On Solo Hiking

Superstition Mountains

Backpacking—in particular my solo trips—changed my life. And it all started when, at 15, I talked a couple of friends into checking out the local Explorer Scout post. The Explorer Scout program is an alternative to Senior Scouting for kids aged 15 to 18. Instead of being organized as a Boy Scout troop, Explorer posts are run as a club, with officers elected by the members. Each post has an adult advisor. The purpose of the Explorer Scout program is to expose kids to different vocations—for instance, in my program we did bee keeping, amateur radio, had a talk by an airline captain on flying careers, learned rock climbing, and many other things.

At my first post meeting the group planned a backpacking trip into the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix, Ariz. This was in the mid 1960s, when backpacking was under the radar and practiced by relatively few people. The huge backpacking boom of the 1970s was yet to come. So Doc, our advisor, pretty much figured out how backpacking worked from the only book available on the subject: “Backpacking” by R.C. Rethmel. Nevertheless, we pulled off a great overnight hike. And my friends and I were hooked.

Slowly, my friends and I got better gear and began to plan our own trips. It wasn’t long before we were spending all of our high school holidays backpacking. Then the inevitable happened. Right before one weekend trip, my friends backed out at the last minute. I still wanted to go. But solo? Everyone advised against it, but I decided to give it a try anyway.

A little background on the Superstition Mountains, where my friends and I did most of our backpacking: Nicknamed the “Fast Death” mountains, in the 1960s the Superstitions had a reputation as being a very dangerous place. This was partly due to the extreme summer heat and rugged desert terrain, but also because of all the prospectors hunting for the fabled Lost Dutchman Gold Mine. Many of these characters staked out a portion of the Superstitions as their territory and defended it with armed guards. Despite the fact that the Superstition Mountains are the remains of an ancient volcanic caldera and do not have gold-bearing rocks, the prospectors squabbled with each other and threatened hikers. Thankfully the U.S. Forest Service finally put an end to all this nonsense in the mid-1960s by withdrawing most of the western Superstitions from mineral location. The Forest Service also rebuilt several of the hiking trails to encourage recreation in the newly created Superstition Wilderness Area.

Despite its dangerous reputation, I carried on with my overnight trip, alone. I really enjoyed that first solo trip, which inspired a six-day solo trip shortly thereafter. The six-day trip was a revelation. While I missed having companions, the freedom to wander the mountains and canyons at will made up for the lack of company.

But even though I was a careful hiker and made sure my parents knew my plans, I still got a lot of flack for hiking solo. It didn’t help that there were plenty of fools venturing into the backcountry completely unprepared, which made authorities even more adamant that no one should hike alone. Nevertheless, I continued to hike solo throughout my adolescence despite the naysayers.

But then I got the support I needed—I discovered a new book on backpacking: “The Complete Walker” by Colin Fletcher. An unrepentant solo hiker, Colin’s book presented solo hiking as the thing to do, flying in the face of the conventional wisdom of the land managers, rescue teams, and other authorities.

I am eternally thankful that Colin considered solo backpacking as a completely reasonable, sensible thing to do, as long as the hiker is experienced and careful. Along with Colin's meticulous approach to backpacking, his book (now in it's 4th edition) shaped my entire backpacking life, which has been a memorable mix of solo trips and trips with small numbers of compatible friends. And there are many more great trips to come!

(This essay was originally published on Falcon.com July 2013)