Backpacking Safety for Solo Women: Understanding and Managing Risk in the Backcountry
When sharing news of an upcoming thru-hike, one of the most common questions I get — right up there with “Where do you poop?” and “Where do you shower?” — is “Are you going alone?” I do understand the concern. As a woman, it has been instilled in me to never walk home alone. Therefore, how could it be safe for me to go backpacking alone for thousands of miles in some of America’s most remote backcountry?
Along with the anxieties everyone carries with them on a long or short backpacking trip, women have to juggle the additional fear of dangerous encounters with other people. I’ve been lucky enough to have experienced primarily pleasant encounters with strangers while backpacking. Because of this, I am quick to disregard gender-specific safety concerns as overreactions.
However, I acknowledge that there are women who have had damaging interactions on and off the trail, which can cast deep shadows across seemingly benign scenarios. These experiences should not be glossed over or dismissed.
In this article, I attempt to tackle the following question: “Is backpacking alone as a woman safe?” Forgive me for the spoiler, but I’ll tell you now that the answer is, of course, “it depends.”
First, we will hear from some solo woman thru-hikers about their experiences on the trail, before taking a look at the statistics we have available for crime in the backcountry. Finally, I’ll leave you with some safety tips and tricks I use when backpacking alone to reduce both my actual risk and my perceived feeling of danger.
Interviews with Solo Female Thru-Hikers
In order to do justice to this complicated topic, I reached out to three of my talented, accomplished, and amazing thru-hiker friends to highlight their experiences as women in the backcountry. Even with their input, the four of us represent a minuscule cross-section of the hiking community and women in general. As we’ll discuss later, dangerous human interactions on the trail are extremely rare, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t occur.
It’s also worth noting that the factors that contribute to (or detract from) “feeling safe” will be different for everyone. With infinitely varied backgrounds and personalities — traumas, triumphs, triggers, sense of self, confidence, self-understanding, comfort being alone — the journey is different for everyone.
As individuals navigating a bottomless and terrifying list of “what ifs,” we must each decide for ourselves what we are comfortable with, while treating those of differing views with compassion and empathy. Ideally, everyone would feel and be safe while thru-hiking alone. Despite this unified goal, the path to reach it will be unique for each individual and none is more valid than another.
Madelyn “Wrong Way”
Wrong Way, whom I met on the Colorado Trail in 2022, pushes through the most challenging conditions of a thru-hike with grit, determination, and an unyielding love of playing Euchre over dinner. She hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2021, finished the Colorado Trail in 2023, and — along with her cool and fun friend (me!) — will be embarking on the Continental Divide Trail in 2024.
Wrong Way is quite comfortable backpacking alone. As she puts it, “I feel much more confident being alone on trails than I do on sidewalks. I think that most people in trail settings truly and absolutely want to see each other succeed.” This is a sentiment that shows through during an encounter she had with a fellow hiker that made her uncomfortable.
Worst Interaction on Trail
She recounts a time on the Appalachian Trail when she received inappropriate texts and requests from an older man she had been hiking with. “When I called him out on it, he insisted they were meant for his wife, but we all suspected that he wasn’t being truthful, and he also never apologized.”
However, she knew that the fellow hikers she met on the trail would stand up for her if needed. “We heard that he left the trail shortly after, but even if we had run into him, the rest of my tramily would have made sure he kept a wide berth from our group.” Making friends was easy on the trail, and she mentions that “the Appalachian Trail, specifically, is so populous that I don’t think I would have ever been alone if I didn’t want to be.”
Safety in the Outdoors
Although comfortable backpacking alone as a woman, Wrong Way takes some steps to ensure her safety and peace of mind. “Although people don’t make me as nervous as they once did, I still carry pepper spray and a small knife that I keep with me in an accessible place, both on my pack and in my tent. (No, I don’t and will never carry a gun.)”
