As a female outdoor leader, guide, and mentor, I hear a wide range of worries that women have about being outdoors. Wild animals and injuries are two of the most common.
I’m here to tell you that women are no more vulnerable than anyone else outdoors.
Real vs. Perceived Risks
The first night I camped solo, I too was terrified, to the degree that I even zip-tied the inside zippers of my tent together so that nothing could come in. I was convinced that every noise outside was a wild animal, and I felt tiny, alone, and vulnerable.
I barely slept that night, and woke up the next morning feeling exhausted and embarrassed — there was nothing to be afraid of. It has taken years for this feeling to disappear, and I still sleep with earplugs, but it will dissipate.
It’s worth noting that many women — myself included — were brought up in an environment of fear. We were conditioned to believe that we are not as strong, brave, or capable as men; and we often carry these thoughts with us into our adult lives.
These messages are often unfortunately reinforced by the hiking community. When embarking on an outdoor adventure, I have observed that women are more often told, “Be safe,” rather than a more encouraging, “Have fun.” It’s my experience that our abilities are questioned more often, and that our bravery and independence are at a higher risk of being rebranded as stupidity. It’s no wonder that we internalize these messages.
The statistics tell another story. The outdoor risk profile starts from the same baseline for men and women, but may not stay there. A recent example can be seen in the search and rescue responses in the National Parks in 2017 showing men as significantly more frequent rescue subjects, despite the Outdoor Industry Association reporting an almost even gender parity in outdoor recreation participation since 2016. (Apologies to non-binary folks who are not yet included in these data sets.)
Now let’s talk about those top two fears.
We share our wild spaces with the animals that call them home, and it’s very possible to encounter bears, cougars, mountain goats, and other larger mammals in the wilderness.
It’s worth noting, however, that the odds of a fatal wildlife encounter are extremely low. It’s not statistically impossible and it doesn’t invalidate the very real feelings about the possibility, but the numbers help put things in perspective.
According to Yellowstone National Park, the probability of being killed by a bear in the park (8 incidents) is only slightly higher than the probability of being killed by a falling tree (7 incidents), in an avalanche (6 incidents) or being struck and killed by lightning (5 incidents). Oh. And that urban legend about bears being attracted to menstruating women? That’s almost entirely garbage unless you’re dealing with polar bears.
The best offense is often a good defense. The vast majority of wild animals will avoid humans when possible.
Here are some solid strategies to minimize large mammal wildlife encounters:
- Hike in groups.
- Make noise.
- Avoid hiking at dawn and dusk.
- Avoid areas with recently documented wildlife encounters. And,
- Never approach wild animals.
It is also important to practice Leave No Trace practices while backcountry camping. The following best practices are recommended to avoid unexpected wildlife visitors:
- Never eat in or near your tent.
- Keep all food and scented items a minimum of 300 ft. away from your campsite. And,
- Check every pocket for scented items before bedtime.
Have you done everything you can to avoid encounters and suddenly find a black bear on the trail? Do not panic. Take a deep breath and assess the situation before responding. Use the following tips to defuse encounters.
- Don’t run.
- Talk softly.
- Back away slowly while facing the bear.
Cougars & Mountain Goats
- Don’t run.
- Talk firmly and aggressively — convey that you are not prey.
- Back away slowly while facing the animal.
- Appear big — raise your arms and/or trekking poles above your head.
Unfortunately, injuries happen in the great outdoors. The realities of bad weather, uneven/unstable terrain, medical issues, and generic bad luck are sometimes unavoidable factors in outdoor adventures.
The best approach is to do everything you can to anticipate, avoid, and be prepared for these scenarios should they occur.
This starts with a solid wilderness trip plan, essential gear, and as much advance knowledge as possible about your adventures. This includes the following key preparedness items before hitting the trail.
- Trail map & route plan
- Navigation tools & know-how
- Weather forecast information
- Recent trail conditions reports
- Weather appropriate gear & clothing
- Detailed trip plan left with trusted contacts
It’s also important to have tools to respond to situations if they occur. This includes the following essential preparation areas:
- First aid kit (ex. blisters, burns, cuts, etc.)
- Ten essentials
- Extra insulation layers for unexpectedly long days
- Recommended: wilderness first aid training
- Optional: personal location beacon
We as women are no more vulnerable in the outdoors than anyone else.
I encourage you to prepare well, anticipate what you can, and step out on the trail with confidence. Things can happen to anyone out there, always listen to your gut, but don’t let fear hold you back.
Embrace this glorious unknown and your ability to handle issues as they arise as a part of the overall adventure. You are strong, confident, and prepared. See you on the trail.