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Outdoor Safety by Hazel Stark

If we don’t feel like the outdoors is a safe place, we’re not going to spend much time there. This is a simple concept, but one that is worth unpacking as being able to spend time in nature is a necessity. So let’s consider some of the common reasons that women don’t always feel safe outdoors: lack of experience outdoors, wildlife encounters, and men.

Set yourself up for success

If you’re worried about getting lost, unsure about what to do if you have an injury when far from help, or you just don’t feel confident about how to prepare for an outdoor adventure, you will logically limit yourself in the depth of outdoor experience you have. So how do you address those fears?

View of Mt. Washington

  1. Carry the “10 Essentials” with you on any outing, and know how to use them: water and food, emergency shelter, rain layers, warm/insulating layers, fire-starter (e.g. matches), reliable navigation system (a map and compass doesn’t need a battery!), a reliable light (e.g. a headlamp with extra batteries), first aid and repair kit, sun protection, and a whistle.
  2. Practice navigation using a map and compass in a place you’re familiar with or with a friend who is confident in navigation. While you won’t probably need to use a compass on most well-marked trails, it sure feels better to know you can figure your way out of a challenging situation if you happen to lose the trail.
  3. Take a Wilderness First Aid (WFA) course. WFA courses help you understand how to treat and prevent common outdoor injuries when help is far away. This is a great skill-set to have for your own well being along with anyone you might come across outdoors. These courses can be expensive and usually last about two days, which can be a barrier for many, but having a fully stocked first aid kit that you know how to use as part of your 10 Essentials is a great place to start.

Encounters with other living things

red squirrel climbing on tree

I am quite comfortable in the outdoors; however, there have been a few times when I felt unsafe outdoors. In one instance, I was on a backpacking trip along a popular section of the Appalachian Trail. The campsite my hiking companion and I stayed at was a popular one and there was evidence of past hikers having left scraps of food and trash behind. We knew that meant that there was a higher chance of wildlife encounters. We were careful about our food storage, hanging it high up and far out over a tree limb, thinking that mice or squirrels were likely to be the worst of our worries.

The next morning, a bear approached our campsite and was hardly deterred by our clapping and shouting, which is usually the most reliable method of scaring eastern black bears away. Clearly, this was a bear used to humans leaving food around and, as a result, was more brazen than your average black bear. Knowing that loud noises usually scare bears, we increased the volume of our noises by banging on pots and pans. That was enough to keep the bear at a distance and we were able to leave without incident.

Black bear next to the river

Wildlife is one thing. Men are another. This blog post does not claim to address how to deal with unwanted attention by men; however, by sharing my experiences and how I dealt with them, I hope to give guidance and alleviate some of the tensions that women can feel being alone outdoors.

There was a time when I was running alone in a campground and a group of men passed by me, catcalling the entire way. This kind of attention makes me uncomfortable in a populated environment–being alone in a remote campground made the alarm bells ring even louder. In fact, this experience greatly contributed to my decision to stop running for several years as I couldn’t quite figure out a place to run where such an encounter wasn’t likely to happen.

So what to do about avoiding unwelcome attention from wildlife and men?

  1. Sprays: Bear spray, commonly used in the western US, is the best defense against a bear that is actively charging you. An aggressive bear approaching is a rare circumstance, but one to be prepared for. Our northeastern bears tend to be much more shy than bears that frequent highly trafficked western national parks, so I actually don’t bother carrying bear spray in Maine, but it can be a safety blanket if you’re worried about it. Pepper spray designed for self defense of humans (don’t use bear spray on people) is also an option to consider.
  2. Get to know the area where you want to spend time outside. Ask locals about the risk of wildlife encounters in the area. Researching blogs and forums online can help with this. When hiking in southern Texas, a local told me to always check my shoes for scorpions before putting them on–a tip I never had to consider in Maine.
  3. Along with researching the different wildlife encounters you might have in a given area, take time to ask locals or research online about human safety. For instance, I also researched online forums in Kaua’i about the relative safety of different campsites I was considering, which helped me avoid the ones that had a less safe reputation. I also now make note of the trails that are less frequented by people so I can feel safe running in places where I won’t encounter anyone–I am extremely privileged that such trails are easy to find in my area. In new places, or in places with more populated trails, I always prefer to explore with a friend.

Feeling safe in the outdoors ultimately comes down to what you personally feel comfortable with. As much as I would like to say that taking a WFA course, having bear spray, and knowing the risks of the region will make all of your outdoor adventures safe, the reality is that every adventure has its own degree of risk. Outdoor safety, like just about anything outdoors, is greatly increased through preparation. Taking preventative actions to avoid the scenarios that feel too risky to you combined with being confident in what to do if the situation takes a turn for the worse are the two keys to unlocking more of the wonders of the great outdoors.