Alexa “Lady Scout”
Lady Scout walked from Mexico to Canada on the PCT in 2021 before returning home to New York to pursue her work at a nonprofit creating human rights documentaries. As a talented photographer and connoisseur of the alpine skinny dip, she brings an infectious joy to every moment on and off trail.
Starting with a Partner
Lady Scout started the PCT with her boyfriend at the time. “Starting with someone I knew, a seasoned hiker, and a man, provided the comfort and support I thought I needed. I am equally glad that we started the hike together, and that I broke up with him halfway through the trail.”
While it was emotionally helpful to have a partner with her to start the trail, she was easily able to keep going after splitting from her boyfriend while maintaining the social life she wanted to have. “At a certain point on a thru-hike, the only people around you are other long-distance hikers. The community gives a sense of comfort.”
Worst Interaction on Trail
Lady Scout recalls her worst on-trail interaction with another hiker. After finishing a particularly challenging day on the PCT, she went for a swim in an alpine lake, but noticed a fellow hiker would not stop staring at her. “I immersed myself as much as I could to cover my naked body, wishing … I could ask someone to bring me clothes without me calling too much attention. It was one of the moments in my life where I felt the most powerless.”
Safety in the Outdoors
An encounter like this doesn’t stop Lady Scout from getting outside on her own terms. She routinely goes backpacking alone on the Appalachian Trail. “Sometimes, being a lone wolf on my weekend hikes is exciting because I do anything I want.” Additionally, she notes that “this incident does not stop me from getting naked in the woods. It does, however, make me cautious of anyone clueless about their creepy actions.”
On the topic of safety and peace of mind, Lady Scout acknowledges that “every situation is not a one size fits all for every hiker. Some folks are much more experienced with certain terrains or climates than I am. Some folks don’t hitch. I listen to my own internal idiot meter — aka, my gut instinct.”
Malena “Piss Bag”
I met Piss Bag — who is far kinder than her name implies — during the Big Eddy 50K ultramarathon in Annandale Minnesota. She is a talented ultrarunner and writer, and completed her first thru-hike on the Colorado Trail in 2023.
Piss Bag both started and finished the Colorado Trail alone. “I knew it would be an incredible experience to do on my own, it would help increase my confidence as a woman in the outdoor space, and I knew I’d meet people along the way.” She adds, “Plus, I didn’t know anyone who could (or wanted) to take a month off of work to hike hundreds of miles and sleep in the woods.”
Like Wrong Way and Lady Scout, Piss Bag has very few reservations when it comes to spending time outside alone, explaining “Being in the woods, on the trail, and in my tent is when I feel best.”
However, she feels uncomfortable with hitchhiking and, when possible, will try to find alternate ways into town. “Standing on the side of the road with my thumb stuck in the air is a vulnerable and scary thing to do.”
She, thankfully, didn’t have any creepy or uncomfortable situations with other people on the CT, so I will instead leave you with her best encounter with a stranger.
Best Interaction on Trail
After a tough day on the CT, Piss Bag recounts, “I was sitting by the river, filtering my water, and — of course — crying. A man in his 50s or 60s shows up to wash up in the river. When I turned around to say hi, he noticed I was crying. He said ‘Oh honey, what’s wrong?’ Which just made me cry more… I unloaded all of my feelings on him and showed him my blistered feet. He gave me a towel to wash my feet, bandages for my blisters, and asked me if I felt safe and comfortable. Once I stopped crying and my feet were taken care of he said, ‘you are more than welcome to join my friend and me for supper.’ And, I did.”
She credits this man — trail name, Denali — for giving her a physical and emotional boost when she needed it most and inspiring her to continue with the trail.
This drives home what all long-distance hikers can tell you: generally speaking, most folks you meet on the trail are kind, supportive, and actively excited by the prospect of helping you succeed. Meeting these strangers and forming connections is one of the most underrated parts of a thru-hike.
So, let’s keep pushing into some other reasons why you shouldn’t be as afraid of being alone in the backcountry as you may think.
