To trek, hike, plod, march, trudge, tab, yomp. Whatever label you choose to use, put simply it is walking (throughout this post I will refer to it as trekking, purely for continuity). Something humans have done for 200,000 years. It is the purest form of human powered transport. Requiring minimal equipment and little formal lessons and training. It’s a great feeling, being completely self-sufficient on the road, relying on nothing but your feet to get you from A-B.
This guide is a collection of the experience and lessons I’ve picked up from the 11 years I have spent as an Infantry soldier and officer in the British Army. I have also completed a number of self-sufficient solo treks without the military. Here is the link to the post with tips and details from my 220 miles, 10-day walk through the UK and a trek through the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia.
I will give you all the information you need to head out on your first solo trekking expedition.
If you do find it useful, please be a hero and share or even better leave a comment with your advice or experiences.
‘Failing to prepare, is preparing to fail’ said somebody in the Army one time.
As you are still reading this post it is likely that you’re sat in front of your laptop, tablet or phone thinking ‘I would love to go on a solo trek someday. But am I prepared? I don’t know where to start.’
You’ve come to the right place.
Everybody started as a novice once upon a time. Even the experts such as polar explorers, Everest conquerors, survival experts and special forces soldiers were beginners at one point.
This post will cover the following topics:
- Mental toughness
- What equipment to pack?
- The most important items
- Final thoughts and tips
The first aspect you need to consider is the capability of the device you wish to complete the expedition with. Your body.
Walking/trekking is a repetitive action. Over a period of time and with added weight, it can lead to injuries. Before heading off to complete any long distance solo treks I would advise you to have a medical check-up with your doctor. If you have any injuries or health issues, a doctor can advise you on what you can safely do. If you are fit and healthy you are ready for the next step.
You don’t need to be super fit to trek large distances. Trekking fitness is best attained by……Trekking! If you are a complete novice, start with low distance and a steady pace.
Take a slow 4km trek with zero kit and equipment, a few times a week. Each week increase your trekking distance by 1 km until you are able to complete 10km. There is no need to trek too fast too soon. Keep a steady 4-5km per hour pace. Once you can trek 10km in under 2hr 30min with ease, try carrying a light backpack. Start with 5kg (roughly 2 litres of water a waterproof jacket and jumper). Again increase the weight gradually. Add 1kg per week until you are able to trek with 15kg for 10km in under 2hr 30 min on fairly flat terrain.
Once you are at this level of fitness, you will be able to continue to gradually add more distance and weight. A word of caution. If you add too much weight, too soon, you are likely to become injured and this is the last thing we want. Continue to mix your treks up. Add a trek over hilly, rough terrain. Go for a trek on the beach. Enjoy a grassland stroll. Ultimately you should aim to enjoy trekking. Go and explore new places to keep it fresh.
Worse case is you will get fit on your solo expedition. If you start fit, it will just make trekking slightly more comfortable to start with and reduce your chance of injury. It doesn’t mean that you need to be in peak physical shape to go on a solo trek.
This is something that is often overlooked. People who don’t complete long distance treks are usually fit enough. It is often mental toughness they lack. Not being stubborn and giving up. Long distance trekking is tough. If it wasn’t everyone would be doing it. What makes solo trekking tough is relying purely on your own motivation and not that of anybody else.
Other tough aspects of trekking solo are having nobody to talk to for long periods of your journey. Not sharing the experience with anybody else. If you get ill or injured, having nobody to help immediately. The blisters. Chafing. Not washing for days.
Still, want to go?
There are ways to negate some of these issues. I find that posting my progress on social media or in this blog a good way to share my experiences. But even this can be tough. After walking all day, who wants to sit down and type a semi-coherent post about your miserable blisters, chaffing, hunger and smelly clothes? Sometimes posting a short video can fill this void but this isn’t for everyone. Often you won’t have signal, coverage of the battery power.
Other people like to disconnect completely. It’s a beautiful feeling in this modern age, to fully disconnect. To have no emails, requests or notifications. Leaving the nagging draw for our attention.
What I love about being alone on a trek is the freedom and space. Making decisions that only effect you at that moment. Being able to be completely spontaneous without consulting anyone. I find strangers talk to me more frequently when I’m trekking alone. If I want to share my story I can. If not that is also OK.
Basically, you can do what you want (within reason, decency and the laws of your country).
