Tips for handling harassment on the trail

While hiking alone on a trail, has a man ever slowed down a little when walking past you, and perhaps even brushed your shoulders ever so slightly, giving you that uneasy feeling and prompting you to look over your shoulder the rest of the way? Or how about a man on the trail who asks you one too many questions, including, “Are you alone?”

Yeah, me too. 

Once while hiking alone in the foothills of the Wasatch mountains with my dog, a man trailed behind me for long enough that I became uncomfortable. I slowed my pace hoping he would pass, but he didn’t. I stepped off the trail and looked directly at him and said, “I’d like you to pass me please.” He said, “Okay, but I have enjoyed the view from behind.” I said nothing. 

As soon as he passed me I pulled out my phone ready to dial 911 if necessary and headed straight back to my car. As women, our fears of other people, especially men, while recreating in the outdoors are not unwarranted.

facing your fears: harassment on the trail. woman hiking on trail

By the Numbers

Studies support my anecdotal experiences: women are statistically more likely than men to experience verbal harassment, catcalling, unwanted touching, and unwanted following. 

Numerous reports in recent years provide staggering numbers on the amount of sexual harassment in the outdoor community:

A 2016 investigative report by the Department of the Interior showed that women in the rafting industry have been the victims of sexual misconduct for years; 

In a 2016 poll, Runner’s World found that 84 percent of women surveyed have been harassed while running;

A 2017 report by Outside Magazine found that 53 percent of women have been sexually harassed while recreating; of that percentage, 93 percent were catcalled, 56 percent were followed by someone, 18 percent were flashed, and 4 percent were attacked. 

A 2018 special report by The American Alpine Club found that 47 percent of the 5,000 women surveyed repoted at least one incidence of sexual harassment or sexual assult behavior while engaged in a climbing activity. 

I could go on because the studies and numbers are endless, but you get the point: harassment is alive and well in the outdoors. So, the question stands, how do we as women protect ourselves? 

facing your fears: harassment on the trail. woman camping alone

How to Stay Safe

As humans, a healthy dose of skepticism of strangers is important when you’re alone in the outdoors. It’s true that solo female activities could draw unwanted attention to yourself just for being a badass outdoorsy chick, but that shouldn’t stop you from adventuring your heart out. Here are some practical tips on how to stay safe when recreating in the outdoors alone: 

1. Don’t disclose that you’re alone. 

If someone starts conversing with you that makes you feel uncomfortable casually drop a hint that you’re with someone, say something like “Well, I should go catch up to my partner now.” 

2. Don’t give details. 

It’s also important not to give too many details to strangers about where you’re headed or what your plans are. Keep things vague and conversation short. 

3. Get off the trail. 

If someone is trailing behind you and it’s making you uncomfortable or nervous pull off to the side of the trail and let them pass. Pretend you’re stopping to take pictures or to get a drink of water.

4. Sleep near a group. 

If you’re solo camping and nervous about being alone try pitching your tent among other campers. More people around means less chances of a creeper trying anything suspicious. 

woman looking out of tent

Attitude is Everything

I’ve been told that I’m intimidating more times than I can count. In social settings this isn’t always a positive thing, but when alone in the outdoors I think this works in my favor — assertive and self-sufficient women turn the creeps away. Even if being assertive and strong willed doesn’t come naturally to you, there are ways that you can fake it in times of necessity. 

1. Don’t be nice to people who make you uncomfortable. 

This may seem strange but oftentimes being passive can be interpreted as permission. For example, you smile and nervously chuckle when someone makes an awkward comment. We might think that our demeanor is conveying how uncomfortable we are, but they might be thinking, “She’s laughing. She must be interested!”

2. Work on saying “no” and using your resting bitch face. 

Being polite to a pushy dude on the trail could be seen as an invitation to tag along with you. That resting bitch face sends a “touch or or else” warning look to the creeps. If someone makes you uncomfortable and you don’t want to be around them, be stern and tell them to leave.

3. Be opinionated, independent, and wear whatever you want. 

We’ve all heard the horrific assumptions that women that wear short, tight, and revealing clothes are asking to be assaulted and harassed. Just because our shoulders are showing or you have leggings on is not an invitation for the creeps. If someone makes an unwanted comment about your clothing, tell them to eff off and then be on your way.

