Lessons From My First Solo Backpacking Trip On The Trans-Catalina Trail
On my first visit to Santa Catalina, a sparsely populated 22-mile island located 22 miles off Southern California’s coast, I knew I would return one day to hike through it.
Granted, I didn’t see much on that inaugural visit other than the seaside town of Avalon; one of only two on the entire island. But the sweeping ocean views were enough to win me over. When I stopped in the visitor center before boarding my ferry back, I found a map of the Trans-Catalina Trail, and instantly longed to complete it.
The Trip Details
At 38.5 official miles, the Trans-Catalina isn’t the longest or most remote of backpacking undertakings. As it winds its way up and down the island, though, roughly 10,000 feet of total elevation is gained; no easy stroll with several days-worth of food and camping gear on your back. Since I had never done a multi-day backpacking trip alone, it seemed like the perfect maiden adventure.
I immediately started researching the specifics of the hike, but didn’t link it all together until months later. Unlike large park systems and backcountry expanses where you can wild camp, the island has strict measures to minimize human impact on the local environment. There are only five campgrounds, all of which need to be reserved well in advance through the Catalina Island Conservancy.
Although people can technically complete the hike in two long days if they needed (or wanted) to, I settled on the recommended mellow pace; four nights and five days. A tempo that grants plenty of time to soak in viewpoints and long lunch breaks. To spice it up, I’d kayak-camp along the coastline back to my starting point. Paddling from one town to another would be a two-day, 13-mile jaunt with agreeable weather. Nothing too extreme, but just enough of an extra challenge to round off the adventure.
Takeaways & Lessons Learned
In short, the trip was everything I hoped for. I lucked out with (mostly) perfect weather, and no major hiccups. As with any journey, though, there’s always something to learn and improve upon.
Here are three top takeaways from my first solo backpacking adventure.
1. Do Your Homework
It was sometime before midnight on my second night on the Trans-Catalina trail, at Little Harbor Campground. I unzipped my tent and stepped outside to pee, and heard something breathing close by. Something big.
It was late, and dark, and I was mildly delirious in the way hikers often are after a long day hiking in the sun, so I questioned what I was hearing. Was it a palm tree blowing in the wind? Did someone pitch their tent next to mine after I fell asleep? When I heard the breathing again, louder this time, there was no doubt that a large, panting animal was in very close vicinity to me.
Of course I ran back to my tent. Of course my heart was pounding. I tucked myself under my sleeping bag for a few moments to compose myself, and thought through what I knew about the island’s wildlife. Bears? No way. Horses? Probably not, I know horse sounds. Bison? Very probable. But at a campground this close to the beach? Catalina Island is, in fact, known for its bison herd. It was the only option that made any sense.
Soon enough, I heard the presumed bison inching closer, snout eventually grazing my tent fly. I was convinced I had unintentionally provoked it somehow, and it was out for revenge. My first response was to think of safety protocols for bison encounters. Do I make lots of noise like with a black bear? Do I play dead? Were bison even prone to attacking? Alas, I failed to research anything about the animals, other than to keep your distance from them.
Well, nothing happened, and the bison wandered off. I barely slept, though, and woke up surrounded by large dung piles, confirming my suspicions. When leaving the campsite, I passed a sign that warned me of the resident bison.
Although my experience is a light-hearted one, it could have ended differently. Sure, Catalina Island is hardly an isolated backpacking location. But just because it’s not tucked deep in a mountain range doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do proper pre-planning to ensure your trip goes smoothly. There’s always something to learn about a location before you immerse yourself in it. From the weather patterns and the availability of water, to potential hazards and yes, the wildlife encounters. To be a responsible backpacker is to do your homework before embarking on a trip.
So, know your route and download offline maps. Research permits and parking and campsites. Let someone know your itinerary and anticipated return date. Reserve what needs to be reserved and start planning your estimated mileage per day. Have a self-rescue plan. You are your own guide and safety net when hiking solo, and it’s imperative to take responsibility for your experience.
