If you’ve been reading, so far you’ve learned that there are rules, and cautions, and lists of equipment (which I’ll address soon, I promise) to consider when you’re going to solo hike and camp, and you may be feeling a bit overwhelmed about the sheer effort that seems to go into hiking before you even get to the trailhead. But listen closely, because this is very, very important:
Hiking doesn’t have to be complicated.
This is not a rule, exactly. It’s more of a truth. Realizing this is often the first step for those of us who like the outdoors, who may have done some hiking in groups, but are a bit intimidated by the hiking culture to try it on our own. I felt that way for a long time. Avid hikers are so into gadgets and gizmos and trappings (I know I am, at least) that it can squash the dreams of someone who just kind of wants to take a walk in the woods and see how that goes before committing to equipment and mustering up courage to tackle a challenging ascent.
Today, I’m here to tell you that you can. Absolutely, 100%, you can take a walk in the woods. Just pick a place that is relatively populated, clearly marked, and not too lengthy of a trail. Bring a water bottle, and your cell phone.* And go for it.
One example of the type of hike that is perfect for someone just starting out solo and who wants to ease into it is Walden Pond in Concord, MA. Yes, that Walden, the one made famous by Henry David Thoreau.
The loop around Walden Pond is a just-under-two-mile, easy yet pleasant walk, that gets your blood pumping and whets your appetite for spending time in the outdoors. The views of the pond are beautiful, and it is easy to see why Thoreau would have chosen this spot for his year in the woods. The trail has some ups and downs — but nothing too steep, and there are no scrambles — and it passes by the site of the old Thoreau cottage, where you can imagine the views with which he was greeted every morning (and if you’re a literature geek like me, it’s a little thrill to stand in the spot where the cabin used to be).
The shortness of the trail (I get around the Pond at a decent but not hurried pace in about 35 minutes) and its accessibility (just outside city limits and easy to find) make it appealing for the “uncomplicated” hike. Because it is a popular spot, you don’t need all the safety trappings that you would need on a longer, less-populated trail. You will run into people at Walden…although even at its busiest times I have found myself alone at spots in the trail.
The biggest downside to Walden is — you guessed it — also the population. During the summer, the parking lot can fill to capacity and the rangers will close the lot until some of the crowd thins. Sometimes they won’t let you walk in because there are too many people already at the pond, usually swimming and hanging around on the tiny beach. I avoid that by going as early as possible, shortly after the parking lot opens, when the population of the park is me, a few other enthusiasts, and the people who swim across the pond in training for triathlons. The crowd is also thinner in the spring and fall. The key is finding the right balance between overcrowded and crowded enough that you’re not truly alone.
The point is, there are places, usually state parks or local conservation lands, that you can take a hike with a bottle of water and your cell phone and feel (and be) safe. It’s a good way to try hiking solo to see how it feels, or, if you’re a busy urbanite like me, to just get outside and get some activity without having to devote too much time and effort into preparation and planning.
What hikes have you found to be the right level of populated, the right length, and the right accessibility for “uncomplicated” hiking?
*At some point, I will explain that First Aid Kits are absolutely non-negotiable and you must have one with you when you hike solo. In this rare exception case, if you take a hike like what I describe here, where there will be lots of people around and you’re not that far from civilization…well, just use your judgment.
**That photo at the top is from despair.com, which sells lots of “demotivational” products. Go ahead, click on the photo, have fun shopping.
(c) Her Side of the Mountain, 2009.