Take precautions

Whenever we venture outside, proper preparedness is always necessary and will work in your favor if you encounter unwanted or dangerous attention. You should always have your cell phone easily accessible, and don’t hike with headphones on if you’re feeling uneasy. To be extra cautious consider carrying pepper spray — just be sure that you know how to use it.

Lastly, the most important tools that a woman, or anyone for that matter, has is her brain and her gut — listen to them! 

Leave a comment

  • Have you had uncomfortable experiences on the trail?
  • What have you found to be (not) effective in preventing or stopping harassment on the trail?
Posted in on May 21, 2020
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34 Comments

  1. Emily on May 21, 2020 at 8:55 pm

    It’s sad that this had to be written, but I’m glad that it was. Thank you.

  2. Lea Geibel on May 22, 2020 at 12:53 am

    Great Article! Absolutely agree on every point, thank you for writing this! Just a small comment: The article only focuses on experiences while hiking in the US. When venturing out to international routes, the solo female hiking subject can be a whole different topic that often even when regarding those points makes hiking extremely stressful and nerve-wracking. So I would love to read more about the topic how hiking internationally is different for men vs. women and how female hikers can cope with this inequality. Love this series!

  3. Tetsu noguchi on May 22, 2020 at 1:25 am

    I’ve gone solo backpacking as a guy, and fully understand that talking to solo female backpackers, simply because I’m alone as well, can easily make the other person feel uncomfortable.

    Apart from the friendly hello when being passed or passing a solo female hiker, I won’t say or do anything that might make woman feel uncomfortable. When in a group setting, I’m pretty amicable, but I get it. I’m sure if you’re a lone woman on the trail, and a lone stranger is also hiking near you, it’d weird you out, and no one should ever feel unsafe or uncomfortable on the trail.

  4. Connor on May 22, 2020 at 1:48 am

    Acknowledging that I’m speaking as a clueless dude, *but* I’d add that any solo hiker should feel free to temporarily attach themselves to other hikers if it provides cover for a while. I know the goal may be to hike solo, but I’d certainly be happy for a solo hiker to tag along if it helps them shake off a creep.

    • Paul Tovell on May 22, 2020 at 5:17 am

      When I walked the Portuguese Camino their were two young students that were afraid to leave the hostel because some local man was pestering them.
      Rather than them stay in myself and another woman said we go out into the town with them. Within 10 mins of us leaving he was following us which made us realise he must have been watching the hostel. We went into a bar and he was loitering outside. I pointed him out to the bar owner and he called the police as he was well known for behaviour like this.
      Up until this point I had never realised what women have to endure, I have a degree of shame and frustration with myself that I’d never thought about it.
      It’s definitely made me think about how women may feel when travelling.
      Since the event above I have come across a German lady that was travelling on her own and had badly cut her arm. I could sence that whilst she needed help she was also concerned about being alone with me. I gave her my first aid kit so that she could dress her wound but kept my distance while she done it. It was difficult as I’m part of the emergency services and just wanted to help and reassure her. I kept my distance and just kept speaking to her while I rang for emergency services. It’s so enrageing that women, even when they are in need of help, have to consider mens motives etc. I sometimes dispare of my gender that a section of us can cause this.

      • Angela Magee on May 22, 2020 at 1:09 pm

        It’s really refreshing to hear a man talking this way, and not feeling the need to become defensive on behalf of the whole of his sex. Thank you

  5. Livesoutdoors on May 22, 2020 at 7:57 am

    One thing that was not mentioned that might be of a help that I do before I go hiking on any major trail. I do some research into the recent history of social media of hikers’ experiences on that specific section I will be on. This helped me greatly when I was being stalked ( I did not know ) one year on the PCT by a clearly deranged man. I had gotten off the trail to attend a wedding and checked Facebook and current youtube films per advice from a fellow hiker right before getting back on the trail, and I found this man had actually filmed himself threatening my life on Facebook. While scary I was thankful and changed my point of re-entry to avoid him completely and notified several hiking friends already on the trail that were still in his area.

    • Angela Magee on May 22, 2020 at 1:10 pm

      Oh my god, that’s so scary. Well done for foiling him.

    • Victoria Harvey on May 22, 2020 at 6:57 pm

      That’s helpful.
      I’m 65 years old, been backpacking solo all of my life. I’ve been all of the above. Thank you for talking about this! And you know what? I hope we get to a point where there are some horrible dangerous people, and then the rest of us people ? Don’t have to be divided into male and female. Men are not the enemy, but they are stronger and I have been overpowered.

