I am a woman. I am a hiker. I often hike alone.
For years I was too afraid to hike alone. I grappled with my overactive imagination. I struggled to cultivate a comfort zone where none existed. For reasons both practical and mysterious I eventually found myself enjoying the rush of engaging in the slightly risky, but liberating act of solo hiking.
I am not always the striding heroine in a Jane Austen novel gliding through field and forest. Unlike the elegant damsels in the woods I am usually overloaded with gear. The rituals of preparation, the false security of a cell phone, and a trusty set of hiking poles arm me with enough confidence to set out alone. My inner Agent Scully evaluates the trailhead before setting out and casts a periodic glance on the trail behind. I think carefully about my route and tend to be more mindful when outside alone, especially when in less familiar areas.
I willingly assume the risks of solo hiking because walking alone in a forest cleans out the mental clutter, sharpens the senses, and grants numerous wildlife sightings (sadly, no witnesses to confirm the bobcat). I have come to savor the experience of solitary walks in nature. My experiences alone in the woods give me a confidence and strength that translates into other aspects of my life.
When I first started regularly solo hiking, I was living in the mountains of South Carolina. Around that time, Meredith Emerson was murdered while hiking with her dog in North Georgia. The murderer was later traced to other killings in southern forests. At the time I remained focused on the objective reality that I was still safer in a Southern Appalachian forest by day than any Southern Appalachian strip mall parking lot at night. I should note I have not found a database of crimes against hikers but have extrapolated based on crimes reported in parks versus other locations. After the gruesome news of the Emerson case, I recalibrated my comfort level, one hike at a time, building confidence through experience.
Occasionally my routine pastime is met with surprise or concern and I am reminded that it is not such a carefree or obvious pastime for others and of the repeated exposures that were required for me to feel so at ease. A primary care doctor once suggested I take a gun on my hikes as she does. Further, there is a privilege to my freedom in the hills that many women in much of the world do not have.
Over the decade I have become a solo hiker I tend to worry more about a broken leg than any external menace. However, there have been more than a few occasions I have changed my route or turned back based on a feeling. I once passed a nondescript middle-aged man standing in a rocky clearing in the pines, a favorite stretch of local trail. An unfamiliar creepy feeling washed over me in such a familiar place. I picked up my pace and changed my intended route. On most hikes I encounter all manner of people without second thoughts or creepy feelings. Many hikes I rarely encounter anyone. On most hikes I see more wildlife than people. Recently I saw a man through the pines hanging out by a 1980’s van associated with the kidnapping warnings of my childhood. My rational brain argued as my body shifted direction away from the van. How could I, a forty-year-old woman, be afraid to pass a man and a van? Why, I argued with myself, can women make strides in the workplace but must still at times take tentative steps in the woods? But I listened to the inner feeling, the one that is not so easily explained. This feeling, even if it is illogical or at times incorrect keeps me hiking as it provides a sense that I can respond to whatever I encounter on and off the trail. I should include a disclaimer here. I do not intend to imply if a victim had been more prepared or listened to some inner intuition it would have prevented an attack. I completely acknowledge that in addition to my general fitness and preparedness there’s been a component of luck to having so many uneventful solo excursions.
After all these years I am cheered to increasingly see solo women on the trail. Women blog about solo hiking and there are numerous tips and ideas for the solo hiker online. I enjoy reading these posts and feel solidarity with other women pursuing solitude. A recent review of solo hiking sites has inspired me to get personal locator beacon and to also be more consistent with sharing my itinerary so that I can more safely solo hike and ease concerns of loved ones while continuing to expand the boundaries of my adventures.