Being alone outdoors can be very intimidating at first. We have all heard the story of Aaron Ralston, the man who survived an accident in southern Utah by cutting off his own right arm during a solo canyoneering descent when he was caught “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”. This story is often cited as an example of what could happen if you go outside alone. Aaron was then and still is very experienced in the outdoors. He saved his own life that day, but there are many things we can learn from his experience.
While a tragic accident like this is possible in the outdoors, alone or not, below are some tips to give confidence to those wishing to go into the wild by themselves.
Just Don’t Go Alone
While that may seem counter to the topic at hand, the first rule in outdoor activities is that going with a group is safer than going alone. It is a fact that there is strength in numbers but, while this is true, it is also important to understand that different outdoor activities have different rules. For example, spend a few minutes searching online and you will find many instances of avid outdoor people on solo backpacking trips. Many people enjoy the grounding power of backpacking alone. While this is common for backpacking, it is not for whitewater kayaking, a sport where if something goes wrong, life is at stake in seconds.
In this day and age, it is very easy to find other people to connect and adventure with. If you prefer to spend time outside with people but are having a hard time finding friends to join you, activity-specific social media groups can be a great resource to meet new people. Be sure to search your city or area for these groups. Another great option is to gather where like minded people are. If you are looking for a new climbing partner, head to the climbing gym. If you want to find new friends to hike with, drive to a popular trailhead and talk to people. There are people out there to adventure with!
Choose a Popular Location
A great alternative to always going outside with friends is to choose a popular location for your adventure. If finding a friend to join on a hike is difficult and you are hesitant to go out alone, head to a local favorite and there are most likely people already out hiking. If you are unsure of where the favorite areas are, look online on some of the many outdoor databases, such as Free Arenas. These will give you an idea of how busy the area is and when peak times are. If you are nice and approachable, perhaps others will allow you to join their group. If alone time outdoors is your goal, then running on a trail with other hikers in the area is certainly safer than having no one around for miles. The same rule applies to other activities such as backpacking, running, skiing, and mountain biking.
While heading to a popular area is safer than adventuring completely alone, there is still an increased risk over going with a capable partner. Resort skiing is a great example. It is much safer to go skiing alone at a resort than in the backcountry because there are ski patrols, hundreds of other people, avalanche mitigation, and terrain maps. However, people still die every year in in-bound tree wells, which are especially deadly to the lone skier. Whatever the activity, there is an increased risk if you go alone.
Stick to Locations You Know
Popular location or not, when adventuring alone there is no substitute for sticking to a location you have already been to. Doing this mitigates many of the risks of going to a new place alone; you already know how long the adventure will take, what water sources are near, the technical level of the area, and, perhaps most important, you already know the directions. Getting lost in the wild is perhaps the biggest risk when recreating outdoors alone and sticking to a trail you already know can prevent that.
The biggest crash I have had on a mountain bike happened when I rode a new trail by myself. Growing up in the Midwest, there were not many mountain biking areas to ride close to me, so I always rode the same two trails. I was excited to discover a new trail close by. Not knowing the trail, I did not know that a few miles into the riding there was a 3ft drop hidden by a corner. I was not going fast enough to ride over the drop, but I was going too fast to stop in time. This resulted in landing on my face, a concussion, a few stitches, and a lot of bruising and scrapes on my face. I looked exactly how you would imagine. Luckily, the injuries looked worse than they were, but I learned a lesson that day!
Tell Someone Your Plans
In the story of Aaron Ralston, one of the strongest critiques of Aaron’s accident was that he did not tell anyone where he was going. If he had, perhaps Search and Rescue would have reached him sooner.
Anytime I go into the outdoors alone, I always tell a reliable friend or family member what my plans are. Whether I am gone for 3 hours or 3 days, these plans include where I am going, what I am doing, and what time I expect to be back. This is especially important if you suspect there will not be any cell service at your destination. This can be as easy as telling a roommate that you are going out for an evening ride or calling a close friend on your way out the door. I often joke that if I am not back by a certain time, then I am probably dead, but if something happens out there and you are alone, a simple phone call to a friend as you head out may save your life.
