Solo Backpacking Guide
Backpacking by oneself can be a daunting prospect for hikers and backpackers who have taken the odd trek out into the backcountry or a trip to one of the world’s top travel destinations with friends or loved ones but haven’t yet dared to attempt traveling solo. It’s completely understandable; the first time you travel without a group of people to share in the good moments and commiserate in the less-than-ideal ones can put the first-time solo traveler well outside their comfort zone.
For those to whom the idea of backpacking solo appeals, there is nothing like the self-reliance and self-efficacy that solo backpacking instills in hikers who can take the first leap and strike out by themselves. There are many cohorts of interconnected world nomads who have made a lifestyle out of meeting new friends by chance and continuing on alone the next day.
Taking a backpacking trip by yourself to one of the world’s top travel destinations like Europe or Southeast Asia can be challenging enough if you plan to go to major cities and stay in cheap accommodations like a youth hostel or find a host through Couchsurfing. For hikers and campers who want to add some backcountry hiking or camping to their travel plans, traveling solo to an exotic locale can be a bit more complicated. In addition to coordinating the various necessary arrangements like travel insurance, credit cards, and airline tickets, hikers and campers going out for their first solo trip should also bear in mind that getting out of the large cities that generally house easily accessible airports and bus stations can be difficult.
For all the hassle, it’s helpful to remember that a solo trip is no more complicated, and is often in fact much simpler, than a backpacking trip with loved ones or a large group. All of the arrangements required to go out on a day trip or thru-hike in the backcountry are exactly the same as those necessary for a solo backpacking trip. The catch is that you’re solely responsible for yourself when you’re traveling solo.
For some hikers and campers, this is a relief, while for others it is too overwhelming. There are many ways to test the waters before you go out on your first solo backpacking trip, such as a shorter day hike at a nearby location. Many hikers and campers have to build up to their first solo backpacking endeavor but for others heading out into the backcountry alone is so natural that they don’t even stop to consider inviting others.
Just as there are many different types of backpacking trips and even more varieties of backpackers that take them, there are many ways to prepare and execute a solo backpacking trip. One of the best parts about traveling solo is that you can do whatever you like; the itinerary is all yours. Read on for a comprehensive consideration of all the arrangements a solo backpacking trip requires, whether you’re thinking about taking your first solo trip or seeking to expand the scope of your next one, with this solo backpacking guide.
Solo backpacking in foreign cities
Most of our readers are probably not as interested in travel tips for getting through airports, customs, and urban city centers as they are in how to plan outdoor activities in the backcountry. Nonetheless, solo backpacking in a big city is just as edifying as backpacking in more natural surroundings and in any case hikers and campers seeking to diversify their backcountry activity by taking a solo adventure to an international destination will have to get there via a large capital city. So, here’s a quick checklist of what you’ll need to make it through the airport and take the first step on your solo trip:
- Passport: If you’re traveling internationally, make sure you have a passport that is valid for at least six months from the day you enter your destination country. If you have yet to gain your own passport, start this process as soon as you possibly can. It takes several months of paperwork and processing for the finished document to be mailed out.
- Money: This means credit cards, debit cards, or some form of traveler’s check to float you for the entire duration of your trip. Make sure your credit cards don’t have any foreign transaction fees and try to find out which ATMs you can use.
- Travel insurance: Basic emergency travel insurance is a requirement to enter some countries and you’ll be happy to have it in any case. Navigating a foreign health system can be troublesome enough without worrying about how you’ll pay for your treatment.
- Return flight tickets: Check with your embassy to see up to date requirements for visas and entry into foreign countries. Some may want to see that you have a flight booked out of the country before they’ll let you in to make sure you aren’t going to overstay your visa allowance.
Odds are you’re going to have a long flight and have to move around to get from an airport into the city. Even if you’re planning to head out to a trailhead or campground from there, it’s wise to book a hostel or some other accommodation for at least one night so you can get your bearings. Don’t try to rush through your first time in a new country no matter what your travel plans are there. Take it all in and find somewhere you can relax for a night or two while you double-check how to get to your backpacking destination.
What to pack as a solo backpacker
Backpacking gear lists are generally the same and any hiker or camper familiar with the 10 essentials and the Leave No Trace principles knows what’s absolutely crucial to have in a rucksack for a backpacking trip. A few of those essentials become even more important for backpackers who travel solo. For one thing, since you’ll be spending so much time alone, make sure you have a first aid kit that has every conceivable band-aid, moleskin, ointment, and tool available on the market. When you travel with a small group there’s always a chance someone has brought the right first aid tool with them, but when you’re traveling solo it’s all up to you, so make sure you have everything in your first aid kit.
Similarly, the backpacking gear you might be used to splitting amongst the members of your fellow backpackers will have to be shouldered by just you on your solo adventure. If you have a tent that’s great for group camping but a little on the heavy side, you can save yourself tons of exasperation by getting an ultralight one-person tent before you start traveling solo. Too often, hikers and campers wind up getting rid of heavy equipment like tents that are in perfect working order but too bulky or heavy to carry as a solo backpacker. Finding new backpacking gear in an unfamiliar place may not be a simple task either, especially if you’re itching to get out to a hiking trail or a campsite. Some other pieces of gear that are invaluable to solo travelers going long-distance for the first time are water filters, water bottles, food, and a portable stove.
Getting drinking water on a solo backpacking trip
You can never be too careful with drinking water when you’re traveling solo. It should be common sense, but this problem only gets worse when you get out of a city and into more rural places, which you’re likely to do if camping or hiking are in your travel plans. For this reason, every solo backpacker should have a water filter that can treat enough water for the entire duration of the solo trip. A reusable water bottle is just as important to make sure you always have a clean receptacle.