Statistics: Violent Crime and On-Trail Hazards
Due to the incredibly small sample size, there aren’t any concrete statistics breaking down dangerous interactions while backpacking by gender. As anyone who has had one of these encounters can attest, there isn’t a centralized reporting system set up to document them* and, even if there were, they would most likely be incredibly underreported.
However, we can use the limited statistics we do have to draw a few conclusions.
*Each of the Triple Crown Trail associations does offer some form of incident reporting, linked below:
Violent Crime by Gender
While female backpackers and thru-hikers face an increased risk of unpleasant encounters with strangers — which is rooted in anecdotes rather than clear data — this is no different than women’s experiences in their hometowns.
And considering the data we do have, women in the United States aren’t clearly more at risk of violent crime — defined as murder/manslaughter, rape/sexual assault, or aggravated assault — than men. The gender with the most reported incidents varies from year to year, and often the reported numbers are similar.
Crime in National Parks
Now let’s look at the reported violent crimes in national parks compared to the crime rate across the United States.
Please do not misunderstand this graph; it is plotted on a logarithmic scale to even allow the National Park crime data to be visible. (A logarithmic scale is a method of displaying data so that relatively small values — in this case, violent crime in US national parks — are clearly visible alongside much larger values — in this case, violent crime incidents in the US as a whole.)
What this graph shows is that, for every one visitor to a national park in 2020, there were 0.0000025 violent crime incidents. For every one citizen of the United States in 2022, there were 0.003 violent crime incidents. In other words, a visitor to a national park is about 1,000 times less likely to be the victim of a violent crime than a citizen of the United States.
The reported crime rates suggest you are safer in a national park than in the rest of the country. So, in lieu of more representative data — recognizing that most long trails live largely outside the national parks — perhaps we are justified in drawing the conclusion that the rates of violent crime are significantly lower in our shared outdoor spaces than in America on average.
National parks might not be a direct proxy for our infinitely varied long trails, many of which spend a significant portion passing through “average” America, but their limited representation is still notable and valid. Some trails are almost entirely contained within national park boundaries (e.g. the JMT and the Wonderland Trail) and it is easy to create an original backpacking itinerary based on this same characteristic.
So while the sample size is too small and the correlation to backpackers, particularly thru-hikers of long trails, too indirect to draw any concrete conclusions, the data suggests you are more likely to be the victim of a violent crime in your hometown than you are on a trail. Of course, “average” America is in reality even more varied than our long trails, and hometown crime rates can be drastically different depending on where you call home.
Other On-Trail Dangers
This is not to say that backpacking is an inherently safer activity than sitting at home. Fatal accidents and life-threatening injuries do occur on our trails and routes — far more often than incidents of violent crime.
While the Appalachian Trail has seen 11 murders from 1974 to 2021, these account for a minuscule percentage of deaths on the AT. Falls, medical issues, and exposure to the elements account for over 100 fatalities during that same time period.
Pacific Crest Trail Fatality Causes
The PCT has a little more information available regarding fatal on-trail incidents, with this chart showing the breakdown of the causes of the 16 known fatalities on the trail between 1983 and 2022. Of these 16 fatalities, four were women.
The data tells us that the most important thing you can do to prepare for a backpacking trip — regardless of your gender — is to educate yourself on the conditions you may encounter on your hike, along with the proper gear needed to navigate this terrain. The most persistent dangers you will face in the backcountry come from nature itself as opposed to other people.
Statistical Conclusion: Is Backpacking Safe for Solo Women?
My point about these facts is twofold:
1. Don’t let stories of women being victims of violent crimes in the outdoors dissuade you from embarking on a backpacking trip of your own. Long-trail violent crime data in particular taps into an incredibly small sample size and covers an exceptionally uncommon occurrence.
Remember, violent crime rates in the outdoors are significantly lower than the national average — regardless of gender.
Furthermore, while non-violent harassment against women is crucial to consider, existing United States violent crime data doesn’t strongly implicate one gender as more at-risk than the other.
