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On Unlearning Fear and Hiking Solo

Society has taught women to be fearful, and for many, this feeling follows them on trail. But overcoming such fears can bring a whole new level of joy — both on trail and in life | By Sandra Saathoff

I belong to a few online women’s hiking groups, and every few months, some form of this question is posed:

I am planning a solo backpacking trip/day hike and my person (partner, father, mother, brother, friend) doesn’t want me to go alone. They are very concerned for my safety and now I don’t know if I should go. What should I do?

As women, most of us hear these messages of fear from the moment we’re old enough to take them in. The world is dangerous, and it’s not safe for you here as a woman. Someone wants to hurt you. You need protection. You are not smart enough or savvy enough to manage the risks associated with living.

It doesn’t really matter where we are: in the city alone, in the forest alone, buying a home alone, traveling alone. The message is that, alone, we should feel afraid. Sometimes it’s said in those words and sometimes the words are more subtle.

Water Crossing. Photo by Rika Ream.jpg
Fording a river along trail. Photo by Rika Ream.

Be home before 11 p.m. Are you sure you want to wear that dress? Why don’t you see if a friend can go with you? Did you remember your pepper spray?

Much of the time, these words come from a place of caring, and the reality is that there are risks in life, regardless of where we are, regardless of who we are. Safety in life is never guaranteed.

It’s not that there aren’t risks to going outside. We all know there are, even though, statistically speaking, the wilderness is one of the safer places to be. The vast majority of people we meet on the trail are kind and are out having their own adventure, just like we are. The risks that do exist are worth taking for the life-altering rewards they bestow.

For me, and for many women I know, being alone in the wilderness fills our souls. 

For me, and for many women I know, being alone in the wilderness fills our souls. Walking up a trail in the forest, breathing in the smell of firs and listening to birds calling to each other opens a space for me to breathe deeper and slower, to shed the hustle and stress of work and home life and to focus on the simplicity of getting up the next mountain. Hiking allows me to be who I am — even to discover who I am — without feeling like the whole world is watching.

Being in the wilderness provides challenges that build my skills, strength and understanding of what I’m capable of. When I have to figure out how to negotiate a tricky water crossing and take care of my basic food, water and shelter needs, I learn confidence that I can apply to challenges in my daily life. I may even decide to jump into new opportunities that utilize my skills and talents.

Sandra. Photo by Rika Ream.jpg
Photo by Rika Ream.

When I need to keep moving even when I’m tired or keep climbing even when my knees hurt, I learn persistence and grit and how to overcome a difficult situation. When I get back to “real life” and things don’t go like I’d hoped, I can remember the lessons I learned in the wilderness and find a way through. These are the kinds of life lessons we all need to learn and why it’s so important to many of us to be out there.

There are tips for staying safe in the wilderness — regardless of who you are.

Have a plan and share it with someone you trust. A map with the detailed route, an expected return time and an agreement about what happens if you miss your check-in time.

  • Remember to pack your Ten Essentials. These are the basics for managing the most common misadventures you could have on trail.
  • Consider having a satellite communication device in case things don’t go according to plan. Many loved ones feel better if they know you have the ability to get in touch if needed. Some devices allow your loved one to track you on your adventures.
  • Pack appropriately for the location and season you’re hiking and be alert to trail and weather conditions. If you’re headed to the mountains or the Olympic Peninsula, it might rain even in summer; if there’s ice or snow, have appropriate footwear. You can always check for a recent trip report detailing conditions.
  • Keep your ears open. Our sense of hearing often allows us to be aware of things before we can see them — whether that’s a bike flying down the trail behind you or a moose or bear tromping through the bushes.
  • Trust your gut and act on it. If something feels wrong, be willing to change your plan for the day and take actions that keep you safe. I have, more than once, switched trailheads because of an encounter that happened where I planned to hike that day. It’s annoying, but I still had a good hike and I went home safely.

Getting outdoors solo can be one of the most empowering things a woman can do for herself. If this is something you want to do, I would strongly encourage you to plan your next adventure and enjoy the beautiful areas on this planet where we all live.

Words Matter

One of the most wonderful things about being out on trail is connecting with other hikers. If you’re chatting with someone you don’t know, in particular a solo hiker, it’s good to keep in mind that your intended message might not always come through. Here are just a few things you might say on trail and how they might be unintentionally uncomfortable for a stranger — as well as suggestions on what you might say instead.

Example 1

  • What you say: You're brave to be out here alone.
  • What we hear and think: You're assuming we shouldn't be here. It inspires fear and, depending on the tone, may make us think you are a threat to our safety.
  • How we might reply: "Thanks so are you." or "It's a good day for a hike."
  • Helpful things to say instead: "Great day for a hike!"

Example 2

  • What you say: "How far are you going?" or "Where are you camping tonight?"
  • What we hear and think: You're asking us to tell you our plan. It's better for us to not share that with you.
  • How we might reply: Oh, we'll see. There's plenty of daylight left. (Which makes it seem like I don't have a plan. I do. I just don't want to share it.)
  • Helpful things to say instead: "There's a lovely overlook ahead if you're going that way." or "There's a water crossing ahead. But there's a good log just to the right." or "There's a great stream soon if you need water. Have a nice day!"
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of Washington Trails magazine. Support trails as a member WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.