Is it smart (or safe) for women to go hiking alone?

Photo by Brandon Scherzberg
Photo by Brandon Scherzberg

“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,” writers Karen Somers in her article “Should Women Hike Solo? Absolutely, Says One Trail Veteran,” published by The Adventure Post back in 2011. And there it was amid my morning screen-fed reading—another eloquent punch in a fight that never seems to find resolution: is it smart for a woman to hike alone? I’ve spent one too many evenings arguing with my own parents over the dinner table about the same topic. And still, years later and hopefully a little wiser, I still don’t know which side of the debate I’m on.

Like Somers points out, statistically, when she thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail solo in 1998 at the age of 26, she was more in danger driving to the trailhead than at any point while walking through the woods. And yes, statistically, you’re safer in a state or national park than you are in major metropolitan areas—but I can’t help feeling like statistics can’t define any one person’s experience. Do they ever?

Just like anything we do, hiking alone involves a calculated risk—we asses the facts and take a chance. Most likely, a solo hike results in a sensory experience and a great memory. Then there are the risks: a bad fall, a debilitating injury, a sexual assault, an animal attack, a wrong turn. They’re risks some female hikers don’t deem worthy of the solo experience.

“Your partners are often your best rescuers if a situation arises,” says professional skier Caroline Gleich, who often treks through the backcountry to ski. “Say you fall and sprain your ankle and you’re three hours from the trailhead. It’s going to be faster for your partner to help you out than for you to wait for search and rescue to reach you and help you out.”

California state park ranger Dale Kinney agrees, going on to explain that women should be wary of hiking alone in urban regional parks for a number of reasons.

“We did have a murder here 15 years ago that’s still unsolved. A young woman was murdered in a state park. But each park is different,” Kinney explains. “If you’re on the John Muir trail, that’s a whole different environment than being in an urban park. You’re not going to get those people that live on the margins of society. But you could also say that out in the depths of Los Padres [National Forest], or some of the bigger national forests, you have the marijuana growers who can be dangerous. You never know what you’re going to accidentally come across out in the deep country.”

Kinney, who patrols state parks along the central coast of California, says that state parks are often frequented by men who are on parole but who want to avoid living in a halfway house.

“We have a couple of guys in the state parks that we go around and around with and they have little camps out there,” he says. “We’re constantly re-arresting them. So just know that those people are out there. It gets worse the closer you are to urban areas. Like near Los Angeles you have the San Bernardino mountains—there’s no way that a woman should be hiking alone there. It’s too close to too many [people].”

But are women really at any more risk than men in these situations? No way, says Somers, who goes on to write: “A woman hiking alone is no different than a man hiking alone. If you’re hiking alone, whether male or female, you just have to exercise a few common sense precautions.” And take these facts into consideration: While one in four college women report surviving rape or attempted rape, only three percent of men say the same. However, between 62 percent and 84 percent of survivors knew their attacker, making it more likely a woman will be raped by a hiking partner than a stranger.

“We have had a couple of sexual assaults that were by known people,” agrees Kinney. “Women went out with people they’d just met and didn’t know them that well, and it’s ended up in a sexual assault. Women should be careful with who they partner up with, as that’s a concern as well.”

But for some women, the benefits of a solo hike far outweigh the risks. For Anh Thai, a hiker who’s reached the summits of multiple peaks by herself (including Gannett in Wyoming), being alone is a non-negotiable aspect of her experience.

“Don’t let the idea of being alone hinder your potential,” she says. “Nature is the ideal setting to work through life’s issues because it enhances self-awareness, self-confidence, and trust.”

For others, there are added benefits to the safety of hiking with partners. “You bond so much more after an epic day than you do over dinner or drinks,” says Gleich. “Those who sweat together stay together! And I’m horribly unmotivated by myself.”

What it boils down to is not a question of “is it smart” or “should a woman hike alone,” but of “what precautions should a woman take should she choose to hike alone?” And, like Somers said, common sense goes a long way in the woods. Always leave a detailed plan of where you’re going and when you expect to return, and make sure someone knows your itinerary so that if something happens, they’ll know when and where to point a search party. Equip yourself with a cell phone and an extra battery pack or a satellite phone, keeping in mind there’s often weaker cell service on the trail (Gleich uses a GPS tracker with an SOS button). Bring extra food, water, and layers to stay hydrated and warm in the event of an accident. Stay alert by leaving your iPod at home, and trust your instincts—if you think you’re being followed, be prepared. Kinney suggests packing pepper spray and taking a few basic self-defense courses and wilderness-first-aid courses before you go hiking solo, and to make noise while hiking so you don’t startle a rattlesnake or bear. Most important, trust your gut—then make your decision and go.

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