2. By a wide margin, the greatest dangers in the backcountry are environmental. The vast majority of fatalities and incidents in the outdoors are caused by natural hazards, which don’t discriminate based on gender. While not all risks can be mitigated, preparedness is the most powerful tool in a backpacker’s arsenal against physical harm.
So, why does it remain such a pervasive idea that women need to constantly fear strangers in the woods while men are seldom given this warning?
(Source: Violent Crime)
Perceived Risk and Feeling Unwelcome
As a woman, fears and expectations of a violent, gender-based crime have been ingrained in my mind since childhood. This fear has hindered me in the backcountry far more than any reality or lived experience. As a result, I hesitate to tout the bravery of backpacking as a solo woman: I never want to subconsciously enforce this fear for other women.
However, I do think another factor beyond societal conditioning contributes to this perceived risk.
As with the data on violent crimes in the backcountry, the data on harassment in the outdoors is similarly sparse — yet extremely impactful. Though it encompasses more activities than backpacking, a survey by Outside resulted in 70 percent of respondents reporting that they’d experienced harassment. Other polls suggest that the majority of women recreating outside have experienced harassment or inappropriate behavior.
Just because an interaction with a stranger doesn’t lead to a violent crime doesn’t mean the experience was pleasant. In fact, non-violent, non-physical encounters can be devastating, yet completely commonplace. Ask any woman who has spent time outdoors (or anywhere), and as the data suggests, she will likely have a laundry list of creepy or degrading interactions with men in the backcountry.
Harrassment occurs at varying levels along a wide spectrum of malicious intent. Words are often used as violence against women, whether it is obvious or subtle, intended or accidental, laughed off or rejected at the time.
This is common both in the front- and backcountry. Gender inequality has many manifestations and while these interactions are seldom actually dangerous, experiencing them personally raises my feeling of perceived risk in the outdoors.
Personal Examples of Uncomfortable Interactions
- I have had a man persistently ask where I was camping that night, and become agitated when I would not tell him the specific mile marker.
- A man looked me up and down before telling me, “someone like you should be careful out here.”
- A man pulled over to pick me up on the side of the road, only to drive away when he realized I was hiking with a male partner.
Would any of these interactions have led to a violent crime? The statistics say probably not. But, this does nothing to take away from how off-putting the experiences were and how long they have stayed with me.
Every time I venture into the backcountry, these experiences — and more — live in the back of my mind. I am no stranger to that bolt of white-hot anxiety that comes with the sound of footsteps in the dark or an “off” feeling while hitchhiking. Luckily, I take steps while hiking and camping to lower my perceived feeling of risk in the backcountry.
Backpacking Alone: Safety Precautions
Thru-hiking and backpacking will not be fun if you are consumed by this anxiety, regardless of how likely you are to actually experience a violent incident during your hike. Here are precautions you can take to mitigate some of the most common concerns I hear from other women.
Hitchhiking as a solo woman has always been — and probably will always be — a contentious issue. While I personally feel very comfortable hitchhiking when near a popular long trail, I understand others’ hesitation. You are getting into a car with a stranger, and trusting them to drop you off safely, all while having almost no control over their actions.
Here are some of my favorite tips for safe hitchhiking:
Self-defense: Carry some sort of weapon or self-defense device. I move my Swiss Army knife from my pack to my pocket before getting in the car. Pepper spray (or bear spray) is another great choice. Caveat: it’s probably not a good idea to use it while in motion.
Safety in numbers: I also try to never hitchhike alone. Not only does having more people in the car reduce the pressure for you to carry on a conversation with the driver, but there is safety in numbers.
Inform others: Use your phone or satellite communicator to inform someone of the license plate of the car and your anticipated arrival time. And it doesn’t hurt to be obvious about this. Take a photo of the license plate, and let your ride see you do it.
Don’t be afraid to say no: If whoever pulls over gives you a bad vibe, don’t feel compelled to honor them with your presence. If they’re potentially intoxicated or something is just “off,” then give an excuse and let them pass.
