Women going their own way, alone, in the woods
May 13, 2018 7:30 PM   Subscribe

Misadventures Magazine: "I would not have gotten to know myself in the same way if I’d let the fact that I was a woman alone stop me from going out into the wild."
She Explores: "I spend a lot of my time moving at someone else’s pace, trying to accommodate, appease, and appeal. [...] I lose my sense of adventure entirely. I took that back the weekend I spent on the Berg Lake Trail."
On Being a Woman Alone in the Woods: "...being solo in the backcountry is one of the only times in my life that I’ve been able to exist as a body and a person without worrying about how other people might try to claim my body as their own."

Why Women Shouldn't Worry About Hiking Alone: "Many people fear that women hiking alone are particularly vulnerable to getting lost, hurt, assaulted, or raped in the wilderness. They're wrong."

Hiking Solo as a Woman: "The number one question that everyone had for me was, 'You’re not going by yourself, are you?'"

very important previously
posted by AFABulous (28 comments total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
YEP. I'm on several backpacking facebook groups and the doubt about going alone on the trail for women comes up again and again - the woman doubting herself, and then there's people surrounding her (in person, online) doubting her solo abilities as well. PHOOEY, I say! There's a great fb group though called All Women All Trails and it's very supportive of women getting out there by themselves and becoming more confident in where they go, what to expect, what gear to take, etc. We share our experiences and encourage others to discover who they can be on the trail - either alone, or with others, short day hikes, backpacking trips, whatever suits your fancy... HYOH!
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 8:27 PM on May 13, 2018 [12 favorites]

I read Wild earlier this year and am currently reading A Walk In The Woods so this is RELEVANT TO MY INTERESTS thanks for this post! *dives into links*
posted by supercrayon at 8:37 PM on May 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

Man, woman, whatever; as long as you’re comfortable with the idea of going backpacking alone, go for it. I don’t go backpacking alone in remote areas but that’s just my comfort level (I’m a guy) and I’m less afraid of being attacked than I am of getting injured or lost with no one knowing for several hours that I’m missing. I’ve met some seriously badass women on the trails who have done some epic trips on their own. The backcountry is not somewhere people go to cause trouble.
posted by azpenguin at 9:07 PM on May 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

Yeeeeeeeeah. Without even seeing their Bio/Byline pics I immediately knew that all three of those authors are Caucasian women.

Further investigation proved me right.
posted by Faintdreams at 3:58 AM on May 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Yay women in the woods!

I recommend anything by Anne LaBastille, who built her own home in the Adirondacks and lived there alone for years, as outstanding and inspiring trail companions for the independent outdoor woman.
posted by kinnakeet at 7:25 AM on May 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Yuup. When I got divorced and started going out hiking and camping by myself a lot, this was always the first question I got from everyone. Glad to know that I'm not being irrational for feeling pretty safe in the woods by myself. And man, it's such a great experience. I hope this encourages more people to do it - and not just women.
posted by gemmy at 8:34 AM on May 14, 2018

As a frequent solo female hiker and backpacker (who sometimes takes the dog, who is big but a sweetheart who would be useless in a fight), I say RIGHT ON. When I started out hiking/camping/backpacking, my decision to go solo was about 10% desire and 90% just not having anyone in my social circle who was into the woods. If I wanted to go, it was clear that I would have to go by myself...so I did. Nowadays I have fellow outdoorspeople to go with, but I still prefer to be out on my own. I get up when I want, I camp where I want, I can stop in the middle of the day and jump in a lake if I want, I have the woods to myself. I have a two-person Big Agnes tent but that's because I like to sleep like a starfish sometimes and like the extra space.

I'm planning out this years trips on the Superior Hiking Trail right now and I'm so freaking excited. I'll be meeting up with my husband at the end of the first segment and I hope that I'll have some friends along for the second & third segments later in the summer, but I'm so much looking forward to the time alone in my beloved northwoods.

