Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Let's talk about the advantages of being a single female backpacker for a change....

Whenever you read about solo female backpackers sooner or later the discussion tends to go towards how dangerous it is out there in the woods for women on their own. The most common question I am asked when being outdoors is „Aren't you afraid out there – as a woman?“ And almost every email I receive from women on my blog includes a question about how safe a trail or a trip is – for a woman. Or to quote one recent email from a girl: „Unfortunately it is so much more dangerous for a female to be outdoors than for a man. [….] I cannot stop thinking that I will be lying in my tent in the dark and a man will come to rape me.“

First all this talk about how dangerous it is for women to be outdoors just irritated me – but the more I hear the more it makes me plain angry. I often think that all these „words of caution“ are just a modern version of locking women in and keeping them from discovering their freedom. And unfortunately this modern brainwashing is very effective: You still see very few women alone hiking, cycling or paddling. Most either don't go at all or only dare to go with a male partner – especially on long-distance trips.

So how much truth is in the common assumption that it is so much more dangerous for a woman than for a man in the outdoors?

I will start with my own personal experience – and in my 7 year long outdoor career I have spent almost 2,000 nights outdoors, mostly being on my own: All this time I have not had a single incident where I have been seriously threatend or even attacked by a male. There have even hardly been any moments when I have felt uneasy meeting men in the outdoors.(And these few incidents usually involved some level of intoxication on the male part....)

You might argue that one person's experience can just be pure luck – but think about it logically. If you were a (sexual) predator: Would you go into a forest and wait in the dark and cold until (probably after days or weeks) a single female happens to pass by who is dirty and smelly? No, you would much more likely seek your victims in a populated urban area. The big advantage of camping is that usually nobody knows where I am – especially when stealth camping. And if someone would stumble across my tent coincidentally he would probably be as scared of me as I would be of him because he doesn't know who is in that tent.

Don't get me wrong: I do not deny that there is a risk for solo female backpackers to be assaulted – but by being outdoors instead of being in an urban area you are reducing that risk instead of increasing it. Plus the risk is minimal. Personally I am much more afraid of a traffic accident when travelling to a trail head than of being raped while camping.

But the point of this post is a different one: The media, friends and family and basically every one you meet on a trail will pester a woman with what disadvantages a solo female faces outdoors – but no one talks about the advantages a single woman has.

Let's start with the most obvious advantage which is actually all this „women are so vulnerable“ talk looked at from a different angle. Women are perceived as weak and non-aggressive which means that they don't pose a threat. And this has the wonderful effect that whenever I need help I almost always will be helped – people don't feel threatened by me. You don't think this is a big advantage? Believe me – it is. Guess who gets picked up quickly when trying to hitch a ride into town to resupply? A single female or a scruffy bearded single male?

I could give an almost endless list of occassions when I had to ask for help and people reacted friendly and helpful: asking for water or directions, needing a ride, having technical bike problems, needing an extra pair of hands for portaging my kayak.......

But it is not only when you need help that being a female is a big advantage: People are generally reacting much friendlier towards a single female than towards a male: Guess who gets invited more often for dinner or given shelter in bad weather? Guess whom people offer an extra chocolate bar or invite to a family picnic? People are also much more lenient towards women than towards men – a huge advantage when you are caught trespassing or stealth camping.

I don't want to say that men are not treated friendly or offered help but your chances are much higher if you are a female.

Your advantages of being female are not restricted to encounters with others. There are several female qualities that will help you on long-distance trips. I was made aware of this on my very first long-distance hike on the PCT. I had arrived in the US with no experience in long-distance hiking and was basically shit scared of what lay ahead of me when a well known trail angel shuttled me and several other hikers to the Southern terminus of the PCT at the Mexican border. I was whining and fretting in the car until the trail angel told me these unforgettable words: „I have been shuttling hikers to the Mexican border now for years. I can assure you that statistically you have the highest chance of making it all the way to the Canadian border because you are a single female. Why? Single females are usually the best prepared and they don't have to prove anything to anyone.“ He turned out to be right – I made it not only to the Canadian border but eventually to the Triple Crown. After meeting hundreds of male and female long-distance hikers I also concur with his assumption. Women are usually more problem-oriented and very well prepared because they perceive themselves as weaker and want to compensate this with better preparation. And they generally lack the competitiveness that drives male hikers (especially the younger ones) to overexert themselves.

This male competitiveness is one of the biggest problems for thruhikers. You have to hike your own pace or you will sooner or later overexert yourself and end up with physical problems like stress fractures, shin splints and the like. But in predominantly male groups the fastest hiker sets the pace – and competitiveness drives the others to follow with the above mentioned consequences. Women don't fall into that trap that easily. Being considered the weaker sex anyways they are not ashamed to ask for a break when they are tired or leave a faster group when they cannot keep up.

It took me much longer to find out another female advantage. On the rare occasions when I have hiked or cycled with men I was always confronted with the bitter truth that I could not physically keep up with men when short term extreme performance was required. Going uphill I was usually watching the cloud of dust my male partner left behind when hiking up a steep mountain whereas I was slowly creeping uphill behind him. The same goes for cycling or paddling. But then came a big surprise: On long, straight and or rather boring stretches my male partners were suddenly lagging behind me whining how boring all this is. I just put in my earphones and an audiobook and hiked on – up to 14 hours per day. I put my feet on autopilot and kept my mind busy with other things. These stretches were much more difficult for men – not for physical, but for mental reasons. They were lacking the multi-tasking abilities.

Bottom line: As a female backpacker you face certain dangers and physical problems a man would not have to deal with. But on the other side these disadvantages are more than compensated by the above mentionend factors. Long distance outdoor activities are not more difficult or dangerous for women than they are for men. Don't let this modern brainwashing keep you from exploring the outdoors. Be careful and use common sense – but don't be intimidated. But most important: Always keep in mind that being a woman in the outdoors also has a lot of advantages!