Recently the New York Times published an article by Megan Specia and Tariro Mzezewa about the dangers women face when traveling alone. It mentions women such as Hannah Gavios and Carla Stefaniak who were both attacked while traveling solo and Stefaniak tragically dying as a result of her attack. With growing numbers of female travelers, society at large feels a dissonance between encouraging these “bold acts” and disseminating warnings to women who plan to travel alone. While the intention may be pure and some may carry on, the way these tales of caution are received isn’t uniform. Terrifying statistics and finger wagging may just nip a young adventurous spirit in the bud, casting an undue paralysis on outward bound young women.
Several responses to the article, including one by author, blogger, and podcaster of She Explores, Gale Straub, refute the article and claim it does not do enough to turn this phenomenon on its head. In the article, Straub mentions the paralyzing dichotomy of the repetition of these stories, echoing “‘I told you so,’ a warning to stay on guard, if not entirely still.” Straub sites the dozens of women she has interviewed and inserted their thoughts about solo travel into her piece. Reading both articles is highly encouraged as they present two distinct viewpoints on the issue of safety for female travelers.
I bear the words of these women in my heart when I travel, the good and the bad, in order to strike a balance between preparedness and paranoia. Before I began trekking solo, my vigor and excitement to explore a new trail or to swim at a unique beach would fizzle by the time I could find a partner or group to accompany me. (This was before I found Ridj-it which now makes this issue much less of a hassle). Work, classes, and fitting together a jigsaw of schedules made small local hikes a months-long logistical nightmare.
So I’m guessing you clicked this article to get some advice on overcoming that seemingly insurmountable first obstacle: going out alone for the first time. I am by no means an expert, but I do love solo adventuring and exploring the world in my own time, so I want to help other adventurers in any capacity I can.
1. No adventure is too small
This is an important one (hence its place at the top). My itch for adventuring alone began with simple jogs around my neighborhood in Boston. I would depart in an ambiguously chosen direction and start running. I soon got a better feel for the city and began to sense a connection with it that I hadn’t held before. I loved the time I got to spend wandering streets I would never have seen before, and adventuring alone to a local green space also gave me the time I wanted for myself to do journaling or meditating. Little by little, I began going further out from the city and took public transit or Ubered to more easily accessible parks close to Boston, including the Blue Hills Reservation in Milton and Middlesex Fells in Medford.
Since these local outings, I have since done an overnight car camping trip at Mount Tamalpais in the San Francisco Bay Area. That may seem like a big leap, but trust me, in between were dozens of 5-10 mile hikes in the areas surrounding my parents’ house in California when I was home for the holidays. It took a while to build up my solo-confidence, but once I took the leap into solo overnights, that immensely empowering feeling took me to a new level of faith in myself.
2. Plan Everything
This may seem like an inherent characteristic of solo travel, but I’ve often fell victim to my poor planning. Some of the most important factors to consider when making a successful solo trip are the following:
Consider your mode of transit and transit time; hitchhiking alone is risky, and if you want to avoid that, plan your bus/shuttle schedules.
Research the park for a ranger station if you want a little extra help choosing a trail.
Do a test run to see how fast you walk a mile comfortably then add 10 minutes to that time for a rough estimate of your pace on the trail with water breaks and uphill slow-downs. This will help you choose the best trail for yourself to make sure you aren’t sprinting down to the car at sunset without a headlamp.
Always bring a headlamp on longer hikes (5+ miles). You may feel silly especially if you’re done hours before sunset, but you won’t regret it. Adventuring alone without light immediately increases your risk of getting lost and injured.
As for other gear, look at hiking blogs for details on whether or not you need tougher boots or if your sneakers will suffice. Being self-sufficient will be key to feeling secure enough to go out on your adventure.
I personally do not carry a firearm, but some women pack heat when adventuring; this is a very personal decision to make and one which should follow state, city, and park rules.
3. Do what you need to do to feel safe
Security means something different for everyone. For me, I carry a small multi tool with a pocket knife and a personal alarm keychain that makes a high pitch sound when pulled off the pin. I also have a small whistle on my day pack, which is a common feature of most packs by outdoor brands. As a somewhat novice adventurer, I still haven’t invested in an emergency radio or satellite phone, but someday that may be what will make me venture even farther into the wilderness.
Security in nature has multiple levels for women. There are chances of animal encounters and falls. There is also harassment that I and other of my female hiking friends have experienced on the trail without the presence of another man to deter the situation. This may not be everyone’s experience, and some may have more severe or frequent encounters, so acknowledging what you know to be true will never be the same for anyone else. Making room for the idea of negative situations you can’t or won’t have validates other women’s stories and makes the outdoors a safer space for all of us.
4. Communicate Deliberately.
Getting caught up in miscommunication can easily happen, but setting intentions early on will be better in the long run. By communicating deliberately, this means leaving your information with a defined person who can connect with the rest of the world in case of trouble. Before sending people your location with a “Call the cops if you don’t hear from me by X o’clock,” ask them if they’re ok with being responsible if you get lost or lose track of time. Communicating deliberately also means being straightforward and blunt with strangers encroaching on your defined comfort zone. If someone asks to join the journey, you can be honest and say, “No, I want to hike alone.” If the situation calls for more subtle strategy, say you are waiting for a friend to catch up.
5. Get out there!
Enough of the heavy. Put down the device you’re using to read (not your glasses), take this new knowledge into the world, and send it. Solo.