Solo Women and Trails: Scary or Not?

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a million times: women are scared of tackling trails alone.

After last week’s Outdoor Retailer show, Will and I zipped over to San Francisco for a wedding that we were shooting {yes, I was allowed my OWN camera! Gasp!} While there, I got to talking with one of the women who I swear should move to Colorado and become my forever friend. She told me she was trying to become more outdoorsy and that backpacking was on her life list. In order to make progress with this goal, she signed up for the North Face Endurance 50k in California, which is a large leap from her usual trend of road marathons.

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All Photos By Will Rochfort For Finish Line 

One problem? She is nervous to run trails alone.

“Did you train solo?” she asked me. When I told her that 95% of my long runs were done alone in the dead of winter, she was a bit surprised. “Don’t you get scared?”

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The thing is this: I wasn’t, not at all. If you’ve read my site for awhile, you know that I chose to train through a Colorado winter because it allowed for more family time with Will at the end of the work day. Since we close for the winter, I could do my long runs while he was at work; my hours of dirt {or snow and ice, as the case may be…} wouldn’t interfere with our relationship. That said, running midday in the middle of the work week does not equate to a plethora of running buddies! I’d occasionally run with a friend, but for the most part, it was just me and my Hokas.

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The funny thing is that it never occurred to me to be scared. In my brain, trails are far safer than roads, whether I’m running or hiking. Sure, I may run into a stray animal or– worst case scenario–a large animal like a mountain lion, but I trust wildlife over humans any day of the week. In my opinion, most creepers in this world aren’t willing to trek 10 miles into the mountains just to find an easy target. {Besides, if you’re a woman who has run 10 miles into the Colorado backcountry, you’re obviously NOT an easy target!} Based on my minimal research, the majority of attacks and assaults seem to be in the city, in darkened public areas with little-to-no people. I figure it’s much easier for a weirdo to pull his car up to the sidewalk than get his heart rate up climbing a mountain, you know?

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Of course, that’s a broad generalization and there are always exceptions. I’m just trying to explain my logic. That said, I’d like to hear your reasoning. I’ve heard from women over and over, so I know my new friend from this weekend isn’t alone in her thoughts. Are you scared of going solo in the backcountry? Why or why not?

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34 Comments

  • Reply Cathryn August 10, 2015 at 3:18 pm

    GREAT post and something I think about a LOT.

    The short answer is yes. I am nervous to run trails alone. I have one park where I feel confident running alone because there are people hiking there throughout the day. But on the whole, I won’t run trails alone and that makes me SO sad because I LOVE running trails and I rather like running alone.

    My main concern is wildlife. We have mountain lions here in the Bay Area who are increasingly desperate for food/water due to the drought and as such are making more and more risky forays into previously unheard of territories – downtown areas, residential streets for example. One mountain lion nearly dragged of a child last year who was hiking with his family and friends – a big group of people who were hiking safely. I’m 5’1 and not enormous. Those cats are stronger than I am. I’m also nervous of rattlesnakes although less so as I’ve only bumped into one here.

    The other thing that worries me is injury. I am REALLY good at twisting my ankles on the trails. SO good at it. It worries me that I’d twist it in the middle of nowhere and struggle to get to safety. I used to be worried about murderers but not any more. That concerns me much less.

    So all in all, much as I HATE to say it, I am too scared to run trails alone and I’d probably caution other women against doing so, although I am honestly envious of your confidence!

    • Reply heather August 11, 2015 at 12:38 pm

      That’s interesting. We have a fair bit of wildlife here too–mountain lions being the most prevalent with some black bears in the mix– and I can only think of a single time in my life where their presence freaked me out so much to the point of turning around. (There was a warning side at the trailhead saying a cat had been spotted an hour prior. I went ahead anyway, but I was only 15 minutes in and I felt like I was being “watched.” I’ve never felt that before so I turned around.) I don’t know if that makes me reckless or just less concerned than you 🙂

  • Reply Joan August 10, 2015 at 3:46 pm

    When I was in Colorado, Wyoming and Montana I never liked hiking alone and always had a dog with me. But that was hiking not running. I always kept the dog close so she didn’t run up ahead and flush out a grumpy bear or mountain lion and bring it back to me as she ran away from them. So it was for her safety and mine. Also, by keeping her with me we both got to see a lot more wildlife. But we didn’t have problems with being scared of People there.
    The only time that was a bit alarming was when I was trail riding alone in one of the MidWestern States. Fortunately I had a trail savvy horse that was willing to do whatever was necessary. The trail was way too close to people and someone kept trying to follow in their pickup. In that case my dog couldn’t have helped anyway so we left the trail and headed into deep brush and other trails I knew about. But I never was scared in the mountains.
    This all was a few years ago and you have given me pause to think about whether I would do those things in today’s world. Maybe I have had to live in the city too long and maintain a more alert stance on a more consistent basis.