On a recent backpacking trip to Idaho’s Sawtooth mountains, a friend and I had planned a 3-day loop with an optional summit scramble up El Capitan on day two. As always, we told these plans to others-a close friend that lived in town and the Sawtooth forest service through a Wilderness permit. On day two, a surprise lightning storm rolled in and shot down our hopes of a summit that day. On day three, the weather turned to blue skies. We had enough food, so climbing the peak and staying a third night was possible. However, this would result in missing the return deadline we told to others, which could have led to our friend worrying, calling the forest rangers, the rangers seeing that we missed the deadline on our permit, and sending out a needless rescue for us. Or worse, had an accident happened and we did not tell our plans to others, there would be no team sent to the rescue.
We stuck to the original plans and returned in the afternoon of day three. The mountains will be there to climb another day and for me, it is always a must-do to tell someone what my plans are.
Pack a GPS/ Satellite Transmitter
Another great resource in this day and age is the multitude of GPS tracking and satellite transmitter devices designed to be used for outdoor recreation. These range from simple GPS trackers with a variety of tracking settings, to messenger systems, to 2-way satellite communicators. Whichever additional functions the device has, it will give you confidence to know that the majority come with an S.O.S button for real emergencies. Many of these devices come with monthly plans that enable additional services to be purchased, while others do not require contracts. There is no longer a need to carry an old-school, 2-pound brick of a satellite phone on your adventures (or pay the expensive fees). Many of these recreation GPS/transmitters can easily fit in the side pocket of your backpack.
I have used these products extensively while working 2 seasons in wilderness therapy and I have been impressed with the accuracy of the GPS. If you are out in the wild somewhere without cell signal, these devices will provide an accurate location to your friends or family members. However, these devices are not foolproof. I have found that deep canyons are particularly difficult to track locations in.
Pack a Form of ID
The message sent to me by the stranger who found my ROAD iD Anytime you are out in the wild alone, you should always have a form of identification on you. If an accident occurs, it is important that others involved or anyone that offers aid know who you are. This is especially important if you are hurt in the accident and are unable to communicate.
Carrying a form of ID does not have to mean holding your wallet in your pocket while out mountain biking. That is a recipe for a bad day when you discover your wallet missing (or a good day because you get to ride the trail twice!). Packing some ID can mean just bringing one card and zipping up your state ID card in a backpack pocket. There are other options as well! It is common for those with medical conditions to carry a bracelet or necklace with ID on them at all times, but these can be used for everyone.
ROAD iD is a great option. They have customizable bands that can be attached to bracelets, watchbands, even shoes so you can always have a form of ID with you.
For me, carrying my ROAD iD is a must anytime I am outdoors alone. My ROAD iD bracelet follows this format…
My first and last name
Parent name / contact number / relationship
Parent name / contact number / relationship
The college I attend / NKA (no known allergies)
A motivation phrase for when out running or biking. Mine is “embrace the suck”
Three years ago, I lost my ROAD iD somewhere in the Tetons. I often take it off when climbing because it can get scratched up, so it may have dropped, fallen off my backpack, been left on a rock, who knows. Fast forward two years, and I receive the Facebook message above from a random person with a picture of my ROAD iD. This individual was visiting Wyoming on vacation from Texas, found the bracelet, returned to Texas, then found me on Facebook. This kind stranger mailed my ROAD iD back to me and never asked for the money it cost to return it. I still wear the same ID bracelet on every outing today!
Know the Dangers of the Area
While human beings have created comfort in a hostile planet, venturing away from these comforts puts you at greater risk to the dangers in the outdoors. Whatever your reason is for venturing away from the comforts of home, it is very important to know and understand the dangers of the area you are heading into; even more so if you are heading out alone.
