In short, yes, but also no, and sometimes maybe. As with everything in life, there is no neat, clean, one answer fits all answer to this question.
Note: people have different interpretations of the terms hiking and backpacking, so I want to clarify what those terms mean in the context of this post. Hiking/backpacking for the context of this post means heading out into nature, away from the conveniences of society, and carrying everything one needs for survival with them in a backpack.
People hike solo every day and live to tell the tale, so yes, solo hiking can be safe. Hiking solo does increase the risks associated with wandering off into the woods, but if you know what those risks are you can lower them. The press and authorities often would have you believe hiking solo is the leading cause of death and rescues (actually the leading cause of death is falls, which happen to solo hikers and group hikers equally). In short, solo hiking gets a bad rep, but is it deserved? Let’s look at two recent news stories involving solo hikers.
In this recent news story, Unprepared Hiker Airlifted to Safety, the headline states the problem up front. This doesn’t, however, stop the blame being placed on the fact she was hiking solo. The article states, “… hiking alone will exponentially increase the risk …” which is true to a point. The article does have other indicators that this hiker was bound for trouble regardless of hiking solo. She had no food or water with her, a big no-no, especially in a desert setting. She hadn’t researched the trail beforehand. She was wearing inappropriate footwear. She was wearing shorts in an area that called for pants. No mention is made of either a map or compass. In short, as indicated by the title of the article, this was one majorly unprepared hiker. Her being unprepared and obviously inexperienced is what led to having to be rescued, not the fact she was hiking solo.
It is a safe bet this hiker is inexperienced based on the number of beginner mistakes she made. Being an inexperienced hiker plus hiking solo can be dangerous. If she had been with a group, she might not have needed rescue. Chances are someone would have had water, someone some food, and hopefully, someone with a map. Although, a group of inexperienced hikers isn’t any safer than hiking solo and sometimes it is more dangerous.
If this hiker had done the necessary research, knew to carry water, food, etc. the risks of doing this hike solo would have been reduced. However, inexperienced hikers aren’t aware of the risks and being inexperienced they don’t know what they should be carrying with them. (In all fairness, this incident happened in Sedona, Arizona, which is desert and hiking in shorts isn’t uncommon).
Even experienced hikers going solo can run into problems, so not only inexperienced hikers are at risk. In this story, Hypothermia suspected in hiker who died in White Mountains over Christmas, there are other issues other than hiking solo indicated. In this case, we have an experienced hiker who is presumably properly equipped and yet, they meet their demise. There are a number of warning signs in the article to indicate trouble. First is the plan to hike 22-miles in one day, with only 9-hours of daylight. Second is the plan to make three summits during that day. Third, wet weather rolled into the area, so it was cold and raining or snowing. Fourth, while it says the hiker was properly equipped, they had no sleeping bag, tent, or emergency shelter; presumably, the hiker also didn’t have a fire-starter kit either. In short, this hiker as overconfident in their abilities. Overconfidence plus hiking solo can be dangerous.
Experienced hikers who are overconfident and hike solo can end up in trouble just as easily as the inexperienced hiker can. Overestimating one’s abilities comes in many forms, like attempting to hike 22-miles with only 9-hours of sunlight, in the dead of winter. Typically, in the dead of winter most hikers are not in the top form, so while 22-miles may be doable later in the year, there’s a good chance that in December it’s beyond one’s abilities. Underestimating the impacts of the weather is another form of overconfidence. Regardless of what people might think, hiking in the rain or snow is different and affects one’s pace and endurance. Another common form of overconfidence is thinking that emergency gear I’ve carried for years and never needed can stay home. Overestimating your abilities, underestimating Mother Nature, and hiking solo can be dangerous.
While these news stories would lead you to believe it was because the hikers in question were hiking solo, there were other factors, which led to their problems. Solo hiking does increase the risks associated with hiking, however, those risks can be managed. Hiking solo can be safe, if you are aware of the risks, accept those risks, and take steps to mitigate those risks…