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Nervous new solo backpacker

I'm an avid day-hiker, who recently decided to make the jump to backpacking and I'm planning on doing a couple solo overnighters this summer. I am looking for any tips or advice other women with solo backpacking experience can share about safety, specifically around other hikers. I realize that the risk of being injured from a twisted ankle or unsafe drinking water is probably much higher than running into another hiker who tries to attack me, but it's still the latter that gives me more anxiety. I have experience traveling solo before, but something about being alone in the wilderness can trigger some panic. I have had a few panic episodes even just on day hikes when there are few other hikers around and I come upon another male hiker, and my flight or flight kicks in. It's absolutely not their fault, usually they just say hi and pass by, and I feel bad for reacting like they are going to hurt me but I can't help it. I guess I am just looking to see if any one else deals with this, and what advice you can share to move past it? I really don't want something like this to keep me from activities I really enjoy doing.

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24 Replies

Let's talk about firearms in the outdoors for a bit...

I am a firearms owner and user and have been such since age eleven.  I was trained in proper usage first by my father (very tough) and later by the military and still later by the National park Service in the course of earning a law enforcement commission.   Firearms have  legitimate uses and purposes.  I advocate more comprehensive training in the proper use of guns; it should be part of every high school curriculum, along with first aid training.

One of the pleasure of hiking and using the outdoors is that we all get to select what we think is going to be most useful for our excursion.  In many decades of outdoor activity, I have never encountered a situation where a gun was useful or necessary.  I have been involved in situations where firearms accidental or improper use resulted in significant injury.  I understand that, in general, injuries from firearms are more likely than their saving someone in a bad situation.

In several decades of active involvement in mountain rescue, I never dealt with a situation where we were dealing with person to person encounters resulting in injury of any sort.  On the other hand, we routinely helped folks who hadn't the slightest knowledge of first aid or self care and were lacking any useful equipment. 

The potentially dangerous animal most of will encounter is a poisonous snake, present throughout the continental US.  My rattlesnake encounters have usually been resolved quickly.  Mr. snake goes in one direction, and I head off in the opposite.Occasionally, I have had to kill the snake;  I can tell you from personal experience that a shovel is far more effective than any firearm in dispatching a rattler.  In snake country, be cautious and follow good procedures.

Mention has been made of carrying a pistol designed for concealed carry.  This is probably chambered for 9mm or .380 - effective calibers against humans but not very good against bears or similar.   Where I spend most of my time these days is bear free or populated only black bears (no grizz), but if I were in grizzly territory and concerned, I would pack a short barreled 12 gauge shotgun, loaded with slugs and/ or large ball, like many Alaskans do.

Actually, the best defense against bear encounters is a very clean camp, with food and aromatics hung distant from the tent and cooking area.  Lots of bear encounters have their root cause in sloppily maintained camps.

Bear spray has been at least as effective, if not more so, in ending bear encounters.  Bear spray can be mishandled as easily as a gun, but the after effects are much less serious.

If you carry a firearm into the back country, please include a tourniquet as well.  Prompt application is critical, and even in the best circumstances, search and rescue will be too late.

Again, I am not inherently opposed to firearms.  They have their place, but usually, for the ast majority of us,packing heat is encumbering oneself with useless weight and bulk, denying the use of more useful alternatives


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Well said! Again, not anti-gun, but this all gets back to being ready for LIKELY situations. Not "any" situation. If you are not in grizzly country, the odds you will need a gun are astronomical! (to say nothing of making anyone who sees you with it uneasy, to say the least). Better to use the weight/bulk for water or food! Even in grizzly country, although it's POSSIBLE you may need a gun, it's FAR from likely (I won't get into the debate between "stopping power" and "penetration", let's just say it's better to be an accurate shot!)

Bear spray? Yeah, that's an option. But gun or spray, you may not even have a CHANCE to use it! Just ask Todd Orr!! When I interviewed him, he said he drew is spray and layed a cloud in front of the bear, but it was moving SO fast, that it blew right THROUGH the spray. Of course, that was an attack based on protecting its cub. MOST encounters happen in camp and because PEOPLE leave food, food scraps or food garbage out. HANG - YOUR - FOOD!!!

There are only a few venomous snakes in the U.S. (and Canada?); Rattlesnakes, coral snakes, water moccasins, copperheads, cottonmouths. Here in California, we only have rattlesnakes.

The universally accepted advice is; if you're on the trail, and you see a snake, leave it alone! If the snake sees you, and it has a way to leave, you can both be on your way (snakes are a part of the ecosystem). Most bites happen because PEOPLE were doing something to/with the snake!

If the snake is in a populated area? Well, here's where it becomes a little more "ify". Again, the accepted advice is to call animal control so they can send a trained herpetologist to remove it. That may make sense in a residential area, but what about a campground? Well, the snake can't stay!