I do worry about the usual hiking things like breaking my ankle or somehow getting between a mama bear and her cubs, but those things aren't connected to me being a woman. Anybody should be aware that such things could happen - solo or not or whatever your gender might be - and be ready to think on your feet and react appropriately.
posted by Elly Vortex at 8:46 AM on May 14, 2018 [5 favorites]

Thanks so much for this post, these links, and the positive stories in comments. An occasional day hiker, I've wanted to get more into hiking and backpacking for, well, years, but haven't really for various reasons. And I'm really determined to do it this year, but wondered if I was being foolish to go it alone--no one I know is really into it. (Not even as much from the being-a-woman standpoint as wondering if going solo in general was a bad idea.) I travel and do loads of other things on my own women aren't "supposed" to do, but I have been a little worried that maybe I was just being a cavalier novice or something, although of course I am aware that women can and do hike and backpack on their own. So thank you for the timely inspiration.
posted by tiger tiger at 9:03 AM on May 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

Faintdreams, my friend and neighbor wrote this wonderful article about hiking the Appalachian Trail on her own as a black woman.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:36 AM on May 14, 2018 [16 favorites]

Wow, oneirodynia, that was a great article.
posted by JanetLand at 9:55 AM on May 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Oh my God, yes, do it. Go into the woods alone (having taken the proper safety precautions first). One of my big regrets when I lived in Wales is that I didn't do more solo wild camping. It's absolutely magical and incredibly soothing to my introvert self to just have the outdoors to myself and maybe some other passing hikers and definitely a lot of sheep and that is *it*.

I go hiking sometimes with friends and...it's okay? The most annoying thing is most people I hike with so far are incapable of not making sound with their mouths for, say, fifteen seconds at a time, so short hikes are kind of my limit. I would like to go camping with buddies the first few times I'm in bear country, but I can see very, very quickly reverting to solo hiking and camping. It's just...better.
posted by kalimac at 10:49 AM on May 14, 2018 [3 favorites]

Thanks from me too. This is one area around which I still had what I now see was an irrational fear, because I thought I was informed... I grew up wilderness camping (so wilderness that as a kid I sat in Army Blackhawks who trained in the Deschutes because they'd do emergency training landings next to our favorite campsite; so wilderness that we never crossed another human soul apart from those chopper pilots), climbed two of the Three Sisters backpacking and several other Oregon Cascade mountains off-trail, but always, always with others. "Never go into the woods alone" was drilled into me from my youngest age. At the same time I got priceless survival training, but it tended to reinforce that being alone was something that only happened in emergencies.

These articles got me talking with a colleague who does a lot of outdoor sports, and who was like, "well you know a trail is a trail because other people have walked it, and in Europe we're pretty much entirely covered by mobile networks, I've never not had coverage," and I realized I'd been carrying around this "women who do things alone get attacked" + "always hike in a group" + "you're only alone in a grave emergency" that, okay, fit 1980s and 1990s wilderness off-trail Oregon pretty well – and do still fit parts of Oregon that are a couple hundred miles from the nearest known manmade road, forestry or otherwise, in any given direction (yeah we have that; we also have quite a few with trails) – but I'm not in Oregon any more.

FWIW my colleague also reminded me that in France, gîtes (official link, they're accredited) and refuges are a thing, and are often/always (it depends on the gîte/refuge) manned by a person or two who will be happy to take your plans and notify someone if anything happens to you and/or you don't make it when you said you would.

I'm really looking forward to getting back to "wilderness" hiking now (sorry Europe, the scare quotes are from my Oregonian side).
posted by fraula at 11:00 AM on May 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm a white middle-aged woman who hikes and backpacks alone. I have a DeLorme InReach Satellite Tracker. If I remember to set it up correctly, it uploads my location to the satellite periodically and also allows me to text message back and forth with my partner. It also has a "come rescue me" button which I've never pushed. I know it is not 100% foolproof -- it might not work all that well in dense forest, but I hike in the Pacific Northwest & Sierra Nevada where tree cover is a bit more sparse than, say, the Appalachian trail.

There's risk in everything we do, including driving to and from the trailhead. For me, the beauty and peace of the outdoors is worth the risk I take.
posted by elmay at 12:56 PM on May 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

I have too much arthritis to do very much backpacking. But I did a Road Trip in a minivan with my small dog, who has no interest in defending me. Lots of people expressed worries, but I felt as safe as I do in my home, safer than I feel walking in many cities.

Lots of Maine has poor to no mobile coverage, and in more than a few areas, even if you call someone, they can't get to you quickly. My (not very old, fit) friend had a heart attack while hiking a mountain in cold weather, called for help, hiked to meet the helpers who didn't have his hiking skill, and certainly not with equipment or the ability to carry him off a mountain a great distance. I think he makes sure he carries aspirin when he hikes now.