Maybe you “left your phone at your last break and need to go get it.” Maybe you really need to poop. Plan ahead and have a few one-liners ready to go. Trust your gut and don’t be afraid to lie. You don’t owe anyone anything.
Keep essentials near: Keep your pack with you if you can (on your lap, at your feet, etc.). At a minimum, keep your wallet, phone, and self-defense device (if you have one) with you. Likewise, keep your satellite communicator easily at hand if you carry one.
Hitchhike in daylight: Not only will you be more visible to passing cars, but you’ll be safer too.
Be alert (and sober): You are vulnerable while hitchhiking, especially if you are alone. No matter how long the ride, try to be alert and sober the whole way so that you can react to any sketchy behavior.
Test the waters: Exchange a few words with your potential ride before tossing your pack in the trunk and calling shotgun. This will help you judge the driver’s sobriety and let your instincts sound any alarms.
Be clear about your needs and intentions: Let the driver know that you are a hiker in need of a resupply and where you are going. Be specific — town, business name, rough distance and time to get there. And if it’s a long way, start with an intermediate location partway to your destination. That way you don’t need to change your story if you want to end the ride early.
Check that the door works: Make sure you can unlatch your door. A sneaky way to do this is to pretend like you didn’t close it all the way the first time.
Choose your driver: If you’re trying to catch a ride from a trailhead or parking lot, be proactive and seek out a potential ride with someone who looks trustworthy. Chat them up before they get in their car rather than waiting for someone to take pity on you.
Be aware: Know where you’re going and the most efficient route to get there. Consider having Google Maps open with navigation on, and don’t be afraid to speak up if you don’t think that your driver is taking you the right way.
Wear a seatbelt: Even nice strangers get in accidents.
Or Limit Your Need To Hitchhike in the First Place
I’ve had a lot of fun with hitchhiking, and have met characters I never would have without sticking out my thumb. However, if you find hitchhiking to be an anxiety-inducing experience that you’ve come to dread, there are other options!
Many trailheads along popular long trails have trail angels or shuttle services you can contact in advance. They might not be free, but your comfort is worth it. It doesn’t matter how you get to town, just that you show up safe, happy, and ready for a huge meal.
Furthermore, some trails require more hitchhiking than others, or none at all. For instance, it’s possible to hike the entire John Muir Trail without getting in a car if you take advantage of mailing yourself on-trail resupplies. A few trails are more readily accessed by public transport than others.
And some (AT *cough, cough*) have enough resupply locations that you can choose which to visit. Perhaps if you carry extra food, you can skip the one town that requires a long hitch. So if the prospect of hitchhiking causes anxiety, then tailor your trail/section choice and resupply strategy to accommodate your reservations.
Most of my anxiety when camping alone stems from irrational fears of bears, mountain lions, flash floods, and falling trees. However, it’s never fun to imagine an ill-intentioned person coming across my tent.
Here are some tips for safely camping alone:
Avoid roads: Camp at least a mile away from road crossings to buffer yourself against chance encounters with non-hikers.
Don’t broadcast: Wait to post location-tipping content on the internet until you’ve moved on.
Make your campsite appear gender-neutral: Before going to bed, pack away or conceal any female-specific gear like shoes, clothing, and backpack so passersby can’t easily determine whether the campsite belongs to a woman.
Inform loved ones: Use a satellite communicator or phone if you have service to let someone back home know where you are camped each evening.
Actually stealth camp: Camp far enough from trail so that passersby won’t know you’re there. Bonus: this is also LNT.
Avoid known campsites: High-use areas such as the shelters on the AT can provide safety in numbers, even if you’re surrounded by strangers. However, this also makes them potential targets for nefarious acts. Particularly if you are alone, designated campsites can feel exposed in the worst way.
Be ambiguous: Keep your intended camp location to yourself. Even if you know exactly where you want to stop for the day, have an unspecific answer ready. If someone asks where you plan to camp, say something like, “Not sure. I usually just hike until it gets dark and stop there.”
