Emma Wright says she was acutely aware of her gender during the four and a half months she took off from college to thru hike the Appalachian Trail.
“Overall, about a quarter of the thru hikers on the Appalachian Trail are women,” she said. “But the number of solo women is a fraction of that.”
Wright, a cultural anthropology major at Duke, wrote her senior thesis about how hikers form bonds and form boundaries on the trail. She interviewed thru-hikers while on the trail and conducted follow up interviews about the reentry process.
In conducting this research, Wright was bothered by the lack of racial and gender diversity on the trail.
With her own experience in mind, Wright started Alta Trails to offer affordable backpacking trips in North Carolina and Virginia for anyone who identifies as a woman. Through donations, she provides all of the gear and supplies needed for the weekend trips as she works to break down some of the barriers for those who have never been backpacking. As the program grows, Wright hopes to offer trips for a variety of age groups and skill levels.
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!
I am a woman. I am a feminist, a Christian, an athlete, a singer, a nerd, a perfectionist, a goofball, and the founder of Alta Trails.
I could list a hundred labels that describe me, but none of them would sufficiently answer the question “Who am I?” Labels are tricky because often they are assigned to us rather than chosen by us. Additionally, labels come with a myriad of assumed connotations. There is a prescribed image that pops into your head when I say I’m a woman or an athlete. Labels are useful for categorization, but they fall short when it comes to describing individuals.
Stories, on the other hand, tell us the why’s and the how’s. They reveal a person’s character, passions, weaknesses, and journeys. Personally, I love stories – listening to them and telling them. So here is one of my stories that might help shed some light on why I love Alta Trails.
(excerpt adapted from my senior thesis on the culture of thru-hikers)
In total darkness, I carefully loaded my backpack for the last time and silently marched out of camp. I hiked with determination like every day before, but this mountain was different. This was my final climb of the Appalachian Trail. The trail was steep and littered with boulders, but my legs powered over every obstacle with strength and agility. The morning sun rose behind me, illuminating the vast expanse of nature. After nearly three hours of scrambling uphill and over rocks, the iconic sign which had been my destination for four months emerged through the fog.
Four months ago, at the beginning of my hike, I would have been disappointed that there was no view on Mount Katahdin, the peak that marks the end of the Appalachian Trail. But that morning it wasn’t about the view. In fact, I could not have cared less that I was surrounded by clouds at the summit because all I needed to see was that sign: “Northern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail,” with an arrow pointing south to where I had begun: “Springer Mountain, Georgia – 2189.1 miles.” I raced toward the sign, kissed it, and proceeded to scream at the top of my lungs. I had always wanted to yell from the top of mountains, but I’d always chickened out when I saw other hikers nearby. I was nervous they would judge me or laugh or think something was wrong. Not this time. On Mount Katahdin, I let it rip. My shouts dissipated into the wilderness, and tears flooded my eyes. I couldn’t tell if I was sobbing because I was sad or happy or exhausted or scared or excited or simply overwhelmed. Perhaps all of the above.
I sat there crying at the summit until my growling stomach took charge, and I ate my last Pop-Tarts of the Appalachian Trail. I was completely alone yet connected to generations of thru- hikers who have stood in triumph on that very rock. “Now what?” I pondered. Lunch? Or feast? Nap? Shower? I was thrilled to have finished, but I wasn’t ready to be done. In the words of a fellow hiker, “I went to the Appalachian Trail to get hiking out of my system, but I discovered that hiking is my system.”
Hiking IS my system. When I am wandering in the woods, I am the most confident version of myself. I feel strong and self-reliant, while simultaneously supported by an intangible connection with every other hiker. At school, it’s easy to be in a room full of people but feel totally alone. On trail, I am often by myself, but I am never without community.
Alta Trails is founded in the spirit of the trail – once you set foot on an Alta program, you are forever part of our trail family. Our quirky, uplifting, and deeply loving family. We are not perfect. I certainly am not perfect. But we are excited to discover and grow in our future together.
My name is Emma. I am a hiker. I am your sister. And you are mine.