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.