The question of women’s safety has never felt more relevant since the tragic death of Sarah Everard. In a recent report by the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) for UN Women, 71% of women of any age said they had experienced sexual harassment in public spaces, clearly showing that the threat to female safety is very real. But how does this translate to the great outdoors – is hiking alone as a woman safe in 2021?
A quick straw poll I conducted on Instagram yielded mixed feelings. Some women felt confident when alone outdoors, or thought that rural areas were far safer than city streets. But others replied with comments such as: “I’m definitely too scared to explore alone at night”, “I would never hike alone in woodland”, “I would love to try wild camping, but I’m too nervous, and I doubt that men feel the same”.
And many women said that feeling vulnerable changed how they planned their outdoor adventures, or held them back from solo hiking, camping and travelling.
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Hiking alone as a woman: is it safe?
Personally, I have always felt far safer in the starlit outdoors than on a dark city street. I don’t want to play down the real dangers that women face daily in all environments, but I feel much more vulnerable walking home late at night in the city I live in than striding alone up a mountainside with a bivvy bag.
But despite so many positive experiences in the outdoor environments that I love, I’m not sure I ever fully relax when I’m alone outside. Even after years of solo walks and camps, I’m always vigilant, and my fight-or-flight response is never fully switched off. And I take precautions that I doubt many men even consider. I don’t run in my favourite woods after dark. I let someone know where I’m hiking or sleeping. I don’t share my location on social media until I’m safely home.
Hiking alone as a woman: the opinions of female adventurers
I asked fellow outdoorswomen with many miles of remote hikes and cycles under their belts how they felt. Adventure athlete Laura Kennington (main image) regularly completes endurance cycle challenges solo. Has she ever felt unsafe outdoors?
“Yes, I have. On a couple of occasions, it was justified, but more often than not, my anxiety has been caused by an overactive imagination. In the latter cases, I rely on logic - the statistical chances of me bumping into a malicious human, who just happens to be passing at that exact moment, are actually very slim.”
Intrepid long-distance solo hiker Anna Blackwell knows how our perceptions of danger versus our reality can be very different.
“I've only felt unsafe on my solo adventures a handful of times. The most memorable was in Arctic Sweden, when I'd pitched my tent in an idyllic clearing where there were two other tents. When the occupants got back at the end of the day, I discovered that they were four men. Sitting in my tent, I could hear the hiss of them opening beers, lighting the fire, talking loudly... And I didn't know what to do. I was so aware of how vulnerable I was. In the end, I poked my head out and it turned out they were four wonderful men in their late 60s who were on their annual fishing trip. They shared their food with me - it ended up being a magical experience”.
“I’ve felt unsafe many times during my solo adventuring,” she tells me. “I’ve second-guessed my judgement when scrambling, I’ve feared the weather when up high on an exposed ridge, I’ve pitched my tent and then wondered if I’m too close to a tree that might fall on me. But one thing I’ve never felt is unsafe due to another person. Most women know the feeling well – you’re walking through a dark city street at night and you feel uneasy. You’re priming your innate fight-or-flight responses. I do feel the same sensation in the outdoors, but it’s usually about the elements, rather than other people.”
Gemma Davies is a Mountain Leader and rock climbing instructor who leads guided hikes in Snowdonia. She hasn’t encountered barriers as a female mountain leader in a field once dominated by men, saying: “I've found everyone in the outdoor community incredibly welcoming and encouraging, especially when I’ve asked for support towards my Mountain Training Awards. I hope that we’ll see more female providers in the Mountain Training industry in coming years.”
She also recommends that women consider choosing a female outdoor instructor, both to feel more comfortable and confident when gaining new skills and to support women working in the adventure industry.
These are reassuring messages about how the outdoors can be a positive and life-affirming space for women. But clearly a change is needed if all women are to feel safe. When I discussed this article with another female travel writer, she said: “Don’t give women any practical safety advice. The onus is not on them.” Most women already know, or will arm themselves with, sensible ways to help them stay safe, whether they are on city streets or mountain peaks. The responsibility is not on women to make sure men don’t attack them.
Nic thinks there’s still some way to go in how women are perceived in the outdoor community. “When I undertake multi-day solo hiking challenges as a 36-year old woman, I get comments like ‘you are so brave’ and ‘what do your parents think about you doing this?’ – remarks not likely to be made to a male adventurer. That said, I also get an overwhelming amount of support from both men and women, and generally find people in the outdoors to be approachable, kind and caring.”
I think that women who make the brave choice to get outside alone are part of the solution. By are creating a strong female presence on trails, at camp, on climbing walls and in the ocean, we are also creating an encouraging environment for other women – and for the next generation of girls. Anna McNuff a trailblazing adventurer who has travelled the globe alone, sums things up: “Yes, there are risks to be aware of. But it would be a shame to allow them to prevent you from going on what could be an amazing adventure.” Anna Blackwell adds: “the rewards that you stand to gain are second to none. Solo adventures are absolutely incredible.”
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An award-winning travel and outdoors journalist, presenter and blogger, Sian regularly writes for The Independent, Evening Standard, BBC Countryfile, Coast, Outdoor Enthusiast and Sunday Times Travel. Life as a hiking, camping, wild-swimming adventure-writer has taken her around the world, exploring Bolivian jungles, kayaking in Greenland, diving with turtles in Australia, climbing mountains in Africa and, in Thailand, learning the hard way that peeing on a jellyfish sting doesn’t help. Her blog, thegirloutdoors.co.uk, champions accessible adventures.