Encounter solitude on solo hikes

Know your limits, take precautions when heading into nature alone, say experts

craig.hill@thenewstribune.comSeptember 15, 2013 

Of all the really good backpacking safety advice, there’s one tip worth disregarding from time to time: Don’t hike alone.

When Karen Povey tells people she spent a week by herself in the summer of 2012 hiking 93 miles around Mount Rainier, she’s sometimes treated like a daredevil.

And it makes her laugh.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” said the 50-year-old Point Defiance Zoo education curator. “I’m a scaredy cat.”

Povey finds joy in being alone in nature. She can sit for hours watching pikas play in the rocks without having to worry about her hiking partner growing impatient. She can take time to reflect. And Povey, a fit and fast hiker, doesn’t have to bother herself with letting others keep up.

There were times on the Wonderland Trail when she met people who expressed shock that she was out there alone.

“Some people might be thinking about security, but I think a lot of them mean, ‘Isn’t nature a scary place?’ ” Povey said. “For me, nature is where I feel safest. I love being out there.”

But Povey understands the concerns and misconceptions about solo hiking. When her 2011 divorce left her without her most frequent hiking partner, she significantly reduced her trail time.

“It’s this very nebulous feeling: You don’t hike alone,” she said, “especially if you’re a woman.”

A conversation with a friend changed her mind. Why couldn’t she hike alone? She was experienced. She was skilled. She prepared properly. She was safe.

“It kind of slapped me into consciousness,” Povey said. “I’d been kind of programmed to think I couldn’t go out there by myself when really there was no reason I couldn’t. I think there are a lot of people who feel that way.”

Mark Cooksley, a board member and past president of Tacoma Mountain Rescue, sometimes hikes alone, although he prefers hiking with people.

“It is not necessarily irresponsible,” Cooksley said. “With appropriate levels of preparation, training, a plan — and if a person stays within their limits — it can be perfectly responsible.”

UNDERSTAND THE RISKS

In addition to good conversation and having somebody to take your picture and help haul the tent, the most important benefit of a hiking partner is having help if something goes wrong.

Cooksley said he hasn’t noticed any trends indicating that solo hikers are more likely to get in trouble than groups, but he said hikers should be aware that going alone means giving up this safety net.

“Even on a trail like Mount Si, where you might see a hiker every 15 minutes, that might be too long if, let’s throw out an example, a hiker goes into cardiac arrest,” Cooksley said. “Having a hiking partner that can perform CPR right away can make a big difference.”

Cooksley said solo hikers should be prepared and make sure somebody is aware of their itinerary. It’s the same advice he gives hiking parties of any size.

“It’s poor preparation mixed with hiking solo that’s irresponsible,” Cooksley said.

All hikers, especially those who choose to go alone, should know and respect their limits.

Finding and pushing your limits is a great exercise, but it’s best done with others.

“If you push yourself too far, it’s good to have somebody there to help you,” Cooksley said.

CONSIDER A PLB

When Povey hiked the Wonderland Trail last summer, she took steps to make sure her family knew she was safe.

“My mom was not at all pleased that I was out there by myself,” Povey said. “She probably didn’t get a wink of sleep while I was gone.”

Most of the 93-mile hike is out of cellphone range, so Povey improvised. She asked a hiker who was exiting the trail to call her mom and let her know she was OK.

“I just wanted to help put my mom’s mind at ease,” she said.

Her plan worked well, but there are high tech options, too.

Cooksley carries a small device with him called a personal locator beacon (PLB), which allows him to send a distress signal if needed and can notify rescuers via satellite of his location.

The device costs from $150 to more than $400, and some require an additional service fee.

In addition to sending distress signals and geographic coordinates, some PLBs allow users to send text messages. Some also let friends and family members follow the user’s progress online.

“I have one now because I’m getting older,” Cooksley, 50, said. “And, also, I’m traveling more with my children, and I want them to have a system (for requesting help) if something happens.”

Cooksley said it’s important for PLB users to realize that a beacon does not mean rescuers can reach them at any place or any time.

Sometimes it takes the rescue unit more than two hours just to reach the trailhead after it has been notified.

“It could be 4-6 hours before we are on the scene (even) if we know the exact location,” he said.

Response time could be measured in days if weather is particularly nasty.

“PLBs are an investment, and lot of people choose not to use them,” Cooksley said. “But I think the solo hiker should seriously consider carrying one.”

PRACTICE

Before she took on the Wonderland Trail alone, Povey decided she should start with something a little more manageable.

She went on day hikes by herself, and in spring 2012, she spent three days hiking the Ozette Triangle in Olympic National Park. The trip is less than 10 miles, is mostly flat and utilizes long stretches of boardwalk. For Povey, an experienced hiker, it was well within her limits.

“I just wanted to see if I liked backpacking by myself,” she said. “It was great.”

Cooksley said this is an ideal approach for people who want to try soloing.

“And it’s great to go out there in an environment where you are likely to run into other people,” he said.

ENJOY BEING ALONE

On her second night on the Wonderland Trail, Povey leaned over in the wrong place in her tent and broke the closest thing she had to a hiking companion: She’d accidently wrecked her e-reader, which she had loaded with books for the trip.

“That actually turned out to be a blessing, as I turned more to other pursuits,” Povey said.

With nothing to read in camp, she lingered longer on the trail, watching pikas, marmots and dippers. She looked for heart-shaped rocks along the rivers and wrote a haiku every day. And she figures she got a little extra sleep each night.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m a hermit, I love hiking with people, too,” said Povey, who has climbed Africa’s tallest mountain — 19,341-foot Mount Kilimanjaro — with a group earlier this year. “...But I enjoy the solitude. Nature is my happy place.”

There are two wobbly suspension bridges on the Wonderland Trail. One crosses the Carbon River, and the other passes high above Tahoma Creek. The times she crossed those bridges alone were the only times Povey felt remotely nervous on the trail.

“I thought, if I fall, nobody is going to know what happened.” Otherwise, she added, “there was not one second I was uncomfortable or worried about being alone. I loved it.”

Craig Hill: 253-597-8497 craig.hill@thenewstribune.com thenewstribune.com/outdoors theolympian.com/outdoors @AdventureGuys

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