Nervous Novice to Hardy Hiker – Tips For Feeling Safe On Trail

The new hiking season has kicked off and I am excitedly planning this year’s trails. However, I’m reminded that I feel some low-level frustration about reining myself in from the casual freedom of my plans, in order to consider my personal safety. I’m not frustrated because I want to be reckless, but because some hiking demographics (read: usually women) need to be more aware of their personal safety than others (read: usually men). We should all be using best practice for safety on trails and hikes, but my frustration comes from the much-discussed (over discussed some may say) topic of women needing to be extra thoughtful about keeping themselves safe. From online trolls in hiking groups to creepy dudes who don’t know that “No thank you, I don’t want to hike/camp/drink with you” means a hard no, there’s a whole gamut of balls to dodge out there—no pun intended.  This can feel like it stifles and suppresses our freedom in the outdoors or sharing our experiences in real-time online, but it doesn’t have to. There are many more women hiking the trails alone these days, badasses all, but probably each with similar root fears at some point in their hiking career and ways to overcome them.

Two girls smiling and wearing head torches in the dark

Getting over the fear of night hiking!

But Why Worry?

I’m a solo female hiker, and although I made many wonderful friends to hike and camp with along the AT, I was, at root, alone. I’m not here to scaremonger or man-bash; there are loads of different ways people can be assholes regardless of gender or sex. I’m here to share what I learned. I actually had a safe and wonderful time on trail and met incredible people. This will be 99.9% of other people’s experience too, but it doesn’t hurt to be informed. The statistics about the safety of the trail were much discussed last year after the senseless murder and attack of hikers in Virginia. It was clear that aside from these extremely rare events we know that we are very safe on trail in comparison with the real world. I’m not talking about the kind of safety such as keeping dry in bad weather. That’s for another post. This is about keeping your wits about you and minimizing fears of the occasional loose-cannon having the chance to make contact with you, hassle you, or otherwise upset your apple cart.

Girl hiking away on wooden boards through high green woodland

Somewhere in deepest New Jersey.

A Little Bit of Background

My own life experiences mean that I am a little hypervigilant about certain aspects of my safety. I’ve experienced some trauma that meant when I planned my SOBO Appalachian Trail last year I was perhaps worrying more than others. It didn’t help that before I left the UK to come out to the trail there had been the aforementioned attack, or that a male AT NOBO hiker I was following on IG had sent me aggressive, unsolicited d*ick pics and sexual videos. (Side note: He was later unmasked as a serial online stalker and chased off the socials by a group of incredible hikers who doxxed him and discovered, among other things, that he was raising money for himself via a fake charity using GoFundMe. They eventually got the authorities to force him to give all the money and gear back.)  These incidents flared my anxieties, and I realized that the only way to calm them was to take a more dispassionate and organized approach to keeping safe, while beimg realistic about what was likely to happen, or not happen.

Right. Let’s get to it. Below are a collection of tips and advice that I found useful to know before I set off. You might not need any of them, that’s cool; hike your own, etc. But if you don’t use them yourself, you just might meet someone like me who could do with hearing them.

Safety and Hitchhiking

Two hikers hitching on a highway

Hitching back to trail near Port Clinton.

You will likely need to hitchhike during the course of a long trail thru. Towns are not always easily accessible on foot, and in all weather you’ll find yourself on the side of a road hoping for a ride. Hitchhiking can be safe, fun, and super helpful, especially if you’re with a few others. I loved it in a pair or group, but it took me quite a while to hitch alone and in the end it was dictated by circumstance rather than choice. So, when it happened I made sure to consider all the advice I’d been given. Here are some of the top tips:

  • Trust your gut. If someone stops and it doesn’t feel right, then pass. Politely. Make up an excuse if you need to. If the driver is funny about it then that should only confirm your decision.
  • If someone is clearly drunk or high, pass on the ride. It’s just not worth it to risk your safety. There’ll be another one.
  • If you’re happy to take the ride but still anxious, then before you get in a vehicle ask the driver if you can take a quick photo of their license place and send it to a friend. If they are funny about this then maybe it’s not the ride for you.
  • Put your key valuables and phone, etc., in your fanny pack or in your hands/coat before you hitch. You’ll likely need to put your pack in the trunk and should the very unlikely scenario occur that you need to get out of the car and away swiftly, you’ll have your most important items with you.
  • Try to avoid potentially inflammatory conversations in the car, such as politics, religion, and sexual topics. It’s not worth it and you don’t want to provoke any tension. If they are adamant about chatting on these topics, nod, smile, and let them carry on.
  • Don’t hitchhike after dusk if you can help it. You’re harder to see by the side of the road and easier to hit!

Ultimately I didn’t need to use many of the tips above. The reality is that there are far more good-than-bad eggs out there, but it’s still wise to have a backup plan and a system for feeling safe.

Location and the Socials

Blue sky and wide mountain range views in Roan Highlands with hikers descending

The trail heading to Roan Highlands.

When I was hiking the AT  I was keen to regularly update my IG, Facebook, and YouTube but I wasn’t sure how to do so because I was alone a lot of the time and after the d*ck pics and sketchy vids I’d received, I wasn’t too keen to let people know exactly where I was when I was alone and in unfamiliar surroundings. So I delayed my updates by a day or two, posting awhile after the fact. Now, for me this was really frustrating for a number of reasons. Yes, it meant that I wasn’t broadcasting where I was sleeping, alone on a trail, to an open public forum. But it also really interrupted my ability to write, post, and update friends, family, and followers in a coherent way. I also missed followers and trail angels who were checking in on my posts to see if I was close by so they could come and say hi or give some magic. I often received messages when I posted about being in a location, only to have to tell people I was two or three days past it already. Very annoying. I think if you’re reliably hiking with people then perhaps real-time posting is something that’s less of a worry. I know that for my next hike I’m going to try to live post more, rather than trying to live in the moment on my  hike but be living two days ago in my online comms!