Every location on this planet is different. That means the risks in the Colorado Plateau are different than in Denali National Park. The landscape, the animals, the weather, the distance to a hospital, and the access to water are among the many things to consider for your next adventure. Are there bears in the area? If so, are they Grizzlies or Black bears? If not bears, what are other predators in the area? You may or may not be surprised to hear that other humans can be an additional danger to consider on your solo adventures.
Being in a group and caught in these dangers is bad enough, but being alone is especially dangerous. Whatever the dangers are, is it vital to be aware of these and plan for them.
If I am in a group of 15 hikers all staying together in Black bear country, I am most likely not packing bear spray. If I am alone, I am carrying it in my hand the entire time. Heading out for a winter hike alone? Consider packing additional clothing. This brings up the next tip on packing additional supplies.
Pack Extra Gear
If you are adventuring with a group and an accident occurs, everyone’s gear can now be used communally. Some people may have extra water to share, others may have extra warm layers to give to those who are cold. Hopefully at least a couple of people have medical kits as well. If you are out alone you do not have this luxury, so it is up to you to prepare well enough.
Alone on a long hike with no water access? You would know about water access because you did your research or are on a hike you have done before, right? Think about packing a little extra water. Even if you never drink much water, it is better to have extra just in case. If the hike goes great and you did not finish the extra water, then the extra weight made you a stronger hiker! Other items may include extra warm layers, food, medical supplies, fire starting materials, and battery packs for your phone or camera.
If Aaron Ralston packed some emergency supplies like extra water, a little extra food, and a light jacket, perhaps he would not have exited the canyon in such a distressed condition.
Do Not Take Extra Risks
Just like different locations, different activities come with different risks and dangers. If you rock climb, you have probably heard of some of the different climbing accidents worldwide. If you mountain bike, you have surely crashed before (if not, it is only a matter of time). These accidents happen whether you are alone or not but can be much worse if you do not have somebody to help get you out.
A good rule to follow when heading out alone is to not take extra risks. Many of these accidents can occur when you are pushing the envelope and trying to progress. It is best to stay conservative if you are alone. If you are heading out on a solo mountain bike ride, ride within your limit; do not be afraid to walk a feature that you think you can ride. If you are planning a 3-day solo backpacking trip, avoid trails that are extra strenuous for you. If you have seen Free Solo, you know that climber extraordinaire Alex Honnold stays within his climbing ability when he ventures off-rope. The same goes for rope-soloists. It is important to know your experience level and not stray outside those lines. You do not want to be out there all alone with a broken bone because you took an extra risk.
Many accidents in the wilderness can also be outside of our control. Rockfall, freak weather, animal attacks, or natural disasters. For these, it is best to prepare the best we can then not be afraid to say no. If a hike has been on your tick list for months but there have been numerous mountain lion sightings on the trail, do not settle for going alone. If you want to explore a slot canyon alone, like Aaron Ralston, do not settle for less than perfect weather conditions (among the other tips here). If there has been recent earthquake activity, like in the Sawtooth’s, and you have felt earthquakes the day of a big alpine climb, do not be afraid to cancel that climb. There is a lifetime of adventures out there.
Your favorite outdoor activity may have been mentioned here once or twice. Maybe it wasn’t mentioned at all. You may not know what it is about nature you like, but you know it makes you feel good. There is no instruction manual on how to enjoy nature, but there are best practices for enjoying it safely. Alone or not, hopefully the tips here contribute to a safer, happier world of adventure for you.
One of my favorite outdoor activities is backcountry skiing and snowboarding. For me, few things beat the feeling of waking up before the sun, heading out in the dark, breathing hard in the brisk cold, and laying some lines on untouched snow. It has been said that backcountry skiing, or any outdoor activity, is no fun if you are dead. So…make good decisions, stay safe, and get outside!
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