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June 3, 2006 9:06 AM   Subscribe

Advice needed for solo female hiker: Am I safe on my own? What should I be aware of? Can you mace a snake?

For the last month I've been hiking in local parks with a friend, changes in work schedule make it hard for the two of us to get together. I really enjoy getting out and hiking a few times a week and I don't want miss out on the experience just because I'm nervous about hiking on my own. I've probably watched too many law and order episodes, but should I be afraid of the boogyman jumping out in the woods and grabbing me? What should I bring with me? Should I carry mace? It seems silly to carry it in my hand while I'm walking, but if something bad did happen I'd hate to take the time to search around in my bag for it. I hike in central Texas, in the area between Austin and San Antonio, should I be worried about snakes? If I carry mace what would the effect be on a snake? It seems odd but it is a fear of mine, should I really be worried about this? Personal experiences would be great.
posted by vionnett to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (26 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Pepper-spraying a snake? Why? I can't imagine any scenario where that'd be useful. It's not as though a snake is going to chase after you.
posted by kickingtheground at 9:21 AM on June 3, 2006

I think you're being a little bit paranoid about this. Have you ever been assaulted by a snake with your friend? Snakes aren't going to do anything to you unless you step on them, so if you stay on the path and pay attention you'll be fine. I highly doubt anything bad will happen.
posted by borkingchikapa at 9:27 AM on June 3, 2006

It's interesting that you ask this - because I was wondering about it myself!! I have done a bit of solo-hiking. When I was living in Australia I travelled around the country alone and hiked in some touristy parks. I felt very safe as a woman alone, but that was because I passed many people on the trails. I don't know that I would feel comfortable hiking alone, now that I'm back in the US, in areas that aren't well-traffiked. I guess you have to just accept that the boogeyman can jump out and get you anywhere. Crazy people don't discriminate!

As far as snakes go - I really have no idea how they would react to mace. It seems to me like it might just make them angrier!
posted by ebeeb at 9:30 AM on June 3, 2006

According to the website for the city of Austin, there are only a small percentage of snakes in the area that are venemous (i.e. hazardous). One is the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, which is fairly easy to notice (you'll hear the characteristic rattle if it is spooked). See this website for photos of the snakes that you might encounter. Some general advice for snakes, and hiking in general is to always pay attention and be alert. Snakes are afraid of you, and will avoid confrontation unless provoked. In general, leave them alone and they'll do the same for you. The Texas Wildlife Department has an interesting page here. They say "In Texas we have an average of 2-3 deaths per year from snakebites, compared with 5 to 7 for insect bites and 8 for lightning." The odds are that you'll be in more danger of a crash on the car ride there than any danger you'll face from snakes.

Another common sense tip would be to let someone you trust know where you are going and when to expect you back. If you don't come back, they can alert someone to go looking for you. You can also carry a cellphone that has the E911 GPS tracking enabled, just in case.
posted by galimatias at 9:32 AM on June 3, 2006

Chances are theres a Ranger Station, or Department of Conservation office local to you. They should have all the information you need about what animals to watch out for and in what season.

They can also tell you if there are any recent episodes of the things you're scared of (being a lone female), and what areas to avoid going alone in based on past trends.
posted by psyward at 9:34 AM on June 3, 2006

There are a number of pepper spray products designed to be easily carried in one's hand while jogging/hiking. While animal assault is relatively unlikely, human assault is less so. You might hike for years without ever encountering a problem, but if you did, you'd be glad the pepper spray was in hand.
posted by jellicle at 9:35 AM on June 3, 2006

Not just the boogeyman to worry about. What if you fall and twist your ankle, or worse? Now you don't have someone to help you back, or even go back without you to get help. You have to consider what you'll do if this happens. Avoiding undertrafficked trails is one option.
posted by smackfu at 9:38 AM on June 3, 2006

Just to add, looking through Google for snake repellents and deterrents yield a concoction of ads and products, as well as opinions both endorsing the items and claiming them as completely ineffective. Unless someone here in MeFi has past experience with one of these products, save your money, because none of these products seem like they'll be of much value. Not to scare you, but a snake attack is quick and I doubt you'd even have time to get out a spray anyway. Just be observant and cautious and you'll be fine. If you want an extra measure of security, carry a long hiking stick and you can always use that as a weapon against snake, beast, or creepy person.
posted by galimatias at 9:40 AM on June 3, 2006

