Alone on the Trail


Experience From - Linda , Dan Baglione , Doug McKeever , Douglas Spink , John Thiemen , Rob Thompson , Jay Hodde , Matt Mahoney , Rich Schick , Ken Reed , Rick Kelley , Ron , Larry DeAngelo , Scott McPherson ,


Tom Midlam wrote:

"I had a great solo run yesterday on a trail with good markings and no man-eaters (that I noticed). Then it occurred to me that it ain't wise to venture an hour deep into the woods without a buddy. It is possible to get lost, sprain an ankle, fall in a stream and get cold, etc. I guess these are simply dangers inherent to trail running. Carrying a phone might be a good safety net. In going alone, I really like being ready to run whenever, setting my own pace, and practicing navigation. Just curious as to how many others train alone on trails. Any advice, tales of woe, or lessons learned? Thanks."
I really like running alone. But sometimes, as another runner said, I get the heebie jeebies, either because I'm in cougar habitat, or because I would have a long way to walk out on a sprained ankle or whatever. I carry a whistle, a little can of Halt (I promised my dad to do that if he will wear his bicycle helmet), and identification (at least they'll know where to find next of kin).

P.S. Statistically, my chances of having a nasty "incident" are greater in town than on the trail nowadays.

Dan Baglione

Before angioplasty and fatal cougar attacks I ran alone almost anywhere and sometimes changed my planned route to explore a new trail or dirt road. The increasing population of cougars in my area concerns me enough that there are now some areas that I will not run alone. I hate having to be constantly looking over my shoulder. I'm not worried about frontal confrontations.

Because of the angioplasty, I now give my wife ACCURATE time estimates for my return and inform her of my planned route from which I do not now vary when running alone. Had I had a heart attack in the early stages of the long, solo runs I used to do on the trails of this area, I would have died because my wife was accustomed to me changing my plans, running farther, and being gone longer than my estimate. She would not have become alarmed for hours after my estimated return time.

Cougars and heart attacks are not the only potential killers of solo, back country runners. A fall, a broken leg, cool temperatures, inadequate clothing can combine to cause hypothermia and death. There are other dangers that could be cited. I still do solo runs; but I am more selective and a bit more cautious; but I've already had a great 67 years; so if I die tomorrow, it's no great tragedy, especially if I die running.

Doug McKeever

I routinely venture out on long solo runs in some rather rugged mountains here in Washington. I have never had a problem, except for one time last summer when I slipped on loose bark on a log and did a head plant in the mud, narrowly missing spiking my face or neck on a broken branch. The biggest prob. was I slammed VERY hard on my right thigh on the log. I actually thought for a moment that I may have broken the femur...not a good thing on a semi-abandoned trail deep in the Pasayten Wilderness, with only the supplies and clothes in my light runners pack. I managed to continue another 21 miles to get out, for a total of 38 for the day, but I had to cut out a neat 16 mile loop because of my clumsiness. That little incident really made me think a bit about the perils of solo running in remote country. I must keep several guardian angels very busy!

One bit of advice: ALWAYS leave word of your plans in detail, including time schedule and destination, then don't vary from your announced plans. There are cases of searches for hunters, hikers, etc. in areas far removed from their actual locale, all because they changed their plans and didn't let anyone know. The responsible person should know how to proceed if they haven't heard from you by the "alarm" time.

Douglas Spink

99% of my training runs alone, which I much prefer to company. It gives me time to think, laugh, cry, curse, and smile without worrying about what someone else thinks of my behavior. Oh, I guess I am not technically 'alone' as I ALWAYS run with one of our dogs. Its just more fun to seem them bounding along and enjoying themselves, even when I am dog tired (sorry) and feeling sorry for myself.

I used to do some solo mountaineering, and that was where I learned how to be fairly self-sufficient in the back country. My own rules are as follows:

  1. I always take some extra food on a long run, 'cause I am a big eater and there is nothing like being so hungry when lost that one resorts to eating pine needles off the trees (I actually did this once).

  2. Always take some extra clothes. I usually run in the evenings, and spending a night out in shorts and a t-shirt is a very unpleasant experience, even in the summer. My usual minimalist gear is a wind breaker and maybe an polypro, long sleeve top. With this, one can curl up one's legs into the top layer, so I don't bring long pants.