  • Reply Amanda S August 10, 2015 at 3:50 pm

    The only thing that makes me nervous about solo trail running is if I injure myself 10 miles from the nearest trailhead, that I’m going to be stuck there for a while (in unpredictable Colorado weather nonetheless).
    This applies more to places like Indian Peaks where I wouldn’t have cell service or there aren’t a lot of people. I run Boulder trails solo all the time. My nervousness about injuring myself in the Indian Peaks pushed me to try out a trail running group. I run with the Boulder Trail Running Breakfast Club and LOVE them.
    I also did a solo mountain bike and camping trip this weekend, so I guess it doesn’t really bother me. I’d rather do stuff alone than miss out.

    • Reply heather August 11, 2015 at 12:41 pm

      You know, I’ve heard the injury comment quite a bit and it’s valid. I don’t really have a logical reason for why I don’t worry about injuries other than….I just don’t. Great, I know 🙂

  • Reply Marissa M. August 10, 2015 at 5:32 pm

    I’m trying to spend time on trails that have more traffic, like state or national parks. 🙂

    • Reply heather August 11, 2015 at 12:41 pm

      Hahaha we’re polar opposites– I’m always trying to find trails that are deserted!

  • Reply Amanda | Chasing My Sunshine August 10, 2015 at 6:17 pm

    I think this is such an important topic to discuss! I’m always a little apprehensive about trail running by myself, but it’s mostly because of my location. I totally agree with the fact that if you’re ten miles in the backcountry, chances are the “bad guys” didn’t also want to hike ten miles into the backcountry. But all of the trails close to Philly are fairly easily accessible, and I do get nervous sometimes. I just do my best to always tell somebody where I’ll be and when to expect to hear from me again. Something bad can happen anywhere, so I try not to let it stop me from my trail running me-time!

  • Reply Cathryn August 10, 2015 at 6:43 pm

    The other aspect to this is…should ANYONE run trails alone? Apart from the sexual harassment aspect to this, the main concerns (animals/injury) are equally valid for males.

    • Reply Beth August 10, 2015 at 6:51 pm

      I guess I’m not really sure that the statistics prove that animals are a valid fear?

      • Reply Cathryn August 11, 2015 at 10:10 am

        I don’t know the stats but it only takes ONE mountain lion, bear or rattlesnake bite and you’re potentially done. I see your point totally but it doesn’t assuage my concerns.

        • Reply Beth August 11, 2015 at 7:58 pm

          I guess on that token it also only takes one texting or drunk driver…

    • Reply heather August 11, 2015 at 12:43 pm

      It’s a valid point, Cathryn. I guess my argument would be that no one–man or woman–should let fear of the unknown keep them from doing something they enjoy. (In the case, the unknown would be the fear of a hypothetical injury.) Yanno?

  • Reply Beth August 10, 2015 at 6:51 pm

    I hike alone A LOT. Often, my dog is with me but I consider Sprocket more of a liability with respect to wild animals than a help. He’s certainly not a Lassie and is more likely to curl up on my dead or injured body than to go for help. I don’t worry about being out there alone much. Sometimes I worry about what would happen if I got hurt but I also love love love the feeling of being alone in the wilderness with just my own wits to rely on.

    I’m not really close to any big population centers and I’ll admit to being way more comfortable running or hiking in sparsely populated (or totally unfrequented) areas than I am in city parks. I don’t know, I guess it seems easier if you’re a human “predator” to be where your “prey” is likely to be.

    But basically, I’m super passionate about women getting outdoors on their own. I hate when people give me lectures about adventuring alone because I’m about 80% sure that most of the time they wouldn’t give a lecture to my male counterpart..

    • Reply heather August 11, 2015 at 12:44 pm

      Haha I’m the same with Tals. I know animals stay away from us because we cause such a racket, but if she is off-leash, I dread running into wildlife because I’m so worried about how she will respond!

  • Reply Sandra Laflamme August 11, 2015 at 6:59 am

    This is definitely something that I think about often. Usually my only time to get good long runs in is when the kids are at school so I do spend time running by myself. Sometimes though I admit it does freak me out. I hate that. I hate being a woman and having things to fear out there. This is a great post and definitely food for thought!

