Which aren’t really all that different than hiking safety tips for men, but there are some unique considerations for women that I’d like to talk about. Specifically hiking solo, self-defense options, and dealing with the occasional flak you get from people who think a woman in the woods is worse than a man in Sephora. But let’s cover the basics first:
The bulk of the work you’ll do to bolster your safety will be done before you even leave the house. That old expression about an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure applies so well here, and we are lucky to live at a time where we have so many resources at our fingertips. So while you’re getting your pack together, let someone else know where you’re headed and roughly when you’ll be back (overestimate a little so you don’t worry them needlessly and don’t feel rushed), and then get on the three Ps (preparing, planning, and packing: the foundation for your safety strategy). You may even want to write out checklists or start getting ready well before your trip so you feel certain you haven’t forgotten anything.
Know before you go:
- The weather
- Route conditions
- The road
- The wildlife situation
- Sunrise/sunset times
Weather is one of the single most important factors that can make or break a hike. Some people don’t mind a light drizzle, some love snow, others will only hike under blue skies. So first: know yourself and your preferences and tolerance, then compare that to your gear—for example if you have Reynaud’s syndrome and don’t have gloves, don’t go out if it’s going to be cold. I know that sounds obvious but I see a lot of unprepared folks out there.
Check the temperature, wind, and precipitation for the area you’re planning to go to—not just on the day of your hike but the days before and after. Is a storm moving in, or on its way out? Will it snow overnight, covering the trail and leaving you in need of a GPS track?
Mountain-forecast.com gives you not just the weather forecast for the area you’ll be in but also the weather at specific elevations. The difference in temperature from the base of the mountain to its summit, depending on its size, can have you in everything from a tank top to a parka.
The forecast will determine how many layers you wear and bring, if you need waterproof clothing, if you need snow travel gear, if you decide to go out at all. Please remember there’s no shame in calling a hike off if the forecast is too blustery for your comfort level or on-hand gear. Weather is a huge contributor to most search missions and fatalities; knowing your limits is a key ingredient in getting to hike another day.
Route conditions refer to the trail itself, if it’s well-groomed or full of blowdowns, if it’s clearly marked or a mystery bushwhack toward points unseen, if there are water crossings, patches of snow, scrambling, or crevasses. When you start researching route conditions, look for recent trip reports, also called beta, and read as many as you can. If there aren’t many reports for the time of year you’re considering, go a full year back just to get a feel for typical seasonal conditions (for example, when the snow usually melts out or what the river crossings are like).
I would include avalanche danger here as well. Does the route pass through any known chutes? Do you know what to look for to assess risk? If this is a concern in your area, consider taking an AIARE course or stay in no-risk areas until you’re more versed in avalanche territory. There are a couple trails near me that are easy walks in the summer but every February like clockwork, a slab releases and we have a fatal incident.
Route conditions will determine your footwear: rocky, uneven terrain where you’ll need the ankle support of a boot, or well-groomed, smooth trails where a trail runner would suffice? Gaiters and Gore-Tex for water crossings, or bare legs and low socks?
Route conditions will also help you plan how long a hike may take. Your pace on a well-marked trail will be much faster than one where you need to navigate, bushwhack, or scramble.
For more complex climbs on glaciated mountains, route conditions will include everything from having a map or GPS track to finding out about crevasses, seracs, and rock or icefall. Most of these sorts of climbs don’t involve any sort of trail and change from year to year, so studying the route with your partners beforehand and looking for hazards and obstacles is important.
The Road to the trail can be anything from a smooth paved highway to a potholed mess. If you have a high-clearance and/or 4WD vehicle you’re probably okay driving to any trailhead, but if you have a low-clearance or 2WD there are some places that will be off-limits. This can be a dealbreaker so make sure you do your research. Apps like AllTrails include road conditions in their trip reports.
Wildlife: From the tiny (bugs, birds, snakes, lizards, squirrels) to the huge (bear, cougar, goats, deer, elk), you are bound to see some animals in your travels. Look up info on your hike and find out if you need bear spray or bug spray, and as tempting as it is, please don’t feed these little cuties. There are usually a group of jays or chipmunks that hang around popular destinations who have become so habituated to humans that they likely have no idea how to forage for their own food anymore and make a living posing for pictures in exchange for Clif Bars and Sour Patch Kids. We’ll talk more about how to deal with each of these guys in the Wildlife and Self-Defense sections but here’s a quick look:
- Cougars: Make noise, get big, flap your coat or wave your poles. Do not run. Do not turn away. If it’s safe to do so, back away very slowly.