Also, use the same precautions as any solo hiker: always let someone know where you are and when you expect to return. Carry some sort of signaling device (even just a whistle on a neck chain) and a small survival/first aid kit on your person (NOT in your pack).
posted by bonehead at 10:07 AM on June 3, 2006

Snakes are not a problem. They will not attack you unless you fuck with them, and they're actually pretty slow when they're not striking. The chance of a snake following you or viewing you as prey are zero. The animals you need to fear are yourself and other homo sapiens. If you are oversure in your abilities, it's possible to find yourself lost, without water or food or cell service, so be prepared. Carry pepper spray as protection against weirdos, but be aware that it's useless against pretty much anything that wants to kill you. Fortunately that list is very short.

Here's a story about a mountain lion, one of the few animals that occasionally attacks humans on purpose:

An acquaintance of mine was doing some fieldwork on bats in AZ, and was in a long cave-type deal. About halfway through, she noticed that - holy shit - a mountain lion was at the other end, and that there was no exit but the one for which she came. If she ran away, I would not have heard this story, because she would be dead. Instead, she raised her arms over her head and screamed as loudly and aggressively as she could. The mountain lion ran down the cave, close enough for her to touch, and bolted out the entrance, not to be seen again. If it knew the peculiar weaknesses of the unarmed human, it would not have. Fortunately, we are way scarier looking than we actually are, females on average slightly less so (sorry, it's true).

Now, if you're hiking with a kid, all bets are off: predators rightly see small children as easy snacks, and will even attack a child when there is an adult around. This is uncommon, but it happens.

To review: don't worry about snakes. It is better to be in a group than alone. Have a good, charged cell phone, a GPS device, a map, some food and lots of water. Keep your eyes open and remember that even though there are marked trails and stations, the wilderness is still unpredictable.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 10:14 AM on June 3, 2006

Solo hiking - good for you! I used to do it a lot (even got caught swinging from a vine over a cliff once -- unintentionally). I agree with advice above: big hiking stick/staff (make noise to scare snakes); leave all info about where, when you hike; have an emergency signal; etc.

I Just finished reading "Paddling My Own Canoe" by Audrey Sutherland (1978 -- her story of solo swimming/paddling and hiking around the cliffs of Molokai's inaccessible north coast. She was in her 40s at the time; she still does solo paddling treks now.) Inspiring. Makes me think I need to be out there again.
posted by Surfurrus at 10:26 AM on June 3, 2006

I've been hiking many times solo in the Adirondacks of New York State (and also in the White Mountains of NH). My suggestion would be to hike one of the more popular trails if you are going alone -- rather than a remote bushwack or something.

In my experience, there were always plenty of other folks around on the "herd path" type trails, especially on a weekend. Sometimes more than you would like! Sometimes I thought all the girl scouts and brownies in the state must have been on "my" hike.

And check around and make sure there isn't a hiking group in your area, something like the local chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club -- which plans many group hikes each month with varying degrees of difficulty (see the activities/outings link).

As for snakes, I think that they are more scared of you than you are of them. Just leave them alone and I doubt you'll have any problems.
posted by bim at 10:43 AM on June 3, 2006

The most dangerous animal of all is Man.

That said, the most dangerous areas for being attacked by Man in the wilderness is when you're not actually that far out in the wilderness - in the interface between urban and country. It's accessible.

If you ever get out past 5-10 miles past trailheads, people that also make it out there tend to be much more principled in my experience. True backcountry hiking even more so.

Do carry a stout hiking staff of metal or wood, do carry mace or pepperspray - for use on stupid humans, do be prepared, wear appropriate high-ankled shoes and proper clothing, do bring a small first aid kit and signalling devices like a whistle, mirror, flashlight, high intensity LED blinker or xenon/quarts rescue strobe.

You can pack all of these things except the staff in the space of about a cigarette pack or two.

It goes without saying to pack plenty of water and snacks, too. And a cell phone if you get coverage. GPS is nice, too, but can be a distraction or burden if you're not adept.

