In her article ‘For women, running is still an act of defiance,’ Rachel Hewitt describes the fears she experiences while running alone. Unsurprisingly, they are almost identical to the ones I, and so many other women, face when hiking: “Running’s emotional windfalls couple a sense of profound freedom with moments of euphoric joy. But for me they are always cut through with the fear that as I run alone, a man will abduct, rape, attack or murder me.”
The fear of falling victim to an act of violence perpetrated against me because of my gender is the main reason it has taken me ages before I dared to hike alone. While I love the liberation that comes with hiking solo and reconnecting with nature without the distractions of making conversation, these adventures are never carefree.
Sooner or later, the irrepressible urge to look over my shoulder re-emerges. Did someone follow me? Will someone drag me into the bushes? Is that cyclist out to get me? Am I an idiot for being out here? People sometimes ask if I worry about getting lost, hitting a storm or encountering a wild animal, but the truth is that even in nature, my biggest fear is still the off chance that one ill-intentioned individual might be out to harm me.
Statistically, of course, the odds of falling victim to crime in nature are low. You might even argue that hiking through a forest is far safer than walking alone in any city. In fact, I too have been followed, cat-called and groped multiple times when doing the latter, but never when doing the former.
Yet my uneasiness does not seem to respond to statistics. When I was hiking through Jordan with a female friend, people called us ‘fearless.’ If only they knew that with every rustle I heard at night, my body would tense up completely. Even though Jordan might well be the safest country I have ever lived in, I would wake up exhausted after a long and wired night, feeling grateful that nothing had happened to us.
These are feelings my friend and fellow hiker Katrien can relate to: “When thru-hiking solo, I feel safer out in the wilderness than I do closer to society. Sure, there are coping strategies: never telling anyone exactly where you’re going for the night, purposely letting your social media posts lag behind, making up partners that you’re catching up to or friends that are waiting for you in the next town. But I shouldn’t have to. I don’t have to wonder if I’m an idiot for being there on my own, just because of my gender. I have every right to be there. And it shouldn’t make me feel afraid.”
So whether or not the threat is real, the fear most definitely is. And it is holding many women like me back. It is instilled in us by a society that tells its daughters not to go out alone. It is perpetuated by a society that keeps reminding women of their own responsibilities in not getting raped, while too often turning a blind eye to toxic masculinity. It is sustained by a society that calls me ‘brave’ – or even ‘foolish’ – for doing the same thing that makes my male counterparts ‘strong’ or ‘tough.’
While I consider myself lucky to live in a safe country, where both men and women can hike freely, that is not equality. I hope I live to see the day when everyone can walk wherever they want without feeling hypervigilant. But until then, I will keep pushing my own boundaries, one step at a time.
Sometimes people call me fearless. They probably don’t know me very well. Worry might as well be my middle name. I am the kind of person who has already weighed the pros and cons of five potential scenarios before something even happened. Checking under the bed was a nightly routine for longer than I care to admit and overcoming my fear of picking up the phone took the better part of my high school career.
People meeting me today also assume that I must have always loved hiking. That, my poor parents can confirm, is definitely not the case. In fact, some days I still wonder whether I just excel at tricking myself into believing that personal growth through suffering is fun – ignoring the pain, discomfort and exhaustion that appear to be regular by-products of my escapades.
So how did I become the avid hiker I am today?
“Are you running away from something?” my friend Bassam once asked me after a weekend spent walking in the hills together. The truth is, I quite possibly was.
Ten years of volunteering and working in the humanitarian sector had left me feeling disillusioned. The activism I had once poured my heart and soul into suddenly seemed void, messy and meaningless.
And then there it was. During my time in Amman, I found the Jordan Trail. Or rather, it found me through my friend Katy, who I regularly accompanied for day hikes. Before I knew it, the trail became the place where I could escape my anxiety and budding identity crisis.
Yet more than a distraction, it also provided me with a new purpose. And so, I got hooked on leaving the city behind every weekend to work towards a clear and attainable goal: walking the length of Jordan.
I soon discovered that compulsive thinking and worrying get paused when hitting a trail. In hiking, I found the most powerful antidote to the curse of busyness, allowing me to feel free and see more clearly. It empowered me in ways I was not expecting and reminding me of how simple life can be when we choose not to complicate it.
As Ton Lemaire wrote in his book Met lichte tred: “The walker is freed from the duty of productivity and efficiency, and freed from the eternal time pressure that in normal live narrows and impoverishes the experience of the world.”
Hiking is no longer just an escape to me. Rather, it is a way to experience beauty and adventure, a way to redefine my relationship with the world around me. Five months of living in nature therefore seems just as worthwhile an objective as any other, which is why I am committing to thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail with my partner Fadi this year, all 2,650 miles from the Mexican border to Canada.
Do I feel ready? Not really. But being able to embark on this adventure is an absolute privilege, so I choose to feel grateful rather than nervous as I pack my bags and count down to April 30th. Canada, I am on my way.