  • Reply Krysten August 11, 2015 at 7:09 am

    I am typically a solo runner as well. My husband recently got into running so we do some runs together. But my work schedule is often erratic – I sometimes work evenings, weekends, I travel, etc. So I typically just try to run when it works for me. And that is usually alone. We have a great trail system by our house and I love it!

  • Reply Rachel @ Betty LIVIN August 11, 2015 at 9:11 am

    this is such an interesting topic because I hike solo or with just my dogs all the time and people think thats dangerous and odd. I never hear a man ask another man if he’s scared so why do women hold themselves back from some incredible experiences because of fear? You have a way higher chance of getting in a car accident than attacked by a wild animal or another person.

    If I only went to the mountains when I had someone to come with, I wouldn’t go out there as nearly as much as I do. I always tell my friends to just get out there, after a couple excursions with no issues, that fear will go away.

  • Reply Anne August 11, 2015 at 9:46 am

    I agree with some above posters that these are valid fears for ANYONE going into the mountains/backcountry alone – what happens if you get hurt or there is an animal? Here in the city we do have some parks that have off-road trails, which do have some homeless folks living/spending their days, but I think that’s a different kind of trail situation than what you are referring to. For anyone going real trail running or hiking, since you can’t guarantee your cell phone will work, definitely encourage people to check in with someone before they leave and when they come back. I make my husband do this on days he’s cycling the roads while I’m at work. If I don’t hear from him every hour or at the end of his allotted time, you bet I am blowing up his phone!

    • Reply heather August 11, 2015 at 12:45 pm

      Oh man, you’d hate being married to me 🙂 Will has no idea I went running this morning– let alone know where I went– and probably won’t until he gets back from work later tonight!

  • Reply misszippy August 11, 2015 at 10:17 am

    So, obviously out here on the E. Coast I’m not going to get into any major backcountry. But, I do run trails alone (or with my dog) and I too feel comfortable. I run alone everywhere, actually. I don’t bring phones, either. I know many folks may think that’s stupid, but I want to be out there and enjoying my runs, not worrying. Yes, I keep my wits about me, but that’s it. The only time running solo bothers me is in rural America on desolate roads (where my inlaws live). B/c out there, runners aren’t exactly appreciated, for one, and for two, there’s no one around to help you if you get into trouble. Great post–now off to peruse the other comments.

    • Reply heather August 11, 2015 at 12:46 pm

      Bringing a phone is the one thing I started doing when I was training for that ultra. I was out there for so many hours that it seemed like a good thing to do. I do always flip it to airplane mode and shove it in my pack 🙂

  • Reply Sarah August 11, 2015 at 10:34 am

    This is spot on! Solo trail time is definitely a big part of my life, but I always try to think of it in a clear-eyed way and not gloss over the risks. A few years ago, I hiked the entire Appalachian Trail solo, and this last summer I hiked 500 miles on the PCT by myself. I think it’s a statistical inevitability — if you log enough backcountry miles, at some point something is going to go wrong (a bunch of drunk Georgia rednecks, a freak lightening storm above treeline, and running from NoCal forest fires are my big close-calls.) But at the same time, nothing has shaped my life more than solo trail time. Hiking with my husband, buddies, and dog is always a hoot — but hiking by myself makes me dig dipper. I test myself and build my bad-ass-mountain-momma skills. It gives me confidence in my own abilities and decision-making. So yeah, sometimes I’m afraid, but there’s no doubt I’m a better person for it.

    • Reply heather August 11, 2015 at 12:46 pm

      Wow! Girl, you are impressive! That’s a ton of solo hiking. Hats off to you!!

  • Reply Ashley Smith August 11, 2015 at 5:56 pm

    When I lived in Alaska I did a lot of solo day hiking. We were required to have a radio on us and also to have a check-in time that would mean a call to the coast guard if we missed it. I did feel nervous at first, but by the end of the summer I was pretty comfortable with it. I was far more worried about twisting my ankle up a mountain and having to pay for a medical evac than actually getting seriously hurt. I’m about to take a little mini road trip of camping and hiking by myself around Lake Superior, and I think I’m gonna tell my boyfriend that I’ll check in with him once a day, so he can do something if he doesn’t hear from me for 24 hours. It’s tough finding the balance between reasonable safety precautions and letting your anxiety run amok. I find it interesting that while men and women generally face the same concerns in the backcountry, women worry about it far more. I wonder how much of that is a holdover of us subtly being told our whole lives that we’re at risk whenever we’re outside our homes.

