Photos By : Dan Kuras
I’ve been exploring trails since I was a kid. I grew up in the Sierra Nevada, and so my childhood playground was the nearby woods. On any given afternoon, my siblings and I could be found wandering through the trees or collecting rocks from the nearby stream. This love for nature and adventure followed me into adulthood, even as I fell in love with city life and eventually landed in Los Angeles.
When I’m alone on the trails, I feel free to be myself. I can better hear my thoughts — or rather, my mind is quieter, calmer. As my feet crunch dirt, worries wisp away like the flyaway hairs surrounding my makeup-free face. It’s a welcomed change — the scenery, the change of pace, the way the trail feels like an invitation home.
I’ll be honest, though — I was initially scared of hiking alone, despite all those treks through the woods as a child. As adults, we have more worries. What if something goes wrong? What if I get lost or hurt? What if I feel lonely? Especially as a woman, it was hard to get used to being alone in the outdoors.
But nature can offer us so much, and especially after the past year, I’ve found it to be a personal source of healing. By starting small and braving trails nearby, I’ve learned how to feel prepared and at ease hiking alone.
Even if you haven’t tried solo hiking, tomorrow or this weekend is a great time to start. The best part is, you need very little gear or expertise to get outside and explore. It mostly takes heart and courage, and the desire to get outside and walk a few miles — or many.
Hike Where You Can — When You Can
When you hear the word “hiking,” it’s easy to conjure up images of snow-capped peaks and streams trickling through vibrant meadows. And while this kind of hiking does exist, it usually requires a drive, a park permit and a very early start (if not a campsite near the trailhead). I’m all for this kind of hiking; I love this kind of hiking. But I’m also an advocate of hiking where and when you can — even if the trail runs through your backyard. Nature is all around us if we just look for it.
This is especially true in California. We’re fortunate enough to be surrounded by mountains and valleys, coastal trails and desert hikes. If you don’t live near one bioregion, you’re likely just a short drive away.
Apps like AllTrails are great for finding local hikes near you. You can search by mileage, read reviews and even see photos posted by other hikers. Short and local hikes are also great for familiarizing yourself with the sport before venturing off on that backcountry adventure.
Expanding on the last point, it’s okay to start small when it comes to mileage. Another common misconception about hiking is that it only counts if you log a lot of miles or spend an entire day in the woods. But some of my favorite hikes have been short loops in my local nature park. I’ll get up early and get a quick hike in before the summer heat. Or after work, if I need to decompress and don’t want to go to the gym, a short trek on a nearby trail is good for my soul. A half-mile, a mile, a 5 kilometer loop — it all counts. Do what works best for you.
Be Safe, Be Smart
When you are ready to go off into the woods solo, safety is of the utmost importance. Adventure doesn’t mean forgoing directions or meticulous planning — it’s the opposite. Following trails, looking for signage and following safety advice are paramount while outside, especially when you’re in unfamiliar territory. Even if the landscape is familiar and you’ve hiked the trail before, treat it as if it’s new. Weather, trail debris and changes to a landscape can make it unrecognizable.
Always tell someone where you’re going. I use a GPS watch while hiking, turn my location services on and send at least two people my trailhead coordinates. I also let them know when I plan to be back, and I always text them as soon as I’ve returned to my car. If you don’t have someone you can text, you can tell the park rangers where you’re going and when you plan to finish your hike.
Whether I’m going into the backcountry or hiking a short loop near my house, I always pack so that I’m overprepared. It may seem silly, and no one wants to anticipate the worst-case scenario, but nature is unpredictable, and so it’s best to take precautions.
I never hike without ample water, snacks, a small first-aid kit, sunscreen and extra layers. I also bring a whistle, a pocket knife and my aforementioned GPS watch. And if I’m in bear territory, I carry bear spray. (Please talk to the national park rangers about how to use this safely. The National Park Service has a great video tutorial on their website.)
And if you’re new to solo hiking, may I recommend hiking boots? I know in California, a lot of us like to hike in our sneakers, but boots are best for trails because they have better traction, are often waterproof and protect our ankles when encountering rock scrambles (or the unwelcomed rattler).
Remember: You Are A Visitor
Finally, please be a good steward of the environment. Nature offers us so much; may we protect our earth and keep our trails and outdoor spaces clean. A few ways to practice this include packing out all your trash, staying on the trail as not to disturb forest floors and keeping noise pollution to a minimum. If you want to listen to music or a podcast, I recommend using headphones instead of an external speaker. This is respectful to nearby animals as well as fellow hikers.