  3. I take a proactive attitude towards threats. I have encountered a cougar once, alone and at night. Frankly, I was so awed by its beauty and grace that I forgot to be afraid! It (she?) simply took a look at me and kept on moving. As Al said so well, don't act like prey. Same holds true for people-I run in some pretty remote areas of our corner of Oregon, and there are some places where the theme from "Deliverance" runs through my head. Of course, 99% of the folks that live in those areas are actually really pleasant and friendly. For the other 1%, I maintain an air of alertness and authority. Being a 6' 1", 215 pound competitive kickboxer helps a bit too ;-) Not surprisingly, never had someone bother me when running. This trick might be tougher for a small, woman runner.

I don't carry any weapons on the trails, though I always carry a knife when in the city. As others have said, the chances of injury are much higher in the city than on the trials!

Finally, a story from the mountaineering literature (condensed).

Joe Simpson was climbing in Peru, high up on a mountain, when he fell and broke his leg in several places. His partner painstakingly lowered him down several thousand feet of treacherous terrain, only to find at the bottom of the face that he had lowered Joe over a precipice that was longer than his rope. He sat there as Joe, swinging wildly in space, at night, started to drag him off his precarious perch. Just before he plummeted into the abyss, he cut the rope and let Joe fall into a crevasse. Believing him dead, his partner returned to base camp.

Joe didn't die, and over the course of 6 days he dragged himself back to camp. He arrived just as they were packing up base camp to head home. His leg healed eventually, and he's been back in the mountains and climbing hard ever since.

The story was written up in a wonderful book called "Touching the Void," which won numerous awards.

Moral of the story? It is very, very unlikely that you will die if injured while running alone. You might have a long, slow walk/crawl out, but it takes a lot to kill someone. Hypothermia and starvation are unlikely unless you are running deep in snow country! As long as you know generally the route back home, the worst thing likely to happen is that your loved one's will worry themselves to death as you drag your sorry butt back to the car. The memory of physical pain fades quickly, as any untrarunner well knows.

Anyway, that is how I rationalize my solo runs.

John Thiemen

Pete Petri wrote:

"Hear, Hear!!! I echo those sentiments precisely. But, my wife still feels otherwise, so we have been thinking of starting cell or digital service. I know the cell phones are still not good in those deep mountain valleys, etc, but does anyone know how well the new digital PCS phones are in this situation, or are they limited by range and line of sight the same as a cellular ?"
From what I hear, and I am not an expert -just a consumer- digital phones may be at an even great disadvantage. There are, at least in Louisiana, far fewer towers for them than for cell phones. If this is not true would someone on the list who knows more about this please correct me?

Rob Thompson

Hank Garretson wrote:

"This raises the question of what sort of survival kit trail runners should carry. When running alone in wilderness areas, I carry:
To the above list add:

Jay Hodde

All that is good, but if I know the trails I will be running on, I would probably not want to carry all that stuff -- and probably wouldn't. Here's my list of standard trail items, in addition to appropriate clothing for the weather on hand:

Matt Mahoney

These are good, but I also carry a map, compass, 1-2 flashlights (2 AA batteries), adhesive tape, toilet paper, Vaseline, and money. I used to carry water treatment tablets but since I've had giardia I figure I'm immune to it now.

Rich Schick

Your suggestions are good but for runners I would point out that adequate outer wear is enough to survive overnight laying motionless in the worst possible local weather conditions, If in a race it is again based on lying motionless for twice the expected length of time for help to arrive. In this high tech world I would add a ziplock bag with a cellphone in it to your list of gear.

Ken Reed

Add to The list:

Rick Kelley

"In this high tech world I would add a ziplock bag with a cellphone in it to your list of gear."
I got a cellphone with the expectation that it would come in handy on solo runs in remote areas in the event I was injured or ill. I soon discovered that I rarely had a signal strong enough if any at all due to the remoteness of the areas. So now, I have gone back to the old and sane habit of letting people know where I will be and when to expect me and what to do if I don't show up.