This is a good post, thanks.
posted by theora55 at 12:58 PM on May 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

I came across an account along these lines in what seemed like an unlikely place: A marriage advice book.
When I finished my Ph.D., I took a two-week walking tour through the hill towns of Tuscany to unwind from graduate school and prepare for the next chapter in my life. Most of the touring companies I contacted had a policy that every female must be accompanied by at least one other person, but eventually I found a representative in one company who was able to be persuaded that I would not be a liability, as I am a fully capable adult who can make intelligent decisions. This touring company moved my luggage from inn to inn, leaving me free to walk from town to town with only a day pack filled with a few thick slices of bread, a wedge of good pecorino cheese, a bottle of water, some maps, and a journal. I had no cell phone and was glad of it.


...a week in a cabin in the backwoods of a small town in North Carolina. Once again, my senses came alive during this trip, as I faced both new and anxiety-provoking situations. For instance, on the night of my arrival, I followed my GPS to a location in the wrong county... there was no one else to depend on but myself and my maker...
- Shauna Howarth Springer, "Marriage for Equals"

(The conclusion of the book, as I remember it, is that the right person is the one who it's worth giving up some of that precious solitude for.)
posted by clawsoon at 5:29 PM on May 14, 2018

(My cut and paste non-skills inadvertently removed my friend's name from my comment: Rahawa Haile. She's written other great things as well.)
posted by oneirodynia at 6:07 PM on May 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

tiger tiger, backpacking is addictive and you can get to see things that very few people get the chance to see. If you can, look up a local backpacking meetup or group for your first time out. This way you can learn the things that you didn’t think of before, and get a lot of great tips for comfort, safety, food, etc. Plus you’ll get to gawk at everyone else’s gear and learn what’s out there. After you get your feet wet, start planning trips and go where ya want.
posted by azpenguin at 7:22 PM on May 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Her name is Vanessa? The last paragraph of her narrative, for me, put the cap on her story. I'm a white male, old now. Although I grew up in a hunter's culture, I began travelling in the back country of the Sierras in the late 1950's when I was barely into my teens. Most of the time (in those days) I went with my foster brother. When I got out of the army I spent a few years in a tailspin, and by the time I went back to the mountains I was broken. I first worked as a packer for the Forest Service. My joy was to lead a string of mules to the camps of trail crews, or fire fighters, spending my travel time alone on the trail.

I understand what Vanessa means by the "Hike The PCT" culture. This isn't what the mountains gave to me. They gave me nothing. They just were there, and I was there, too, so long as I paid attention to what you need to do to be there. The mountains don't care. I hated dealing with most hikers for various reasons that probably don't have anything to do with the freak show Vanessa talks about. If I touched them at all I was more like a ghost on a different mission. They always seemed to be unable to provide themselves a proper context in which to put me.

Years passed one season at a time. I moved from working at pack stations to making back country treks on my own. Alone, I brought nothing to the mountain; I just took what was there to be taken, without having it laundered through someone else's eyes. I've spent as long as thirty days at a time without ever seeing another person. Sometimes I was so lonely I ached--I wanted to be able to share the magnificence through which I traveled. But it's there the paradox first arises. Isolation is special, and it can't be shared.

The PCT Culture Vanessa's heart-breaking narrative tries to describe isn't about the PCT, or back-country travel. It's about the invisible demons we all carry with us, our companions. Mansplaining shit-talking travelers wanting to know where you rank, so they might place themselves accordingly. They need to find themselves on a rung above at least one other person. They bring this with them. It's not on the mountain. The mountain reveals to you that you have a place there if you want to take it, but you are a mote, a speck, and if you ignore the terms the mountain gives to everyone, you can die there, and the mountain won't care. These hikers never get that. Rocks don't have the same social structure as humans, trails are just a line already traveled by somebody else. Ridge-runners are reenacting a story in a magazine.

Vanessa faced a moment of truth when she was faced with the possibility of shucking a burden she hadn't signed up for. I don't blame her. I understand this, because I have faced that same demon--the one who dares you to exceed your capacity for loneliness, for abuse, and you can't but look away. My demons weren't hers, of course. She and I both earned our demons fair and square.

Thing is, I shunned the cultures: the boy scouts, hunters, citified campers who can't tell the difference between a rock and a parking lot, hard muscled ridge runners who take a 20-pound pack for a two week stint, and most of that poundage is in their meager climbing gear. I can't even look down on them, because there is no point, or thing, that exists that I know about but which escapes them. They get what they bring to the mountain. I get free of what I left behind that second day out of the trailhead. I was free and alive and alert. I come back to reenter the dreams.

