To Solo or not to Solo

What’s the difference?

The choice of going it alone or going with friends or a guide is one that requires some thought, one that has consequences for all of the choices you make when you set out on an adventure. Last year, I hiked the Minong Ridge Trail twice in the same season, once alone and once with Duane; having company (or not) impacts planning and execution.

North Lake Desor
North Lake Desor

There are variations in preferences among any two hikers, and Duane and I are no different. We don’t eat alike. We don’t hike alike, and we are not oriented as people alike. I am not a talker. He is. I am not a stopper. He is. I snack during the hike. He wants to eat at the end, so he saves all food until then. These have the most obvious impacts on the experience. The biggest impacts, though, start with needs and therefore the planning, so let’s start there.

When I planned for my solo hike, my whole focus was on keeping my pack weight down while taking on gear that I would not normally take by myself. When I hike with Duane, we share the load. He takes the tent, and I take the water filter and sometimes the cooking kit. He takes the first aid kit. I take a couple bandages and some antacids tablets. I take shampoo, which is liquid (and heavy).

Duane Setting up the Tent
We Stopped at Little Todd

To go solo, I had to take on another four pounds of gear that I do not carry when I hike with Duane, so I had to make room for it in my pack. I need my phone for photos, and my Garmin has to work, so I had to take extra batteries. But I can’t carry a pack of 30 pounds and hike 13 miles on Isle Royale. Yes, I can carry that weight and hike on less rugged trails, but on parts of the Minong Ridge Trail, I average 1 to 1.5 miles per hour. Sometimes, I can get up to 3.5 to 4 mph, but those are in short stretches, between the rugged ascents and descents. From Little Todd to North Desor, the trail is difficult, and the going is slow.

What are the negotiables? Type of food. Stove and pot. Type of water filter. Camp shoes. The type of shampoo. The luxuries: a chair.

What are the non-negotiables? Tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, one change of clothes, puffy, rain jacket, gloves, sock hat, Garmin, first aid kit, water filter and treatment, cup and spoon, bug dope, toilet paper, trowel, headlamp and trekking poles.

I did not take camp shoes on my solo because I hiked one seven-mile day that would not start until after 2:30 PM when I got off the boat and two thirteens, each that would start at 7:00 AM. By the time I would get into camp to set up my tent and get dinner, I would be ready to filter water and sit at the shore, watching the sunset. The decision to leave them was easy.

Sleeping Giant from the Trail between Todd and Little Todd
The Ridge between Little Todd and North Desor

Leaving the camp chair was not easy. Nor was the camp stove and the pot, which meant all meals would be cold. My pack is very minimal to begin with, and adding the tent required sacrifices. How do I have coffee without heat? Cold brew. I chose cold brew instant, and instead of dry cream, I used protein powder to give myself nutrients to start the day. I don’t like to eat a meal during the day, so there was no adjustment to my snacks. I took one packet of nuts and one protein bar for snacking on the trail and one meal for the evening that I could eat cold.

I anticipated my needs and chose very minimal first aid supplies: pain reliever, a couple bandages, antibacterial ointment, and a few antacid tablets. My shampoo was dry sheets.

Looking toward Canada
Pine Cone on a Bough

For the Minong solo with my particular itinerary which skipped Little Todd, I had to get water at the stream near the Little Todd Trail junction, so I needed to have a pump filter in event that the stream had limited flow. Scooping water for a gravity filter is more difficult if the stream level is low.

To offset having to take the tent, which was an ultralight one-person, and all other gear, I did not have a chair, a stove to heat water, or camp shoes. I had a full set of dry clothes, but I could not change if I wanted to keep the dry set in event that I got rained on. I had to accurately calculate food, which I did. When I arrived in Windigo, I had one spare pack of nuts that I didn’t eat.

Rocky Shore at Little Todd
Me on the Ridge between Little Todd and North Desor

With Duane, I don’t carry the tent. He does, so I can have my chair. I take the pump and he takes the gravity filter, so we have a backup. The pump is heavier. Our food is warm as is our coffee. A shared tent is warmer with two bodies heating the space. So the “stuff” is better when we are together. The adventure is different.

When I am alone, I hike hard. I push, push, push. Then I stop, mostly at the tops of ridges, sometimes amidst the forest beside the trail, and I look out over the land toward the lake. I see the eagles, the flowers. I eat the berries. I let the peace permeate my being. I am one with this earth and with this close and solitary experience with it.

When I hike with Duane (or anyone else), I moderate my pace and hike nice. I like the chatter of a companion, even though I am not one to talk all that much. The slower pace with more breaks extends the moments of peace on the trail. There are mushrooms, sand hill cranes, beaver, moose, flowers, warty trees, and streams. There is laughter. There is conversation and silence, too.

In the end, whether you hike with someone else or go it alone, the object is to have a good time, and there is more than one way to do that. Going solo or not going solo has to do with the object of your hike. If you expect or need a lot of quiet, go solo. If you want the conversation and shared experiences, take your partner or join a group.

When I hike Isle Royale, I plan for the specific excursion and base my choices on making the best of that circumstance. On any itinerary, the grandeur and peace of the island permeates my soul.

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