    • Teresa S. on June 5, 2020 at 12:07 pm

      What social media sites or specific groups would you use? One that is specific for each trail? Or more general ones?

  6. Sue on May 22, 2020 at 10:50 am

    I had never had a problem until last week. I was walking my dog, and a guy whom had passed me going the other way, suddenly was coming up behind me really fast. When he saw that I saw him, he slowed down until I pulled my dog off trail and took my phone out and said “let’s get a picture”. He bolted by me, actually running, which he was not doing before. It may have been nothing, but better safe than sorry

  7. Robin on May 22, 2020 at 11:33 am

    Thanks for your words. I’ve been a solo adventurer for years. The older I get, the more vulnerable I feel sometimes. Never carried a weapon or bear spray but in these times, I may start. I have a dog now that I adopted while traveling. He’s only forty pounds but he is very protective. I’m glad.

  8. Melanie on May 22, 2020 at 1:28 pm

    As a female who’s had plenty of harassment on and off the trail, I am angry that I have to even think about this! I’m sick of it and I’d just love to beat the crap out of the next guy that tries it but of course, my size and strength aren’t up to that. Just saying, we women have to suppress a lot of rage just because we are the targets of unwanted attentions.

  9. Dave Sailer on May 22, 2020 at 4:51 pm

    If you ever encounter me on the trail, I’ll say “hello”, maybe smile a little smile, and, to let you get by, I’ll stand off to one side if the trail is narrow. If you happen later to think back on the event you probably won’t be able to remember anything about me, and neither will you ever see me again.

    I have no hopes, illusions, or any desire to annoy. I’ve learned. Women don’t like me.

    Women don’t like me, and I accept that, and have lived my life alone. True, I did have a short relationship once, more or less by accident, at age 38, so I learned some things that you can’t learn any other way. I will turn 71 in a few days, so that’s all over no matter what.

    Once upon a time I spent a Saturday at a community college library, reading magazines. I noticed an older guy there, somehow always visible across the reading room no matter what seat I managed to switch to. After a couple of hours I finished and left and walked out to my car, parked about a block and a half away. As soon as I was locked inside, here comes that guy. I rolled the window down a bit and he came close and said “I find you very attractive.” And so I drove away, rattled.

    I remember how that felt, and also the time a few years ago that another guy followed me out of a local cathedral here in Ecuador, halfway back to my apartment, and came alongside and began talking to me about this, that, and whatever, repeatedly inviting me to come to his place halfway across town to meet his friends and so on and so on. My Spanish isn’t good, and after a few minutes we had reached no resolution, so he just stood there, less than three feet away, leering at me on the sidewalk.

    I remember how that felt as well, and walked at least a mile getting back to my apartment, which was only half a block from where this happened, while turning many, many corners and checking over my shoulder at each of them.

    None of this was fun.

    And then, last October, there were the two people on horseback who threatened (twice) to shoot me after I was attacked by their three dogs and laid down a fog of pepper spray to save myself, and one of them also rammed me with his horse in between the two death threats.

    And the guy who parked his van too close to me near Lake Meade last December and managed to come over to complain that the spot where he was parked was not good, and to ask if I was going to stay overnight, because, I guess, he felt that he deserved the spot that I was in. And who dismissed all of the suggestions I made about good spots on the other side of the highway, because apparently he just wanted me to move out for his convenience. I guess, unless there was some other reason for bringing all this up. I kept my hand in my pocket, fingers wrapped around the little canister of pepper spray with CS gas that I always carry.

    And there is more.

    It’s all over, everywhere.

    No, I’m not a single woman traveling alone in the woods and never will be. But maybe I can, a little, a little bit, understand how you might feel.

  10. sophie on May 22, 2020 at 10:25 pm

    “What have you found to be effective in preventing or stopping harassment on the trail?”

    Well, exactely what you wrote: having an assertive behavior!
    Men with agressive/sexist tendancies are pulled off (put off ? Sorry English not mother tongue!) by women with a lot of self confidence.
    I’m lucky to be like this and found out this is the best “weapon”.
    When you show a man with bad intentions that you will resist and fight, most of the time he will give up.
    And if he does try, then show your fists. Very important not to put yourself in a victim position and behavior. It’s what you project that will do the difference.