It's been a few years now since I've been able to trek in the back country. I will never go again.
posted by mule98J at 7:35 PM on May 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

Vanessa faced a moment of truth when she was faced with the possibility of shucking a burden she hadn't signed up for. I don't blame her. I understand this, because I have faced that same demon--the one who dares you to exceed your capacity for loneliness,

I think this is a real misreading of the piece. The PCT is heavily trafficked— Vanessa’s experience was not yours, not only because as a gay, overweight woman she was subject to bro-y bullshit in a much hugher percentage of encounters than a white guy would be, but because she wasn’t alone for days at a time. Inner demons and loneliness were not her problem, people were. And she encountered people multiple times a day. You say that you “get free of what you left behind on the second day out of the trail head” but that wasn’t possible for her (or Rahawa Haile) because so much of what she wanted to leave behind was embodied by the assholes hiking the trail next to her, offering their bullshit unsolicited.
posted by mrmurbles at 8:27 PM on May 14, 2018 [4 favorites]

Re a comment above and whiteness--I am not caucasian. After two days out in the sun walking you have absolutely no doubt at all I am not caucasian.

I love walking on my own.

With men comes them either trying to prove themselves gods and trying to catch up and then fucking themselves up and having to baby them -- this is either exbfs or male friends or my brother -- and along with that the invisibility of people just ignoring you.

On my own? I don't have to walk at anyone's paces but my own -- if I feel like dawdling over a flower or a mushroom or just a pretty view, it's none's business but my own. When I talk to people? They see me. If I hurt myself? Well, that's my own fault, and I don't have to hear anything from anyone.

People always ask if I'm not afraid, and I'm like, nobody knows where I am, what is there to be afraid of? Snake bite? Well, if someone was with me, I'd still be dead. But with them panicking about it in all probability. Just set off my PLB and wait to be rescued, if I'm still rescuable.

Being brown has nothing to do with anything.

Then again, I'm not in America, sooo...
posted by owlrigh at 10:30 PM on May 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

I recognize that bro backpacking culture described in the PCT article, and it's certainly been one of many factors in the past that has made me hesitant to jump in (also the fact that women can sometimes adopt the same attitude, no doubt in an effort to fit in as "one of the guys"). But there are so. so. so. many articles out there telling women all the reasons they shouldn't hit the trails and they won't enjoy it if they do. It's relentless. I don't need to read more articles reinforcing that. Thank you again so much for the positive and encouraging stories.
posted by tiger tiger at 11:20 PM on May 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

I was day hiking with a mixed group on the AT last Saturday and passed at least 2 female through hikers. The sisters are doing it for themselves. Emma Gate wood was a white woman who through-hiked at 67 and was a survivor of decades of domestic violence. In 1955 for the first of several through hikes. The communities remain complicated - I should leave a few copies of Fahrenheit 451 in town.
posted by childofTethys at 3:51 AM on May 15, 2018

I love this quote from one of the articles: "...being solo in the backcountry is one of the only times in my life that I’ve been able to exist as a body and a person without worrying about how other people might try to claim my body as their own." When I'm walking by myself I feel really at ease and right with myself and my body in a way I never do otherwise. I love being able to set my own pace & there's a feeling of strength knowing that I carry everything I need with me.

It's not the wilderness by any means & there's plenty of foot traffic on the walk but I recently walked the West Highland Way solo and it was brilliant. The only people who seemed surprised by this were middle-aged men. I met a few other women walking it by themselves.

I'd never really done long-distance walking before and I did have this fear of being That Woman who, like, doesn't know what she's doing and has to be... idk... airlifted off the path with a broken ankle or rescued from wandering blithely into a bog or something (anyone who has walked the West Highland Way knows how unlikely that really is). I met another woman on the trail and before doing the walk we had both been worried about biting off more than we could chew, taking on too much, not having the right stuff somehow despite the fact that we were both physically fit and well prepared. Anyway my fears were totally ill-founded, I finished the walk in good time & was chilling at my hostel when I started chatting with a bunch of 20ish y/o guys who had just hiked up Ben Nevis. At this point there was still quite a bit of snow on the hills so I idly asked them if they'd brought crampons or ice axes etc. They were like "no it was a bit dangerous lol" completely unfazed by the thought that they could have been hurt - it was hilarious to me because it was such a contrast to how SO SO CAUTIOUS I had been in all my planning. It made me think of the way that blokes can get away with being amateurs who do silly stuff in a way women generally can't in this area without being seen as useless liabilities.
posted by the cat's pyjamas at 4:12 AM on May 15, 2018 [9 favorites]

I've been solo hiking since I was about 9 years old and I walked by myself around the lake where my family had a cabin, taking all day. The first time I got well and truly lost on a solo hike, I was 12 years old, visiting my grandparents in Norway, and it was in equal parts terrifying and exhilarating. No compass, no backpack--and it was long before the age of the cellphone. It took me hours to find my way back to civilization, but I remember it as being really really good for me. (And no one even noticed I was "missing", which was a bit unnerving, but okay.)

