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Girl TalkMe and My Shadow

Going It Alone — Can You Solo Safely?

By Tamia Nelson

August 2, 2011

My mother's eyes still well with tears when she remembers the day I disappeared. She'd left me playing on the swing in our yard, but when she looked out the window a few minutes later, the yard was empty and I was nowhere to be seen. Mom feared the worst. Even though traffic hadn't yet reached today's febrile pace, the city street we lived on back then was a busy one, and I was only three years old. The story ended happily, however. My mother found me just down the block, safe and sound. I was triumphant. I'd made my first solo journey, venturing deep into unknown territory. The boundaries of my world had expanded. And I had a squirrel to thank for it. When he left our yard to return to the tall oak he called home, I'd simply tagged along, and I still had him in my eye when my mother caught up with me. The squirrel was watching me, too, from the safety of a high branch. I can remember wondering what else he could see from his lofty perch, and I was determined to join him. But I hadn't yet figured out how to climb up. That's when my mother intervened, with predictable results.

Even so, a smarting backside was a small price to pay for this first taste of freedom. And my mother's anger was fleeting. She recognized something of her own restless yearning for new horizons in my brief escape. After all, her father was happiest when he was guiding parties of hunters and fishermen into the wilder corners of the Adirondacks. His daughter soon caught the bug. She, too, found the constraints of city life hard to bear, and she wasn't about to clip my wings. So, when my parents left the big city for a small country town nestled against the Green Mountains of Vermont, not long after my flight to freedom, my mother lost little time in passing on what she'd learned from her father. She taught me how to survive in wild country first. More importantly, though, she taught me how to thrive, to savor the pleasures of solitude.

Those lessons stayed with me. And while I'd be the last to shortchange the many joys to be had in good company — let alone deny the safety that comes in numbers — I never tire of solo jaunts. Yet it seems very few women are so minded. I've lost count of the number of times I've been asked …

"You're Going ALONE!?"

The tone is always the same: astonishment mingled with anxious concern for my well‑being (and my sanity, too, perhaps). This is perfectly understandable. We live in a fearful age, and our fears grow great with constant feeding. Every day brings stories of new dangers, or old dangers newly met. And there's no denying that bad things happen to good women (and good men) every day. To be sure, the only certain refuge from the world's horrors is the grave. Nothing can touch us there. But few of us take much comfort from this. We worry about the evils that can assail us — and those we care about — while we live. That's a perfectly sensible attitude, in my opinion.

And there's little doubt that solo traveling has risks unknown to those who never venture out alone. Nor is there much reason to doubt that a woman on her own is more vulnerable than a solitary man, at least at some times and in some places. So the most important question isn't "Is solo travel safe?" It's not, and it never can be. But can it be made safe enough? That's the vital question, I think, and the answer requires that each woman balance the risks and benefits for herself. This is never easy — as a recent letter from Naomi made clear. She's a keen outdoorswoman, who enjoys exploring by boat, bike, and shank's pony. She also has a taste for solitary journeying. Yet she's not blind to the dangers:

Have you ever done an article or series on wilderness safety for women? Being a middle‑aged woman who loves to be alone on the trails, this is a concern for me. I tend to be on high alert, somewhat fearful of men or scary, big creatures. This diminishes my peace and enjoyment of the outings, and I'm not sure what to do about it!

Short and to the point — and refreshingly honest. How many of us have the courage to confess our fears to strangers? And on reflection, I was somewhat surprised that I'd never tackled the subject. I've written about the risks and rewards attendant on solo travel, of course, and I've talked about a number of "women's issues." But I've never looked at the challenges facing women who travel alone. Until now, that is…

Safety and the Solo Woman

Sex is important. It's made us what we are today. (Ask any evolutionary biologist. Or read the Old Testament. The two perspectives are very different, but on this one point, at least, their conclusions are strikingly similar.) Still, some things transcend sex. Kit, for instance. Whatever your gender, if you're venturing into the backcountry, you'll need the Ten Essentials, along with a battery of intangible resources that Farwell once christened "The Other Ten Essentials." And you'll also need a boat, plus your paddles (don't forget the spare) and PFD. A walking stick or trekking pole is a welcome companion, too, since a sprain can cripple you in an instant, and you won't have a shoulder to lean on as you limp home.

