Hiking trails are safer than cities. For many people, the woods are a distant, scary place – isolated and vulnerable. And while there are always risks involved in backpacking, they might not be the ones you expect.
As a young woman who spends much time solo hiking (without a partner), I am always answering the question: Is it safe? And most often the implied question is really: Is backpacking safe FOR A WOMAN?
The short answer is that I feel more safe hiking on the Appalachian Trail than I do walking my dog around downtown Durham where I live. More assaults and robberies occur each year on Duke’s campus than across the entire 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail.
Safety is an important consideration for any backpacking trip, but the dangers on the trail are not gender specific. Weather, wildlife, and wounds are the Ws of concern…not women.
Here is a description of some potential risks and how we plan can be prepared for them:
Bears, snakes, spiders – The threats of wildlife on in the Appalachian mountains are pretty low. Most animals we encounter would rather run away from us than cause any harm. For instance, the only bears we have around here are black bears. Unlike grizzlies, black bears are scaredy-cats and will run away as soon as they hear hikers. As a group of 10 women, I would be shocked if we are ever quiet enough to see a bear before it hears us and runs away. That being said, they are around, so we will hang our food and follow good backcountry practices.
Ticks – Ticks, on the other hand, can carry a variety of diseases including Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. I have had Lyme disease, and let me tell you, it’s not fun. As such, we will be hyper-vigilant about ticks and remove any bites promptly. We can protect ourselves further by wearing long pants, bug spray, and staying on the trail.
Getting Hurt – The most likely dangers our group may face while hiking are minor injuries, like rolled ankles, blistered feet, or sunburn. In order to decrease the chance of injury on the trail, we will keep our pack weight down, walk slowly, and listen to ours body. This is NOT the time to “suck it up” and push through discomfort. If something doesn’t feel right, speak up! Usually, we can prevent injuries from getting worse if we address them immediately. I am certified in Wilderness First-Aid, as well as traditional First-Aid/CPR/AED both for children and adults. And as a lifelong hiker and athlete, I have extensive first-hand experience dealing with injuries both on and off the trail.
Illness – Similar to at home, folks also get sick on the hiking trails. Whether it’s a cold or virus travelling among hikers or a water-borne illness from improperly treated water, illnesses happen. In order to minimize the risks, we will maintain basic hygiene and filter our water. I will also carry a complete backcountry first-aid kit with over-the-counter medicines for pain, allergies, digestive issues, and more. If you have a pre-existing condition, bring your medicine with you and take is as normal. Every hiking route has emergency evacuation routes planned ahead of time so that in the event of major illness or injury, we can evacuate the individual to higher level medical care promptly.
Storms and Inclement Weather – Alta Trails trips are not cancelled because of rain. Rather, we pack appropriate gear for the season, and we plan ahead for the possible weather we could encounter. A “Happy Sack” is a waterproof bag used to pack your camp clothes and sleeping bag. It’s called a Happy Sack because in the event of torrential downpours or a pack gone tumbling into a stream, the waterproof bag will keep your essential items dry so that you too can be warm and dry at the end of each day. While we strive to hike as scheduled whenever possible, we also carefully review weather forecasts and reserve the right to modify any itinerary if the weather is deemed unsafe.
Getting lost – Each hiking route used by Alta Trails is scouted each season. That is to say, I walk the exact route that our group will walk within 3 months of every trip that I plan to lead there. The purpose of scouting trails is to assure that we know the route well and to check the status of the terrain, water sources, tent sites, and to note any changes on the trail. Many of the Alta Trails trips this October will travel partially or entirely on the Appalachian Trail. The A.T. is very well marked with white blazes and is easy to follow. In four months of thru-hiking, I only took a wrong turn once!
Other people – I would estimate that 99.5% of the people I’ve ever met on hiking trails are fantastic individuals, but the other 0.5% exists. Just like in town, occasionally, we may encounter unsafe individuals. To protect our trip participants, our tent sites will always be set up so that any non-Alta person must pass my tent before anybody else’s. I do this for two reasons: first, I am an incredibly light sleeper, so I will be able to hear if anybody enters (or leaves) the campsite for any reason. (Sorry girls, yes, this means I’ll hear you go for your midnight poop.) And second, I will firmly tell any negative presence that they are not welcome in our campsite.
As a precaution to address many of these risks, I will be carrying a SPOT GPS Messenger which allows me to send three kinds of messages all of which include my GPS location. I can send a check-in message to all parents and loved ones that lets them know we are all okay, I can report a non-life-threatening emergency for which I need help, or I can send out an S.O.S. signal that sends helicopters and the works to the rescue. I do not foresee needing the latter two, but each morning and evening I will send check-in messages to the Alta homebase.
The number one way to stay safe while backpacking is to PLAN AHEAD AND PREPARE. We at Alta Trails are making written emergency plans for every possible scenario; we are scouting trails, and we are following all the best safety practices we’ve been trained to use.
We are excited for the adventures ahead, and you can count on Alta Trails to be prepared so that we can all enjoy a fun, safe weekend exploring the mountains together!
Please feel free to message me if you have concerns that I did not address in this post. I am more than happy to answer any questions you might have so that you feel safe and comfortable on our trips!