Should you hike (bike, climb, ride, ski) alone?

In Public by Anna Debattiste

In the summer of 2023, sexual assaults on women hiking alone were in the news after two separate arrests in Boulder and Jefferson counties.  Whether people should recreate in the backcountry alone has always been a topic of conversation and these terrible incidents sparked more of that dialogue.

Of course, the topic is not just about sexual assault.  The potential mishaps that can be made worse if you are alone include plenty of things more statistically likely than being attacked by another human.  

There are organizations that will tell you never to go out alone, under any circumstances.  Those of us who work with CSAR, all of whom also volunteer for a Colorado backcountry search and rescue team, would tell you it’s not that simple.  Most of us hike, bike and ski alone at times and know that it’s about risk/reward calculation.  What are the risk factors and in what ways can they be mitigated?  What are the rewards and how much risk are they worth?  We all have a different tolerance for risk — what’s most important is that we think it through and make deliberate, informed choices.

Let’s start with the rewards.  Traveling in the backcountry alone, at least in a less-trafficked area, might mean peace, quiet and tranquility.  Maybe that’s something the stress of your everyday life demands.  It might mean time for deep reflection and communing with nature.  It might mean a greater chance for wildlife viewing, since a person traveling alone is typically quieter (keeping in mind that it’s best to scare some animals away with noise before you get too close to them, such as a moose or a bear).  It might even mean mitigation of one particular risk factor – peer pressure.  In a group, sometimes we’re pressured to do things beyond our skill level or to travel faster and longer than our current physical conditioning allows.  Alone, you make your own choices about these things.  As one wise social media commenter said, “It’s only you. And you run you.”

Now let’s look at the risks. In the backcountry, whether you are alone or not, you can get lost or hurt.  Potential sources of injury – or worse – include: 

  • Gravity – You can trip, fall, slide, be hit by rockfall, etc.
  • Wildlife – You can be trampled by a moose, bit by a snake, etc.
  • Medical – You can have a cardiac event, stroke, seizure, etc.
  • Another human – In rare cases, you might be assaulted.  You might also be injured by a human kicking rockfall down onto you or triggering an avalanche above you.
  • Environment – You might suffer heat-related or cold-related injuries.  You can get zapped by lightning, buried in a rockslide or avalanche, or trapped by wildfire.
  • The “sh—happens” factor – You might simply twist an ankle, blow out a knee or suffer a stress fracture that’s been waiting to happen.

These things can be mitigated if you are not alone, because there may be a person in your group who is not impacted by the same event and can administer first aid, extract you from whatever you might be trapped by, get help from bystanders, call 911, or activate a satellite communications device.  This person can also help keep you motivated, warm and safe while you wait for rescue.

If the problem is just that you are lost, at least one more person with you means more brain power, skill, or navigational equipment to apply to the problem.

But having others with you is not the only way to mitigate these risks.  Other methods include:

  • Leaving a trip plan with a responsible person back home that includes all the details of your backcountry travel.  That person can call 911 if you don’t return by your expected time.
  • Carrying extra but critical gear (often referred to as “the ten essentials,” although there may be more or less than 10 depending on the situation).  This gear can include extra food and water; extra clothing layers for insulation, wind resistance and waterproofing; sun protection; some form of shelter like a bivy sack, bothy bag or heavy-duty space blanket; materials to start a fire; and first aid supplies.  You may also want supplies specific to whatever your mode of travel is, such as an extra tube for a mountain bike or a binding repair kit for a ski.  
  • Wearing bright colored clothing, which makes spotting people much easier. 
  • Carrying devices to signal for help: a phone, personal locator beacon (PLB), mirror, whistle, satellite communications device, FRS radio, or a Recco reflector.  We especially like two-way satellite communication devices because they allow us to communicate with you about the nature of your emergency if you need help.
  • Advanced planning to account for weather, temperature, avalanche risk, wildfire risk, route planning and learning the potential terrain risks of your route.
  • Choosing highly trafficked areas during peak times when there’s a high likelihood of someone finding you quickly if you get hurt.
  • Choosing trails or routes you have a high degree of experience and familiarity with.
  • If you’re concerned about encounters with dangerous humans, traveling with a dog and/or carrying some form of personal protection such as mace, a knife or bear spray.

If you’re alone, you’ll also want to think about the risk/reward of certain choices as you move through the backcountry.  On a mountain bike, maybe you decide to walk over the more challenging technical features you would try riding if you had someone with you.  On a hike, maybe you decide not to climb that rock for a better view.  Wearing boots and using an ice ax makes crossing a summer-time snowfield safer; trying to do it in running shoes or even hiking shoes can be deadly. Climbing a peak, perhaps you decide to turn around long before you normally would to avoid being above tree line during likely thunderstorm hours.  Backcountry skiing, maybe you decide to completely avoid avalanche terrain.

While hard and fast rules might be a good idea for backcountry novices, experienced backcountry recreationists know that a one-size-fits-all approach is no longer practical for them.  With experience comes the ability to weigh risk versus reward, and that involves a conscious consideration of all available risk mitigation factors.

Looking for something else to read?  Here’s a fun story about the advantages and disadvantages of hiking alone.