But then there are the other things. You can't put them in your pack, but they're critically important, nonetheless, rather like Farwell's "other" Ten Essentials. Most of them are also important for men who go alone, but I think they're indispensable for solo women. Anyway, here's my list:

Don't Sneak Out the Door.  Tell someone you trust where you're going and when you expect to return. In other words, a solo woman paddler should always file a float plan. Then, when she gets home, she should let her contact(s) know immediately. This isn't something you can afford to put off till tomorrow. If you're already lounging in your La‑Z‑Boy at home you don't want a worried friend telling the authorities that you didn't make it back. Wilderness searches don't come cheap, and SAR resources are often stretched to the limit. The upshot? More and more agencies will be happy to send you a very big bill if you waste their time. So don't.

OK. Filing a float plan can sometimes save your butt in a worst‑case scenario, but it's much better to keep out of trouble in the first place, isn't it? And your best friend here is …

Situational Awareness.  This milspeak coinage shed its battle dress and donned civvies some time back. And what does it mean? Just this: Staying alert. After all, you go paddling to see and hear things you don't see and hear at home. So keep your eyes and ears open. (Leave your ear buds in your pack. Better yet, leave 'em at home.) A no‑brainer, you say? Maybe. But folks have walked right past me when I stood a few feet off the trail, without ever seeing me. How do I know they didn't? Easy. When I spoke to them, they jumped. Every time.

And situational awareness doesn't stop with sight and hearing. Use all your senses. All the time. (You'll find your sense of smell especially useful.) Sniff the air. Feel the wind on your cheek. Listen for the alarm calls of birds. Look where you're about to step. This last deserves special emphasis. You'll find broken beer bottles nearly everywhere nowadays, and just a couple of months back Farwell got a nail through his boot when he was walking off‑trail. He's still embarrassed about it. There's another reason to keep your eyes on the ground, too: Bears leave big tracks, and whenever they do what they do in the woods, the result is pretty near unmistakable. You want to know if there are bears about, don't you? Sure you do.

Which brings me to my last point about situational awareness: You'll see more and hear more if you're inconspicuous. So dress drably and move quietly. There are a couple of obvious exceptions, however: hunting season and bear country. Whenever there are hunters in the woods, it's best to do anything you can not to look like a trophy. A "hunter orange" vest is a very good idea. And bears? They don't like being surprised. So make plenty of noise in bear country, particularly when you're traveling off‑trail or near obvious magnets (berry patches in black bear haunts; salmon rivers in grizzly country). Sing. Whistle. Talk to yourself. Or wear a tinkly bell. And keep your eyes open.

But suppose you pick up something on your situational awareness "radar." What then? Well, you'll seldom go wrong if you …

Display Self‑Confidence.  Predators, whether human or animal, aren't looking for a fight. They're looking for easy meat. So don't look like a victim. Stand tall. Speak firmly. Move with as much poise and assurance as you can muster. Self‑confidence is born of life experience — of dangers met and overcome. And if you're short on that sort of experience, it's not an easy thing to fake. But it's also true that everyone is afraid, at least some of the time. The trick lies in not showing fear, and that's a trick that can be learned.

Don't confuse self‑confidence with bluster, by the way. Bluster can easily be mistaken for aggression, and aggression is often seen as either a threat (by wild animals, especially mother bears with cubs in tow) or a challenge (by wild boys, particularly when they're accompanied by a buddy or three). A mother bear will respond to a perceived threat to her offspring in the same way most human mothers would: She'll lash out. But this is one mean momma, with big teeth and long, sharp claws. You're not in her league. And the wild boys? What about them? They don't want to lose face in front of their buddies. So they act out whenever they think their manhood is being impugned. Neither scenario is a happy one. The lesson to take home from all this? Exude confidence, but stay cool. Don't yield to the temptation to play Dirty Harriet.

Of course, it's even better if you can avoid confrontation altogether, and one of the best ways to do that is to …

Blend In.  I've already touched on this, but it warrants repeating. Much of the time you'll be safer (and see more) if you're quiet and inconspicuous. If the hunters are in their dens watching videos and the bears are few and far between — bear country is pretty well mapped these days, and most park authorities know the hot spots — you'll find it pays to fade into the scenery. Artists, photographers, and bird watchers will reap extra rewards here. It's also a good idea to camp inconspicuously, well way from established sites, not to mention trails and waterways. This is often either illegal or unnecessarily destructive, however, as well as being inconvenient. Still, in places where it's legal, it's sometimes an option worth considering, particularly in high‑traffic "wilderness."

But what do you do when blending in just isn't in the cards, and your confidence is already shaken? Easy. You …

Bug Out.  Sometimes a still, small voice tells you it's time to split, and when that happens, it's usually a good idea to listen. Swallow your pride. Choke back your fear. Change your plans. Change your route. Change your goals. Whatever it takes. Just don't yield to panic. In particular, running from a bear or other wild animal is never a good idea.

And what if an orderly retreat is impossible? Then you'll have to …

Stand and Fight.  It doesn't matter if your opponent is a man or a bear. If all other options are closed, you've got no choice: You have to fight. Black bears have occasionally been brought up short by a hard punch in the nose. Grizzlies aren't so easily dissuaded, but "bear spray" (a hot‑pepper aerosol) can stop a charging grizzly in her tracks. Similar sprays are available to discourage dogs from attacking, and I'll have more to say about this in a bit. The same sprays work on men, too, though the only time in my life I had to defend myself against an attack by a man, I didn't have any pepper spray. So I had to use what came to hand. It happened to be a barn broom, and it certainly did the trick. A sturdy "cow cane" — I often carry one in my boat in case my knees act up on a portage — would work just about as well. (Warning! Pepper sprays are banned in some places, and even where they are legal, using one against a human attacker could leave you open to criminal charges. So before you decide to pack hot pepper, check your local laws.)

These aren't the only choices if push comes to shove, of course. Martial arts enthusiasts are quick to tout the benefits of their chosen disciplines. Gun fanciers fancy guns. But I don't have the patience to spend hours each week sparring in the dojo, and staying on the right side of the law often means leaving your guns at home. Which is why neither option really appeals to me. That's not much of a handicap, though. In the personal safety stakes, prevention is always better than cure. If you have to stand and fight, you've already lost the first round, but since you've now got little more to lose, you might as well give it your best shot. The human frame has quite a few vulnerable targets, and a desperate struggle is no time to be squeamish. If someone who doesn't wish you well is close enough to hurt you, he's probably close enough for you to hurt him. Badly. That knowledge may be all the martial arts training you need.

Frankly, I'm not much worried by either bears or men. My encounters with bears have been guarded, to be sure, but they've always been amicable. And with the single exception mentioned above, I've had no trouble with men. Women and their dogs, however… That's a whole 'nother story. I'm not alone, either. My grandfather — the Adirondack guide grandfather, that is — wasn't afraid of much of anything. Except for one thing:

Other People's Dogs.  They bred 'em big and mean in the little Adirondack hamlets where Grandad spent much of his time, and things haven't changed much. If anything, they've gotten worse. I don't know why it is, but almost all of the unpleasant encounters I've had on the trail have been with other people's dogs. And the "other people" in question were almost always other women. I suppose having a big dog on a lead makes many women feel safe. (In fact, bringing a dog into bear country is asking for trouble.) Yet few of the women I meet in the backcountry seem to have any interest in training their dogs to play nice with inoffensive strangers. More often than not, these dogs are running off the lead, and a fair number of the beasts seem to be looking for a scrap. I've addressed the subject at some length elsewhere, but if you're in a hurry, here's the executive summary: In a hard chance, pepper spray works wonders.

And what if you think you would feel safer with a dog? Then get one, by all means. Do the rest of us a favor, though — keep it on the lead when you're in the woods. Don't get more dog than you can handle, either. That way I'll be able to keep my pepper spray in the can, where it belongs.


So far, so bad. I've looked at belligerent bears, hostile hounds, and malevolent men. But until now I've ignored the greatest danger to women who travel alone in the backcountry: overconfidence. Yes, you can be too confident. So it's important to …

Know Your Limits.  It's true. Hubris can leave you in a world of hurt. Men succumb to hubris' siren song, too, of course. In fact, I'd guess they're more prone than we are. But I'm talking to women here. Solo travelers have very little margin for error, and there's no one but yourself to turn to if things go wrong. Something as simple as skipping a meal can lay you low, turning a pleasure trip into a battle for survival. So take it easy when you're on your own. Leave the stunts and the striving for those times when you have company. When you're going solo, concentrate on savoring the moment, not setting records. That's what you came for, isn't it? You bet it is.


Because It's There


Notwithstanding what the poets Milton and Cowper had to say on the subject, there are many pleasures to be had in solitude. Yet women who want to go into the backcountry alone often wonder if they'll be safe. It's easy to see why. Our fears grow fat on a constant diet of others' misfortunes. Luckily, though, things aren't as bleak as the newspapers make them seem. Can you solo safely, then? No. Traveling alone in the backcountry is always risky, for men as well as women. But can you make it safer? Yes, you can. And that's enough for many of us.



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