Buddy up on a hike, but only if it's a fit

Never hike alone. That message has been drilled into my head since I first learned about the buddy system as a lowly Tenderfoot.

But the buddy in question can't just be anybody. Over the years, I've discovered that choosing a partner on a wilderness trip is just as important as choosing a destination.

Close friends make the best backpacking partners. A tried and tested relationship, based on understanding and acceptance of each other's flaws and quirks, will only be strengthened by a few days on the trail. And petty disagreements over how far to hike that day or where to camp seldom linger.

Wives and girlfriends (or husbands and boyfriends) sometimes make for good partners, sometimes not. I've seen it go both ways. Sometimes, those relationships are enhanced by being together 24-7 in the backcountry. Other times, you discover negatives about your partner that don't fade away when you return to civilization.

The best hiking partner I've ever had was a college acquaintance who became my best friend once we spent 12 days together hiking from Florence Lake to Mount Whitney. We didn't always hike together and sometimes went hours without speaking. But the relationship blossomed in large part because of the intensity of our shared experience, post-holing across melting snowfields, crossing swollen rivers and fending off hungry bears.

Here's a confession my old Scoutmaster won't like much: I sometimes backpack alone.

Once or twice each summer, I like to head out for a two- or three-day solo trip just to clear my head and be alone with my thoughts.

Backpacking solo is a much different experience than backpacking with a group. It's more intense -- especially when things go bump in the night -- and you have to be confident in your wilderness skills and completely self-reliant.

Certainly, the margin for error is smaller with regard to safety, but there are steps you can take to help mitigate the risks.

Before heading out on any solo trip, I always write a detailed itinerary that includes each day's expected mileage and where I plan to camp each night. I leave one copy with a trusted friend or family member and place another on my car's dashboard where it is easily visible.

Of course, itineraries are worthless in emergency situations if you don't stick to them. So I make a point of not altering plans midstream.

Just because you start alone doesn't mean you remain that way. I've noticed that solo backpackers tend to be more approachable. They're also more likely to actively seek out social interactions. This is especially true on popular trails where folks tend to cluster at certain camping spots.

Lately, I've been giving a lot of thought to the subject of hiking partners.

There's this 68-mile loop in Kings Canyon National Park (unofficially known as the Circle of Solitude) that I've been wanting to tackle for years. But after months of planning, the trip is in doubt because both friends who planned to accompany me have come down with injuries.

(Jim sprained knee ligaments falling through a roof; Steve injured his back while lifting a photograph off a wall in the home of a famous Hollywood producer.)

So now, I must decide whether to postpone the trip until next summer (again) or head out alone for eight days.

I know which choice my Scoutmaster would make.