This isn’t the first time women’s safety in the wilderness has been discussed. In fact, there are quite a few well-done articles about it. Particularly, I am familiar with those articles on Trail Sisters that are more specific to women runners, like Fearful for your Safety. The contributors of the article give sound advice on how to protect oneself that I don’t mean to repeat, but I would like to join the conversation, adding a bit more to the wilderness-adventures side of things.
In August of 2015, Pacer “Supergirl” and I started out on our 500 mile thru-hike of the Colorado Trail (the trail is actually less than 500 miles, but by the time we got lost, added on a peak, got lost again, we were well over 500 miles). A common question was “what are you doing for safety?” and “are you scared?”.
To answer the latter question first, yes, I was scared! Mainly because I had never done such a thing before. The only time I had ever backpacked was for one night on the Appalachian Trail with my then-boyfriend. By the time I started the hike, I had also completed five 100 mile races. I knew I could do the distance. Plus, I had my 4-legged adventure partner with me.
As for the first question, I very much new what I had with me for safety. I often listed these items in my head when I was hiking late in the evening: bear spray, hiking poles, dog, knife (only taken because my then boyfriend made me), running legs.
But these items weren’t really about the animals I might encounter: the bears, moose, mountain lions, and big-horned sheep (in truth, the second scariest animal I met on the trail besides the cows, who I dreamed trampled on me in my tent the night I set up camp much too close to their pasture). These animals did cause me some apprehension, but I had been prepared.
You see, like most women who venture out in to the wilderness by themselves, I wasn’t going in naive (as some “macho” men do). Like the many other female solo adventurists, I did my research and asked my friends (often female) for advice.
I knew that if a black bear and I crossed paths, I should freeze and raise my arms, making my 5’4″ frame seem a little bigger. If one should attack, I should fight back, particularly with my bear spray that I always kept in my pack’s water bottle pocket. I also knew this was very unlikely. The bears in Colorado really just want food (not humans) so I safely hung my food in an Ursak (almost) every night.
I knew simply to stay as far away as possible from moose. Like the bears, they too just wanted to be left alone. On a rainy afternoon as two walked past my tent towards the lake, I simply held onto my dog’s muzzle so she wouldn’t bark and watched as they slowly picked their way through the trees.
A few days later, when I saw a bobcat watching me through the bushes, I simply hiked on a bit faster, keeping my dog moving so she wouldn’t see it. I skipped the photo opportunity, knowing it was more afraid of me than I was of it, but also knowing that if threatened, it might (just like Pacer) attack.
To be honest, the nights where I held my knife closest to me was when I thought I heard someone late one night hiking past my tent, or when another male hiker set his camp a little bit too close to mine.
The threats to women out in the wild* have little to do about nature. After all, as I stated in Women of the Wild; Part One: Reclaiming Our Place women ARE the wild. Every woman is inherently part of Mother Nature. Being inside of the wilderness is our birthright.
*As most of you already know, it is still far more dangerous to roam around a city alone.
Sadly, the biggest threats come from a few of our brothers, who too were born from Mother Nature but somehow lost Her wisdom to power and greed. They forgot how to respect Her and other women too.
While the dangers of being a woman in the wild are not to be taken lightly, it would also be contradictory to suggest that a woman should not venture out on her own (or with a few friends). This would not only cause a sense of loss inside each woman as her connection to Mother Earth was strained, but it would also be a huge step back in the progress of women, once again making her appear to be “delicate” and “vulnerable”. The truth is, the wild brings out the warrior in women and girls. It brings us back to our primal selves, both as nurturers and fierce protectors of others and what is just.
The solution then?
As my friend Silke wrote in her Trail Sister’s article, what women need is RESPECT.
First we need to teach our brothers that women are strong, intelligent, and capable. Women can throw up a bear hang, use a compass (albeit, not my strong point), light a fire, and use our common sense to figure out solutions in the wild. Women don’t need the safety and guidance of men. To be honest, because of a women’s intuition and natural inclination to consider various needs and possibilities, we are often more prepared than our male counterparts.
One of my male classmates, with a clear and honest want to support us wild women (who make up the majority of my cohort) but grew up with the fragile woman concept, asked me “how do I support women out on the trail?” The answer is simple really. Let women lead the way.
To my male friends reading this, all you really need to do is talk to your friends, sons, hiking partners, boyscout troops, etc. Make it known to them that women deserve respect out there and not to be questioned with “are you sure it’s safe for you by yourself out there?” (both creepy and disrespectful). Encourage them to support women on the trail. Don’t always pitch the tent or start the fire because, in all honesty, “we got this.”
And to my female friends, keep encourage our sisters and daughters to get out there and explore. If they are new to the outdoors, let them know the things they need to be aware of and consider. Again, the article Fearful for your Safety offers some great insight. As another example of how to promote safety but not instill fear , my sister asked me not to post the departure of my thru-hike. It was sound, considerate advice I would not have thought of myself.
So let us all, both women and men, hike, row, climb, cycle, ski, paddle, and run in the glory and protection provided to each and every one of us through our connection to the Earth.
Special thanks to all the women and organizations leading the way (women now make up nearly 50% of people participating in outdoor recreational activities) such as: Trail Sisters, Women’s Wilderness, Green Girl, Gudy Gatskill (mother of the Colorado Trail), Jennifer Phar Davis, Cheryl Stayed, and so, so many more!