On my last outing, I was in a frontcountry campground when I found a rather large rattlesnake. But because this was a frontcountry area, families would routinely bring their pets AND small children. So I made the decision to to kill it.

I picked up a six-foot stick (kind of heavy), and came down right on its head (first try). It was a lucky swing, so I hit it again to be sure it was dead. Then I pinned its neck to the ground with one end of the stick, stepped on its head with my boot, then cut the head off with my knife. After kicking the head back into its hole, I took the carcass back to camp and had myself a MEAL! (snake soup and rattlesnake on rice, YUMM!)

And yes, tastes like chicken.


My one firearm related rattlesnake encounter was similar.  I was directing excavation and building stabilization at Fort Bowie national Historic Site and staying in our trailer at Chiricahua National Monument - my wife, one year old daughter, and I in a 30 footer, the sol occupants of a former dude ranch on the property.

I stepped outside one day to see a healthy rattler at our doorstep.  I made a quick decision that Mr. Snake had of to go, NPS policies not withstanding.  I loaded my 357 with a snake shot cartridge, lovingly hand loaded for just such an occasion and let loose.  Although the snake was in the middle of the pattern, there was no immediate change.  Then I resorted to my trusty shovel and long division, which worked splendidly.  That was in 1967 and I can now finally tell the story, thanks to the statute of limitations.

The next year my crew, all expert Navajo stone masons, opened up a nest of rattlers in an historic reservoir at Fort Bowie who suffered a similar fate.

Still later, I and a companion went on an overnight hike through Sunshine Pass in Denali NP, decompressing after a mountaineering patrol on Denali.  There was a recent report of grizzlies at that location, so we were quite careful in our camping practices.  We cooked away from our tent, and stowed food and aromatic goodies at a good distance.  That was one of the most gorgeous and scenic campsites I have ever experienced, enhanced by the lack of bear.

Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.

LOL and nice! Although, in your example, your crew knew what you were dealing with, and you chose the circumstances, so you had ample time to get ready. That's in sharp contrast to what almost all people are confronted with. On the other hand, although a soloist/survivalist doesn't always choose the circumstances, they're still ready to deal with it.  

Over my time, I must have seen hundreds of bears (most at a distance, some up close and personal) and maybe thousands of snakes (mostly rattlers). Here at least, you're more likely to come across a snake, but not always on the trail. This past outing (a month long), I saw a half dozen snakes, ALL in campgrounds! Only one bear, although I did wake to see it about two yards away (STILL not my closest bear encounter).  

The truth is, in the wilderness, you're more likely to get lost or suffer from dehydration, hyperthermia, hypothermia, etc. So, better to spend your time and money on ways to deal with those possibilities.  

Another truth is there are only two ways people find themselves in a survival ordeal; either they had nothing to do with it (ie. they were a passenger in a plane crash or shipwreck) or they had EVERYTHING to do with it (they PUT themselves out there!) And out there, there's a right way and a wrong way to do just about everything!


@jinxypop I'm so excited for you that you love hiking enough to keep doing it, expand your skills, and enjoy the exquisite pleasure of a solo trip.  I've read through all the comments and there is definitely some good advice and specific tips in there. 

One concept that I don't see addressed which might make you feel a little more confident is that there is a difference between an overnight backpacking trip and true wilderness exploration.  I live in Alaska, where most overnights can and should be considered true wilderness.  But I've also backpacked extensively in other areas of the country that are much tamer and definitely appropriate for a first overnight trip.  I do concur with some of the other posters that your very-first-ever-overnight should probably be with at least one other person who has done it before, but you're not as far away from your goal as if you were tackling a true wilderness environment.  I'd recommend a loop route, as opposed to a one-way.  They tend to be more well-traveled, and harder to get lost in. 

As for the human-fear factor, which I think started out as your biggest concern, the comments from some of the male posters may help alleviate some of your concern about "their" intentions and give you a better-rounded perspective.  And I second the thoughts of all the posters who mentioned martial arts as a boost for confidence.  I enrolled my daughter in a 6-week Krav Maga program.  Just 6 weeks, and the before-and-after difference in her confidence was astounding!  Could she, with that much training have taken down an aggressive 250-pound human? I seriously doubt it, but she was no longer held back by her fears.  It may have the same result for you, and I do very much wish you peace of mind!!!  We go out into the wilderness partly to experience peace, and let's not rob our own selves of that benefit with excessive fear.  If you are a reader, I highly recommend a book on the subject by Gavin deBecker, called "The Gift of Fear."  It helps you both to tune in to your own internal radar for real danger AND to keep that radar from becoming overactive and determining everything is a threat, even when it's not.  (I had trouble putting it down.) Happy Trails to you.  Have a wonderful time.

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