I have been on a few solo hikes so far. Three solo hikes in the Himachal near Jibhi. One hike in the Subbetica Natural park in Andalucia, Spain. In general, it is a bit too soon for me to be putting a “Solo Hiking Safety” post. I like to be more experienced about a subject like this before I write about it. But………I got lost on my previous hike in the Subbetica Natural park and had to be rescued! And it got fairly dangerous due to the weather forecast!
My mind was on overdrive for a few days afterwards, trying to figure out why it all became so serious. Failure is a great teacher. And I also realised that there were a lot of things I did right, largely owing to my previous solo cycle touring experience (and the few hikes), which led to an ‘easy’ rescue. So I decided to write this post on potential problems and the solutions for solo hiking (also relevant for group hiking). Also, I don’t think there can be a truly ‘complete’ list for these kind of activities – it is after all the WILD! So feel free to search more if you are planning a solo hike. And if you have suggestions to add to this list, comment and let me know too 🙂
Preparations before the Hike
These preps need not be super long or time consuming. If you do rugged trips – long distance cycling, hiking, trekking whatever else – then a lot of these things aren’t really ‘new’. But I am jotting it all down, so one can easily go through it and do it meticulously.
Kind of basic. A simple search on Google sorts this out – typically Accuweather is supposed to be fairly accurate. But what also helps is the MET website of the country. They often are aware of local situations and so their information becomes a lot more relevant. For example, if you are in a desert area, rains which may seem of less magnitude on Accuweather, might have serious implications in that area. The roads could be totally muddy and so hiking/cycling becomes super tough. This is just an example… but along with an online web check, also ensure you check with local resources.
And then always prepare for more than what they predict. Because every area has its own weather quirks. And only after living there for a while can one understand how it behaves. So always better to be a little bit over prepared. Typically, the recommendation is to wear layers so you can remove/add as needed. This can also be done as the weather changes over a few hours… but basically carry enough layers with you.
I was carrying 4 layers with me for this hike in 10 C and a spare raincoat is usually lying around in my backpack. This was my strongest asset in case I would have had to spend the night in the Subbetica wild.
Also, always check for not just the temperature of the day but also stats like Wind, Rain, Sunny or Cloudy, Real feel temperature and so on. You may also want to check wind direction – for cycling it does have an impact.
This gets a bit tricky.
The trail information that we hikers get is of very different quality and quantity. Sometimes it is elaborate like international standard trail routes with GPS route files and all the works. Other times it may just be a verbal direction from someone who tell us “ohh, just go ahead on this small, rutted road and you will come to so-so village and then turn right at the big tree and blah blah… “.
There are three problems that crop up,
- Detail: There may just not be enough detail provided. And we have to fend for ourselves on the trail when we find different realities on the ground. And we don’t get any help from the instructions we got because they lack in detail.
- Subjectivity: Often trail markers include terms like ‘Turn right at the very big tree’ – one persons understanding of a “very big” tree is very different from another person. Especially when you consider that the hiker is a traveller from afar. Which means he could be an urban person or a countryside person, a forest person or a desert person and with very different understandings of what is a “big tree” for them.
- Regional Expectations: The tiny paths that locals in mountains often consider “normal” would seem very “risky” to a urban beginner hiker. And when you add global cultural differences, it leads to a fairly tricky situation. One region’s “beginner” trail might be “expert” level for a hiker in a different country.
These differences in understanding the trail instructions is a big source of potential confusion and hiker-lost situation. As it happened with me.
So what should we do about this?
It would be good to have some standard hike grading parameters which give us a better understanding of what lies ahead. And since I went hiking in Spain, in my research, I came across one system they are looking to use across their long distance hiking trails. It is called the M.I.D.E system. And it seems pretty good.
On the basis of this MIDE system, here are 4 questions that you can ask to figure out specific trail details that will give you an idea of how easy or tough it is.
Ascertain the Hiking Trail Details with the MIDE scale
#1 Is the trail easily walkable without any risk and danger? Are there any obstructions like rivers without a bridge / loose gravel / steep falls on any side / visibility problems like mist / thorny bushes?
The idea is to ascertain the environment of the trail. Remember, the locals might not consider some things as ‘risk’, so you must describe the specifics well.
#2 Is the trail easy to follow? Are there sign posts frequently and at EVERY turn? Because it only takes one wrong turn to get lost. Or even without signposts is it easy to follow? Does it require identifying local geographical features to follow the trail? This can be problematic – because you being an outsider may not be aware of certain features/tree types etc… Is it too far from city/civilization? If so, you have to be extra careful. I think that for us urban folks this includes network connectivity details -> will I get mobile network?