  • Reply Alyssa Lindsey August 11, 2015 at 7:25 pm

    Well I live far from the back country but I do think it’s dangerous for me to run solo on trails. I get concerned because I have fallen quite a few times and if I were to fall and hit my head or hurt myself badly I want someone to find me! I am also extremely prone to getting lost. I don’t know if it’s inherently dangerous, but it is for a moron like me.

  • Reply Courtney Allen August 12, 2015 at 9:30 am

    I live in CO, and I go hiking/camping/trail running alone all the time. If I’m going to be someplace within range of service, or only gone for an hour or so, I don’t often tell people where I am going. And I can’t remember a time where I felt scared or afraid. When I go camping or hiking for longer trips or where there is no service, I almost always tell a friend (though I make a point NOT to tell my Mom ha) where I’m going and when I expect to be back. Last fall I camped alone on Kebler Pass and felt a little uncomfortable, not because of wildlife, but because it was the off season and while there were some people around, there were not a lot of other people around. I wondered if anyone was going to see me camping alone and come bother me, and what I would do if that happened. Since then I always wear my RoadID and travel with a whistle, and I camp with bear mace. But like I said, I worry more about humans than wildlife.

    One point I’ve made recently when friends and family have yelled at me for going places alone, is that just because you run or hike alone doesn’t mean you’re going to get hurt or be in danger. And just because you’re in a group or with others doesn’t mean you’re going to be fine. You should always be prepared and know where you’re going whether you’re in the outdoors, alone or in groups.

  • Reply Jen August 12, 2015 at 3:53 pm

    I’ve had a post knocking around in my head for a while about this very same topic. I’m also a woman and also in Colorado and I also spend a TON of time in the backcountry alone – partly out of necessity but mostly because I WANT to. And 99.9% of the time, I’m not scared. And the .1% of the time that I do get nervous? I’m pretty sure that’s normal for either gender. Yes, there are risks involved in being alone on the trail but as far as I’m concerned, those risk are FAR outweighed by the benefits of being out alone. Being able to go whenever I want (and not have to coordinate with friends or family), enjoying the solitude, being able to go at my own pace … those are all things that would never happen if I felt like I had to go with other people. I have honestly never felt threatened while on the trails in Colorado by myself. Great post!

  • Reply Heidi August 12, 2015 at 7:04 pm

    Not a runner, but a cyclist… 99% of my mountain biking is done alone. I work night shift and an ever changing schedule, so I really don’t have a lot of riding buddies that can go when I can. I also have a hard time finding people that would be at my pace, especially for training rides. I don’t really get scared. I let my boyfriend know where I’ll be and roughly what trails and wear a Road ID. I’ve done this all over the country and have never had a scary encounter outside of a stare down with a moose 10 feet from me! For road cycling I’m probably more of a 60/40 split when it comes to riding alone. More chances for something bad to happen on the road bike I feel, but still like the solitary feel more.

  • Reply Nici August 13, 2015 at 7:41 pm

    I’m definitely more comfortable out on the trail alone than in the city, but I grew up in the woods, so the wildlife thing doesn’t worry me (maybe it should?!?). And, like some of the other posters, I’d rather be out there exploring than trying to drum up a trail companion. My dad finally bought me a SPOT emergency beacon, which I bring along on my overnight trips. Definitely the best gadget for keeping the family informed outside of cell range.

  • Reply Catherine April 11, 2016 at 7:22 pm

    When I first moved to Colorado from Virginia I was told don’t go hiking alone but I would never get to see all of the things I have if I didnt. I hiked every day until my job started and I still have pictures of my favorite first hikes in Colorado like Hanging Lake and Maroon Bells. Sometimes I’m fortunate enough to find a group and sometimes I don’t. The solitude of the trails though is part of the beauty at least I think so.

  • Reply Morgan April 15, 2016 at 10:08 am

    I go hiking alone all the time. Crowded trails and uncrowded trails. I have taken self defense classes and carry bear spray (can be used on bears or scary people!) I always carry maps and emergency supplies. I have ran into a few odd people but keep my distance and keep an unfriendly demeanor. Most people are friendly, outdoorsy people too! I always tell a few family members and friends where I am going, and if I am not back by a certain time to call someone to come rescue me. The only time I’m worried about other animals is when I have my dogs with me as they love running ahead on the trail, but I’m constantly talking to them, so we are very loud. It may be risky but life is too short to wait around for other people all the time! Women can enjoy the outdoors too! Take extra precautions if you need to!

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