Hiking safely alone
December 29, 2008 11:13 AM   Subscribe

I, a female-type person, have been inspired by this FPP to hit the road again, but is it safe for me, a female-type person, to go alone?

I'm thinking about hiking the length of the C&O Canal solo (180 miles - I'd probably do it in 2.5 weeks because I'm slow) and camping along the way. I'm not worried about getting lost or injured, because it's a flat tow path the whole way, but I am worried about getting tragically slain by a psychopath.
posted by footnote to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
well, if your phone has gps you could see if there's a way for a family member to keep track of you maybe, and you could always try to contact people at certain times/points along the way. you could also leave a trip itinerary with a nearby relative. as for the safety of the route you're taking, i have no idea, but post back and let us know what you did and how nice it was! i've always wanted to go camping/hiking alone but have similar anxieties about stumbling upon the town in the hills have eyes.
posted by big open mouth at 11:26 AM on December 29, 2008


Contact the National Park Service?
posted by Carbolic at 11:40 AM on December 29, 2008


Let me ask you -- and I'm trying to phrase this gently, even though it keeps on coming out snarky and I don' t know why so apologies if it sounds this -- are you afraid to go about your business at home because you may get slain by a psychopath? I'd bet you're not. Your chances of getting slain in your day-to-day life are vanishingly slim.

They're also slim when you travel. If you think about it, the only reason that you have more of a chance of getting killed by a psychopath when you travel vs. when you're at home is that you are less familiar with where the psychopaths hang out. But that kind of thing can be easily researched online (i.e., check a travelers' guide section for tips like "avoid {blank} street on Friday nights").

Women do have to be aware of things, but -- not to the point that we're too afraid to travel. You'll be fine.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:40 AM on December 29, 2008 [2 favorites]


EmpressC, normally I would agree with that assessment. I'm not at all afraid to travel alone in cities because I understand (more or less) how they work and how to stay and feel safe. It's the great American outdoors that I'm less familiar with, and I don't think it follows the same rules and patterns as urban safety.
posted by footnote at 11:54 AM on December 29, 2008


The world is a much safer place today than it has ever been in recorded history.
posted by Jairus at 12:02 PM on December 29, 2008


It's the great American outdoors that I'm less familiar with, and I don't think it follows the same rules and patterns as urban safety.

Why is that? Again, I hope this isn't coming across as snarky, because this is a sincere question -- the outdoors is just a place, and isn't that different. So I'm just sincerely confused.

If it's any consolation, I've been hesitant to camp alone myself, but my hesitancy is more about, say, bear attacks. :-)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:06 PM on December 29, 2008


I'd agree that the rules are different - by definition there are less people and therefore a smaller number of psychopaths (per square mile) to kill you so you are more safe not less... plan your route carefully, work out roughly where you are going to stop for the night and tell people where you are going and what your route will be before you leave home.

Talk to the local park rangers, explain what you are planning to do and they will tell you anything else you need to be aware of...
posted by koahiatamadl at 12:10 PM on December 29, 2008


And my apologies, because there is some practical advice I've heard -- I have heard that people on the longer hiking trails do tend to watch each others' backs, in the sense that if you had a bad vibe about someone in a campground that the other campers in the area would be more willing to back you up if you came to them for help. And even though it is the wilderness, it's still pretty unlikely that you'd run into trouble -- there just aren't that many psychopaths in the world.

Again, bears and snakes are something else again.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:10 PM on December 29, 2008


Can you borrow someone's dog to take with you? I've done that before when camping alone and it made me feel better even though I knew logically that murderous psychopaths were and are really, really few and far between.
posted by lunaazul at 12:10 PM on December 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


Well, in a city you always have places to go and alternative routes -- I can take a taxi, I can not walk down certain streets in the dark, I can stick around more populated areas. On a camping trip, I'd be pretty much stuck in my tent, alone, with nobody else around, and this fact would be readliy apparent to anyone who wished to take advantage of it. I'm really not a paranoid person -- I just want to be able to gauge the risk of camping alone, which definitely seems qualitatively different to me than staying in a hotel in Paris alone or whatever.
posted by footnote at 12:13 PM on December 29, 2008


Again, bears and snakes are something else again.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:10 PM on December 29 [mark as best answer] [+] [!]


