates or extended family, quarters can get tight. Venturing out for a few hours (or days) provides exercise, time to think, problem solve, and a chance to hit the reset button. And by hiking alone you are doing your part to keep trails, beaches and parks open to the public. Andy Warhol used to say, “one’s company, two’s a crowd, three’s a party.” Those are wise words for our fight against the novel coronavirus.

We’re living through historic times when personal responsibility and accountability matters. And while staying home and saving lives is a good idea (not to mention the law for many), we’re all eager to get outdoors. But too many people heading out at once threatens access for all; California has taken steps to close some counties’ beaches and state parks because too many users flocked to enjoy spring weather. French authorities instituted a ban in Paris against jogging during daylight hours for the same reason. Social distancing etiquette for trails, beaches and parks suggests that going solo is best. By walking alone, you are saving lives.

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Solo hiking journeys are certainly not new. The ability to walk distances alone through unexplored territory has always been the stuff of legend. Who hasn’t reflected on mountain man John Colter’s wild 12-day escape across Montana in 1810? Or John Muir’s foot-powered forays into the Yosemite backcountry nearly a hundred years later? Or, Earl Shaffer’s solo single-season walk of the Appalachian Trail in 1948? After serving in the Pacific during WWII, Shaffer said he needed to “walk the war” out of his system. And he did. Then seven years later, Emma “Grandma” Gatewood (at age 67) became the first woman to match Shaffer’s feat.

Solo hiking rewards self-sufficiency, organization, and efficiency. And it requires curiosity to explore not only the world but oneself. Though not as sexy as solo climbing, hiking alone requires a similar mindset. And there’s also the benefits: Less impact on trails, plus less noise means more chances to spot wildlife. In a group, you’re only as fast as the slowest member; alone, you set your own pace as the master of your own destiny. For some, destiny means a desire to compete. You can repeat hikes to chase a PB (personal best), or, on classic trails, try for a FKT (fastest known time).

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Granted, pandemic precautions have curtailed access to many recreational areas. Through-hikers have been asked to avoid both Pacific Crest and Appalachian trails. But, there are millions of acres of public lands that are open. Every state has a “park” website, as does the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service. In many cases, campgrounds, food services, and even restrooms are shut for the duration, but trails are open.

The rub? Trails won’t stay open if there’s a lack of social distancing. Most maintained trails are from 3-8 feet wide—not nearly enough space for people to walk two or three abreast. If you go it alone, you are making social distancing more manageable for yourself and others. And you’re lessening your chance of a negative social interaction. The American creed of wide, open space was one of rugged individualism, testing oneself in nature to return to society a better part of the collective whole. Now is a good time to walk alone.

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KEEP IN MIND:  If you’re hiking in bear country, avoid being out at dawn and dusk, carry bear spray, and follow Leave No Trace guidelines for securing food. Situational awareness is always important whether in the backyard, or the backcountry; more so when you’re alone. And don’t forget to leave word of your whereabouts. William Emerson, veteran solo hiker who completed the Oregon Coast Trail last summer with his dog, Barkley, and his packraft, offers this sound advice: “For safety,” he says, “text or email a trustworthy friend with your plans for the days outing. Make sure they received the message. Check the weather forecast before leaving—cancel your plans if the storm of the century is heading your general direction.”

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