Solo Hiking: tips on going it alone

 

Ella Staden is a writer, adventurer and forager from Wales, who loves to travel alone in wild places when she’s not out surfing in the Celtic sea.

Sharing some insight from a recent solo trip to the west coast of Ireland, she explains how going it alone can unlock our confidence in many ways…  

Ella Staden at the start of a solo hike along the west coast of Ireland

Gearing up

Can anybody ever fully ‘prepare’ for the spectrum of feelings – body and soul – that get stirred up on long, solo, wild camping adventures?  
 
Honestly, I don’t think so… but it’s still wise to start with a foundation of preparation in as many aspects as possible, so that you feel comfortable with what you’re about to do, rather than apprehensive! The basic fundamentals are good kit, common sense, and being able to confidently read a map.  

Be familiar with your gear, and when you’re out there, be sensible. Know your limits: pushing yourself too far past the boundaries of your own skillset is, well, stupid. But pushing yourself to that boundary is where growth comes from (just remember to always think things through with safety in mind).  
 
Yes, sometimes serious grit is needed. Emotions rise and fall like the hills and valleys you walk through. Be prepared for this. Embrace fear and relief and loneliness and excitement, and don’t let them fluster you or take away your focus. Above all, you must master panic.  
 
But that’s enough of the dos and don’ts… within the above parameters I say: just go for it, explore and be as adventurous as possible! Life is short and we only have one shot. If you wait around for other people, I’ve learnt that most trips don’t happen, so shoulder your rucksack and walk your own path. 

And remember, no matter how much you prepare, it’s inevitable that sometimes things don’t go to plan. That’s adventure for you. So, on that note, let me take you on a ‘summer’ jaunt to Ireland’s southwest coast…  

Ella Staden standing in the rain
Ella Staden standing in the rain

Getting out there

Picture this: I’m bent double, full weight against the wind, squinting hard into the darkness trying desperately to fortify my tent. It’s not going well. Pegs are being pulled out as fast as I can sink them into the soil. The force of the rain is painful, the material keeps getting yanked from my grip.  

To put it this way, I’m scared.  
 
I’m very rarely scared in the wild. In fact, it’s usually where I feel most at home, alone under canvas and expansive skies. But that night, perched on the side of a mountain as Storm Antoni rose around me, I felt as vulnerable as I’d ever been.  
 
I was on the remote Inveragh peninsula about halfway along the Kerry Way, which at 220km, is Ireland’s longest waymarked track. This bleak coastline is no stranger to storms, and though I’d been clobbered continuously since the start, for a camper with an ultralight setup, that night was particularly challenging. 

I discovered a week later that gusts had reached 100kmph on ‘exposed hills and coastlines’, and I can certainly believe it. Thus, I had found myself, drenched and despairing in the darkness, questioning my life choices and cursing my persistent inability to book a ‘normal’ holiday.  

Picture of a pitched tent in a valley
Picture of a pitched tent in a valley

After deploying all the tent-protection measures I could muster, I’d got inside, huddled into my sleeping bag and hoped for the best. Sleep and cooking were both out of the question with the tent moving so violently, and I was a full day’s hike from civilisation. Awaiting what felt like the inevitable rip of canvas and the soaking I would get in the darkness, I felt deep stress, the kind that really makes you queasy. 
 
Yet when morning came, the tent remained intact. My resourcefulness and calm had paid off! I felt hardy and indestructible as I packed my rucksack (a little smugly) and continued on, proud to have weathered the storm alone. 

A happy Ella Staden after surviving through the storm
A happy Ella Staden after surviving through the storm

Finding Joy

The concept of a ‘challenge’ sometimes gets caught up with speed or distance or the toughness of terrain. But travelling solo, you can set your own goalposts, and unless it’s actually a race, remember to take time to enjoy yourself. You are on holiday after all, and in the end, what are you trying to prove, and to whom? 

I didn’t know it at the time, but a leisurely lunch under an oak tree on day 1 was the biggest luxury of the trip. I only walked half the miles I’d intended to that day, opting instead to languish in the mellow summery afternoon before the bad weather rolled in. And I don’t regret it for a second, because the following five days went down in memory as the wettest hiking I’d ever done.

So, the lesson is, enjoy each moment while you can!  

Ella Staden hiking through a valley
Ella Staden hiking through a valley

The next day was a long and gruelling 9 hours braced against gale-force headwinds and rain being drilled into my skin, so when I passed a patch of flat ground around 6pm, I made a slightly early ‘safety’ camp. 

Wild camping*, though not legal in many countries, is commonly practiced by multiday hikers and generally tolerated in upland areas. Near settlements it can be tricky to find somewhere discreet, so study the map carefully (particularly the gradient and land use) and give yourself ample time – the stress of walking into looming dusk, knackered and desperate to find a suitable pitch is not to be underestimated…  
 
*One thing to note is that wild camping can make things very solitary. On self-sufficient trips carrying food and filtering water, you can easily go days without seeing anyone. So, if you’re new to this, consider if that’s really what you want.  

