About 2 and a half years ago, I posted the tweet below:
There's a lot of sensible talk about never hiking alone, but there's something magical about having a mountain to yourself.
— 100 Peaks (@100peaks) October 27, 2012
I should have probably called this post Why I (Typically) Hike Alone. Don’t get me wrong, I hike with people all the time, such as the PD, my wife, my daughter, and a great number of wonderful people I’ve met on and off the trail. But most of the time, and mostly by choice, I hike alone.
Disclaimer: I am not advocating that everyone hike alone. Definitely not. The talk about not hiking alone is very sensible. However, I take precautions. I leave an itinerary. I have a Spot and a whistle. I am prepared for emergencies. I am a very experienced hiker.
In this post, I am merely describing my own preference and reasons for doing so.
There have been days where I wake up well before dawn, drive a long way on the freeway with hardly anyone on it, exit to a winding highway, turn onto a dirt road and drive for miles, and end up the only car at a remote trailhead. The first few miles necessitate my headlamp and a few extra layers, but then the sun rises and I shed them. Some of the sunrises I’ve seen have put tears in my eyes.
I couldn’t imagine having that experience while chatting with other hikers.
I then scramble to the top of a mountain and take in the landscape. I sometimes chat with my video camera, but mostly I sit and breathe. I take some comfort in knowing that there is no one within earshot. I have a snack, drink some water, and head back down to the car.
The following are reasons why the above hikes are typically the kind I need when I am outdoors.
I am an introvert
In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain, the author, talks about the misconception that introverts are shy. We are not. Anyone who knows me can attest that I am not a wallflower. I am quite chatty and love hanging around with people. The reality is that I need some pure quiet to recharge my batteries and nothing works better than a hike alone in the good old outdoors.
Many times my head, in the first few miles, works out whatever problem has been bothering me and the rest of the hike I slip into a zen state where my breathing and pace sync up and my attention to the outdoors becomes complete.
I am easily annoyed by rude behavior
This topic ended up rearing its ugly head on Facebook the other day. The discussion distilled down to whether playing music on the trail was a bother and did we have a right to tell anyone to turn it off. I realized that I have a sensitivity to this behavior. Things that have completely annoyed me:
- Guy hiking down to Cedar Creek Falls on a 90F+ day wearing only shorts and sandals (no shirt), and carrying only a 12 pack of beer
- Guy with mounted speakers on his backpack, hiking into the Upper Scorpion Campground on Santa Cruz Island
- Parties in campsites with music that goes on late into the night
- People asking me where the trail is to the waterfall (it’s always a waterfall), and it’s obvious they don’t have a map nor have they looked at a map
- People putting their kids or pets at risk by improper protection and/or water
- People arriving at a backcountry campsite after midnight, swinging their headlamps all around, talking to each other and repeatedly shining their headlamps at our tent
- Dogs in campgrounds that constantly bark
- Large loud groups of underprepared hikers who aren’t even paying attention to the trail or their surroundings
- Trash in the outdoors
The list goes on, and you get the point. Many people would tell me, just ignore it and move on, but my time in the wilderness is designed to specifically find silence in a loud world and I cannot help but allow the stuff above to place a shadow on my mood. I’ve accepted this weakness and will drive an extra hour to go hiking. It’s on me.
I have complete focus on the trail and my surroundings
When I hike alone, I pay attention to every tree, boulder, turn, and fork in the trail. I am capturing the experience in my mind. I can recall some solo hikes from my first days as 100 Peaks better than I can some more recent hikes that I have completed with friends. Again, I love being with friends, but sometimes the dialogue can be distracting enough for me to take a wrong turn or climb the wrong mountain. Since I might write a guide book on all this someday, I’d like to remember the hikes as much as possible.
I have never gotten lost or taken a wrong turn while hiking alone. I am always aware of where I am relative to the car and my destination.
I often plan my hikes late the night before
My life, like many of yours, is very busy. I am surrounded by a wonderful and large extended family. This also means that there are a lot of difficult choices as to how I spend my free time. It’s always a close call whether or not I hike alone or spend some quality time with my family.
Therefore, it is usually the night before, when things calm down, that I discuss my desire to get outside with my family. I normally have a rough sketch of a plan, but it’s not until the hike is confirmed that I sit down and map it out and memorize every nuance of the trail. That way I can prepare and execute the hike without a hitch.
It can be challenging to organize a group hiking trip at 11PM the night before.
I love seeing wildlife
On many of my hikes, I’ve seen a variety of animals, including deer, quail, bobcats, coyotes, roadrunner, rabbits, horned lizards, and red-tailed hawks, among others. If I had been chatting along the trail, it is highly unlikely that I would have seen them, as I wouldn’t have been paying as much attention, and our noise would likely have scared them away.
So many times, I’ve rested on a boulder, sat still, and waited for the wildlife to come. Often, it has payed off.
The joy of a pure experience
I don’t know how else to describe this. It’s probably covered in the above reasons, but I remember this most from my time on Sunshine Mountain. I drove out to the trailhead. My car was the only one there. I hiked up the vanishing trail and then bushwhacked up to the top. This peak wasn’t on any lists. People rarely go here. I sat and looked all around at the unusually green hillsides. I could see very remote waterfalls, not named and not accessible by trails. It was completely silent except for my breath and the occasional bird.
I knew people were on the other side of the ridge, gathering around Cedar Creek Falls, or fewer people hiking up Eagle Peak. But, as far as I could see, I was alone. For a while, I didn’t have to hear another voice or compromise my wandering mind.
To this day, I still remember the coots making their short sounds at the pond below. I remember the babbling creek that I crossed near the trailhead. I remember a larger rushing creek under the oak trees below the trail. I remember a faint trail leading to the right over the shoulder of the mountain. I remember the faint roaring of distant waterfalls. I remember the red-tailed hawk soaring high overhead. I remember a couple of open patches in the brush where I’d like to explore someday, perhaps staying overnight.
I remember the sheer joy of having a mountain to myself.