Women in Backpacking, Part VI: But, I’m a Man!

If you are of the male persuasion and follow my blog, you may have ignored my Women in Backpacking series. Or perhaps you read the posts and thought to yourself, “Hmmmm – what can I do to help the situation?” If so, then Bravo! If you have not read the five-part series, I encourage you to do so now.

Today I want to focus on how men can be a part of the solution. That’s not to say you are part of the problem, because, for the most part, you are not.  Many of us women have been conditioned over time to fear strange men, especially if we are all alone in an isolated place.  That’s not YOUR fault, but the fault of society, our culture, poor parenting, prior experiences, the one-in-a-million really bad guy and more.  No matter how you slice it, though, many women fear striking out into the wilderness alone because they might run into, well … you.  After all, how many female rapists and serial killers have you heard of?

Stanislaus national forest
A lone male hiker. Also my husband!

There are things you can do (or not do) to help ease your female fellow backpackers’ fears. I’m not suggesting your run up to the nearest solo female and explain that you aren’t a rapist, because there are subtle ways to show the women you run into that you are who you are: a kind, like-minded compadre out in the wilderness for the same exact reasons as women are.  Some helpful tips:

  1. Do not hit on her! At all. Ever. She doesn’t want that and it will creep her out. This might seem self-explanatory, but it’s not.
  2. Do not compliment her appearance. This will also creep her out. You certainly may compliment her gear choices, though!
  3. Don’t be overly pushy about trying to make camp with her for the night. You yourself might be feeling a bit lonely or apprehensive about backpacking solo, but be sensitive to her feelings.
  4. If you are going to be setting up camp in the same area, make sure you place your tent as far from hers as you can to give her space and privacy. If you get there after her, ask her if she minds you setting up camp there. Just asking first shows a level of respect and politeness.
  5. Try to gauge her feelings and read her cues. Does she basically say hello and then move on to making camp and cooking dinner? She is probably not interested in companionship. Or is she chatty and conversational? Then she might be more willing to hang out for a bit around the fire or eat a meal together.
  6. Watch your body language! Don’t be a close-talker. Do not touch her in any way, even if that’s just the kind of guy you are. Even a simple pat on the back from a stranger can be off-putting to many people.
  7. Do not tell her you are hoping to find a woman out on the trails! I know that male backpackers often times would like to date female backpackers – and vice versa – but this is neither the time nor the place.
  8. Don’t ask overly personal questions, like, “Do you have a boyfriend?” Again … creepy.
  9. Do not take pictures of her. Also falls into the “creepy” category.
  10. If you are with a group of men, all of the above pertains to each of you individually, and as a group.
Arroyo Seco River
Forming groups in the wild.

Women account for over 50 percent of backpackers now, and we are entering the wilderness solo more often than ever before. A modicum of extra sensitivity and empathy for how your fellow female backpackers might perceive you would go a long way towards alleviating those fears! The problem of women mistrusting strange men is often due to misconceptions and myths, but sometimes reality, too.  A perception problem is a problem, nonetheless.  The good news is that it can be increasingly combatted by men being cognizant of their actions and how they might come across AND by women checking their overblown fears at the door.  My favorite encounters with other backpackers while out solo have primarily been with men – men who either naturally or purposely made me feel safe in their presence.

Next Up: My Big Announcement!

The old school of thought would have you believe that you’d be a fool to take on nature without arming yourself with every conceivable measure of safety and comfort under the sun. But that isn’t what being in nature is all about. Rather, it’s about feeling free, unbounded, shedding the distractions and barriers of our civilization—not bringing them with us.” – Ryel Kestenbaum

Women in Backpacking, Part V: But, I Might Feel Lonely!

In the last post, I discussed the fear of getting lost or injured while backpacking alone in the wilderness.  Today, I tackle my own personal fear – the fear of loneliness.

Yes, you will probably feel lonely from time-to-time while backpacking solo.  If you’re like me, it’s the biggest challenge of them all and I rarely end up solo, even though I may have started that way.  My purpose with this post isn’t to try and convince you loneliness won’t happen, but rather that it probably WILL happen, and that you shouldn’t let it stop you from getting out there.

There are levels to loneliness, ranging from extreme, depressing feelings that no one in the world understands you, to just a minor feeling of wishing your friend was available to have a movie night when she already has plans.