The view from inside the tent, looking out to the rain
The view from inside the tent, looking out to the rain

There’s a set-up and pack-down rain-dance that every camper should prepare for, because it is essential to keep your gear dry. Sadly, we’re not amphibious beings, so consider how you’re going to accomplish a dry changeover without creating a tent-pond for yourself while the heavens remain, unsympathetically, wide open.  

My strong advice is to double bag everything. Drybags(Opens in a new window) are your best friend, and I would never leave for a backpacking trip without them, however ‘promising’ the forecast looks. Many rucksacks come with a rain cover(Opens in a new window), but if not, make sure to buy one separately! To be fully waterproof you’ll also need a pack liner (I use the Osprey 100L Packliner(Opens in a new window)). And here’s a hack: you can compress Osprey drybags to create a vacuum seal around your clothes and maximise precious rucksack space.  
 
How your pack is organised is important too – it’s good practice to avoid pulling everything out in the rain before eventually finding the tent. But you’ll work out the order of things and find your own rain-dance once you’ve been on the trail for a few nights. 

The following morning (after one such dance), I picked my way through scattered boulders in a valley cobwebbed with ancient stone walls. Further down, a farmer worked his sheepdog in the age-old rhythm of that landscape. Her body responded to his mysterious commands, a black blur curling like smoke amongst the white flanks of sheep.  

View of the boulder valley
View of the boulder valley

When I passed he stopped to talk, seeming happy to encounter somebody, and I was glad too – I’d seen nobody for two straight days. His English was unlike anything I’d ever heard. With difficulty, I deciphered a curiosity about the world outside of Ireland – about Brexit, grocery prices, the effects of the war in Ukraine. His watery eyes and weatherbeaten face seemed directly carved from those surroundings, giving me the sense that sometimes time really did stand still. Some people never left, never moved or strayed too far from the farms they were born on. His was a generation which may well be the last of its kind. 
 
For the next few trudging miles I played the lilt and twist of the farmer’s accent in my mind, overtaken by a sense of melancholy at the modern world in which transport, technology and connectivity have all but overthrown traditional practices and simpler ways of living. Stripped back to the monotony of simple trail life, it’s easy to ruminate on thoughts like this – you reassess what truly matters in life, and often return home with a different perspective.  

Ella Staden hiking up a hill
Ella Staden hiking up a hill

For six out of the nine trail days, my feet swam. But it was ok, because somewhere in the middle, I’d become invincible. The weight on my back (23kg!) no longer hurt, my legs felt stronger, and my sodden clothes had stopped mattering. But even in this hardened state, I was still susceptible to the purest form of childlike joy that can only be brought about by a change in weather...

All that afternoon, the Skellig Isles had haunted the heavy horizon. Far out and distant, their mysterious but unmistakable shapely points pierced the flat grey sky. 

Then out of nowhere a small patch of blue opened up, and my face was finally touched by sunlight. It felt like magic, a divine hand reaching down to rescue my mood and pull me back up into the light. I literally sat down, right where I was, just to take it in.  
 
I can’t describe how good that sunlight felt. In that moment I remembered why I love adventure, why I was sat alone, in the middle of nowhere, on dirty, wet, bare ground not giving a damn how grubby I was. Eureka! I remembered exactly why I was there.  

Ella Staden sat in the sunshine
Ella Staden sat in the sunshine

It’s funny how the lifting of a cloud can be so transformative. Perhaps that’s why I find long solo hikes so valuable – they give you the chance to look outwards at your surroundings while also looking inwards, knowing you’re going on a journey there too. 

So, my advice is, fill your rucksack with everything you need to survive (much less than you’d imagine) and just get out there. It’s so empowering, and you are tougher than you think.  

Ella Staden standing looking out to sea, enjoying the warmth of the sunshine on her face
Ella Staden standing looking out to sea, enjoying the warmth of the sunshine on her face

My Backpack: Osprey Kyte 68

For this trip I packed the Osprey Kyte 68L to its limits, and it handled it well – I liked the stretchy outer pockets for stuffing things into the smallest of gaps, and that I could reach over my shoulder to unzip the top pocket without taking the rucksack off. 

Image of the Osprey Kyte 68Opens a new window(Opens in a new window)
Image of the Osprey Kyte 68

The shoulder and waist straps were really padded and felt rather luxurious. The fit was pretty much spot on, which was a surprise for me because historically, women’s (and men’s) backpacks have never fit my body properly. Osprey offer two different female back-lengths, which, as a tall, broad shouldered women, is a godsend. Needless to say, the pack is also adjustable in all the other normal ways, to create a truly customised fit. After I’d eaten the weight down to a tolerable level, I could barely notice it on my back.

Image of the back view of the Osprey Kyte 68
Image of the back view of the Osprey Kyte 68

There’s an integrated system for a reservoir which is very useful on the go, (but remember to bring an additional water container if you’re camping, which is preferable to filling a pan through a reservoir hose). There are handy loops to attach things onto the outside, and I loved the deep plum colour which blended into the landscape’s heather-purples and greens, so I could move stealthily as a wildcamper, and not be spotted from a distance. A great pack for adventuring! 

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