Masterclass: solo walking

There’s a special freedom in walking on your own and being at one with nature, but solo walkers need to be aware of the practicalities.

A single person walking outdoors 

By Andrew McCloy

At the Ramblers, we know only too well that walking is a highly sociable activity, a great shared experience that provides ideal exercise for the body and soul alike; but there’s no doubt that walking on your own can be highly rewarding, too. For some, it’s simply about personal development and empowerment, a test of stamina, self-organisation and navigation skills, while for others a solo journey allows for a far deeper connection with the surrounding landscape and natural world. Peace and solitude can sometimes seem at a premium in our hectic modern lives, but walking at your own pace and entirely in your own time has an enormous therapeutic effect. 

Chris Townsend, who has backpacked solo on many epic long-distance trails, including the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail in North America, is clear why he usually walks on his own: ‘Just the presence of another person changes the feeling of the walk and the connection with the wild. Alone, I see more, notice more. The details of the world become clear.’ In his seminal guidebook on how to backpack, he vividly describes the ‘heightened awareness’ that often comes with solo walking.

Walking on your own, wherever you choose to do it, offers the chance to discover and extend yourself as a person. We all have our inhibitions, perceived failings or phobias, whether it’s because we’re afraid of heights, or of getting lost, or are scared of the dark. Perhaps, too, many of us are uncomfortable with the thought of being alone, but according to Gillian Denham from Blackheath Ramblers, who walked 246 miles of the Wales Coast Path on her own last year, going it alone can be a very convivial experience. ‘I found that being on my own made me more accessible for people to talk to – and vice versa. When I stopped at a café for lunch, people wanted to talk to me about what I was doing and where I had been. I also chose to stay at youth hostels so that I could meet and chat to other people in the evenings, including other solo walkers. Walkers are such friendly people, always greeting each other, and connected by this common interest. It’s lovely to share experiences in this way.’

However, despite the camaraderie, Gillian also loved being completely alone on the trail. ‘Going at your own pace, choosing your own detours, seeing more wildlife – in practical terms, your time is all your own and there’s no joint decision-making or any need to compromise.’ Taking the first few steps on the path to solo walking can be a liberating experience, but what planning do you need to do to make sure it works out?

Skills and know-how

Whether you’re planning a weekend outing or a month-long expedition, decent preparation is essential. But if you’re doing it on your own, taking the right equipment is also vitally important. Although walking the South Downs Way in the summer will be rather different from tackling the Scottish Highlands in winter, for the solo explorer there’s no one to turn to if you’ve forgotten to pack something. The trick is to find the balance between the essential – such as a decent first-aid kit, high-energy emergency food and perhaps a bivvy or survival bag – and the unnecessary – such as too much clothing or spare cooking gear. A national park ranger in the Peak District once told me that he regularly picks up jettisoned gear from Pennine Way walkers who have clearly set off carrying far too items he comes across are lightweight tents and tins of baked beans.

Just as for any walk into remote or mountainous country, there are safety precautions to consider. Spend time not just plotting your route beforehand to get a feel for the location from books and maps, but also consider likely escape routes. Is there a plan B if something unexpected happens and you have to change your route? Study weather forecasts, know what time the sun sets and consider possible natural hazards. What would you do if you found yourself still walking when darkness fell, for instance, in a thunderstorm?

Much of the advice for solo walkers, especially on more adventurous walks, is simply common sense, but when you’re on your own everything is amplified. For example, you can’t rely on your partner or another group member to take a compass bearing – it’s down to you to get it right. A GPS or mobile phone is all very well, but if the battery runs out or there’s no signal, then you must still be able to navigate accurately. Since online mapping or location data can be very battery-hungry, it’s probably wise to consider carrying a portable ‘battery bank’ to charge your phone in out-of-the-way locations. However, don’t let any of this put you off. If you’ve always relied on someone else to read the map and work out the route for you, now is the opportunity to acquire new skills. Learning to navigate your way successfully in the countryside is a rewarding experience. There are a number of good instruction books, as well as map and navigation courses, that can help.

Trust your instincts

Not only will you have to be certain of where you’re going, but you’ll also have to make your own decisions on timings and route choices, including weighing up potential risks. Again, if you’re comfortable in the outdoors and have thought it all through, there’s no reason why you should be worried. Indeed, for many first-time solo walkers, the confidence-building and personal development involved is incredibly satisfying. However, it still means knowing your limits and weighing up situations carefully. Chris Townsend offers the following advice: ‘Follow your instincts – if a situation feels wrong, it’s probably for a reason. Challenging terrain such as scrambles, snow and especially river crossings can be more dangerous on your own, particularly as there’s nobody to help if you run into bother.’