    Another “weapon” I have used during my travels, is to do public shame to the guy. I have done it in town, not on trek. A guy tries to touch me, I turn to him and start yelling at him out loud. I have done it in Syria and in Yemen and it works great. The crowd around takes your defence and the guy is just running away… I believe (hope!) he won’t do it again 🙂

  11. Jenny M Knudsen on May 23, 2020 at 12:04 pm

    Thank you! I shared this with my women’s hiking group in Utah. Great information, although unfortunate of the world we live in.

  12. Shay D. on May 23, 2020 at 2:05 pm

    Why does it seem that all of the burden – including all of the tips in this article – falls on women? Should the #1 suggestion be that the entire outdoor recreation culture and industry need to focus on stigmatizing harassment of women – through their communication channels, through training, and through self-policing? To urge other men to police their sex and urge their fellow male hikers to keep harassers in check? These are great tips for women now but I’m worried that, in the long term, unless all outdoor recreationists nip the problem in the bud (and not always focus on addressing the symptoms) that the problem will persist, and persist, and persist.

    • Martin on May 24, 2020 at 9:25 am

      No. Women are responsible for their own safety and men aren’t responsible for the behaviour of a few creeps that happen to share their gender.

      • Ranger on May 25, 2020 at 5:29 am

        Martin, you are missing the point. Look at the statistics quoted in this post again–it is unfortunately far more than a “few creeps.” The outdoor industry (and much of society in general) remains a male-dominated system, and that means it is on all of us (yes, I’m male) to push cultural norms to a more equitable place. Dismissing the situation as “women are responsible for their own safety” is counterproductive and makes you part of the problem.

        • Martin on June 12, 2020 at 4:22 am

          I disagree wholeheartedly. Just like everybody else, I am responsible for my own life and my own actions. It falls upon me to be courteous and to be aware how my words and actions might be interpreted as threatening, but I am not going around like a busybody or acting as a shield for others.

          • Frank on June 14, 2020 at 1:15 pm

            You are missing the point entirely. And I say this as a guy. It is our f***ng problem and responsibility. A wild guess – but from your first (?) name, I gather you might be from a country where “PC” is still quite viewed as an ugly word. It’s not. Just don’t be a jerk on the trail. It’s pretty easy.



          • Martin on July 6, 2020 at 11:22 am

            “Just don’t be a jerk on the trail. It’s pretty easy.” That’s what I was saying. No need to make it your life’s work, though.



    • Katherine on August 18, 2020 at 4:14 pm

      Yes on the the #1 suggestion and the imperative for other males to keep harassers in check. AND in the meantime I want to do what I can to get out there safely.
      The author does a brilliant leap over the what-was-she-wearing pitfall by affirming our choice to “wear whatever you want.” Bravo!

  13. Pete on May 23, 2020 at 3:13 pm

    Male outdoor person here. I felt bad once when on a trail I casually asked two female backpackers “How far are you going?” Honest, small-talk’ish question because I was thinking of doing a multi-day trip in that area but I realized a few minutes later how threatening that could have been to them. The point being that casual interaction, banter, and vocabulary that may be acceptable in the city has entirely different impacts in isolated areas. Now I only do a short hand-wave when encountering others on the trail and don’t say anything.

    • Diane on June 5, 2020 at 3:15 pm

      Even if it is casual banter, and even if as a woman you know it is innocent, it’s still a good idea to answer vaguely. It might even be a good idea as a man to answer such questions vaguely. It’s not personal, just good safety.

      As a woman hiker I have been fortunate to have very few bad experiences out on the trails. Bad experiences I’ve had have lessened greatly as I have aged. I feel relatively invisible now compared to my youth, which feels like a super power and a big relief.

      One thing I do to lessen bad experiences is try to camp further out than 10 miles, or if I camp closer than 5 miles, I try to stealth camp. I also don’t sleep under the stars because it seems safer to be hidden inside a tent. People aren’t that likely to open up your tent if they don’t know who is inside.

    • Katherine on August 18, 2020 at 3:59 pm

      An easy answer for anyone who needs it: “As far as I can go!”
      1. It’s good and vague
      2. You’ll sound like a badass
      3. The climber guys asking (I dubbed them the “ice axe murderers”) will laugh and think you’re funny without noticing you’re also being cagey.

