Staying Safe When Hiking Alone


"No American bats an eye in our modern age when women shop alone, drive alone or eat alone. But hike alone, and you are most assuredly going to turn heads and acquire unsolicited lectures." These words were written by Karen Somers, who hiked the AT solo at age 26, and we couldn't say it any better.

 

Somers goes on to write that even after marrying another hiker, she still prefers to hike solo:

 

"As much as I love hiking with my husband and friends, I see more, hear more and remember more when I’m alone. Without the distraction of another person, I become more in tune with sounds, sights, smells … all the delightful sensory experiences of the wilderness fill the mind and I am truly free. On my AT solo hike, I discovered how to get in touch with my own intuition and my spirit. I found, ultimately, to trust the world, other people and my own self. The implications of these things color everything I do to this day, creating a deep well-spring of reserves to draw upon. In other words, there is a lot to be gained from hiking alone, girls."

 

Despite those inspiring words, women who hike solo may still have safety concerns. Their parents certainly will. Solo hiking poses challenges for both male and female hikers, but the risks assumed when hiking solo can be reduced by taking appropriate, common sense precautions.


Many non-hikers ask women who thru-hike, including me, if they carry a weapon.  Aside from my little knife brought for food prep, the answer is NO.  And most definitely no for taking a gun. The risk of accident alone when carrying a gun, to yourself and others, is not worth it. Additionally, all evidence shows that when threatened by someone, a woman with a gun is more likely to have the gun taken and turned against them. Even security guards have their guns taken from them at alarming rates.

 

Male hikers are not asked if they carry a gun as often as women. Why? Perhaps it is because the NRA and others claim guns are great equalizers between men and women. In a 2013 speech, the NRA's Wayne LaPierre said, “the one thing a violent rapist deserves to face is a good woman with a gun.” It's a powerful soundbite, but no scientific study has ever demonstrated that the risk of becoming victim to a crime, any crime, is decreased by gun ownership. In fact, study after study has shown that owning a gun makes women in particular more likely to become victims of gun violence. The Atlantic examined this unique and overlooked danger to women, and the myth of guns providing self-defense has been covered recently by theGuardian  and The Los Angles Times.

 

If you are still nervous about traveling alone, take pepper spray at most. And absolutely never use your pepper spray on a bear. It will make them angry and they will be more likely to become aggressive toward you or other hikers once it wears off.  See the section on animal safety for more information.


Serious Injury & Debilitating Illness

The SPOT Gen3
The SPOT Gen3

Statistically, you are in more danger from other people when at home than on the Trail. But if you have an accident or get sick at home, it is much easy to get the help you need. In the backcountry, a partner is your best rescuer. They can react, provide immediate assistance, or fetch emergency services. This is the greatest threat posed by hiking solo, especially on the Florida Trail. As we keep reiterating, there aren't many people hiking the FT. If you are injured, it might be a long, long wait before someone comes along and finds you.

 

The SPOT satellite messenger has become a common sight on trails and it is a good idea for someone hiking solo. The SPOT is not a phone, but a simple transponder with three buttons: SOS, Check-In, and Help. The SOS buttons summons emergency services anywhere in the world. The check-in button sends emails and text messages to anyone you like letting them know you are okay. The help button let's friends and family know you could use a hand, but aren't having an emergency.


Shaking Someone

Most people you meet on or near the trail are friendly, open, and willing to help you if you need it, but it is always possible you may meet another hiker who you just don't want to be around. Maybe he gives you a bad feeling. Maybe he has an annoying crush and can't take a hint. You'll need to shake them.

 

To shake someone you can slow down, speed up, or make up an excuse to stop or fly. Tell the person you need to dig a hole, are going to stop for a snack, or need to catch up on your miles to meet a friend. If you met in camp, hang around there or take a zero day. Let them leave and put some distance between you. Always make sure to project confidence by speaking assertively and making eye contact.


Hitchhiking

photo by Drozd via Wikipedia
photo by Drozd via Wikipedia

Hitchhiking alone is one of the greatest concerns for solo hikers and especially their parents. Nevertheless, hitchhiking is a part of Trail culture on the PCT and every other National Scenic Trail. I have hitchhiked into towns many times and have yet to be disappointed or scared. Some drivers have turned out to be a little weird at most, but aren’t we all.

 

That said, there is always risk from accepting a ride from a stranger and that risk may be higher for solo women. Here are a few basics for hitching safer:

  • Unless absolutely necessary, hitch with other hikers. If there are no other hikers around when you get to a road crossing, wait for some to show up and hitch with them.
  • Take rides from people who are clearly a part of the outdoor community like day hikers and fishermen.
  • Have a few canned excused ready in case someone who pulls over makes you uncomfortable. Examples: "Oh no, I forgot my trekking poles back where I had lunch," or “Oops made a mistake, thanks for the offer but I gotta go in the other direction.”
  • Once in someone's car, be alert. Ask to be dropped off in a safe place (gas station, convenient store) ASAP if you feel uncomfortable.
  • Keep your phone handy and in sight while riding with someone.

Common Sense Precautions

Whether you are a man or a woman, hiking alone is more risky than hiking with a partner. You will need to exercise common sense precautions:

 

Stranger Danger

  • Trust your intuition when interacting with others.
  • Hitch carefully (see above)
  • Never tell someone you don’t know—on or off the trail—that you’re hiking alone. Have some lies prepped and ready if someone asks. Tell them your lazy friends are dragging ass behind you, or something similar. Your delivery will make the story believable. Make a joke about it, seem annoyed at your friends, whatever, just don't sound nervous or like you're inventing the story on the spot.
  • Be rude!  The first episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt  teaches us the value of being rude. After a religious fundamentalist kidnaps four women and forces them to live in an underground bunker for 15 years, the women are rescued and appear on the Today  show. Matt Lauer asks each of them how they were kidnapped. One says. “I had waited on Reverend Richard at a York Steak House I worked at and one night he invited me out to his car to see some baby rabbits, and I didn’t want to be rude, so, here we are.” Lauer deadpans in response, “I’m always amazed at what women will do because they are afraid of being rude.”  So be rude!
  • Never camp within site of a road or close to a trailhead.

 

Be Prepared

  • Consider bringing a SPOT device (see above). If nothing else it calms anxious family and friends, but its SOS feature summons emergency services if you get injured or become debilitated by sickness.
  • When in town or someplace with cell service, send updates to a specific family member or friend — give them a rough itinerary and tell them when you expect to call/ email again.
  • Do your homework and have a plan: have a resupply plan worked out in advance, have a first-aid kit, have all the right gear, check the weather regularly, prevent and treat blisters, sunburns, etc, use trekking poles, carry Halfmile’s maps and a guidebook, and so forth.
  • Know your physical limitations.
  • Check off everything on our skills checklist.
  • Don't put yourself in high-risk situations: always filter water and don’t take water sources lightly, bring appropriate rain and cold weather gear, hang smellables appropriately at night, avoid hiking during lightning storm, freezing rain, et cetera.