When I have to hike with others, it's grudgingly, because people talk to much or walk too fast or too slow, and don't know how to stop and listen. I never see wildlife when I'm walking with others.

I've never encountered assholes on the trail who made my hike weird or dangerous, though I have been wary. I remember encountering one dude who was carrying a six pack in his hand and didn't exactly look like he was "hiking." And another time I pulled off the trail and hid, because I saw that a guy was walking with a huge machete and whacking at trees along the trail. Turned out he was a ranger and doing his fucking job, so I felt a bit foolish.

I've encountered mama bears and cubs, and worry a little bit about mountain lions, but mostly it's my ankles that are my nemesis. I have stupidly weak ankles, and sprain one at least once per summer, because I get all moony and don't pay adequate attention to where I'm putting my feet. I can't imagine stopping the solo hiking though. I should probably get a satellite beacon or something. Usually I just tag the area I'm going in and tell my husband that's where he should point the searchers if I don't come back. He knows better than to say a word about me going where I want.

My only hesitation is hiking during hunting season. Those Citiots have some issues telling the difference between a blaze orange human and a deer.
posted by RedEmma at 8:40 AM on May 15, 2018 [3 favorites]

Vanessa faced a moment of truth when she was faced with the possibility of shucking a burden she hadn't signed up for. I don't blame her. I understand this, because I have faced that same demon--the one who dares you to exceed your capacity for loneliness,[ or abuse...]

"I think this is a real misreading of the piece. The PCT is heavily trafficked— Vanessa’s experience was not yours, not only because as a gay, overweight woman she was subject to bro-y bullshit in a much hugher percentage of encounters than a white guy would be, but because she wasn’t alone for days at a time. Inner demons and loneliness were not her problem,..."

mrmurbles, Perhaps so. I wasn't trying to define her demons. Maybe I was reaching too far to assume that our meta-culture treats gay people badly, and this creates some sort of defensiveness to those who too often are asked to justify themselves to people who just don't care to try to understand, or prefer to rest on inherited dogma. If I was unclear, the culture of Hiking The PCT (compared to simply hiking the PCT) was hauled up to the mountains from down below. Finding solitude is something new hikers don't usually have the experience to handle. Goal-oriented hikes--you know, from Mexico to Canada--don't allow for dallying, or visiting the side trails of the Central Sierras, which I can guarantee are underpopulated. Literature and logistics are focused on the through or sectional hikers, and it probably seems too pedestrian for the uninitiated to take these side trips seriously, because, if you want to make it to Canada before the heavy snows, you need to set your pace carefully.

Vanessa was misled twice. She thought the hurtful people didn't come to the PCT; swamped by trying to absorb the tons of minutia relative to the trek, the theory of solitude was never an issue to be built into her trip. Defining the trip: Mexico to Canada, sort of ruled that out.

Also, it's a mistake to confuse solitude with lonliness.
posted by mule98J at 8:42 AM on May 15, 2018

Vanessa faced a moment of truth when she was faced with the possibility of shucking a burden she hadn't signed up for. I don't blame her. I understand this, because I have faced that same demon--the one who dares you to exceed your capacity for loneliness,

I think this is a real misreading of the piece. The PCT is heavily trafficked— Vanessa’s experience was not yours, not only because as a gay, overweight woman she was subject to bro-y bullshit in a much hugher percentage of encounters than a white guy would be, but because she wasn’t alone for days at a time.

I dunno, I've read her blog and it actually does seem that, among other things, she was often very lonely on the PCT. Social interactions seem very intense for her in good and bad ways. I got the feeling reading it that she might have had an easier time with a buddy.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:11 PM on May 15, 2018

**That is, totally aside from the instances of toxic male culture, though she doesn't mention that so much on her blog. It's worth a read.
posted by oneirodynia at 5:12 PM on May 15, 2018

« Older It feels like the right time to share how the rest...   |   I am who I am and you are Fidel Castro Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments