on being a woman alone in the wild

When I have a day off, I do my very best to wake early and hightail it to the mountains- Glacier, the Jewel, Whitefish Range, where ever seems appealing that day given weather and time. I value these days apart so much, especially when they feel few and far between. I have spent hundreds of hours out in the woods in Montana and have hiked hundreds of miles over these past two years which I consider such a gift of living here. Sometimes I hike with a crew or a partner, and love those hours of conversation or comfortable silence as we push our bodies up and over mountain tops, but sometimes I hike alone- just me, my bear spray & those big mountains.

Gale over at She-Explores recently put out a question to listeners of her podcast- do you enjoy hiking, camping and/or backpacking solo? At what age did you start hiking, camping, and/or backpacking solo? Did it feel natural or did it take you time to get used to it? What are the benefits of taking on solo challenges in the wild? What are the risks?

Today, I started out to hike to Granite Park Chalet after my hopes of hiking Swiftcurrent Lookout this week were dashed by snow. The first snow hit Glacier earlier this week and the peaks are coated in white, fading below treeline to the speckled yellow and red of early autumn. I started out at the Loop, with a light mist falling, cold, but not enough to bother me. I hiked up the switchbacks and watched in wonder as the clouds shifted, catching glimpses of the freshly capped peaks. After about 2 and 1/2 miles a couple stopped me on the trail, sharing that they had run into a bear and 2 cubs, on the trail about 1/4 mile from us. They noted that the bear wasn’t moving and that she wasn’t pleased with their attempts to get her to move on. I nodded, heard them say that there were other people in front of them, and headed forward; often, bears will move on quickly and the trail will clear. Shortly after, 3 other groups of hikers passed me the other way, all noting that the bears were staying put and that they felt it was best to turn around. That, coupled with the increasing snow and the fact that I’ve done this particular hike before, factored into my decision to turn around.

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I don’t go to the mountains just to summit peaks or rack up mileage, I go because the woods are the place where I recenter.

The breeze lifting the leaves toward the sky- a warning of weather to come.
The way water makes it’s way through the smallest cracks in the rock- modeling perseverance and patience.
How vibrantly trees give up their leaves in autumn- a brilliant lesson in resiliency.

All of it teaching me, helping me remember what’s important in this life, renewing my spirit after long days of work and humbling me in perspective. Wilderness does not exist for us, but in spite of us.  It is an immense gift to be able to experience it, a gift of which I will never tire.

Being alone in the woods doesn’t scare me. I am deeply aware of the inherent risks that come with walking alone through grizzly country or walking a ridge line solo, but I manage them with experience, like today, when turning around when it seemed the best practice. My parents taught me from an early age how to rely on myself, with the proper preparation and awareness of my surroundings. For me, being alone in the woods is empowering and soul centering.

However, I constantly experience secondhand concern about my hiking alone.

“Are you sure you’re alright?”

“Don’t end up like one of those stories you hear on the news…”

“I don’t understand why a pretty girl like you lives in the woods alone.”

& my favorite, slightly threatening comment-

“Does your father know you’re out here alone? What would he think?”
(for the record, my father taught me how to be alone in the woods)

I’ve heard these comments on summits and at trailheads, at my place of work (which also happens to be my home), in the middle of crowded chalets in casual conversation with other hikers. It is almost always men questioning me, while their hiking partners are quiet in the background. I understand that many of these comments are out of genuine concern, but I have never heard anyone question a man hiking alone in the same way. Unfortunately, our society spends a lot of time editing what women can and cannot do, alone or otherwise.

I appreciate the way that hikers and backpackers look out for one another, and I am always, always happy to chat with fellow hikers, but I am careful to question anyone’s motives- each of us has our own story, our own path leading us to this one. Warn me of the bear ahead, ask me how I’m doing, tell me good luck, but please, don’t assume that my solo womanhood is inherently dangerous.

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Women can do anything. ANYTHING. This is a truth I have been taught my whole life, from my badass paramedic/ camp director mama, from my incredible, creative camp counselors, from my brilliant professors and supportive friends. I am so grateful to be surrounded by truth telling, compassionate, courageous and loving women and hope so much to inspire others to be the same. We are out there, millions of us, hiking alone and enjoying the woods or city streets or suburban parks. Thank you to all the women who go and have gone alone, for inspiring me.

If you want to be alone in the woods, do your research, understand the risks and get out there, regardless of gender. And if you don’t want to go solo, find a friend! I really encourage other women to try a hike alone, to allow yourself to be immersed in the quiet of the woods, to feel the power of your own body as you traverse across the land, to allow your instincts to keep you safe. I would love to hear other women’s experiences with hiking alone!

There is so much to see in this big world, and I don’t want to miss any of it.

Be brave, y’all; wild is within you.

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3 thoughts on “on being a woman alone in the wild

  1. Awesome! And this, “I appreciate the way that hikers and backpackers look out for one another, and I am always, always happy to chat with fellow hikers, but I am careful to question anyone’s motives- each of us has our own story, our own path leading us to this one. Warn me of the bear ahead, ask me how I’m doing, tell me good luck, but please, don’t assume that my solo womanhood is inherently dangerous.”… YES. I do a lot of outdoor recreating solo and I’m getting so tired of men questioning me. I try to be patient, but it gets old. Just a few weeks ago I was paddleboarding on Lake Macdonald. It was a little bit windy, but I was happily paddling along, getting a good workout. Suddenly two older men come motoring along in their boat… very concerned for my well-being! I assured them I was fine. I had to wonder, if I was a man would have been so concerned? Anyway, thanks for your thoughts on this topic. 🙂

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  2. Thank you so much for this wonderful post. I have recently begun thinking of taking my first-ever solo hike and this post really was encouraging. It is hard not to hear those more discouraging voices/opinions, but I almost feel like a solo adventure is something that I need right now, and this post helped me to reaffirm why I want to try it out. Be safe and enjoy that beautiful Montana landscape for me!

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  3. Couldn’t have said it better, and could not have read this at a better time in my life. While I’ve hiked solo for sometime now, only until last year did I embark on my first solo backpacking trip (also my first backpacking trip ever), and also just completed another this past weekend. Sometimes I find me asking myself “why exactly am I out here?.” especially when nerves kick in. But regardless, I always walk away in a better place, be it mental, emotional, or maybe physical (although I am still pretty beat from my last weekend trip!). Anyway, really enjoyed reading this, keep it up!

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