That reminds me, I also went solo hiking in Taiwan – in two places actually. I totally forgot about this. Maybe I am quite experienced to be writing this blog post. 😀 The Elephant Hiking trail in Taipei was never risky at all because I was always in full view of the nearby Taipei city!
The idea here is to identify how easy it is for the hiker to follow/find/be aware of the trail (and NOT get lost 😉 ).
#3 What’s the actual trail like? Is it a gravel road, a mud path, a goat trail? Ascertain the nature of the road being walked on. Does it need climbing up or down with hands? This will also influence your gear and footwear requirements.
#4 Approx Time Taken – here again some digging deep is needed to ascertain how much time it will take you. Because it will probably take the locals less time. It also depends on your fitness. And the fact that you will sit and enjoy the view at times. Always keep extra time in hand.
Read about the MIDE scale in detail to get a better idea.
This was the one that I truly missed in this Subbetica hike. Typically, whenever I have done something that is ‘risky’ at least by my definition – I have always been in touch with someone known to inform them of my status. For example, when I went on my solo cycling trip from Chennai to Tiruvannamalai – I had setup a system where I would message a friend every few hours. And if he didn’t receive the message, he would start checking in and if needed raise an alarm etc..
But I guess because I was in the mindset of going on a small hike – beginner level – I did not see the need. And that is always a bit dangerous. So in general I think when one is going on a solo hike however small – better to inform someone. Locals AND a known person. One always hopes that the locals are awesome (and they usually would be) but at the end they are strangers. So, always have that one known person who is there to check on you at a pre-decided interval of time.
There is also the situation of being out of network connectivity zone – and that is a tricky one. I don’t know how it would work then. Because it would entail cutting the hike short – if all of a sudden I came to a no network zone and then I have to be in touch with this person within an hour or so.. otherwise they raise alarm.. so it’s a bit tricky. But I guess it can be planned out. Like one can leave a message saying, “Ok, no network zone – will connect after 2 hours” and then one does have to return in 2 hours. Though this may not always be possible depending on the hike scale.
So in general if I had someone who would have checked up on me – then I would be more relaxed once I was lost. Because I know that person would raise alarm and eventually someone would come looking for me. However, do note that if you don’t message your whereabouts at all – and there is the need for a search party – then the search party will have to search a MUCH larger area. Which means that it may take a very long time. So even if someone is aware that you have gone for a hike, it is important that they know your frequent location updates to be of better use in case of trouble.
There are some tools like Google Locations – which apparently show the GPS location of loved ones automatically (once you activate it) but I haven’t checked it out yet.
The little back pack or day pack or whatever you want to carry with you, it should have all the basics like some food, water, first aid kit, flashlight, spare raincoat (those tiny plastic ones). And as my mom suggested – a power bank. Because for all us urbans, our phone is the key navigational tool and we don’t want it to run out of battery. Specifics of what to carry in the first aid kit should be considered.
Also when carrying food consider the wild animals and situation. And then figure out what works. Probably not something with scent. This is a basic backpack. If the hike is more rugged then you have to consider whatever else makes sense.
Just having the phone isn’t really enough. I think it is good to learn various GPS features and these are a few that I think are really important,
In completely wild areas it is preferable and more useful to use the satellite map view than the normal city view. Because there are no roads that the GPS can detect, but we can see the goat trails on satellite view.
GPS as Compass or With a Compass?
Also, how to make GPS tell us which direction – I mean North, East, West, South – should we walk in. Because GPS route plotting is useless when it cannot detect a road. (I don’t know how to do this yet, but will dig into it soon)
Save hike locations
This really came to my aid on this hike. I had saved a particular location (Cortijo Moreno) on G maps. So even without internet I could just orient myself as per this point and head to it.
You will be surprised but when you search for landmarks on your hiking trail, even geographical ones on G maps, you might actually find a few, even in seemingly remote areas! So save these locations. You can also save check points that you have already reached on the hike in the G maps – that way it is much easier to head back that way.
Also, look at downloading maps / other GPS tools / elevation tools that help you choose a trail better and so on. So I think a crash course on using GPS would be good for hiking especially solo hiking.
I am usually dependant on the G maps and GPS navigation. And I am hoping that even in no-internet mode it has enough features to make it workable. I have no idea of how to navigate a route using a compass. I mean seriously NO CLUE. Maybe some day I will learn… but I prefer mastering GPS (and hope with today’s new age tech and all, it is enough). Because learning Compass skills (without GPS aid) will be a whole new thing for me – it will happen as and when.