2. Pack Light. Then, Repack Even Lighter
When I stepped off the ferry to begin my Catalina Island hike, my pack weighed 48 pounds. If you’re thinking that’s a lot, you’re right!
- A tent
- A down sleeping bag
- An inflatable sleeping pad
- Seven days of food & 3 liters of water
- A couple dry bags for kayaking
- Clothing & rain gear
- A solar charger
- A solar light
- A small battery pack & spare batteries
- A camp chair
- A foam sit pad & more
Every bit of it was felt on the uphillls.
I admit: I’m not the most weight-conscious of backpackers. Other than a lightweight tent, I don’t have a full ultra-light camping setup, so my gear itself — although wonderful! — adds up quickly in weight. I’m also what you might call a persistent snacker, so I tend to pack extra food if I’m being extra active. As wonderful as snacks are, they too, tack onto the load. Creature comforts like chairs and books and small shampoos? I love having them around, but they’re definitely not weightless.
While I thought I did pretty well in taking nothing but the necessities for my Catalina hike, in retrospect, I definitely slipped up on a few things.
That’s why these days, my rule is this: pack, unpack and repack, at least twice. Each time you take a piece of your gear out, question if you can do the trip without it or if there’s an easier solution.
If I took my own advice, I would have no doubt saved several pounds. Non-essentials like my camp chair, solar charger, and book would have been left behind. Instead of carrying extra snacks and meals for my last days, I could have easily restocked at hike’s end in the town of Two Harbors before setting out for my paddle back to Avalon. My water stops could have also been planned better, saving pounds in water weight by rationing.
Although it seems like cutting ounces here and there doesn’t affect much, a heavy pack greatly affects the way you move. Keeping it lightweight not only impacts your agility and hiking, but creates less overall wear and tear on your body. It’s a lesson worth learning and re-learning each time you set out on a backpacking trip.
3. Take Accountability For Your Safety
Things are always clearer in hindsight. Something you should have packed, should have researched, should have planned for – it all becomes pretty obvious once you have time to properly process a trip.
I was fortunate not to have any major hiccups during my Catalina Island hike, but I did forget two critical things.
First: a first aid kit! There were a couple of moments where a band aid would have really come in handy; a small cut here, a slightly larger cut there. Luckily, there were no emergencies. But the fact that I forgot to pack such an essential piece of solo-adventure gear was pretty embarrassing.
Second big error: not learning how to self-rescue in a kayak before heading out on the open ocean. When I pushed off from Two Harbors beach, I was met with windier than ideal weather and a small swell. As a lifelong water enthusiast, I felt comfortable enough with the conditions, but what if something had gone wrong? Looking back, it was unwise to start paddling along an unknown coastline with no self-rescue plan, and no satellite communication device.
The truth is, in every wild place and at any given time, there are countless things out of your control that can go wrong. No matter what your recreation of choice is, it’s vital to be prepared. Not just for the best-case scenario, but for the worse one.
Read about your route, and anticipate potential dangers. Learn about self-rescue in any capacity you can, even if it’s just a basic wilderness first aid course. Be the kind of outdoor recreationist that you would want to count on. And above all, ensure you have all the necessary tools at your disposal, and the knowledge to make educated decisions. Especially when hiking alone.
I recommend packing these essentials in your pack first:
- First aid kit
- Small knife
- Headlamp with extra batteries
- Sun protection & rain protection
- Paper map & compass (and know how to use them)
- Emergency foil blanket
- Personal locator beacon or satellite communication device
- Extra food
Why Backpack Alone?
Recreating in the outdoors with your friends and loved ones is pretty neat, but completing a solo adventure or backpacking trip is an empowering, freeing experience like no other. It’s one of the greatest exercises in decision-making, self-reliance, and willpower.
Sure, being alone in a wild, unpredictable environment can be nothing short of terrifying at times. But once you lean into the occasional discomfort and fear, you’ll find that the act of setting out into unknown territory by yourself builds self-trust, courage, and confidence that translates into all aspects of life.
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.