Wednesday 19 November 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!


Joan West said...

This is one of the best argued pieces I've read about being a solo woman backpacker. I completely agree! They do try to scare us, but we do have advantages out there. I hope lots of women read this and that their fears are alleviated and that they go for it!

Unknown said...

Thanks for this one Christine!

Mary said...

I've been backpacking solo for decades and never felt threatened. Thanks for writing this.

Rebecca said...

Excellent article, Christine!

Gayle said...

Well said!

I spouted the "Do you really think that a mad-axe-murderer or rapist would choose to wait on a hillside for a lone female to pass by? I'm at more risk walking from your house into town, and you wouldn't bat an eyelid if I did that." argument to my gran enough times that she doesn't say anything (other than occasionally questioning my sanity) now when I go off on my own.

However, I do sometimes have to remind myself the same thing in the middle of the night when my overactive imagination thinks that the nearby stream is a group of mad-axe-murderers plotting to do away with me!

Robert said...

Ok, let's be the first male to comment this entry! :-)

First of all, this post was MUCH needed! That by itself is a shame by the way.

Having said that, I also have some critisim of the article. First of all, how do you know that you are better off than men when you require help? I have been in some situations when I needed help and in all (!) of them I got it. Even being a man! I do not think that this is a real "advantage" of a specific gender. It is a matter of behaviour, politeness and communication. And those skills are not gender specific!

Also, hitch-hiking was never a problem for me. Even with a beard! And about invitations: Just recently I got invited by a very nice 48 years old lady who had her four kids with her (aged 8 to 13, three of them female). The six of us had a great evening without axes, raping or any other incident!

So if your idea of this post was to convince more women to hike solo, I hope you achieve your objective! As I said earlier, it is much needed! I do not see why only men should get the rewards that a solo hike can bring (solitude, easy socialising, freedom of decision making, developing personal traits incl. self confidence, ...).

However, I do not see the necessity to do that by picking on men (at least between the lines). Again, enyoing the outdoors is not a gender thing! It's for everybody who is able and ready to embrace it!

Just my two cents. Feel free to pick on me! ;-)

Anonymous said...

I always thought hiking or backpacking solo was dangerous.for male or female. Use the buddy system, hike with someone especially on long bcakpacking trips. Like it or not there are dangers out there.

Linda W. said...

Great article! I've dayhiked by myself for over 20 years and have never had any troubles. Like you point out, I don't think some creepy guy is going to make the effort to hike down a trail and lay waiting for a victim. The only thing I've ever worried about is falling and injuring myself.

Anonymous said...

should be said more!

Anonymous said...

Could be a lot of wishful thinking in these lurid concerns about being raped... Backpacking is mostly a developed country thing and there is a strong tendency towards social isolation in these countries. This tendency is likely especially strong in those who are even considering going solo. That is, a lot of people are severely lacking in physical contact with other humans, to speak nothing of sex. In men, this lack of human physical contact usually leads to brutality of behavior, unable to engage in a normal conversation without shouting, etc. In women, it often leads to an obsession with being raped.

micha said...

finde super was du machst. werde mehr von deinem blog lesen, da ich 2015 und 2016 mehrere kleine und größere hikes vor habe :)

Unknown said...
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Anonymous said...

As a 60 year old heading out on my own, I am so happy to read your article..... enough of the fear and warnings... we hear enough of those... and are very aware. But with a good attitude along with that preparedness, yes, we are ready for a grand solo adventure!

Trekking in Nepal said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Alan M said...

Sigh....How come I never meet all these single female travelers whilst I'm on the trail, kayak or bike????? :)

Christine, do you recall a conversation we had about this about 6 years ago ;)

As you know, I think the Gender thing is a load of crap, OK there may be some differences in upper body strength but as you say, a lot of women are mentally tougher in plodding situations.

However, having said that, I still think you're possessed..... Have you bought a Ti short handled toothbrush yet???? )P

I think the ideal outdoors team consists of a male/female couple that has a deep friendship and trusts each others judgement explicitly, because when the chips are down, and I don't just mean situational but also emotionally, trust and friendship are what will pull them through. One is able to read the other and offer help / support / allow solitude, as required.

I think when all the Pro's and Con's are taken into consideration, both Genders are equal, both can be offered unsolicited / solicited help or kindness of many forms. As adventurer's, the rules are often bent for both. Sometimes they're enforced for males whilst females get away with it but sometimes it's the other way around, some you win, some you lose!

Sadly though, I feel you're correct and mainstream society believes women are at a higher risk. A case in point is my daughter who rang me with a dilemma only yesterday. She's ready to travel again, people are steering her towards a "safe" trip to Europe, bugga that I said to her Fly into HCM City, buy a motorbike, head North then South, flog the bike in March in somewhere like KL, fly over to see Oma, stay in Germany, relearn the lingo until the money get's low, get a job or head off to UK, get a job there and make sure you spend each weekend, or whatever, in a different place, and don't come home for at least 2 years. "I'll think about it" she said......she flies into HCM City on the 10th of Feb....after making an appointment at a place to buy a motorbike. (Herein lay the difference, as you pointed out, me I'd just fly in and sort out a motorbike when I arrived) Mainstream society are having a fit already.... get over it, she's 25 and I taught her the skills to travel solo, she'll make it!!! Only downside, I'm NOT allowed to go with her.....bumma... :)

OK, good article, keep whatevering, but don't forget to STOP and take photos instead of doing it as you sail on past..... :P

Oh, and don't forget, learn to roll that tub of yours...... !!


Anonymous said...

Nice post. I almost agree. I don't agree that males are "stronger" in general. It's a bit too black and white. But let them believe this ;-)
You miss one thing: I often hitchhike alone as a female and in general there is no problem. But if you stay a bit longer with a guy, perhaps he helps you with something out, perhaps you are together for more than just a day I can promise you will have some "conversations" - I suppose males don't have to count on this in general. I expect that and must say that there are situations where you have to talk about sex, to say it shortly. Or just: there is always this "scanning male view" taking a chance - sorry for my Denglish ;-) - it is not threatening in general, but it is something males should think about. Women always have to deal with this and that's why there is this general opinion, women shouldn't walk alone I suppose. But they should.
And sadly it sounds that your main point is: you are hidden so there is no problem. There shouldn't be a problem even if you are not always well hidden. I think it is so.
And, for the last, one would suppose males are angry about being in suspicion in general. It seems they are not - control ...

Gear Trade said...

Well said. Being a woman, you passed a lots of night outside and no incident ever happens there. It's very pleasant to hear that I also support women to be free and feel free to do everything what they want to do. Backpacking or trailing is a great fun for the tour lover but many woman gets afraid of trailing alone. You experience should inspire them.

melmacer said...

Good post. I don't like that Gender thing either. I even be kind of annoyed when someone tries to tell me what I can do or not. Or what I have to fear.
Had the strange rape fear on trail discussions with several females even while just doing a ten days hike on Eifelsteig in Germany.
Asked them the same. Why a guy who wants to rape a woman goes into the forest and waits for hours or days that a solo woman passes.
But what really pissed me off is when someone tells me, wow, you can do that as woman?!
Happens often to me in IT. ;-)

melmacer said...

Good post. I don't like that Gender thing either. I even be kind of annoyed when someone tries to tell me what I can do or not. Or what I have to fear.
Had the strange rape fear on trail discussions with several females even while just doing a ten days hike on Eifelsteig in Germany.
Asked them the same. Why a guy who wants to rape a woman goes into the forest and waits for hours or days that a solo woman passes.
But what really pissed me off is when someone tells me, wow, you can do that as woman?!
Happens often to me in IT. ;-)