“Do you want company?”
I was in a fairly remote area and saw that there was someone about to intersect the trail I was on. As I got closer I saw it was a man and that he kept looking in my direction, so I slid the canister of bear spray from the side pocket of my pack to my right hand, just in case. I’ll admit that I was acting, as I often do, on the assumption that women need to be on guard around men, but it’s easier to put a weapon down later than it is to try to reach one when you’re being attacked. Anyway. There was no attacking. What there was, was me walking fast and him stopping right next to me, and saying “Do you want company?”
My first thought was why would anyone in their right mind who wanted company drive fifty miles out of town to a trail no one uses and clearly be making efforts to keep moving and not socialize; my second was that I was going to wind up having to spray him. I have no poker face so my aversion was probably apparent as I thought “yeah I’m out here in the middle of nowhere because I like people so much.” I threw a curt “nope” over my shoulder while not breaking stride.
And then spent the next two miles wondering if I should have been nicer, or if I should have given him some free info about not saying things like that to women who are alone on the trail, or if I should have blown past him without a word. I could have said no thanks, have a good one, or even stopped to share a moment marveling at the pretty blue sky. But every once in a while, the disdain of decades of unwanted approaches comes out in one venomous flesh-searing glare, and some poor soul gets to feel like he did something wrong. It’s terrible for the nice guys out there, but they must know by now that the non-nice guys have ruined it for the rest of them on a grand scale.
Can women hike alone?
Yes, a resounding yes, and they should.
Everyone should experience the incredible things that happen when you spend long days alone in the wilderness. Being a woman shouldn’t hold you back, ever, with this or anything else. If anyone tries to convince you otherwise, consider if they are someone who is trying to lift you up and help you grow, or someone who is trying to keep you down and control you.
Statistically speaking, you’re less likely to be assaulted on a trail than you are in regular life, and most trail crime happens in the parking lot, not hours away (thank goodness most criminals are lazy). What you’re more likely to encounter on the trail is the friendly-yet-creepy guy who sees a solo female and assumes that means he can swoop in and interrupt her reverie. This is a not-too-distant relative of the guys who lurk around on hiking social media pages looking for vulnerable young ladies under the guise of finding hiking partners. Striking the balance between being aware and being paranoid is paramount to your enjoyment of being out in the wilderness. I put creepers in the same category as wild animals: be prepared but don’t let the fear stop you from enjoying your day. And some ways to do that are:
- Carry some form of self-defense
- Let people know where you’re going and when you’ll be back
- Be aware of your surroundings
- Listen to your intuition
- Stay on 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
- Beforehand, research trail/terrain conditions and assess risk
- Beforehand, research the animal situation
Ultimately it’s going to come down to your comfort zone, but there is no reason, unless you need partners for roped travel, that you can’t adventure by yourself.
The sad thing about where we’re at with stigma and bias is that many people—male and female alike—have it in their heads that solo women hikers are sitting ducks. There’s this damsel-in-distress assumption that we aren’t capable, that it’s unsafe, that we aren’t strong enough, that we are asking for it if we go wandering around out there alone without a big strong man to save us. If I could change one thing in the hiking community it would be to eradicate this whole belief system and empower women to get out there alone.
- Can women hike alone? Yes.
- Should women hike alone? Yes.
- Should women be a little extra cautious? Yes, but not to the point where the precautions steal your dreams.
I have to say, standing on top of Mt. Adams alone was in many ways far more satisfying than standing on top of the other Washington volcanoes with my partners. Because when I said “I did it,” it was me and me alone, and while the absence of the camaraderie made it a little quieter, the presence of my solitude made it profound, and gave me a boost of confidence the likes of which you don’t get with a group. It becomes your very own thing, and there’s no one that can give you that gift but you.
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.