Nalgene bottles have been a favorite of backpackers, hikers, and campers for a while now because they hold enough water and the mouth of the bottle is wide enough to accommodate a wide variety of water treatment gear. If you’re from the west, certain remote places in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa probably have drinking water that your body is not used to and the only viable workaround is to make sure you can treat your own. If you’re traveling within your own country, you’ll still want to have the ability to find clean drinking water from any water source that should present itself.
Backpacking food for solo travelers
It’s common sense to bring food along with you no matter what kind of travel plans you have. In some ways, packing an emergency supply of food is easier for solo travelers because there won’t be any griping about the menu or differences in dish preferences. If you’re heading to the backcountry in a foreign place and don’t know the language, then packing food can save lots of time and frustration. However, if you’re traveling solo over a long-distance and going through an airport, then bringing enough food for the whole trip is likely not going to be feasible. For that reason, it’s always best not to depend on pre-made freeze-dried backpacking food, but rather to know a handful of tasty meals you can make yourself with ingredients that can be found almost anywhere.
Even though you’re traveling solo, that doesn’t mean you’ll definitely be spending all of your time alone. If you are looking for a bit of solitude out in the backcountry, it’s unlikely to be interrupted. But if you’re planning on going to a national park or thru-hiking a long-distance trail, you may find yourself hanging out with a group of people who have also taken a rest from the trail for the night. You’ll have a nice icebreaker for meeting people and perhaps even make some new friends if you know how to make delicious meals that pack enough calories to replenish the energy spent hiking with a heavy rucksack all day.
What to look out for as a solo backpacker
For world nomads and backpackers in their home country alike, there are a few things to keep an eye out for when you’re traveling alone. Women especially have a little bit more to worry about. Generally speaking, if someone is trying to take advantage of you then it’s probably just to rip you off or overcharge you for transportation. Occasionally they have more nefarious goals, but the solution, in either case, is the same.
There should always be people around to help you if you’re in a well-populated area. Locals are always happy to help backpackers who are seeking to explore their hometown with advice or some know-how. On the long-distance trails in the United States, there are even trail angels who provide this sort of service to thru-hikers for free. It’s unwise to depend on such circumstances generally, but it does happen sometimes.
Since you’re traveling alone and probably headed for unfamiliar places, the best thing you can do for yourself is to do plenty of research about the place you’re going before you head out. It will help you avoid scammers and also prevent a headache when you arrive at a new airport or grocery store or bus station. The most important thing about researching and planning ahead is that whatever plan you formulate is unlikely to happen in real life in exactly the way you imagine it will in your head. Don’t stress it too much. The main thing is just to get where you’re going.
Most backpackers who are traveling solo tend to enjoy exploring a new place by themselves but frequently make new friends at a hostel or a rest stop and decide to form a larger group of people for significant legs of the journey. World nomads sometimes team up to take a train, bus, or plane together when possible to alleviate some of the boredom typical of airports and bus stations. It’s wise to leave some parts of your solo adventure open to impulse and last-minute changes so that you can join new friends on a miniature journey if you feel like it.
Making new friends as a solo backpacker
One of the biggest praises you hear all the time from people who have been traveling solo is that they love to meet people while they’re backpacking solo. Backpackers often cite the general vibe in a group of people who have been traveling solo and how much more easygoing they found their new friends to be. Of course, this doesn’t mean that a solo trip is guaranteed to net you new loved ones or tons and tons of new friends, but many backpackers and world nomads have friends they met once years ago who remain in touch and may even line up future solo backpacking trips to intersect so they can meet up again.
The best travel tip for a backpacker planning to travel solo for the first time is not to plan too much, not to expect anything in particular, and to go with the flow. It will be hard to make new friends if you are trying to follow a really strict itinerary. Most backpackers enjoy how easy it is to meet a new group of people and break out of their comfort zone if they are meeting other solo travelers.
It can be difficult to break the ice with a group of people who are traveling together and already know each other, but solo travelers like to speak with others who likewise decided to strike out on their own solo adventure and find out about life in different parts of the country or the world that way. The more prepared you are, the more comfortable you’ll be with making last-minute adjustments to your travel plans to join new friends on an impulse day hike or meet up with them in a different place a little further on.
Solo backpacking for the first time can really change people. The sense of self-confidence in your own capabilities will reaffirm much of the principled self-reliance that day hikes or group trips to the backcountry tend to also reinforce. Then again, backpacking solo, if you haven’t taken the time to properly research and plan everything out, could do exactly the opposite. Whether your goal as a solo backpacker is to do some self-reflecting and enjoy some peace and quiet or whether it’s meeting people from new places, you’ll find the flexibility afforded by well thought out but not too strict travel plans will let you concentrate on the real experiences of your solo adventure.
In the end, while there are a lot of backpacking tips and tricks for the solo traveler, the only way you’ll ever really know if it’s your style of backcountry adventure is if you try it out for yourself. No one is saying you should immediately go out and try a solo thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail, but if it’s going to be your first time traveling solo then try a quick jaunt to a nearby city to hike a trail or just to see what’s going on there for a weekend or so. If you try it and you enjoy the sense of independence and the rich experience you can discover when you aren’t encumbered by other people’s travel plans, then you’ll make a solo backpacker. Just don’t forget to do all the additional research you can and plan ahead as you learned to do in this solo backpacking guide.
Bonus tip: Check out this video to see highlights from a solo backpacking trip to Thailand!