In the last post, I discussed the fear of rape and how to put those fears in perspective. Today, I address another common fear: animal attacks! For some reason, we women feel that there is safety in numbers. And when it comes to animals, that notion is partly true, but also quite incorrect. Let’s be clear here, when we talk about getting attacked by animals, we aren’t talking about squirrels and raccoons. We are clearly talking about the predatory big guys – bears, wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, wild boar, rattlesnakes and moose (should I add Bigfoot to this list?). If you fear squirrels, I can’t help you!
In all reality, animal attacks are extremely rare. I think we all know this; we just seem to lose sight of that fact when thinking about lying awake at night in the woods, alone and hearing “weird” noises. When was the last time you heard of a human being ripped apart by a pack of wolves? And has a coyote EVER maimed a human? Most people living in mountain lion territory go their whole lives without ever actually seeing one. Bear attacks, although sensationalized in the media and by Hollywood (have you see The Revenant yet?), are also ridiculously rare.
To understand where our irrational fears come from, you first have to remember that we, too, are animals! Like all animals, we have a fight-or-flight response. But unlike other animals, we rarely use these responses anymore because we live in relative comfort. Heck, for many people, their most likely association with fight-or-flight arises when they are about to do some public speaking! How nice is it that, as THE apex predator of the world, our biggest collective fear is the fear of speaking in public!
When we are alone in a tent in the dark of night and we hear strange noises, that old, dusty, fight-or-flight response kicks in! And that’s not at all a bad thing. It’s our best survival instinct. It tells us we are alive. It feeds our bodies with necessary adrenaline should we need to fight. But just thinking about it starts to make it happen – shallow breaths, sweaty palms, panicky feelings. Even when we are sitting in our living rooms, just contemplating backpacking solo, our fears can start to trigger that response.
“But”, you protest, “animals are a legitimate threat!” True…ish. Animals may be a real threat, but not to the extent that we shouldn’t enjoy the outdoors on our own terms. Here are some stats the may ease your fears:
- Bees cause more deaths in the U.S. than any other creature.
- Mosquitos kill more people world-wide than any other creature.
- Bears kill LESS than one person in the U.S. per year.
- Mountain Lions kill, on average, one person per year (and unfortunately it’s often a small child, not an adult)
- There hasn’t been a wolf-related death in the U.S. since 1888.
So, how do we keep these fears in check and prevent them from determining how and when we enter the wilderness? One way, many assume, is by backpacking in groups of two or more people and staying on well-travelled trails. But this plan provides a false sense of security. Traveling in groups and sticking to busy trails can actually attract the big predators! It is well known that black bears in the Sierra Nevada Mountains frequent the places with the most backpackers. More backpackers = more delicious smells. More delicious smells = more chances for free food. The bears tend to hang out along the busiest trails and most-frequented camping areas.
While it is true that you are more likely to survive an attack of any kind if you have others to help you, it is also true that your best chance of avoiding predators is three-fold: don’t travel with others, avoid the most popular routes and practice stealth camping! Additionally, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to always follow best-practices when it comes to your food and general safety.
Another way to get over those fears is to just do it. Plan an overnight trip to an area not far from civilization where you can still get cell service. Make it an easy, quick hike not too far away from your car. Bring a knife and pepper or bear spray if you want (know your local laws or park rules about these things first!). Heck, if it makes you feel better, bring a small hatchet! Another tip: load a guided meditation app on your phone so you have something to lull you to sleep. If there are others at your camping area, do not give in and join their group – in fact, camp as far away from them in the camping area as you can. If it won’t bother other campers in the area and you have a backup battery for your phone, play music on your phone all night if you must.
As nighttime falls, your fears will probably start to surface. Squash them! Remind yourself of the unlikelihood of an attack and simultaneously remind yourself that you will NOT let your fears dictate your relationship with the wilderness. Do not let your mind wander down a road that ends with you being ripped apart by a group of ravenous mountain lions. You are stronger than your irrational fears. You can control them.
If you do this, chances are you will come out of it not only alive, but also feeling a real sense of accomplishment! Each foray into the solitude of solo camping will increase your comfort level. Before you know it, you’ll be setting off solo on the regular.
Next Up: Women in Backpacking, Part IV: But, What if I get Injured or Lost?
“You can never leave footprints that last if you are always walking on tiptoe.” – Leymah Gbowee