Again, sounds basic. But in my Jibhi hikes I was in bear territory. I had no idea, a Twitter friend informed me later about it. This Subbetica hike was in Wild Boar territory and again I had no idea 😀 I am just totally killing it with going into wild areas having no clue of the wild life.
Though my thoughts on this are overall mixed. Other hikers don’t mind hiking in these regions with a guide. But unless it’s a guide that is carrying drums – yea, hikes into areas with wild elephants have guides which carry drums or firecracker bombs to make loud sounds to scare off the elephants – but the point is that unless you have such prepared guides, what difference will the guide do if a wild bear appears in front. In fact even with elephants it has often happened that hikers get trampled / attacked despite the guide. But then I guess I am under-estimating to some extent the value of having a local around. But yea, next time – checking about the wildlife is part of the plan. 😉
What number or person are you going to contact in an emergency? And inform them that you *may* contact them in need. When I had to contact my hotel urgently from the Subbetica – because I got internet access totally unexpectedly – I didn’t have my hotel number. I did a super quick google search and thankfully the internet was working fine and I got the number right away. And I called them asap. And it all worked out. But, it is of course, preferred to have the number/s saved already!
Also, identify the known / local people you will message in case of emergency and let them know before itself – so they don’t think your message is a joke. This actually happens, sometimes even close relatives take these messages as a joke initially. Especially, considering that in the moment of emergency you may not always be at your best while typing the SOS message. You may end up sending a weird sounding message. In which case, they should be alert.
Remember to try and give a clue of the whereabouts as much as possible in your SOS message. As I mentioned earlier, if the search party has no clue about where you are – they have to search from the beginning, making it a much longer search effort.
This made my rescue super simple, in fact almost it looked silly. Because I was exactly 3 minutes away from the place where I told them I was lost near. But, it is actually a very genuine reality that in the wild you can get properly LOST just a few minutes from the path – because it may be dark or geographical features don’t allow you to see the path. Kind of like the Hobbit movie where the Dwarfs and Bilbo lose hope in Mirkwood because it seemed like too long a path and they couldn’t do it – but the fact was that they were almost at the end.
So give your whereabouts as much as possible. Send out a screenshot of your GPS location if possible. And whatever else. Probably also describe if you have any injuries or problems (like phone battery dying or broken ankle or some such thing).
I think this is a pretty comprehensive list for usual, “easy” hikes. 😉
During the Walk
Be Aware and Mindful
Be on trail, and keep all the info about the route in your mind. Pay attention and Enjoy! 🙂
You MAY have to turn back
Be ready for possible problems and keep in mind that in some situations it may be prudent to turn back. I think, what often happens is that you may come across a potential problem on the hike, like the trail may be blocked, but you are in the spirit of hiking & exploring the wild etc etc… and decide to take some unknown alternate route.. and that could lead to trouble. Or the weather starts changing unexpectedly but if you decide not to turn back and keep going on and later get into bad weather.
Save GPS points
This can be useful. In fact, you can also track the entire hike via GPS, and upload it, making it easier for next bunch of hikers. Especially, solo hikers like me :p
This is crucial. When is sunset time? When does it get dark? Are you prepared to be there in dark? If not then you have to be very careful to be back by at least twilight if not before that. And so keep an idea of how far you are from your stay place. And head back on time.
This was another thing that I goofed up. I decided to turn around and head back the way I had come too late. Should have realised much earlier that I can’t find the trail ahead, and I can’t waste more time looking for it. I know the way back – and so I must head back. So time management was a bit of an issue.
Plus, typically I often start my day late and so I end up going on shorter hikes. But it is still not the best practice (even for the views 😉 ). Try to start early and keep the time in mind.
Be Mindful of the Wilderness
Lastly, this point of which I don’t have much info.
When I was lost in the Subbetica and it got dark, my options were severely limited all of a sudden. One reason for this was – I didn’t know the wild life at night. I have no experience of this. I don’t know of nocturnal creatures who may come out. And how they would respond to any Light I have ON. So even if my phone battery was not dying – I am not sure I could use it a lot. Because I am aware of all the insects that a Light attracts at night. But I know nothing of how birds/snakes?/other animals would react. Would they be attracted by light – in which case is it dangerous?
So, the best way that I follow is to be aware and pay attention. And generally I try not to disturb anything. Not do anything that is unnatural in that environment. This means no putting on music, no putting on light at night and so on. But of this aspect I don’t have much knowledge at all. And in general I hope not to need it until I take on such an expedition – for which I would then prepare.
That’s pretty much what I got. And I think it is overall a decent Solo Hiking checklist. I hope any other hikers reading this will share their experiences and additions.