In a lot of ways, traveling in numbers means safety. Dangerous wildlife like moose, bears, and mountain lions are less likely to bother you when you're with others. They're more likely to hear a group coming than a single person -- and the more of you there are, the less vulnerable (and tasty) you look.
If you or someone else in your party gets hurt -- let's say you sprain an ankle or take a fall -- you're much better off with other people nearby, and their pooled resources, than if you were trying to limp back solo. Cold? Put a few people together and you'll generate a lot of body heat. Maybe someone else will have an emergency blanket they can wrap you up in, too.
Broken arm or wrenched shoulder? Letting someone else help you into a splint or sling is much easier than trying to do it yourself. Even if they don't know what else to do, the others in your party can hold your hand and buoy your spirits while somebody else hikes out to signal for help.
Despite all those reasons you should hike with others, for some people (and I'm one of them), the pull of solitude is very strong. I've learned to enjoy and appreciate hiking in groups, but for a long time there I was happiest on the trail by myself, miles away from the city and the next-nearest people.
If you're just starting out at hiking, there really shouldn't be any exceptions to the "traveling with others" rule. Stick with the group, period. But once you have enough experience to really "get" the risks you're taking, traveling solo becomes more of a viable (if not recommended) option. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you're going hiking alone:
Recognize the risks. I'm not being alarmist; in fact, the same principle applies when you're traveling in a group: Once you identify and recognize risks, you're better equipped to handle them appropriately. The only real difference -- and it's a doozy -- is that when you're hiking alone, you, the equipment on your back, and anything you can glean from your surroundings are your only resources at your disposal.
Sure, somebody might wander along at the right moment to help you out -- but do you really want to depend on blind luck (and hope that whoever stumbles across you is actually prepared, when you weren't)? Start sizing up the risks by thinking about the terrain, weather, and wildlife you're likely to encounter.
For example, I really don't worry about mountain lions or snakebite when hiking in Alaska -- but I'm careful about bear and moose safety, and I'm aware of the very real risk of a fall when I travel on exposed, mountainous terrain.
- Once you've identified the risks, mitigate them by making smart decisions. Examples include making noise (sing, clap, or use bear bells) if you suspect wildlife is in the area, and paying close attention to what your own senses tell you. Never wear earbuds when you're hiking alone; they might keep you from hearing approaching wildlife. And if you're not sure you can handle steep or exposed terrain, choose an alternate route.
- File a trip plan. Since you're about to pit yourself single-handedly against the wilderness -- on purpose -- you need to create a safety net in case something goes wrong. This starts with letting someone know where you're going, how you're going to get there, when you expect to be back, and how long they should wait before assuming something has gone wrong. Then stick to your trip plan. If you deviate from your plan and end up needing help, search and rescue's going to be looking in the wrong place. Other information to include with your trip plan: A description of your vehicle -- assuming you're driving -- and its license plate number, plus the number of people traveling in your party.
- Practice your emergency skills. All the emergency supplies in the world won't be any help at all if you don't know how to use them -- and if you're on your own, you won't have anyone else to pick up the slack. So don't settle for a theoretical understanding of first aid, shelter building, and other emergency skills. Take classes and do your own hands-on practice, until you can duplicate those skills even if you're wet, cold, and scared.
- Trust your gut. Of course, you should do this when hiking in groups too -- but when you're hiking alone, your intuition becomes a valuable survival tool. Got a bad feeling about the next stretch of trail? Respect that feeling -- don't bother trying to investigate its source because you probably don't want to know. Just turn around and go back the way you came.
- Be friendly, or at least polite, to others on the trail. They're the ones most likely to help you out if you're in need. That doesn't mean you should ignore your gut instinct -- if somebody gives you the willies, steer clear. But there's nothing wrong with sharing a smile and a polite "hello" with people that earn a green light from your intuition.