Above and beyond all that, by all means you should tell at least one or two people where you're going, how long you intend to stay and when you plan on being back, and then you shouldn't deviate from that plan much at all - unless you have some way of updating your contacts of your whereabouts.

This advice might not apply perfectly for Texas brushlands and Hill Country, but I've been hiking/biking/climbing the deserts of the southwest for years and years, often foolishly alone, sometimes even foolishly drunk and intoxicated, and often foolishly going cross country, off trail or back country. Number of dangerous snake encounters over my entire life? 3. All diamondbacks or other rattlers. And each time they just wanted to be left alone.

Once was on trail in an area with tall grasses on either side. I waited and stomped my feet a bit to make some ground vibrations, snake moved on. However, the grasses were rather thick with 'em. At one point I could hear dozens of them rattling away in the grasses away from the trail. But only ever saw that one crossing the trail over a 8-10 mile hike.

Another time was freeclimbing a rock and boulder mound in the early morning. I mantled up on a ledge only to come face to face with a coiled, sleepy rattler about 2 feet in front of me. My first instinct was to just let go and fall, and then I wasn't too keen about sliding back down the rock and leaving my hands up there with the snake unseen. So I said "Good morning, sleepy snake. I mean you no harm. I'm just going to slowly climb around you if you don't mind..." and I did. It just watched me, calmly, and never even rattled. (Rattlers don't always rattle when agitated, though, and they don't always rattle before striking, either.) At one point I basically had to share a 4x3 foot ledge with this snake, and had to lean over it pretty good to keep my balance and proceed up the rocks. Good snake. Hello adrenaline gland!

Closest encounter was biking off trail through Arizona scrub-desert-brush. Damn near ran over that snake. It was pissed. I heard it rattle, then watched it strike at my pedalling feet and bike as I went past. I'm pretty sure it missed and hit my back tire - yay velocity - but it felt like I bunnyhopped that bike halfway to the moon.

One of the things I'll do if I'm in known rattler territory and the trail is narrow and has lots of obscuring brush - which happens to be just the thing that matches rattler markings as camoflage - I will walk with the staff held out in front of me like a blind person's walking stick and tap the trail side to side ahead of me - all the time watching the sides of the trail as I'm moving.

If I want to lollygag and gaze at the scenery, I'll pick a safe, clear spot, inspect it, and then do my dawdling and eye-feasting. Watch where you put your feet and hands, always. Watch where you're walking. Be aware.
posted by loquacious at 10:57 AM on June 3, 2006

dont know about snakes, but I think I heard that some park rangers have found mace to be an effective tool when dealing with angry bears.
posted by gilsonal at 11:08 AM on June 3, 2006

And a number of mauled people have found that mace is not effective against bears.

Fortunately, bears are among the least worrisome things on the trail. There are very few bear attacks given the hordes of people swarming their territories.

Myself, I'd be hesitant to backpack alone: not from the threat of external dangers, but the potential for needing help should I twist an ankle, smack my head on a rock, or otherwise get injured or stuck in a tough spot.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:26 AM on June 3, 2006

A man wanting to jump on a lone female is not going to choose a very remote rock to hide behind. Rape crisis centres say the majority of sexual assaults on women are carried out by people they know, or have interacted with.

This correlates with my experience, someone you have been innocently chatting to along a shared bit of trail is more likely to be a problem than a madman hiding somewhere. So you may not need mace so much as a ready tongue. "I need to hurry to meet my jealous boyfriend when his police shift ends" can be useful in the backwoods as well as in town.
posted by Idcoytco at 12:13 PM on June 3, 2006

About snakes: Don't mace a snake. Snakes have zero interest in attacking humans unless they feel themselves threatened.

A coiled-up rattler can strike. What's good to know about this strike is that it can't exceed the snake's own length, which even in the prodigious cases rarely exceeds 5 feet. The snake cannot propel himself through the air in order to bite you - it's simply not capable of that.

