"No American bats an eye in our modern age when women shop alone, drive alone or eat alone. But hike alone, and you are most assuredly going to turn heads and acquire unsolicited lectures." These words were written by Karen Somers, who hiked the AT solo at age 26, and we couldn't say it any better.
Somers goes on to write that even after marrying another hiker, she still prefers to hike solo:
"As much as I love hiking with my husband and friends, I see more, hear more and remember more when I’m alone. Without the distraction of another person, I become more in tune with sounds, sights, smells … all the delightful sensory experiences of the wilderness fill the mind and I am truly free. On my AT solo hike, I discovered how to get in touch with my own intuition and my spirit. I found, ultimately, to trust the world, other people and my own self. The implications of these things color everything I do to this day, creating a deep well-spring of reserves to draw upon. In other words, there is a lot to be gained from hiking alone, girls."
Despite those inspiring words, women who hike solo may still have safety concerns. Their parents certainly will. Solo hiking poses challenges for both male and female hikers, but the risks assumed when hiking solo can be reduced by taking appropriate, common sense precautions.
Whether you are a man or a woman, hiking alone is more risky than hiking with a partner. You will need to exercise common sense precautions:
Hitchhiking alone is one of the greatest concerns for solo hikers and especially their parents. Nevertheless, hitchhiking is a part of Trail culture on the AT and every other National Scenic Trail. I have hitchhiked into towns many times and have yet to be disappointed or scared. Some drivers have turned out to be a little weird at most, but aren’t we all.
That said, there is always risk from accepting a ride from a stranger and that risk may be higher for solo women. Here are a few basics for hitching safer:
If you have an accident or get sick at home, it is much easy to get the help you need. In the backcountry, a partner is your best rescuer. They can react, provide immediate assistance, or fetch emergency services. This is the greatest threat posed by hiking solo.
The SPOT satellite messenger has become a common sight on many American trails, but we're not sure it's necessary on the AT. The AT is something of an interstate highway with lots of people hiking it, especially in the summer months. If you are injured and alone, the best thing to do is wait on the side of the white-blazed trail for someone to come along. You won't have to wait long unless you are hiking far outside the regular hiking season.
The SPOT is an option however. It is not a phone, but a simple transponder with three buttons: SOS, Check-In, and Help. The SOS button summons emergency services anywhere in the world. The help button let's friends and family know you could use a hand, but aren't having an emergency. The check-in button sends emails and text messages to anyone you like letting them know you are okay as well as updating your location on a website. This is a favorite feature for friends and family back home.
Most people you meet on or near the trail are friendly, open, and willing to help you if you need it, but it is always possible you may meet another hiker who you just don't want to be around. Maybe he gives you a bad feeling. Maybe he has an annoying crush and can't take a hint. You'll need to shake them.
To shake someone you can slow down, speed up, or make up an excuse to stop or fly. Tell the person you need to dig a hole, are going to stop for a snack, or need to catch up on your miles to meet a friend. If you meet at a shelter, hang around there or take a zero day. Let them leave and put some distance between you. Always make sure to project confidence by speaking assertively and making eye contact.
Many non-hikers ask women who thru-hike, including me, if they carry a weapon. Aside from my little knife brought for food prep, the answer is NO. And most definitely no for taking a gun. The risk of accident alone when carrying a gun, to yourself and others, is not worth it. Additionally, all evidence shows that when threatened by someone, a woman with a gun is more likely to have the gun taken and turned against them. Even security guards have their guns taken from them at alarming rates.
Male hikers are not asked if they carry a gun as often as women. Why? Perhaps it is because the NRA and others claim guns are great equalizers between men and women. In a 2013 speech, the NRA's Wayne LaPierre said, “the one thing a violent rapist deserves to face is a good woman with a gun.” It's a powerful soundbite, but no scientific study has ever demonstrated that the risk of becoming victim to a crime, any crime, is decreased by gun ownership. In fact, study after study has shown that owning a gun makes women in particular more likely to become victims of gun violence. The Atlantic examined this unique and overlooked danger to women, and the myth of guns providing self-defense has been covered recently by the Guardian and The Los Angles Times.
If you are still nervous about traveling alone, take pepper spray at most. And absolutely never use your pepper spray on a bear. It will make them angry and they will be more likely to become aggressive toward you or other hikers once it wears off. See the section on animal safety for more information.