Do not underestimate the mental toughness required to trek solo for a long period of time. The only way to find out if you have it is to expose yourself to situations where you are tested.
What equipment to pack?
Some people are obsessed with kit and equipment. Having the latest £200 softshell jacket, snazzy GPS devices, Gortex jackets with pockets and functions I didn’t even know existed and having down sleeping bags that cost a small fortune and weigh as much as a 6 pack of eggs.
In contrast, I have been trekking in Nepal with local porters that wear trainers that were probably made in 1993. For a waterproof jacket, they used a clear plastic bag. They didn’t use sleeping bags. Instead, they slept with blankets. Socks were a luxury.
This shows that expensive items are not an absolute necessity.
Personally, I sit in the middle. I appreciate quality products that make life easier. If I can justify that the price will make a significant difference to my comfort. The more money you spend on an item usually means:
- More comfort
The most important items.
Rather than list all of the items to take on a trek, I am going to focus on just 3 (if you want to see what I took to Nepal, check out the list here). I believe that the key items of equipment that make a big difference to your levels of comfort on a trek are:
- Sleeping bag/bivvy bag
These three things will be used every day. They will become your trusted friends, especially if you are on the road alone.
The fit of a boot is more important than the brand. Where possible, go and try them out in the shop whilst wearing the socks that you plan to trek in.
To Gortex or not to Gortex
That is the question. Gortex boots can be a godsend when the weather is boggy and wet. A wet sock is a sure way to a miserable day. But they are usually warmer and heavier.
I personally wear Gortex trekking boots. Most of my treks are in wet conditions so for me it keeps my feet more comfortable. If you are going to be trekking in hot weather with minimal risk of getting wet, go for the non-gortex.
Sleeping bag/Bivvy Bag
An essential piece of equipment. I’ve recently converted to using a down sleeping bag. Benefits of a down bag are its lightweight to warmth ratio. Do not get it wet though, otherwise you’ll be in for a cold night sleep.
A bivvy bag is a large waterproof bag that goes over your sleeping bag. It keeps you dry and adds warmth. I could write a whole post about sleeping bags and bivvy bags. Others have and have done a great job, far better than I could. Check out:
For a solo expedition, you need to be able to balance carrying your equipment with being lightweight. You need to ensure you carry enough equipment that you are safe but also not to overload your pack. It’s a fine balancing act that can take multiple trips to perfect.
Again, the fit and size in personal. As long as it’s comfortable to your body and can carry all of your required kits it’s good to go.
Chris Townsend has written some fantastic articles about lightweight backpacking. His website also has examples of the kit he packs on solo trekking expeditions. Here is the link:
- Camping (sleeping in a tent at a campsite)
- Wild camping (sleeping anywhere, rough. Can use a tent if needed or just a bivvy/sleeping bag combination. Tarps are also a good option)
- Bother/barns/wild shelter (these are old huts and buildings found in the mountains)
- Staying in hotels/hostels/air bnb’s
- Relying on the generosity and kindness of locals
The more you pay usually means more comfort. My preference is to wild camp. It’s free and I find it pretty comfortable. Here is a link to a post I wrote as advice for people starting out on a first wild camp.
This is probably the most important aspect of this post. It is only natural to be apprehensive about heading out on a solo trek. The risk is higher than if you are in pairs of in a group but there are a number of actions you can take to reduce the risk:
- Carry a sufficient first aid kit and know how to use it. Attend a first aid class if needed. Nothing replaces knowledge. For a comprehensive first aid kit list, check out this post by Andrew Skurka.
- Be fully vaccinated for the country you are travelling.
- Check in regularly with friends and family. If going somewhere remote consider taking a satellite phone.
- Have sufficient medical cover and relevant insurance.
- Check the FCO website for travel advice.
- Speak to locals and people that have visited the place you plan to trek for advice.
Final thoughts and tips
- So you’ve read through this post and still have a million and one questions. If you do, please ask in the comments section.
- Some of the advice here may have put you off solo trekking. If so, that is OK. It’s not for everyone.
- For me, solo trekking is almost a spiritual experience. I find myself lost in my own thoughts after spending days without talking to another human.
- Solo trekking adds clarity and refreshment to my busy lifestyle. I usually come home a happier person and have a clearer vision of my future and my current identity.
- I can rest when I want, work hard when I want. There is no walking behind a group. Getting annoyed with the small habits you pick up on.
- I feel that everybody should experience solo trekking at least once. Get out there and enjoy it.
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