- Bears: Make a little noise as a warning so you don’t startle them, walk at a normal clip, semi-ignore the bear. Some people hike with bear bells on.
- Deer and elk: They will run from you.
- Mountain goats: Give them a wide berth, get big with your coat and poles. Stay still until they move on.
- Owls and birds of prey: If you have a small dog, a leash is mandatory. Owls have been known to swoop and peck at beanies and ponytails, wave them off with poles but seriously this like never happens. But it has. But not often.
- Bugs: From tiny gnats to hornets nests, pesky mosquitos to slugs, the woods are teeming with winged and many-legged creepy-crawlies. Bug spray and sun hoodies can be great for the muggy early summer days, and keep Benadryl in your first aid kit if you have bite allergies.
- Chipmunks, squirrels, marmots, pika, raccoons, mice, other rodents: Cute as they are, keep in mind rabies. And please don’t feed them people food.
- Snakes and lizards: Leave them alone, keep your distance.
Sunrise and sunset times vary wildly throughout the year, and being aware of exactly how much daylight you have is key to a safe day. Keep in mind when calculating your daylight time that it gets dark in the woods the moment the sun sets; there’s no real twilight beneath the treeline. It’s a good idea to always have a headlamp in your pack just in case, but really—just looking up that one bit of info before you set out is really important.
What can I do to stay safe hiking alone?
This question gets asked by more women than men, and the overall perception still seems to be that women in the woods are in more danger than men in the woods. There is no reason for this other than gender bias: we are all the same when it comes to unexpected weather, rolled ankles, avalanches, bears, and getting lost; the difference is the assumption that we can’t handle it. The other difference is men don’t worry as much about being approached by men.
Aside from the above prep work, things you can do while you’re out there include:
- Carry some form of self-defense
- Be aware of your surroundings
- Listen to your intuition
- Stay on the trail
- Don’t initiate a conversation with a stranger
- Have a way to call out (phone, satellite communicator)
- Start soloing on crowded trails until you’re comfortable
- Go on weekends and nice weather days when more people are out
- Know your skill level and don’t take unnecessary risks
Self-defense: The usual suspects in this area are bear spray, stun gun, knife, or pistol. All have their pros and cons and are further explored in the section on self-defense. Even carrying a rock to throw can help you feel safer and ward off a cougar or aggressive goat. And any of those things work on human wildlife as well, though statistically speaking, you’re safer in nature than anywhere else. But that doesn’t mean don’t carry protection, it just means don’t let the fear prevent you from going out there.
Awareness: Ditch the earbuds and pay attention to sights, sounds, smells, and be looking for little landmarks and features that will help orient you on your way back. Listen for animals in the brush, footsteps approaching, voices. Look around, eyes constantly sweeping the area, not just at your feet, look behind you now and then. Not in a paranoid way, just in an aware way. The last thing you want is to be caught off-guard by someone or something approaching you. When I was new to the woods, I used to say I liked the quiet of it, but the more time I spend out there, the more I like the sound of it. The chirps and ribbits, the sound of the wind in the trees, the music of creeks and waterfalls, the meeps of pika and the whistle of marmots. But while all of these things are lovely background noise, they also provide a lot of information about what’s happening around me.
Intuition: I’m not saying men don’t have great instincts or that all women are finely tuned clairvoyance machines, but we do have a special gift when it comes to gut feelings and “just knowing” things, and the mountains are a great place to put that to use. If something feels “off,” stop and really think about what it is and why, and whether it’s just random anxiety or if it’s your intuition alerting you to real danger. I have heard plenty of folks turn back just because they “weren’t feeling it” and there’s no shame in that. We tend to develop those spidey senses the more time we spend out there, and come to rely on them as a tool—not as a replacement for safety gear of course, just as an addition to, but an important one.
Staying on trail: Not just from an LNT standpoint, but following existing trails decreases your odds of injury and getting lost, and increases your likelihood of being found should you need to be rescued. Less branches to gouge you, things to trip over, animals to disturb. If you’re not used to hiking alone, staying on trails where you’re bound to see others is smart and will make you feel more secure.
Don’t talk to strangers: Back to the intuition thing for a second. I have met some of the best people and have had some of the most interesting conversations with people on mountains, and I frequently say hello and ask questions or share summit snacks and photo swaps; I don’t mean to sound unfriendly or antisocial—what I mean is be cautious, and if there aren’t many people out, and someone who seems a little weird is walking toward you, it’s ok to pass by them with merely a nod. If you have to ask someone something, maybe wait for a family, a couple, or another woman. I’m no man-hater but if you’re concerned with safety, initiating a conversation as a lone female with a lone male has the potential to get weird. Don’t encourage weird.
