Going Solo: Risk Vs. Reward
Going solo: Going hunting or to a lesser extent fishing alone in the outdoors with no immediate back up if something should go wrong. The two women in my life, my wife and my mom and even my dad don’t like it when I go hunting solo and they’ve told me as much.
First off right up front I will say that going into the field alone, particularly when hunting, but also when fishing in rough terrain or in remote locations holds inherent risks, some of which can’t be over come and must be accepted by the solo outdoorsman.
With mom, dad and Gena accidents are a big concern. Something like a broken leg that immobilizes me and has serious consequences up to an including death. Other concerns are health issue like heart attack, appendicitis or a bout of kidney stones. An aside concern that family members have is that by going solo you run the risk of being confronted by two leg and four leg threats in the form of pot farmers or backcountry robbers, bears or a mountain lion.
If you discount these risks, you are a moron. Yet, I don’t allow them to keep me from going into the field alone. The list of things that could happen in the woods is long and some of the risks are very real, like breaking a leg. Other risks like mountain lion attack are mathematically possible, but so remote as to be of little concern. Yes, if you see the headline, “Cal Kellogg Eaten By Mountain Lion” in a future issue you have permission to laugh!
I’ve been hunting solo for the past 20 years. My longest and most remote solo trips have been weeklong backpack deer and bear hunting trips into the Yolla Bollies during the archery season. These days I’ll go on solo trips into the El Dorado, Lassen, Tahoe and other National Forrest areas ranging from one to four days long, depending on what I’m hunting.
These trips hold risk, but so do a lot of the other things I do that don’t get a second thought like driving on the freeway and frequenting marinas in rough urban areas at O’Dark Thirty in the morning.
Over the years I’ve reflected a lot on the “what could go wrong” in terms of hunting solo and I’ve done my best to answer each of these possible challenges. First when I’m out in the woods alone, I keep the thought that I have no back up in the front of my mind and I don’t take any unnecessary risks.
For example, I don’t hunt from treestands on solo trips anymore and I try to find ways around excessively rough terrain, even if it means I’ll be hiking further. An extra mile of hiking a safe route is preferable to crossing a treacherous 500 yard wide jumble of rocks on a steep slope where you could reasonable break that leg.
I even extend this line of thinking to my truck. While in the backcountry during the late fall and winter I often encounter roads soupy with mud or frozen solid. If I don’t have the equipment in my truck to get the truck un-stuck, I won’t risk getting it stuck even if that means I’ll have to hike a mile or two or more into my hunting area. Having made those hikes I don’t forget the come along, straps and shovel anymore!
I also carry a chainsaw. Twice in the past two years I’ve had to use the saw to clear down trees across the road when going to and coming from deer hunting areas in stormy weather. Without the saw, I would have been doing some serious backtracking.
Beyond looking at each situation critically with the idea of not getting hurt or stuck or immobilized in some other way I carry a lot of items that might be of use in an emergency. The fanny and Camel Back packs that I wear hunting contain lots of “survival gear.”
In those packs I’ve got a space blanket, a light 6 x 8 foot plastic sheet, 50 waterproof matches, a magnesium fire starter, small first aid kit, medication, two headlamps, GPS with extra batteries, fully charged cell phone (turned off), two energy bars, Leatherman tool, a folding Kershaw hunting/survival knife, three blade Buck pocket knife, parachute cord, police whistle, extra ammunition and a full bladder of water in the Camel Back.
This looks like a lot of stuff, but in reality it packs away nicely and doesn’t weigh too much. Some of this gear is aimed at helping me get found by rescuers and a lot of the other stuff is intended to make spending an unexpected night or nights in the woods safer and more comfortable.
Practice makes perfect and that applies to survival skills too. Knowing that I may have to spend a night in the woods out of necessity, I’ve done it several times over the years just for practice. A couple times I’ve set up a “survival shelter” within yards of my truck on a rainy afternoon after a morning of quail hunting. I’ve started a fire, hunted up a wood supply that would last the night, roasted the quail over the coals and spent a damp, cold and uncomfortable night wrapped up in a space blanket under an improvised plastic roofed lean to.
To some, intentionally spending a night out in the rain sounds crazy, but it has given me confidence and an idea of what to expect. I don’t have to think about how to knot a lean to together with parachute cord. All I have to do is do it because I’ve done it before. That sort of knowledge saves time, energy and limits frustration.
Speaking of rescuers, you always want to leave a detailed trip plan with a responsible person with a concrete return date. Once you give your plan to your contact, you’ve got to stick with the plan. That way if you don’t show up, the rescuers will have a firm starting point and they’ll know what areas you were planning to cover.
If the risks are real, even if I’ve prepared as much as possible for said risk, why take the chance?
For me the reason is multifaceted. For one thing a lot of the time I go hunting during the week when no one is available to tag along with me. I also do a lot of hunting that offers a low probability of success. For example, I’ve been trying to call a bear with a predator call. So far I’ve had zero response and I don’t know many guys willing to invest a bunch of time doing something has a high probability of not paying off like I will.
Being in the woods alone allows me to better tap into what is happening around me and that has always resulted in a better level of success for me. I simply get more shot opportunities and harvest more game when hunting alone.
Perhaps the final piece of the puzzle in my zeal for solo hunting has to do with the risk itself. There is something very basic about going into the wilderness alone where you are responsible for your well being and where each and every decision could have life or death consequences.
When you are in the pitch dark woods deep in the Yolla Bollies armed only with a bow and a bear starts ripping apart a fallen tree looking for an insect appetizer less than a hundred yards from your tarp shelter, a switch is throne and something inside of you changes. Especially when you illuminate said bear in the beam or your headlamp and yell at him only to have him pay you zero attention.
“He knows I’m here, but doesn’t care. If he gets aggressive when do I shoot,” your mind races as you kneel at the edge of the tarp, arrowed knocked, ready to rock and roll…
Going solo and over coming the inherent challenges and risks is profoundly satisfying to me. I accept and own the risks. I would never advise anyone to do what I do, but I know there are plenty of guys out there that do and feel much the same as I do. When they read this piece they too will feel a jolt of excitement deep inside that can’t be described, only experienced.
As a hunter I’ve always been wiling to go to the edge and beyond. When you meet someone of a similar mindset it’s funny how quickly you can recognize it in them.
For many hunting is exclusively a group activity where camaraderie is a key component of overall success. I get it and I enjoy hunting with buddies, but for some of us hunting in its purest form means going into the natural world alone.
I’ve long said that when I go into the woods hunting alone, I’m not hunting a target species or animal as much as I’m hunting myself…testing myself against the game and the environment. For some, the highest level of success can only come when the challenge is intertwined with risk.Back To Reports