  14. Caroline on May 24, 2020 at 12:37 pm

    Yes, twice in the Bahamas. Group of men watching me jogging as I approached. One of the men came to my side asking a question I did not understand. I stopped, looked at him and said, I did not understand one word of what you said.” Then he replied in an articulate manner, “Can I run with you?” I said, “No!” I resumed jogging with my heart beating like a frightened rabbit, and he and friends did not follow me.
    Another time, walking along the beach and realizing a man was following me as he walked closer and closer behind me. We know that gut feeling when something is not right. I turned around to face him, asked if he was following me, he did not answer, and then told/instructed him to stay where he was while I made a wide berth to turn around. I knew I could out swim him if I needed to get in the water. He did not follow me back to the beach house. So unnerving.

  15. Bob S. on May 26, 2020 at 12:02 am

    “Have you had uncomfortable experiences on the trail?”

    As a solo male hiker I have to say yes. Almost every time I encounter a solo female hiker I feel uncomfortable they may consider me threatening or creepy so I go as far to the opposite side of the trail as I can, make minimal eye contact, and limit my greeting to a simple nod or acknowledge my fellow human being by saying good morning/afternoon. I have even taken alternate trails and/or changed my pace to not appear threatening in any way. I suppose trying not to be creepy makes me look creepy?

    Sorry to say this but as friendly and outgoing person the world we live in sucks.

    • Cecile on October 7, 2020 at 10:07 am

      As a female bicycle long distance rider, friendly and outgoing person as you would say, I have to agree with you.
      Now, practically: did I experience unwanted advances a/o harassment or worse? Yes. Did they change the way I behave with strangers? Yes and no: be aware, yes, but don’t assume everyone is out there to get you.
      Other than that, use your inner brain, i.e. you guts, to sense danger, and a bit of humor (apart for the “badass” advice which I find good, sometimes, and use), can go a long way to assess the person and to deflect an uncomfortable situation. At least that’s my experience.

  16. Karen on May 26, 2020 at 10:23 am

    I agree with commenters above that state that the problem is wider than just a few creeps. It’s our culture, and the outdoor industry reinforces it. Just look at Outside magazine, or climber mags. The women are always pictured as cute, sexy and subservient, and sometimes the images border on the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. I also think men could do a lot to stop other men from this behavior and why would you not want to stop it? Instead of saying – it’s your problem babe, not mine! Sheesh. What a chump.

    Women, we have to “protect each other,” PEO. That’s our obligation as a community of outdoor women. If you see a woman venturing alone, why not just take a minute to ask how she’s doing? If everything is fine, it can be a 30 second conversation about the beautiful day, the view or the toughness of the climb. If it’s not, it opens the door for her to seek the protection of a group even if just for a few minutes, long enough to ditch the d*$k who might be around.

    Yeah, I’ve definitely experienced the harassment, fortunately nothing more extreme. I carry, I keep my wits about me, and hide my camp if I’m alone. The farther from the trailhead I get, the better I feel because most of those creeps are also lazy.

  17. Gary on May 31, 2020 at 8:06 pm

    I was hiking in the White Mountains and a very panicked solo female hiker came up to me saying, “I just saw a bear! Can we hike together?”. We walked together for a quarter mile, making noise, making small talk, when she abruptly said, “you can leave now”. I didn’t get it at the time and was both confused and a bit offended. Fast forward 20 years, having learned things from my wife and posts like this, and I now get it.

  18. Frank on June 14, 2020 at 1:37 pm

    As a male hiker, I obviously can’t comment much on how the women view the trail interactions. But articles like these are important to us as well, perhaps even more so – because it (hopefully) makes us realise the others’ view and not behave like j**ks. Thanks for that!

  19. Andy on June 29, 2020 at 6:37 pm

    A few years ago a 2 women flagged me down on a bike ride and asked me to walk them home because a man had been following them for a few blocks. That was the first time I realized that some people (especially women of color as these two were) can’t even go on a walk in their neighborhood without the possibility that someone could make them feel unsafe. It’s something I’ve only experienced a few times in very specific situations as a fit, white, man and it was a powerful lesson for me on how I act towards women. Thanks for the article.

  20. Peter on October 11, 2020 at 3:51 pm

    Interesting article.

    Omitting common greetings, I avoid any contact with single female hikers. I have no interest. As a gay dude, trust me.

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