Snakes aren't realistic worries for solo hiking. The two major worries have already been cited: other people and accidental immobilizing injuries. Mace is good to deter an aggressive human; for accidental injuries, you need to have let someone know where you went and when you expect to return. (Maybe a pair of e-mails, before and after hike, to a designated buddy. Email #1 describes your itinerary; with the understanding that if e-mail 2 isn't forthcoming, rescue will be initiated.)
posted by ikkyu2 at 3:12 PM on June 3, 2006

More advice: stay on marked trails, carry more water than you think you'll need, and bring a flashlight and at least one warm garment. All of this advice is geared towards the situation where you find yourself spending more time on the trail than you were originally planning to - for whatever reason.
posted by ikkyu2 at 3:16 PM on June 3, 2006

Here is my expert (although my certs have lapsed) advice (this advice assumes you're not going overnight):

IMO, there is two different types of hiking.
1) Where you mobile phone works
2) Where it doesn't.

What you do in 1 is apt to be slightly less risky than in 2. If you get lost in situation 1 you can just hold still, call 911, give you last known location and wait for rescuers to find you from there. Not an option in 2.

Here's a quick list of what I'd always take everywhere I got hiking or tripping, and the things I'd only take if I were going 'out of bounds' (into situation 2).

*A Whistle (fox-40 is great)
*Compass (assuming you know how to use it)
*Map of the area (you can get off the path you know pretty quickly)
*rainwear (nothing more annoying than being cold and wet, except possibly cold and wet and dead, depending on how cold it gets at night where you are)

For out-of-bounds I'd add:
***Mylar blanket***: factory packed it's not much bigger than a deck of cards, but it reflects heat in keeping you warm, and is very shiny as well, which helps the air search find you, should there be one. I'd say this is the most important, because if you fall down and break your leg you might not be able to crawl 2 feet to get out of the rain or grab your gear, but these guys fit in your pocket easily and give you a much better chance of fighting off the cold and being seen.

*A knife with a locking blade, min 2 inches. (If you can't build a shelter with that, you shouldn't be solo hiking in this area)

*Something to start a fire with. Purists would say waterproof matches, but a high intensity lighter is good too.

*Bear bangers/Pocket flares; they're the size of a pen and ink bottle, but make a good bang to scare off bears, and the flares allow you to give your position to aircraft (we're talking way out of bounds).

*First-Aid kit, especially a triangular bandage (so many uses!) and a roll of athletic tape (if you hurt your feet/ankles and have to keep walking, it might make the difference between making it and not). Again, only really useful it it's always within reach, otherwise the one time you need it you won't be able to get to it.

I'm also a safety purist, and would tell you that you should never rely on a GPS for life and death navigation unless you're 100% sure you know who to take ground bearings with your map and compass should the GPS fail or the batteries run out.

On pepper spray or mace. These will work on animals such as bears assuming you can hit them in the eyes. I've no idea if you could spray a snake, but like the first poster said, you should only get bitten by a snake by accidentally stepping on it, otherwise you should have noticed it before hand and avoided it. What I mean is, if you have time to spray it you're doing something very wrong.

FYI. Bears will often congregate to the area where pepper spray is used for days afterwards, so if you do have to use it it is highly advised to abandon the area. If you must keep traveling in the wilderness (it's not a day hike) you will very badly need to clean or abandon anything exposed to the pepper spray, because while bears don't like it in their eyes, they think the taste it quite nice otherwise and will track you/it down for quite a distance to have another go. Moral of the story, pepper spray is a very mixed bag.

Caveat: Mace is illegal in Canada (where I'm from) so I have no idea if it works on bears or whether it attracts them otherwise or not.

Best advice regarding animals has already been given, make yourself look big and make a lot of noise. I also buy into the avoiding eye contact thing, although that may or may not be an urban legend - my sister did get almost mauled by a moose once after she made eye contact with it though, so that's good enough for me.

If you're doing everything right, you're much more likely to get killed by a fellow human than something from the wilderness.

Oh yeah, make sure someone in town knows when you left, where you were going, and when you intend to return and check in with them. Check in every time, so that the one time you don't they notice and panic. If you're lost in the woods it's always VERY helpful if someone else KNOWS you're lost in the woods.
posted by tiamat at 4:21 PM on June 3, 2006

Re: snakes, their strike range is pretty limited, so I'd just look into biteproof footwear/legwear, then it wouldn't matter if you accidentally stepped on one. And if you've been following the blue, you already know not to sit on a rock to take a break and lean back on your hands, without checking first :)
posted by -harlequin- at 6:34 PM on June 3, 2006

If you are at all concerned about your safety while hiking it never hurts to have a firearm. I never go hiking/backpacking/camping without one.