So, in short,

  • Delay your posts if you’re going to reveal your location, posting pictures after you have already passed through a place.
  • Perhaps keep your accounts private and then you can post more securely about where you are.

Trail Names and LogbooksPage of a trail log book with writing from hikers

These are two joyful, wonderful things. Trail names speak for themselves—wild and wonderful monikers that get assigned to you and that identify you for the hike. No rules, of course. Choose your own if you like, but many people get given them for quirks and funny incidents. Lo books are where people write the date (and sometimes time) they came through a shelter, why they were there, and where they might be heading next. They add jokes, ongoing stories from past logbooks, and intel about places they’ve been or places they’ve heard about ahead. You feel like you know people who are ahead of you even if you never meet them; it’s a beautiful thing. But, if you’re not feeling confident about hiking alone and want to maximize your safety, even if just until you’re used to being on trail, consider:

  • Choosing a gender neutral name, eg Dinosaur, so that no one can guess your age or gender when you sign the logbooks.
  • Being careful with what you leave in the logbooks; never your itinerary for the day, just simple checking-in notes.
  • Telling your family and support system at home what your trail name is.

Meeting People on the Trail

Hiker with her arms around two trail angels posing for picture in the woods next to a cooler.

You meet the kindest trail angels.

You’ll meet all sorts. Day hikers, thru-hikers going in the other direction, section hikers, and locals walking their dogs. You’ll also meet some drifters and lost souls. Most all people will be awesome, friendly, and often interested, but you don’t have to get into deep chats with people if you don’t want to. You don’t have to hike with anyone you don’t want to, and you definitely don’t have to camp anywhere that you don’t feel safe.

  • Quick hi’s and byes on trail are enough. You don’t need to chat to everyone you meet.
  • Have some good excuses to dip out of walking with someone if you need them, such as needing to take a pee stop, making a family call in service, or dealing with some blisters. Let them roll on.
  • Don’t tell people you’re hiking alone if you don’t feel comfortable, even if you are alone. I would tell people who asked me this question that I was with a trail family, even if I wasn’t. “Some are a little behind and some are a little in front today,” I would say. This would make me feel less vulnerable.

Now Go Have the Time of Your Life!

Ultimately I had an incredibly safe, wonderful time on trail. I pushed through lots of the fears that led me to need to know about the tips above, and am now more experienced, resilient, and able to make better choices than I would have at the beginning. None of us are immune from a one-in-a-million chance encounter with a bad human or one with bad intent, but they are very rare. The trail community is strong, kind, overwhelmingly generous, and very aware of the things hikers face. I had a ball, but it didn’t do me any harm at all to have strategies in my head to give me the courage to start strong. So, if you’re about to take on a trip outside of your comfort zone and do the trail alone, then I hope some these tips can help give you self-assurance as you go and crush it. You’re going to have a wonderful time. G x

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Comments 9

  • Steve M : Jan 19th

    Another great and useful article, Gail! Thanks so much for posting it!!
    Can’t wait to hear about your next adventure (just as soon as you’re done living it of course LOL) -Steve

    Reply
    • Appalachian Gail : Jan 19th

      Thanks Steve! Really appreciate your feedback and look forward to updating you on the South West Coast Path planning soon! 🙂

      Reply
  • Cap : Jan 19th

    Great article and very helpful. My solo NOBO thru hike is 2021. I’ll be 65 and husband is a bit concerned so all these ideas/thoughts are good to reassure family too.

    Reply
    • Appalachian Gail : Jan 19th

      Hey Cap! Thanks for reading, and I’m super glad it was useful. You’ll have a wonderful time and meet amazing people of all ages and backgrounds. Feel free to reach out if you want have any questions I could help with! Gail 🙂

      Reply
  • Yvonne : Jan 19th

    Great article! This is a really sensible and practical summary. I’m planning a thru later this year and things like this have definitely been crossing my mind – feel much more prepared to tackle these situations now. Cheers Gail 👍🏽

    Reply
    • Appalachian Gail : Jan 19th

      Hi Yvonne! Thanks, I really appreciate that feedback and am super glad it hits the mark. I really appreciated other people giving me tips and advice so was keen to pass them all on. Are you Nobo or Sobo thru later in the year? Ahh it’s going to be SO wonderful and you’re going to have a ball! x G

      Reply
  • Effie Drew : Jan 19th

    Really wonderfully said, Gail! These are easy, practical tips. I’ve hiked a large part of my miles solo or within a trail family and always find that taking small, but thoughtful steps helps to keep you from feeling too vulnerable. Though, I always have my dog on the trail with me which adds a significant feeling of security 🙂
    (note: I don’t recommend this for 95% of dogs out there) Goodluck with whatever trail comes next for you!

    Reply
    • Appalachian Gail : Jan 20th

      Ahh thank you Effie. I loved seeing dogs on trail and often wished I had one too, but I realised how much hard work it is! Hats off to you and yes, I defo think they help you feel safe. Awesome that us solo female hikers are out there getting after it. Happy trails to you too! G x

      Reply
  • Tipper : Jan 21st

    Sound advice and nicely expressed. Everyone should read this – not just women. I followed much of this advice on my ‘06 thru – although mobile phones were much less prevalent then with essentially no FB and certainly no Instagram to “vlog” my trip. (Was vlog even a word then??!!) Happy Trails, AG.

    Reply

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