Solo Hiking: An Opportunity for Self-Reflection
A few months ago, I read a post by a solo female hiker (SFH) who’s had some bad experiences when interacting with men. It’s possible that she’s just been unlucky and her experiences are not typical. Alternatively, her perspective might be shared by a significant proportion of female hikers. In either case, it would be possible to take the blog post personally and react defensively on behalf of the entire male hiking community. That, I think, is the most charitable way I can interpret some of the comments. With all of this in mind during a recent hike, I thought about my experiences on trail, and what I need to do in future.
Don’t refer to an SFH as “brave”
It’s clearly a double-standard, since it wouldn’t occur to me to say it to a solo male hiker (SMH). However, it’s something I’ve been guilty of quite recently. I should explain. Last year, late one evening, I arrived at the Onion Valley trailhead before setting out to hike a section of the John Muir Trail. As I checked the notices at the trailhead, a SFH made her way down the trail, hurried past me, and disappeared among the cars in the parking lot. Having finished reading the noticeboard, I wandered over to the campground in order to find the best of the available sites.
As I returned to my car, the same SFH reappeared, asking if she could hitch a ride down to Independence. I hesitated. It had been a long day and I was tired of driving. Still, it was unlikely anyone else was heading into town given that it was getting late. I put her backpack on the rear seat of my car and we started down the road.
It turned out that she was hiking the JMT southbound, but had to leave the trail for a few days. I was genuinely impressed. I’d never attempted a hike of that distance. Unfortunately, I expressed my admiration by way of the “B” word. Before I’d even finished the sentence, I realized it would probably come off as patronizing. She politely corrected me and pointed out that she was safer on her own in the backcountry than in the city. Fair point. In hindsight, the only way I can justify calling an SFH brave is when she puts her trust in a complete stranger by getting into his car.
Do express genuine concern if the situation calls for it
I too have met hikers whose only concern is to highlight their backpacking prowess, and I hate having to pretend to be impressed. That said, I would prefer to risk annoying a fellow hiker by implying that they are underprepared than have them actually run into trouble.
Don’t be that coworker
I’ve seen several bloggers refer to their thru-hike as a “job.” When I started work, the company made me take “preventing a hostile work environment” training. During that training, they specifically mentioned that commenting on a coworker’s appearance could contribute to a hostile work environment. Making inquiries regarding their significant other could be similarly problematic. Hence the “coworker test” while out on the trail: before passing a comment, I need to ask myself a question. Would said comment, in a work environment, put me at risk of being fired? If there’s any doubt, I’ll keep the comment to myself.
Do admire the scenery, but do so from afar
This year I hiked the JMT northbound. While ascending the unnamed pass south of Garnet Lake, I started to catch up with another northbound hiker. This SFH wasn’t exactly hanging around, so the gap between us closed very slowly. I noticed she was wearing green shorts. I noticed she had nice legs. I noticed that the gap was still closing really, really slowly.
It occurred to me that she would now feel like I was stalking her. Or maybe she was just trying to outrun the inevitable conversation once I caught up. On the descent, she stopped for water at a stream flowing across the trail. I kept any comments regarding shorts and/or legs to myself. We talked for just a minute or two: a careful balancing act from my perspective. I didn’t want to appear rude by abruptly disappearing down the trail, but I also didn’t want to over-stay my welcome. I felt like an ambassador representing all male hikers: a chance to improve our reputation from the point of view of this particular SFH.
Anyway, all of that was just a long-winded way of saying yes, I am going to notice if you have nice legs. Probably more frequently if you’re female. I’m also going to do my best to ensure that neither you nor anyone else sees me looking. Hopefully that keeps the creepiness to a minimum.
The bottom line
I would hate to detract from any anyone’s enjoyment of the backcountry. SFHs are rare, in my experience, and I’m hyper-aware that my behavior shouldn’t make matters worse.
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