Oh, and I would be disappointed not to encounter some bears and snakes! People scare me more, for whatever reason. I guess it would just be a shame to go out into nature and be slain by a psychopath, but to go out in nature and be slain by a bear would be a much more fitting and exciting end.
posted by footnote at 12:18 PM on December 29, 2008


I'm a woman and go hiking all the time by myself and it's as safe as anything else I guess. I also think that if a psychopath is after you your gender is probably going to make very little difference compared to your general demeanor and smartz. If you're really worried about being stalked then the standard answer is : don't go alone. You'll be safer from bears that way too.

and btw, you should be worried about getting lost on a flat, straight towpath because people wander off trails like that and get lost all. the. time. Even people with a lot of backwoods experience.
posted by fshgrl at 12:39 PM on December 29, 2008


I'm thinking about hiking the length of the C&O Canal solo (180 miles - I'd probably do it in 2.5 weeks because I'm slow) and camping along the way. I'm not worried about getting lost or injured, because it's a flat tow path the whole way, but I am worried about getting tragically slain by a psychopath.
The question you are attempting to answer is "is it safe for me to do a trip of this nature by myself, given that I am female and traveling solo". My answer to that question is "it depends, but probably". What this boils down to is risk reduction: what variables you can control to reduce the probability of an adverse event. Put another way, while you can't completely eliminate the J. Random Weirdo factor, you can both reduce your appeal as a target and give yourself tools to physically contest certain types of attack.

Here are my recommendations:
  1. Purchase and completely read "The Gift Of Fear". This book is rightly acclaimed as one of the best single resources to improve your situational awareness and create a mindset that takes advantage of human reflexes and intuition.
  2. Become at least moderately proficient in an unarmed self-protection method, like Krav Maga or Rape Aggression Defense: both concentrate on practical self-defense.
  3. Understand and, if possible, visit the communities through which your route will take you. Know your ground, and have multiple options for each night so that if your first choice isn't available, you have other options that you've already scouted and know.
  4. File a route plan with both your friends and the C&O Canal administration, so that people know roughly where to look if you don't check in on time. Which leads to...
  5. ...have a contact plan: people that you will contact by certain times or on certain days of your trip, with an emergency plan that kicks in if you don't check in.
  6. Keep your wits about you. This is by far the most important element of traveling safely. Don't let yourself get hungry, thirsty, or tired: when you get hungry, thirsty, or tired, your decisionmaking degrades rapidly. Don't let yourself get wet, cold, or overheated: the same thing applies. Travel well within your capabilities, make sure you always have food, water and a means of sheltering from inclement weather, and keep yourself well-rested.
Will doing all of these things completely eliminate risk? Of course not. But doing even some of these things will reduce the risks you have to deal with (unknown territory, unknown personal abilities) , reduce or eliminate things that are currently unknown to you (what kind of towns am I traveling through, will I know what to do if I get into trouble), and give you confidence (travelling strong and well-rested, knowing your route, having options).
posted by scrump at 12:40 PM on December 29, 2008 [3 favorites]


i've run into young women traveling alone abroad using a spot gps unit, which at least in theory sounds like a good idea. might give you and your family/friends piece of mind if nothing else.
posted by genmonster at 12:48 PM on December 29, 2008


Well, in a city you always have places to go and alternative routes -- I can take a taxi, I can not walk down certain streets in the dark, I can stick around more populated areas. On a camping trip, I'd be pretty much stuck in my tent, alone, with nobody else around, and this fact would be readliy apparent to anyone who wished to take advantage of it. I'm really not a paranoid person -- I just want to be able to gauge the risk of camping alone, which definitely seems qualitatively different to me than staying in a hotel in Paris alone or whatever.

There are very few places in in backcountry where you are going to be totally alone - it the hike seems worth your time and effort there will be other people doing the same route. So you will find people you can tag along with and you have alternatives in terms of where to spend the night etc. You've just got to start planning this thing and find the alternatives available to you...they exist, you just don't know what they are at the moment.
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:18 PM on December 29, 2008


Okay, I am going to be a slightly damp blanket. (Though I'm with you all the way on the appeal of doing a solo hike.)

To a lot of people, solo hiking is and has always been out of the question. Full stop. Risk coupled with potential price of rescue (yes, even for a simple sprain on a basic trail) makes it a costly choice.

I think that the risk trade-off is one that adults should be allowed to make, as the potential payoff from the solitude is also great. But there are some standard precautions you can take.

You should make a deal with someone in the outside world that you'll check in via cell phone or similar on a specific regular schedule to tell them where you are. Give them a map of your planned itinerary as well. My first concern wouldn't be the psychopaths, it'd be a turned ankle or a slip on a muddy stretch that knocks you out. These things happen even on easy hikes. Hiking, camping, boating and swimming alone are all inherently risky activities. The regular check-in is a standard practice; please use it. If you can't, you must at least tell someone the start and end dates of your hike and confirm with them when you've finished.