Solo walkers should carry some means of emergency communication, whether it’s a whistle, torch, phone or – if you’re in the mountains or really remote country – a flare or a personal locator beacon. And, in addition to carrying a well-equipped first-aid kit, it’s also worth knowing some first aid, such as how to strap up a damaged limb or treat a bee sting or tick bite.

First steps on your own

If you haven’t walked very much on your own before, then start gradually and build your experience and confidence over time. It might be a good idea to plot a hillwalk or a trail that’s slightly familiar to you, or perhaps choose a route where it’s likely that you’ll meet other people at some point. Start slowly and develop your solo skills along the way, even if it means keeping in sight of other trailwalkers for a bit, just to get some self-assurance. Also make sure that you tell someone where you’re going and, just as importantly, let them know when you’ve finished safely. Filling out a route card beforehand, a practice still drummed into Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expedition groups, is a good idea both for working out a realistic and spontaneity as to where you go and when is certainly why actions, too. join a small walking holiday group, where there is flexibility to learn new skills and develop independence. There are also companies that offer self-guided walking trips, where they make some of the arrangements for you. And female members of the South West Coast Path Association can enjoy access to their solo walkers’ network, which puts women in touch with other women walking the national trail.

Safety, confidence and risk-awareness

Although we perceive that women on their own are safer walking in the countryside than in an urban environment, there are safety precautions that can still be taken wherever you may be and for any type of walk. As well as obvious communication devices, such as a whistle, phone or torch, some women carry personal alarms to use in a worst-case scenario. But how real is the risk? Beth Wickes, from Stourbridge Ramblers, is currently on a solo charity walk around the entire British coast, and says she’s always aware of her surroundings, but not to the point of being overly concerned.

‘I work on the basis that most people don’t want to harm anyone, and I think it’s so unlikely I’d stumble on one who did while walking in the countryside that I’d be incredibly unlucky to be attacked. If I were a man, would people call me “brave” for walking alone? We’re conditioned to think that the world is a dangerous place to explore as a single woman, but is it worse than for single men? I don’t think so.’

One general piece of advice in terms of personal safety – which applies equally to lone men and women – is not to walk while listening to music through earphones. Not only will you be unable to hear people (or animals) approaching, but you’ll drown out the natural sounds around you – and it can make you seem antisocial should you encounter fellow walkers.

Solo walking may not be for everyone, but there’s plenty of testimony both from men and women who have walked by themselves that captures the empowering feeling of being more in control, building new skills and developing physical and mental stamina, plus a heightened awareness of the natural world. Then there’s the opportunity for deeper reflection and an appreciation for life that those of us who walk regularly know all about. Many solo long-distance walkers, myself included, find that keeping a diary to record each day’s walking can quickly turn into a more profound, insightful and lively personal commentary on all manner of things.

Beth Wickes jokes that part of the reason she embarked on a solo walk around the British shoreline was to escape housework, but as she steadily makes her way around the south-west coast, it’s clear how much she’s enjoying the freedom of walking by herself. ‘It’s nice not having to think about whether my walking speed suits someone else and therefore having to adjust my natural pace, plus I like the flexibility to stop when and where I like without having to consider whether it fits in with fellow walkers. Above all, I enjoy the peace simply to get lost in my own thoughts.’

A single person walking outdoors 

(Above) Chris Townsend walking in the Fannichs on the Scottish Watershed – being alone helps him feel connected to the wild.

Essential kit for a solo walk

Beth Wickes

  • Walking poles They help me ascend steeper areas, take the weight off my legs when going downhill, and give stability over rough or slippery ground, especially in windy weather.
  • Garmin Forerunner 35 GPS watch I love to see where I’ve walked and the mileage I’ve covered.
  • Ordnance Survey mapping data Routes can also be downloaded in case of poor reception. A bonus is that it doesn’t drain the battery, either.
  • Follow Beth’s progress around the coast at bethfootforward.co.uk

Chris Townsend

  • Comfortable trail shoes My current favourites are the Altra Lone Peak 4.
  • Pacerpoles As well as providing stability and support while walking, they hold up my tarp.
  • Tilley hat It’s kept the sun and rain off on every long-distance walk I’ve done for nearly 30 years.
  • For more details about Chris Townsend’s solo walks, go to christownsendoutdoors.com

Checklist for solos

  • Start gently First-timers should begin with an easy route, where you can hone your outdoor skills and be likely to see other people.
  • Do your homework Plan ahead, get a sense of where you’re going and what you might face, check the weather forecast and think about escape routes.
  • Pack the essentials – especially for emergency situations. But don’t weigh yourself down unnecessarily.
  • Be a competent navigator Use GPS only as a back-up to basic map and compass skills.
  • Be prepared for emergencies Carry a phone, torch, whistle and, in remote places, a personal locator beacon.
  • Share your plan Tell people where you’re going and that you’ve returned safely.
  • Keep a diary to record your thoughts and experiences