Communication: Having a way to call out will help you feel safer, whether it’s your cell phone or a satellite communication device. You may never wind up needing to call for help, but having the option does wonders for your peace of mind, and could make all the difference if you ever do need to send out an SOS. There was a time not too long ago before cell phones when hikers just hoped for the best, but with everything available to us nowadays there’s no reason not to bring with you a way to call out.
Go when and where it’s crowded: If you’re nervous about hiking alone, hike alone where there are other people. Go to the most popular, family-friendly trails on a nice weekend day and you’ll start wishing for more solitude. If you have an overly-anxious family, it can help them to know you’re not alone alone.
Know your skill level and don’t take unnecessary risks: Let’s say you’re alone, you’re somewhere you’ve never been before, you haven’t seen any other people for a couple hours, and you’ve packed well and planned for the weather and are feeling confident and ambitious, but you come around a corner and see the summit block, and pause, and frown, as it appears to be a scramble a little beyond your comfort zone. You keep going because you know sometimes things look steep from far away that aren’t once you get up on them, but once you get there, you see there’s no obvious route and you feel a little uneasy. But the summit is less than a hundred feet away! You take out your phone to check AllTrails to see what previous trip reports say, but there’s no signal. You wonder how you missed this in your research. You take your pack off and set it down while you mull over the fact that you’ve just walked several miles and might not even summit, and decide to climb a little higher and see how you feel. But maybe the rocks are a little damp, making them slick and hard to get any purchase on. Or maybe there’s some exposure that gets your vertigo going. You don’t have a helmet, and your boots are a little clunky on the slabby granite. This could play out several ways, and only you can make the right call for yourself. But you can see how really understanding what you’re getting into is a huge part of being a safe hiker. Maybe you don’t have vertigo and there are plenty of holds, maybe it’s a low-consequence scramble, where even if you fell you’d be fine, and you decide to go for it and you make it and feel amazing afterwards, and it helps level up your scrambling game and confidence and is a turning point for you. Or you take a couple stabs at it, slip both times, and your gut is saying it’s a bad idea, loudly, and you realize even if you got up there’s no way you could get down, and you decide to turn back. Only you can make these decisions but being prepared will help you avoid surprises like this as you learn what level of risk you are and are not comfortable with.
The Ten Essentials
I’d be remiss to not mention first aid and the ten essentials in an article about safety. Click those links to read more in depth about each, but in the meantime here are ten things you should always carry with you on every hike:
- Navigation: map, compass, altimeter, GPS device, personal locator beacon (PLB) or satellite messenger
- Headlamp: plus extra batteries
- Sun protection: sunglasses, sun-protective clothes, and sunscreen
- First aid: including foot care and insect repellent (as needed)
- Knife: plus a gear repair kit
- Fire: matches, lighter, tinder and/or stove
- Shelter: carried at all times (can be a light emergency bivy)
- Extra food: Beyond the minimum expectation
- Extra water: Beyond the minimum expectation
- Extra clothes: Beyond the minimum expectation
Normalize Hiking For Women
And what about the flak you might get from folks for hiking solo, or hiking at all? Depending on where you are and the people around you, hiking can be anything from just a part of life or you going out into the wilderness to die, and you may need to do some reassuring or insisting that you’ll be okay. Being a thoughtful planner, thoroughly preparing, and packing all the right things is going to earn you the reputation of someone who is a safe hiker and help perpetuate the idea that we are fine out there.
And feel free to flip others a little sass when they imply that it’s unsafe for women to hike: share assault statistics of the nearest city compared to the nearest mountain, remind them that women are just as safe—or just as unsafe—as men in nature (I once told someone that avalanches don’t check for ovaries), or tell them we do all sorts of things men do nowadays, like drive, and vote. But what’s really going to help us in the big picture is the repetition. The more people that see women out there, the more women will know it’s safe and acceptable to do so, and the more women that will get out there, in a perfect positive feedback loop. You being a safe and smart hiker is normalizing hiking for all women, it’s paving the way for future generations of mountain women, and it’s delivering our message loud and clear: we’ve got this.
Wendy Harrington is a California native who has lived in a small town at the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Washington state since 2001. Her love of trail running and peakbagging has led her to summit all five Washington volcanoes, climb to the high points of three states, and put nearly a thousand miles a year on her boots. Her loves include ridgelines, saddles, granite, one-day pushes on big mountains, anything volcanic, long solo days, and objectives that push limits and test endurance.