I'd be -so- mad at my wife for going alone into the wilderness without a firearm.

You live in the great state of Texas, you can carry openly or easily aquire a CCW permit to allow you to carry your firearm concealed beneath your clothing or outwear.

Forget the whole pepper spray nonsense. Your chances of hitting a snake with pepper spray and stopping it from biting you are -so- remote its ridiculous (shooting it wouldn't really be all that great an option either... you're pretty much screwed if you end up in the striking distance of a poisonous snake and it -really- wants to bite you.)

Other animals however that are large enough to cause you serious physical harm are much better targets for a firearm. You'll never know how thankful you are to have a gun with you, as you will on the day you run across a feral/rapid dog. I've had to put a few down in my day and I always wonder "What the hell would I have done without a gun."

Check out www.packing.org for more information related to your state.
posted by JFitzpatrick at 9:00 PM on June 3, 2006

It's worth knowing that a whole lot of other kinds of harmless snakes are capable of rattling their tails on the ground in a fairly alarming fashion. They find it useful for frightening hikers with.
Please do not molest any snake, as the likelihood is, yours may be harmless and many of them actually eat poisonous snakes. (They are not immune to the venom, they're just faster.)
Also worth knowing is that a bite from a nonvenomous snake amounts to a very small superficial wound, that will be intrinsically fairly clean, bacteriologically. It's likely to look like a couple of rows of pinpricks that will bleed alarmingly for a minute and then quit, and disappear in a couple of days. You can wash it if you have the tools, but if you don't, just keep it clean until it closes. Do not put your mouth anywhere near it, as the snake's mouth is basically cleaner than yours. Let it bleed to wash out the staph that lives on your skin.
YMMV, IANAD, for entertainment purposes only.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 8:49 AM on June 4, 2006

Don't hike alone.
posted by Carol Anne at 10:38 AM on June 4, 2006

I think it's important for women to be self-sufficient and not be deterred from doing the things that they enjoy -- just because they don't have someone to go with them. I see this problem all the time (women who won't go out to dinner, to the movies, travel etc. unless accompanied) and I think it's a very sad way to live life.

As for the potential harm that may befall you as you commune with nature, just as much potential harm exists on a well populated city street. You could get hit by a bus on a busy city street or a million other things might happen, but that doesn't mean you should stay holed up in your house and never go out.

As others and myself have stated, you will be fine if you dress appropriately, take a map so you know where you're going, choose a reasonable trail in terms of the endurance required and the likelihood of having other hikers around, take plenty of water (and food), take your cellphone, sign the trail register and let someone at home know where you're going, and leave the firearms at home.

There's nothing better IMHO than standing on a mountain top or in a forest clearing and hearing the quiet while you watch the beauty all around you.

Don't be a weenie and pass this up. ;) Have fun.
posted by bim at 12:35 PM on June 4, 2006

It is interesting to note that the woman in Carol Anne's story she linked to said at the end of it that she will go hiking alone again. Bravo.

If I could only tell people one thing in my life, it would be to never let fear be your master.

"People willing to trade their freedom for temporary security deserve neither and will lose both."
posted by zhivota at 6:49 AM on June 5, 2006

Good advice from loquacious & tiamat, as well as JFitzpatrick. FYI, birdshot loads (which are more effective against snakes) are available for many pistol calibers.

From the personal experience side, hiking up a dry creekbed in Big Bend in 1973 I almost strepped on a Mohave rattler crossing in front of me - he blended in very well with the background & on my next step I would have landed right on him except for my friend yelling "Stop!" A ranger later told me that Mohaves have both hemo- & neurotoxin & I'd have been in a world of hurt as we were 7 miles from any road. Therefore, see loquacious' advice about carrying a staff. My only other personal encounter with a rattler was hitchhiking at night in N. Texas (they like to come out on the road at night for the heat, but that's another story), but they are out there - we used to see them as a kid at my granfather's place near Weatherford.

There's no substitute for being prepared.
posted by Pressed Rat at 8:01 AM on June 5, 2006

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