Proper preparation, planning, and the kindness of fellow hikers will provide hikers with some “trail magic”
by Andreas A. Keller
After feeling stifled by the compounding complexities of everyday life, many a hiker feels the need for solitude, to just be alone in nature, to breathe deeply into its stillness, to move at one’s own pace and let any concerns evaporate into the surrounding vastness.
Other hikers are attracted to the challenge of going it alone. It may be a time to work through life’s issues, build self-confidence or mental stamina, or touch upon a primeval energy that can be both re-energizing and empowering. Whatever the motivation, one question invariably comes up:
Is it smart to hike alone?
There is no right or wrong answer. Hiking alone is an individual preference which should take into account personal skills, knowledge, and comfort level when assessing the risks. It also depends on where and how long you plan to hike. Venturing out into the Alaskan wilderness or hiking alone in certain urban parks is likely to need more caution than hiking on the well-trod trails in the Shenandoah National Park.
Should women worry more than men about hiking alone? Not necessarily, according to Backpacker Magazine in an article dealing with issues of safety under “Wilderness Threats.” Not only do statistics prove that public lands are overwhelmingly safer places than the rest of the country, the article also states that women hikers are less likely to get lost or hurt than men hikers. The article provides readers with one memorable quote, “Culturally, females tend not to do as many of the idiotic things that solo males do. Males are more likely to try to pick up a rattlesnake.”
Smart Hiking Starts with a Plan
Whether hiking solo or with a partner, every hike needs thorough preparation. Knowledge of geography, weather, trail distance, and wildlife is a must. Bringing adequate food and water and wearing the proper clothing is important to a successful trekking experience.
Superb plans for hiking trails in Northern Virginia and beyond can be found on hikingupward.com. This is probably the most comprehensive hiking website in our region, with meticulously detailed mapping features and a rating system profiling over five hundred trails. Each trail rating is augmented by helpful reviews from hikers who tell of their experience, add suggestions or corrections, and evaluate the trails.
Hiking Alone Requires Common Sense Precautions
It is best on your initial solo outing to hike in an area you know well or have visited before with friends or family. The world looks different on your own, and trails may seem different with the changing of seasons, and even from the early morning to the end of the day. Solo hikers need to be prepared for anything. Self-sufficiency demands basic first-aid supplies and knowledge, and the ability to read maps and know what exit options are available.
A basic requirement for solo hiking requires you to let someone know about the planned hike: when and where it starts and the expected time of return. It’s important not to deviate from the plan you have shared, in case you encounter problems and need assistance. Getting hurt on a hike is the most likely mishap to occur, and it will be easier for friends or rescue teams to find you more quickly if you stick to the planned route.
For that reason alone it makes sense to choose traveled trails over secluded ones because fellow hikers are best friends to those in need of assistance.
When unexpected acts of kindness come from other hikers met on the trail it’s called Trail Magic: a quintessential part of the experience for many long-distance hikers on the Appalachian Trail. Yet kindness on the trail can be found everywhere. Assistance from other hikers can be crucial to solo hikers, but also to larger groups, and even man’s best friend.
Boots ‘n Beer experienced a wonderful example of Trail Magic last March, which was a month with extreme weather variations. One week we had freezing temperatures and bone-chilling wind gusts, and a week later we enjoyed summer-like temperatures.
Because experienced hikers live by the credo “there is no bad weather, just bad equipment,” a group of hikers training for the Ultimate Hike to raise funds for CureSearch for Children’s Cancer braved the blistery cold weather on the strenuous Riprap Hollow hike, one of the best circuit hikes in the southern part of the Shenandoah National Park.
All of us were bundled up with thick jackets, hats, and mittens. Even with gear wrapped over both nose and mouth, the cold wind gusts still managed to drive tears into our eyes. The only one enjoying the frigid temperature was the double-coated Bernese mountain dog, Lady Boots. She was alive with joy, running back and forth on the trail, conquering every boulder along the 10-mile hike which had a 4,500 feet elevation difference.
Three weeks later we tackled the same hike counter-clockwise. The weather forecast promised a blue sky and a perfect hiking temperature of 65 degrees. The hiking was easy, the sun was warming us, and Lady Boots trotted quietly behind. The temperature started to rise, and with all the happy chatting along the trail we all missed a turn and soon we found ourselves … well … lost. We had to backtrack for two miles to locate the proper trail. At this point Lady Boots picked a shady spot and plopped herself down to rest. Her black fur was extremely hot. She eagerly lapped up water mixed with electrolytes. We were not even at the halfway point of our hike and had already hiked seven miles with little shade. I even took her backpack off and attached it to my own.
Next on our journey came the steady, unrelenting uphill hike, but just about every half-mile Lady Boots moved to the side into the underbrush to rest and drink water. After four and a half miles Boots lay down on her side in the middle of the trail, a clear sign she was overheating.
One of the hikers, a veterinary technician, checked her gums to be sure that our exhausted four-legged friend was not in danger of immediate heatstroke. On the advice of three nurses in our hiking group, all the water we were carrying with us was collected and rubbed into Lady Boots’ hot fur to cool her down. One of the nurses pulled out an ice pack, broke it, and applied it to Boots’ neck and back.
As we were tending to Boots, two young hikers with huge packs on their shoulders came slowly up the steep trail and stopped. They had camped out for a couple of nights and were on their way home. They saw our concern for Lady Boots and said, “Our car is parked exactly half a mile from here. From there we can take your dog in our car and bring her to your trailhead. Let us go ahead and we’ll prepare the car so the dog can lie down in the back.” We gladly accepted the hikers’ generosity, which cut out the last three miles of hiking on the trail.
Lady Boots rested for 15 minutes, eagerly drank the remaining undiluted electrolytes, and, as if she understood that the two trail angels were taking care of her, she walked the last half mile uphill to safety on the backseat of their car. As she put her head into my lap, I was overcome by gratitude and realized the wisdom of the Boots ‘n Beer’s creed of hiking with skilled hiking buddies. I will surely pay it forward for the goodness that others extended to us along the trail.
Boot ‘n Beer Recommends Hiking with Others
The Boots ’n Beer hiking club has many experienced hikers who enjoy hiking alone, but as an organization, we do not advocate solo hiking. We are there for each other not only for the camaraderie, but for the safety. We hike in groups and stay together with the hike leader in front and a sweeper at the back.
Boots ‘n Beer Charities is a not-for-profit organization under IRC Section 501 (c) (3) established to further causes that are very personal to our hikers via donations and sponsoring fundraising events. Boots ‘n Beer Charities proudly supports the following organizations: CureSearch for Children’s Cancer, American Red Cross Blood Drives, Finley’s Green Leap Forward, Leave No Trace, and Hiking Upward.