About the Author: Jennifer Pharr Davis is an author, speaker, National Geographic Adventurer of the Year and owner of Blue Ridge Hiking Company. She has hiked over 14,000 miles – mostly alone – on six different continents.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked whether or not I feel safe on the trail.
The answer is, “Yes, yes, I feel safe on the trail.” And, the more time I spend outdoors the safer I feel out there. I am not saying, however, that there are not risks when it comes to hiking and backpacking.
There is a chance you will encounter storms and wildlife on the trail. Sometimes that can be the best part of the experience! Other times it can be terrifying. Rounding a turn and coming with a dozen yards of a bear is frightening. But it is the fear that makes you immediately and instinctually step backwards and create space. I used to think that feeling fear was a negative emotion but now I realize that it is your body’s way of keeping you safe.
That said, when most people ask me whether or not I feel safe on the trail, they are not referring to chance encounters with animals or electrical storms on ridges, they are wondering about two legged threats.
When my dad dropped me off as a twenty-one year old at the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia, he said, ‘You know, you’re greatest risk out here is probably going to be people. But there are people everywhere, and if this is something you want to do then you should do it.”
Honestly, the people I have met on the trail have restored my faith in humanity. There are so many times I have been given food, water, and a ride to town by someone wanting to be helpful. There is a sense of vulnerability on the trail. And, similar to fear, it is a natural human emotion that can help develop trust, empathy humility, and empathy.
That said, just like packing the right gear, there are certain steps that can help you stay safe and feel prepared on a journey where you find yourself in new places with new people.
- Take a Partner.
Whether it be a family member, friend, or Fido. Accountability is never a bad thing. But sometimes we all need a little solitude, so be sure to…
- Leave Your Itinerary
Regardless of whether you chose to hike solo, with a partner or in a group, you should still leave your hiking plans with someone at home – include the mileage, destination, and return time or date.
- Make a Check-In Plan
Establish when and how frequently you will check in with your accountability partner at home. It could be every few hours or days on a GPS device, or it might come at the end of a safe trip. Either way, communicating clearly about check-ins can help keep you safe – and keep the other person from freaking out!
- Share Conversation – Not Personal Info
It’s easy to make friends on the trail, but when you first meet someone be careful not to disclose too much information too soon. A new contact doesn’t need to know if you are hiking along, how far you are going, and where you are camping that night.
- Trust Your Instinct
No need to apologize or act polite. If you’re gut gives you a bad feeling about someone, then do everything in your power to create space immediately.
- Pack a Safety Tool (or two)
Determine the right safety device to bring on the trail. It could be a safety whistle, pepper spray, hiking poles, a GPS tracker, cell phone, self-defense skills, or extensive backcountry knowledge.
- Party Light
Hiking and Backpacking are the main form of recreation out there, so go easy on drinking, smoking, and anything else that could impair your judgment.
- Report Suspicious Behavior
Is there an abandoned campsite that looks a few days old? Is there someone lingering too long at a trailhead? Did a hiker come across as aggressive or threatening on the trail? Report anything that seems suspicious to the local authorities.
- Don’t Plug your Ears
Don’t block your hearing with ear buds to the point where you can’t hear. Just don’t. If you want to listen to music, keep the volume low or listen with one ear bud.
- Don’t Post Live Updates
Your friends and family can know your exact location, but don’t share it across all your social media channels, unless you want “friends” you’ve never met showing up at the trailhead.
- Be Aware
Engage in your surroundings. Be present. Be observant. And be especially vigilant when you are near towns, roads, and trailheads.
Yes, there are animals and storms and other people. But any time you go hiking, your greatest piece of gear and your biggest threat is always the same… and it is looking right back at you in the mirror. Most people who need to be rescued from a trail are evacuated due to bad choices and poor preparation. So be smart, plan, prepare, take the right gear, and trust your instinct. And, if you mess up on any of that then ask someone on the trail if he or she would be willing to help. In my experience, there’s a 99.999% chance that the person will help AND become a friend.