You need a fire starting device. REI (or your local camping store) has a lighter that will burn in high winds and wet weather conditions. It is a must have for survival kits. Expedient devices can be made with cotton, Vaseline, and small film canister. Mix a generous amount of Vaseline with the cotton and roll until you have a ball. Place the balls in the film canister and you have a source to ignite your tender (even if wet) for the fire. You will obviously need matches with this technique. Long burning waterproof matches are the best. I wish I knew the brand name. You can also use magnesium strips to start your fire. Dry tender is needed with this technique. Another method of starting a fire is a nine-volt battery and a bit of steel wool. Use the steel wool to short circuit the terminals and start your tender. The rest of the list looked great. A small compass is a great item to have as well. Silva makes a great small survival compass.

Larry DeAngelo

One item I include for desert trail runs, particularly in the spring, is a snakebite kit. The usual recommendation of "not exerting yourself and getting to the hospital in a hurry" seems like a pretty impossible combination when you are several miles out on a trail. So far I have never had to use it. Those darn sidewinders have such effective camouflage that I have come within a step or two more times than I can remember.

Scott McPherson

Hi Kevin, I have been reading the info on your website the last few months trying to get an idea about how to go about running my first ultramarathon. I just completed the Arizona Road Racers Crown King Scramble 50 mile race in 11:41 last Saturday. Today I was reading your info on running alone, so I wanted to let you know of an experience I just had in that regard. On the 3rd of March I planned to run 42 miles through the Superstition Wilderness in preparation for the Crown King Scramble.

I let everybody know my route. I left at 5 am and gave myself all day. I carried a back pack with one gallon of water and one gallon of gatorade, 4 power bars, some tiger milk bars, several candy bars, a cellular phone, .357 magnum pistol, signal mirror, waterproof matches, toilet paper, topo maps of the area, a hunting knife and years of outdoor navigation experience. I had prepared someone to meet me on the other side at the trail head about 5pm. Things went real well at first, I covered the first 20 miles without incident. I found the spring I knew about and replenshed some of my fluids.

The day was warm, about 80 F, and I was working hard, so about 10 miles later I was out of water and gatorade and found no water in the canyon where I had always found it. I began to dehydrate badly by about 2:30 pm. I decided to walk to the old ranch site about 9 miles from the trail head where I knew a good flowing creek was. From the high saddle above the ranch, I phoned the house and left a message that I was alright and would spend the night at the old ranch rather than try to go the last few miles in the dark. At the ranch I rehydrated fine and had candy to eat. I built a fire and made a makeshift shelter out of an old piece of corrugated tin. I lay down to knap on a bed of old dried grass. I kept nice and warm until about 11 pm when the first rain storm in more than 6 months settled in and the wind and rain pounded me. I tried to huddle under the shelter (I was dressed in running shorts and a long sleeved t-shirt), but the wind dove the rain right up under it. The fire was useless, and I was getting soaked as the temperature plummeted to near freezing. Then snow and sleet began falling. By 1:45 am I was shivering uncontrolably and in danger of dying of hypothermia 9 miles from the nearest road (this is a wilderness area). I decided to take my chances on the trail.

My flashlight batteries had died so I had to follow the trail in the dark. My experience in orienteering in the Army paid off pretty well as I was able to find and follow the trail without being able to see it. I covered about 2-3 miles in the next 2 and a half hours to reach a saddle where I could get cellular phone service. I called my wife and asked her to meet me at he trail head in 2-3 hours. I told her that if I wasn't there in an hour from the time she arrived that she should call the search and rescue. At that point the wind was howling and the sleet was driving right into me and I was freezing my butt off. The next 2 miles were the toughest I have ever done because I was shivering and the trail led along the sheer side of a mountain that was a wall on one side and a steep drop off on the other, laced with cactus and aother thorny plants. I fell three times and nearly went off into the thin air but was able to claw my way back to the trail. Now i was muddy, soaking wet, bleeding from my shins and hands and shivering badly ( at least I was still shivering). I finally made past that portion of the trail by about 6am when it began to be light enough to see. For the last 4 miles or so I ran in the mud and it was all down hill. By the time I reached the trail head I was no longer shivering and had warmed up just a little due to the exhertion.

My wife scolded me thoroughly and told me I would never do that again, and that she was about 10 minutes away from calling in the search and rescue. Incidentally, during that same storm, ahiker died of hypothermia in another mountain range just north of Phoenix, near here. I just want to say that running alone has its hazards. I feel like I was just a little foolish to try such a bold endeavor alone. I will still run alone because I can't find any one to match my schedule or ambition, but I will practice a little more caution when attempting to do something like I just described.