Find out whether you need to carry noisemakers if bears, etc. are a concern.

Always carry basic signaling tools: a loud whistle, a bright light or flare, a thin emergency mylar blanket; and basic first aid tools.

A small water-resistant solar- or battery-operated radio with weather radio (wx-band) capabilities will be useful, especially during dangerous weather. Listen each morning upon waking.

The suggestion to take along a dog if you're comfortable with them, the dog is well-trained (a must!), and the route allows them is a great one, by the way.

Above all you need to do your homework ahead of time. Get a couple of books on solo hiking/backpacking, find a decent checklist, plan your route out and give a copy to friends, and think about what ifs and your planned responses. On preview, everything that scrump said.

I lost a beloved family friend, a very experienced solo backpacker and kayaker who went on a trip about five years ago and never returned. While it's possible he encountered a bad guy out on the trails somewhere (it does happen), reports of last sightings lead us to strongly believe that he suffered an accident on/near the water while doing things he'd done hundreds of times before. We didn't find out that he was missing until a neighbor noticed he'd been gone from home weeks longer than usual. A smart guy like him should have known to have a check-in buddy. We miss him terribly.
posted by jeeves at 1:23 PM on December 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


Carry a firearm.
posted by vsync at 2:03 PM on December 29, 2008


I have done a lot of hiking and camping as a solo woman. I made plans to through-hike the AT alone several years ago but ended up not going for a variety of reasons, mostly money/life related. As others have said, the AT has a well-known trail culture of people looking out for each other, so I wouldn't really have been alone. Other places I have gone have been places I know well and felt comfortable.

I have only spent a little time on the C&O, but it seems like a nice place where I would imagine I would feel safe. And as others have said, the era of cell phones and GPS has changed things. But, ultimately, you have to find the risk of hiking alone acceptable. I do. But not everybody does.
posted by hydropsyche at 2:16 PM on December 29, 2008


I'm a woman who hikes and camps solo fairly often. All the advice above about taking more care when you're by yourself is good - you really should limit your risks, because the consequences of something relatively minor (like a sprained ankle) are much greater when there's nobody to help carry you back to civilization. Sometimes that means you miss the potentially-awesome view at the top of a rocky hill, or you turn around instead of fording a swollen creek. Don't let a desire for these things talk you into taking on more risk than you can handle. After all, you're still getting plenty of natural beauty and solitude just by being out there, and that's the whole point, right?

That said, there are a few things that I've done to help myself feel safer from the human element while backpacking solo. If I'm camping in a developed campground, I ask the park staff to list the number of occupants for my site as 2 rather than 1, and they've always been very understanding. If I meet people on the trail who want to know where I'm planning on camping that night, I give them a chipper "depends on how well my feet hold up" - this doesn't seem to offend anyone, and I doubt it even occurs to them that I'm being deliberately vague. I always sleep in my two-man tent with the fly, so a random passerby in the evening can't tell that it's just me in there. I've considered bringing along something light and manly looking (like maybe boxers?) to hang on a clothesline with my stuff, to give the impression of having a guy along, but this starts to feel a bit extreme to me. However, I did once blatantly lie that my boyfriend was planning to pick me up at the next trailhead in about 45 minutes when a guy on the trail seemed a little too curious.

Honestly though, I think you'll be fine. Make sure family, friends, and local park officials know where you're going and when you'll be back, and be sure to let them know when you make it. You'll have a blast. Enjoy it!
posted by vytae at 2:27 PM on December 29, 2008 [4 favorites]


I'm thinking about hiking the length of the C&O Canal solo (180 miles - I'd probably do it in 2.5 weeks because I'm slow) and camping along the way. I'm not worried about getting lost or injured, because it's a flat tow path the whole way,

Gender non-withstanding, injury is always a possibility.

I hike alone a lot, and the way I figure it I have an unofficial contract with Search and Rescue: I'll plan for every contingency I can think of, but if I still end up in over my head they'll come and rescue me.

As for human predators, you're much safer on the trail than you are in the city. Predators prefer bountiful hunting grounds.

Now annoying guys who will try to pick up on you . . . those are everywhere.
posted by tkolar at 2:44 PM on December 29, 2008


What tkolar said. I had a couple of weird guys try weird things in national parks, but I had a dog with me - and even at that, I didn't truly get the vibe they wanted to grab me by force and drag me to their tents or whatever.

They were just your garden variety sleeze, and seemed slightly scarier because they were the only live humans in a few miles.

Have a clear plan, a check-in schedule, and keep your eyes open. You'll be fine.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 10:12 PM on December 29, 2008


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