Women in Backpacking, Part II: But, I Might Get Raped!

Women don’t usually articulate this particular fear with these exact words.  It’s almost always stated in more “washed out” terms, like, “What about strange men?” or, “What if I get attacked by a man?”  But what they are really worried about is getting raped.  It’s a sad fact that many women fear men, or some men, when they are alone.  All women fear the worst-case scenario.  And those fears are exploited via shows like CSI, Cold Case Files and Podcasts like My Favorite Murder and Somebody Knows Something. And don’t forget the news!  These nightmarish crimes really do happen on occasion, and so the news feeds our fears as well.   Add a dash of social media to turn things into viral fear-storms.

Finding peace and solitude is easy in a place like this.

Now throw in extreme solitude.  Feeling like you’re all alone in the world.  Being far from civilization where no one can hear you scream.  Vulnerability.

It’s no wonder so many women have concerns about being alone in the wilderness.  We also know that at least half of backpackers are men, so running into them is pretty inevitable.

But how realistic is this fear of sexual assault?  How do we put things in perspective so that this fear doesn’t hinder our ambitions, goals and joys?

You’re never REALLY alone on the trail!

I was a sexual assault/domestic violence detective in California in the past.  Stranger rape* is so incredibly rare! If you don’t include date rape, rape is rarer than even murder.

*The vast majority of rapes are either a “date rape” or an “acquaintance rape”.  In both cases, the victim knows the attacker in some way, sometimes quite well, and is with him by choice before the assault occurs. Stranger rape is when someone you do not know on any personal level suddenly attacks you. I want to be clear that I am not minimalizing the trauma that date rape victims experience, but rather trying to minimize the debilitating fear that many women have about stranger rape.

Our wilderness areas are incredibly safe.  Take a look at crime stats and you’ll notice an obvious trend: the higher the population, the higher the number of crimes.  Think LA, NY, Chicago, Miami – these big cities experience more reported rapes because there are so many more people.  So many more opportunities for an attacker to find a victim.  So many places to blend in and go unnoticed.  So many women carrying on with their business and paying zero attention to their equally-busy surroundings.

Not many people and not much going on. Peaceful!

Put yourself in the mind of a serial rapist.  What are rapists looking for when they stalk their prey? They’re looking for an easy target.  They’re looking for someone who isn’t paying attention to her surroundings.  They’re looking for a woman who appears weak, and perhaps meek.  Someone who doesn’t have the confidence to make eye contact with strangers.  They’re looking for someone who they think won’t fight back.  Or will succumb easily.

Now think about what rapists want to avoid.  They don’t want to attack a strong, confident woman.  They don’t want to attack someone who they’re relatively certain will fight back – and fight back hard!  They don’t want someone who exudes confidence.  They don’t want someone who appears to be athletic and strong.  THIS type of woman is their worst enemy.

Think about how a serial rapist finds their prey.  Would they hike 13 miles into the wilderness to find a victim?  Or do they stand outside of a bar and watch for solo, intoxicated women to come stumbling out?  Does the rapist hike for days just to find ONE solo woman, or does he cruise around the most marginalized areas of a major city in his car to find down-on-their luck street workers?

Strong. Capable. Confident. And armed with an oar!

Think of who you are, as both an outdoor adventurer and backpacker.  You are strong; you carry a 35 lb pack on your back for miles and miles!  You are remote; you’re off the beaten path and away from the masses of people.   You are confident and independent, and even if you don’t feel that way, that’s how strangers will perceive you.  To get to you would be difficult.  Taking you without a massive fight would be impossible.  You are probably armed; hiking poles make great weapons and most backpackers carry a knife of some sort, not to mention that massive bag you carry around (it’d be like swinging a massive purse at a bad guy’s head!).  You, my friend, are the opposite of what a rapist would be looking for!

With all this in mind, here are six steps you can take to lessen your risk and increase your own confidence:

  • Get out there!  Just doing solo trips increases your confidence.  Start small.
  • Always be aware of your surroundings (easy to do in the wilderness).
  • Make eye contact with every stranger you come across and say hi (if you are new to backpacking, this is also basic trail etiquette – we are a friendly bunch!).
  • Be aware of possible weapons you have, like hiking poles, folding knives and tent poles.
  • Take a self-defense class.
  • Always keep your fears in perspective.

Listen to any woman who has done a solo hike and she will tell you the experience was entirely worthwhile.  She will also likely tell you that the first one was a bit tough, and it got easier from there.  It’s hard to find like-minded people to backpack with, and when you do find a crew, coordinating schedules can be next to impossible.  So take matters into your own hands!  Become one with nature, and with yourself.

Next Up: Women in Backpacking, Part III: But, An Animal Might Eat Me!

I’d rather regret the things I’ve done than regret the things I haven’t done.” – Lucille Ball