IMG_0596.jpg
A tired selfie on a solo stretch of the John Muir Trail.

The type of loneliness one feels when backpacking solo is not the deep, scary kind (Note: feeling alone is somewhat different from feeling afraid of bear attacks or being assaulted, which tend to elicit strong fears).  For most people, myself included, it’s more of a longing to share stories at the end of an amazing, but tiring day.  It’s a manageable feeling.  For most people, it’s entirely beneficial to spend some quiet, quality time alone with your id, your ego and your superego.

When I backpack, my magic formula is hiking alone most of the day, but meeting up with people for lunch and also to make camp at the end of the day.  I’m extremely extroverted and enjoy storytelling over lunch and dinner.  I like hearing what others saw during their hikes and marveling at their stories.  I also like being with others to watch the sun set and the moon rise.  A refreshing dip in an icy alpine lake is more fun, to me at least, if there are others there enjoying it, too.

But other times, I head out into more of a no-man’s land; places where I know I will likely be entirely alone.  It’s not creepy, per se, but time seems to drag a little slower after I set up my camp and sit down to eat and wait for night to fall.  The first night is the toughest, although “tough” isn’t really the right word.  It’s more that I’m a bit bored.  And yes, the strange sounds of the forest do somehow seem louder when it’s just me out there.

Camping in Ventana Wilderness
Just me, myself and I camping before a solo trip in search of lost hot springs in the Ventana Wilderness.

It’s worth noting that there are plenty of people who find that they absolutely love being solo – entirely solo – for days on end.  That might be you! But you won’t know until you try it.

No matter how you think you’ll feel about backpacking solo, you shouldn’t let any concerns stop you.  I’ve rarely heard of a woman who backpacked solo and regretted it.  I’ve written in other posts how to do your first solo trip: start out short; stay close to home; pick a place with cell coverage; try listening to music, etc.  Those tips apply here.

But other tips also apply:

  • You can choose trails that are known for being popular.  Sometimes you can tell a trail is going to be popular based on the permit application process, if there is one.  Permit processes usually indicate a trail is popular enough that the park has limited the number of people who can go in each day to minimize damage to the areas on and around the trail.
  • You can do research online or in books to see how popular a trail is.  Most resources will list that information.
  • Call a park ranger and ask!

Once you’ve chosen a more popular trail, you can at least camp in the vicinity of others if you want.  But more than that, you will likely meet people and make fast friends along the way.  This is a phenomena of backpacking that is widely known: making friends is easy and happens fast.  One day spent with your fellow backpackers on the trail can feel like an eternity and bonds can become very strong in a short amount of time.

Lower Cathedral Lake
Amongst new friends met on the John Muir Trail. Photo cred: David and Steve Szmyd

Case in point: I met two brothers on my second day of the John Muir Trail in 2015.  I was solo and had just had a very scary bear encounter as I was packing up camp that morning.  Needless to say, I was feeling a tad stressed and very alone (and very small).  I met these two brothers just after I set out from camp for the day and they invited me to hike with them.  By lunch, we were fast friends.  By dinner, we had made a lasting bond.  By the next morning, when we parted ways, we were practically lifelong friends!  Fast forward two years – we’ve kept in touch and I’ll be joining them for their annual brothers’ trip to Wyoming this August.

Even though I was supposed to be solo for parts of the John Muir Trail, I never once spent a night completely alone.

Another tip is to bring books or podcasts.  These give your mind something to do if it’s feeling restless and lonely, and they help pass the time.  You could also do guided meditation or bring along a deck of cards for a game of solitaire.  Try bringing a journal and writing down your thoughts as they happen.  If you have cell coverage and feel extra lonely, call a friend or loved one for a quick check-in!  Consider exploring the area you are camping in (if you aren’t too tired).  Walk the perimeter of the lake or climb up that close peak.  Lastly, go to bed! Backpackers need lots of sleep, so don’t be afraid to hit the sack way earlier than normal.

As with everything, preparation is key.  You can’t rely on anyone else when you’re solo, so be prepared with the necessary gear and essential items.  And consider carrying a satellite messenger like a Garmin InReach (formerly Delorme InReach).  If you have the right mindset, are prepared to confront minor to moderate feelings of loneliness, and understand that’s not a bad thing, you’ll have a wonderful time filled with scenery and adventure that is all yours, and only yours.  Try it!  You just might like it!

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