Hill walking in Scotland is an amazing experience, either in a group or on your own. There is a stark difference between the two though. When walking in a group, you can rely on each other, your skills and awareness to share the burden. There is a sense of security when walking in a group, that means you are more likely to tackle things you may shy away from on your own. In many cases, this is a false sense of security, making you think you are safe, when in fact you are just as responsible for your own safety as when walking alone.
Walking solo means you need to become entirely self sufficient, have a plan and the skills to back that plan up should things go awry. It will give you a wonderful sense of accomplishment and competence, giving you access to the remotest parts of the country, all with nothing more than the kit on your back and the brains in your head to keep you safe. Here, I share my key learnings to think about when considering going solo. I’ve included my top tip for walking solo at the end, so read on and see what I think is the number one thing to do when walking solo.
Learn to love the planning phase of a solo trip. So often group plans consist of “who fancies mountain x this weekend?” This simply won’t cut the mustard if you’re planning to go solo. The planning phase is incredibly important to any trip or hill day, I’ve covered it before in another post, but without it, you’ll find yourself struggling or even enduring a day in the hills rather than enjoying it. All of the other sections of this post start in the planning phase, you can consider the equipment you’ll need, the route, your own skills and fitness and plan for the likely conditions all from the comfort of home.
When considering a solo trip, the planning phase is as important, if not more important, than when walking with others. Without anyone else to rely on, you need to know everything about your trip. You need to know the route and escape routes should something go wrong, you need to have all the equipment you need and you need to know that your skills are up to the challenge you are setting yourself. Your first solo over night camp is not the time to test out your new tent. In my opinion, even when walking in a group you should still know all of this – it is no good to rely on others in these situations – however, there will not be anyone to bail you out should you forget something or get lost along the way.
Skills and Navigation
The list of technical skills you need to hike in the UK is pretty low. You need to be a competent navigator and you need winter skills if you are out in winter weather. There are very few places that require full on rock climbing (but you can find them if you want to) and apart from that, there aren’t many other skills that everyone needs to have. Many people chose to pay a professional guide for this, some go with experienced friends to learn from. Some go out without these basic skills (the less said about that the better). However, if you are planning to go out on your own, you need to have the ability to navigate and operate in the conditions you are facing.
As of right now, I would not feel comfortable in full winter conditions out on my own. I therefore don’t plan any trips for that time of year. I will walk with others in the snow, as I know how to use an ice axe for self- arrest and crampons and I can navigate reasonably well. I would not be taking on pitched winter climbing and I certainly would not be doing any of that if there were winter storms in the forecast. I would, and do, feel comfortable in the spring, summer and autumn navigating in challenging terrain, fog and poor weather. Which is why much of my walking is done in these months.
If you are considering going out on the hills solo, make sure you can navigate without an electronic device (should the battery fail) and that you have any additional skills needed to tackle your choice of route. You can pick up maps and compasses from a wide variety of places, here are a couple of links to the ones that I use.
Linked to your planning phase, you will need to make sure you are carrying everything that you might need for your trip. I have been part of groups in the past where we have split up heavier equipment between us, so that the load was shared. There will be no such niceties on your solo walk. If you are camping for a night or two, you are the only person who can carry everything that you need for your trip.
My advice here is to travel light, but not at the expense of your safety or comfort. I have seen full sets of pyjamas carried to a one night camp; large heavy frying pans and crates of beer carried out too. During your planning phase, put together a kit list of all the equipment that you think you will need. You’ll probably be surprised how much is on the list. Carefully consider each item and its uses. Do you really need that crate of beer? If you think you do, be prepared to carry it all yourself!
If you do start camping on your own, it may be worth investing in new lighter equipment. There are loads of different ways to save weight whilst camping, and I certainly don’t profess to be an expert in this side of lightweight or ultra-lightweight camping. If you look online there are lots of professionals, experts and enthusiasts that can offer better advice than me on ways to save weight in your pack. I have however written previously about the sorts of things that should go in a rucksack when planning for a day out in the hills.
Mental and Physical Fitness
This section of the post refers to both mental and physical fitness. Being physically fit enough to carry out the route you have planned is a given. Lots of people use hillwalking or the outdoors in general to lose or maintain their weight – in my opinion there is no better way. However, the difference to this walk is that you don’t have the support of others to help push you through when the going gets tough. Are you physically able to handle the situation without that support? Most people will answer that question in the affirmative – which is fair enough – however it is worth considering that you will not have the others pushing you on.
Mentally, hiking solo can be challenging. Having the mental strength to push on when you are already tired is one thing, but in many instances, lots of people haven’t had the experience of being properly alone. The mental strength I am talking about here is being comfortable in your own company, knowing how to deal with lengths of solitude and loneliness or being able to continue assessing the situation ahead whilst dealing with things in the present.
Many people say they crave the solitude and peace and quiet of the mountains. Personally, I love being out alone, with only my own breathing for company. However, until you really experience it, you wont know how it will make you feel to be that far from others, or help should you need it. It can be a humbling experience, but you’ll need to be prepared for it.
And there you have it, my thoughts on walking solo. There is no doubt in my mind that going out in to the hills alone has lots of benefits. It is an empowering experience to survive and accomplish the goals you set yourself. Being self sufficient, even for a day, is a real confidence booster for me. I plan to do more solo walking in the weeks and years ahead, it gives me the time and space away from the rush of daily life that I need. There is always space in my diary for a walk with friends or family though, the camaraderie and banter on the hill is hard to beat. For those reasons, I will continue to do both as much as life allows.
Oh I did promise…
Dave’s Top Tip
As advertised, I said I would give you my top tip for walking solo. Well here goes…my number one thing that I encourage everyone to do when I speak to them about walking solo is to take the time during your walk to enjoy the solitude that the mountains can provide. Take the time to sit, relax, enjoy the views (if you get them) and just be. Just exist for a while. Up in the hills, when there is no one else around, the breeze can be loud, the dripping ice melting can be a drum beat and the views can be appreciated to their fullest; but only if you take the time to do so.
I like to lay back for a short while and just listen to the sounds of the wilderness, but I cannot achieve that if I am on a busy hill or walking with others, I need to be on my own to give my brain the chance to slow down and just be.
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