“Be careful out there.”

I’ve heard that phrase countless times from friends, family and even strangers over 20-plus years whenever I’ve set off for a trail run or hike with just my dog as my companion.

While I appreciate their concerns for my safety, I know they likely do not share the same distress for the men in their lives. Frankly, I’m not entirely sure what it is exactly that I am supposed to fear in the woods.

The mentality stems from culturally instilled fears that the woods are a scary place where bad things happen — to women, especially. In the movies, the murderer is often depicted coming out of the woods.

“Women have a fear of being attacked,” said Angie Jordan, program supervisor at Bastyr University and occasional wilderness survival educator for the Wilderness Awareness School. “I hate that there’s this fear of cultural stories that could keep me from being my wild self in nature. To get over that, I have to remember to not let them take it away from me.” 

She credits that drive as the reason she went into wilderness survival.

Life, in general, is dangerous. You could get in a car accident while driving to work any day. And while it is always safer to hike with a buddy, just because it’s good to have someone with you in case you get hurt in the backcountry, you should also feel like you can go off on your own as long as you take precautions and are armed with the 10 essentials.

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“Really the thing most folks should be cautious about on trails is weather,” said Jessi Loerch, Washington Trails editor. “The weather here can change really fast.” Always check the weather before heading out, and regardless of the forecast, bring an extra layer and raincoat.

The rules for safety in the woods apply to anyone venturing into the wilderness, not just women. 

Getting started hiking alone

Venturing into the outdoors alone can certainly feel intimidating, but building your confidence and outdoors skills over time will conquer those fears and eventually lead to comfort in the wilderness.

When you first begin, your initial outing can be something as simple as a visit to your local park.

“Get used to walking in the woods and listening to the sounds that they make,” said Jordan. From there, she suggests branching out to a larger county park, then a state park, gradually expanding your location as your comfort and confidence grows.

Choose well-traveled, well-marked trails and know your limits. Pick a trail that is within your limits.

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Loerch suggested hitting the trail with a friend, but hiking 10 minutes apart and agreeing to meet up at certain landmarks to check in periodically. “This way, you’re hiking alone, but still have someone there,” she said.

For those brand new to hiking or to an area, introduce yourself to women’s hiking groups and get started with new friends to show you the ropes. 

The PNW Outdoor Women (PNWOW) Facebook group is an inclusive and supportive community where women of all backgrounds and skill levels can build toward their outdoor goals. 

“I’ve been seeing increasingly more and more groups of women on the trails, which can be empowering and supportive,” said Leah Rush, a Mountaineers member who works in emergency management. “If someone is considering doing it, they certainly won’t find themselves alone out there.”

Managing the fears

“When we think about women, or anybody hiking solo, our mind is naturally drawn to a worse-case scenario,” said Anastasia Allison, the founder of Seattle-based Kula Cloth, who’s also a backpacking instructor and former park ranger. “Before we even leave for the trailhead, we’re already thinking about what could go wrong. I believe in being prepared, but also being open to everything going right.”

Allison suggests sitting down somewhere comfortable before the hike, closing your eyes, and visualizing yourself pulling up to the trailhead and noticing how you feel. Next, start the hike in your mind and see yourself confidently hiking down the trail, feeling strong and energetic.

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“Not taking the time to visually and mentally prepare yourself for the best-case scenario is a missed opportunity,” she said.

Now that you’ve played out how the hike will go in your mind, preparation will keep you safe if something were to go wrong. Pack the 10 essentials and know how to use them. Study the trail by reading trip reports to understand the terrain, condition of the road to the trailhead, resident animals and snow levels.

If you are planning a solo hike, always tell a friend where you’re going. Let them know how long you expect to be gone, what you’ll be wearing, and the make, model and license plate of your car. Text them when you leave and again when you return. Agree on a time they should call the police if they’ve not yet heard from you.

If you can afford one or have access to one, carry a satellite device that will allow you to communicate with friends or emergency services when necessary.

Jordan always carries a canister of bear spray with her. Not just for bears, it can be used on any large predator.

Lastly, trust your instincts. If something feels off, then turn around; the trail will be there another day. Leave the headphones at home in order to be more aware of your surroundings.

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“For me, in nature, especially solo, there is peace and quiet and a deeper level of self-awareness where I find that I trust my instincts more,” said Rush. “There have been times where I’ve changed course because I listened to my body.”

Nature and spending time alone can serve as an incredible antidote to the fast-paced world in which we live.

“When we see the news, it’s always about the horrible things that happen to solo hikers all the time,” said Allison, “I often wonder what would happen if every newspaper committed to writing about every single solo hiker that had a great time that day.”

Summary of useful tips

  • At the trailhead parking lot, leave a note in the windshield of your car with your name, date, location and who to call for help if your car is still there by a certain time. 
  • Pack the 10 essentials! Extra layers are always helpful if the weather changes suddenly. In addition, a mirror can also be useful to reflect sunlight and attract attention; and while it’s good to bring a paper map and a compass, you should also learn how to read them beforehand. Don’t solely rely on your phone.
  • Download an offline map of your destination before you leave your home.
  • Tell someone you trust where you’re going and when you expect to return.
  • Research medical services available closest to where you’ll be, just in case you get into an accident on the trail and need to seek help.
  • Know what animals live in the area and how to handle any potential interactions.
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