“You’re not going alone, are you?” In every conversation I have had about my upcoming PCT thru-hike, the question has popped up. Initial enthusiasm quickly fades into concern, until people learn that I am starting off with my boyfriend. “Oh, that’s fine then, because all alone …”
For the longest time, I assumed everyone setting off on an epic adventure, such as hiking all the way from Mexico to Canada, received the same level of concern. Turns out that’s not the case. I recently asked my partner whether he gets the same reactions: “People do ask me if I am going alone, but their main worry is that I will be lonely, not that it would be unsafe.”
The funny thing is that not everyone seems to mean “it’s good that you’re going with someone,” when they voice their relief. What they are really saying – perhaps even subconsciously – is that it is good that I am going with a guy. When I set off on hiking trips with female friends in the past, not all sceptics were reassured. Conclusion: while going with another woman is good, being accompanied by a man is still considered safer.
The disapproval of me adventuring solo is often phrased very subtly. Sometimes as direct criticism, but usually it takes the form of well-intentioned concern. And concern is not a bad thing. It is a sign of love and care that should be taken into consideration. But it becomes problematic when it is tied solely to my gender instead of to my skills and experience level.
While there are still very real risks involved with being a woman in most places in the world, the dangers I am most likely to face in the wilderness will not discriminate. A bear does not care about my gender. A river will not pull me under more. A tree is not more likely to fall on me. And I am not more prone to slipping and falling, getting lost and dehydrated, or being struck by lightning than any man on trail.
And yet, the narrative I hear time and time again implies that I am somehow more fragile and less capable of making it on my own in the backcountry. While male peers are encouraged and praised for their bravery and strength, I am regularly told – directly and indirectly – that I am simply “lucky” nothing has gone wrong so far.
The message is clear: it is not my careful evaluation of situations and sound judgement that guide me through adventures safely, but sheer luck. It is only a matter of time before my “irresponsible behaviour” turns me into the next headline, if I am to believe the critics.
"Concern becomes problematic when it is tied to your gender and not to your individual skills and experience level."
Rethinking the narrative
The human brain is wired to believe the information it is fed systematically. Narratives like these leave women – like myself – feeling insecure and hesitant to take on challenges. They place mental barriers in the way of women wanting to explore the outdoors and instill misplaced fears they will actively need to overcome to pursue their goals.
On this International Women’s Day, let’s rethink the narrative. It is ironic that we still teach women to ignore and downplay inappropriate male behaviours that could actually harm them, yet discourage them from going after empowering experiences that will better equip them to stand up for themselves in the face of real threats.
So when I set off soon, show me that you care, but do not ask questions you would not ask if I were a man. Because quite frankly, I am tired. Tired of being deemed lucky instead of capable. Tired of hearing the world is too dangerous for me and that it would be foolish to think otherwise. Tired of having to prove my worth, while I know the strength that resides within.
8/3/2022 11:19:24 am
So with you on this. I am tired of being stopped and quizzed on whether I am properly equipped on solo trail runs. Again I would take this as "concern" except my husband and male friends say this never happens to them.
Mail from the trail
9/3/2022 02:10:07 am
Hi Talyn! Very recognisable. For the longest time, I also thought everyone out there was receiving the same level of concern and was facing the same fears and obstacles. Until I realised from talking to male hikers on trail that most of them did not. They were often not even aware that this is the reality for many female hikers on the same trail. Sounds like we have a lot more speaking up to do!
22/3/2022 01:37:17 pm
I sooooo agree with ALL of this! I'm a solo expedition ocean paddler. People seem shocked when I tell them I'm going solo. And when I paddle into a port, I can literally see the men craning their heads -- looking, waiting, wondering -- where the rest of my party is! Just as you shared as a solo female hiker, I am no more likely to capsize, to get eaten by a bear, or to have the high tide steal my tent than a man is. Geesch!
Mail from the trail
26/3/2022 11:01:32 am
Hi Susan! I can totally picture it. When I was hiking with a female friend (not even solo!) this one time, a few men asked us where our guide was and how we would manage not to get lost by ourselves ... Wishing you many more fulfilling expeditions!
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