Quite frankly, I prefer to camp with people because I enjoy the company. But, by taking a few precautions when picking a campsite, I prevent myself from getting in my own head about noises once the sun goes down.
This probably isn’t common advice in many aspects of your life, but I am an advocate for being rude, standoffish, and lying to people while backpacking alone.
Have you been approached by someone who is making you feel uncomfortable? Your fictional “husband” (6’7″, football player, very protective) is right behind you. Is someone insisting you tell them where you’re camping? End the conversation and keep on walking. Have you just gotten to town and someone is pressuring you to split a hotel room? Room is full.*
*Unfortunately, just saying “no” might not be the safest course of action. If someone truly means you harm, then using firm language might alert them to the fact that you’re suspicious of them. This might spur them to act in desperation, whereas a more nuanced, conversational (yet still definitive) response can get you on your way and out of their presence. While you have every right to walk away without engaging, the goal here is to remain safe, not maintain self-righteousness.
As women, we are often pressured by societal norms to maintain an air of grace and hospitality at the expense of our own safety. You do not owe anyone in the backcountry your plans, your location, your presence, or your small talk. When in an uncomfortable situation, say what you need to say — however you need to say it — to end the encounter safely.
Finally, I find a lot of security and inspiration in following along on the journeys of other solo, female thru-hikers. Whether this be by subscribing to their blogs or following their Instagrams, I love finding a badass hiker and thinking “You know what? I bet I could do that too.”
Here are the Instagrams of the women mentioned in this article, if you are looking for inspiration:
Hopefully these tips — even if not necessary — will help you feel more secure in the backcountry. There isn’t any harm in being extra safe or extra cautious. But, don’t let the fear of something happening stop you from trying.
Backpacking Is Safe for Solo Women — Just Come Prepared
Finally, I want to leave you with this: men are statistically more likely than women to die or initiate search and rescue operations in the backcountry (80 percent of searches are initiated by males), yet their place in the wilderness is rarely questioned, and they are less likely to be discouraged from recreating outdoors alone.
I will wait for the day when I hear someone tell a man, “don’t you want to go with one of your female friends, just in case your testosterone clouds your decision-making abilities?” Even then, I will continue to be a strong advocate for women embarking on solo backpacking trips.
Backpacking can be dangerous for anyone, regardless of gender, and the risks — whether environmental, animal, or human — are amplified when flying solo, as help might be out of reach. The best way for anyone to stay safe is to have the requisite skills, knowledge, gear, and good judgment to survive in the environment where they recreate.
Find the Right Trip for You
Violent crime is a small risk in the backcountry, yet this risk exists everywhere, and alone is not a reason to avoid the wild spaces that are historically safer than many towns and cities. So if you are considering a solo trip, then go for it. While backpacking is never risk-free, there are methods for mitigating these risks and finding a trail or original itinerary that matches your tolerance for certain dangers.
If you don’t feel comfortable hitchhiking alone, but want to be alone, then find a quiet trail where it isn’t necessary. If you want to find hiking companions, then pick a popular trail and go during peak season.
Unfortunately, staying safe on our trails isn’t always as simple as saying, “Just go, it’ll all work out.” But with a little bit of research and preparation, there’s a backpacking trip out there for everyone.
Are you a woman considering a thru-hike or backpacking trip? Have you been putting it off due to a fear of going alone? Your concerns are valid, but they don’t need to disqualify you from pursuing your dream. Regardless of whether you want to be around others or find solitude, you should feel empowered to seek that experience.
And, if you’re still scared after planning your ideal trip, then do it scared, because it’s worth it.
READ NEXT —
- The Benefits of Solo Backpacking: 7 Reasons Hiking Alone Is Awesome
- Interview with Carolyn “Ravensong” Burkhart, 1st Woman to Solo Thru-Hike the PCT
- 7 Badass Woman Thru-Hikers Who Inspire Me To Hit the Trails
Featured image: A Katie Jackson photo. Graphic design by Chris Helm.
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