There is a lot to love about hiking, and the outdoor community. From the solitude of the forest to the unique and breathtaking mountaintop views that only the dedicated and slightly crazy (most of us) enthusiasts get to see. The hiking community is one of brother and sisterhood and we often greet each other as long lost friends even if we’ve never met before. But this sometimes lulls us into a false sense of security and an assumption that everyone we meet on the trail is a harmless thrill seeker like ourselves. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Sometimes people enter the forest trail with sinister intentions, and while we hate to admit that those people walk amongst us, it’s an unfortunate reality that we must face.
I didn’t want to write this post for a multitude of reasons, but the topic has been constantly on my mind since the news of the murder of two young girls on a trail in my home state this past month made it to my ears. Without going into detail out of respect for the young women and their families all I will say is that the murderer is still out there. Now I often find myself thinking of ways to spot these types of people before they reveal their intentions and think of what I would have done in the same situation. But truth be told, I’m a large intimidating figure on the trail, not a young teenage girl. This alone makes me less likely to become the victim of this type of crime. But not everyone on the trail is a 6 foot 270 pound man, so what can we do to make sure that we stay safe while we enjoy our favorite outdoor recreation?
Here are a few basic precautions that you should always take when you go hiking.
- Be familiar with the area that you’re hiking in. Unless you’re an experienced outdoorsman or outdoorswoman, always head into unfamiliar areas with a group. Either take friends or join an established group of hikers from a site like meetup.com, but always check the group reputation before heading to any remote locations. Look for active groups with a lot of people that frequent the outings. Make sure to visit places in groups several times before planning any extended solo adventures. Knowing the lay of the land and where you can hide without being found by others is an essential survival skill. Running, hiding and being able to camouflage is your first line of defense if things go amiss. Never underestimate the power of camo, I’ve been standing on a creek bed filtering water 5 feet off the trail in camo and had people walk right by me and not notice that I’m there until I move.This can be invaluable when someone is looking for you and you don’t want to be found. Finally, don’t plan solo trips until you know the area well and are comfortable in the terrain.
- Tell a friend or family member exactly where you’re going. Even more specifically, tell a friend or family member that is capable of meeting up with you or finding you in that area should you fail to check in. Leave a map of the area with a detailed plan for where you plan to be at what time and any intended stops along the way. Be sure to check in with this person at a set interval during your trip. This is especially important when you’re going on a multi-day solo trip. Even the most experienced hikers and outdoor enthusiasts do this, so add it to your plan before you go.
- Carry something for self-defense. Always be prepared for other people’s bad intentions, being in the middle of nowhere doesn’t always make you safe. Even on the most popular and heavily trafficked long trail in the Nation has seen 11 murders in the last 40 years. The truth remains that we’re far more likely to be harmed by 2 legged animals than any number of the 4 legged animals on the trail. Plan for this before you go out and make sure you take something with you. I always hike with at least a knife and mace spray, no matter what trip I’m planning or the duration of the trip. Mace is effective against most of your smaller predators, and will give you a leg up if you’re attacked by a person while hiking. You can also carry a firearm if you’re old enough and have been through a firearm safety course, or have at least been taught by a competent person and have any licenses required by your state to own and carry and conceal a firearm. A .380 is small and lightweight enough that you can conceal it in a pocket without noticing the additional weight too much even for smaller built individuals. If you’re underage or have an aversion to firearms, you can carry a small pellet gun for emergencies. Catching a pellet or metal BB to the face will stop most people or animals in their tracks. Also remember that if you are attacked, make as much noise as possible while the attack is going on. Most hiking packs have a built in emergency whistle on the chest strap that can alert other hikers in the area to the attack so that they can assist you.
- Hike with a dog. Nothing says “don’t mess with me” like man’s best friend. Hiking with your dog is therapeutic for master and pup, but also serves as a deterrent to people who may have bad intentions on the trail. Strangers are often weary of dogs that they don’t know and the threat of having a set of jaws clamped onto their body is enough to keep most people at bay. Besides being fiercely loyal and willing to give their lives to protect their owners. Dogs make a hell of a lot of racket when something upsets them. A barking dog along with the sound of a commotion and an emergency whistle will be enough draw help from miles around. The attacker having to deal with a dog will also give you extra time to ready your personal defenses.
- Improvise, fight and commit. If you can’t elude the person and you don’t have a firearm or more lethal weapon, trekking poles are a walking stick can be used as weapons. Aim for the groin, the middle of the chest, the neck and the face. If you have trekking poles, pop the rubber guards off and jab like it’s a spear. Continue to make as much noise as you can, and never allow the person to force you off the trail. If they are planning to harm you, make them stay in the open where someone can see the altercation and help. Oftentimes help is just out of sight, if you go off trail your chances of being seen go down dramatically. Once you’ve determined that you must fight, do not stop attacking until you can safely get away. As soon as that opportunity presents itself, make a run for it. If they follow, keep making as much noise as possible.
Above all else, remember that there is safety in numbers. Even if the attacker has a gun they can still be overpowered by a group. Most times a group of 3 or more will deter a would-be attacker, so when you’re planning a trip somewhere new, remember the more the merrier. Always be prepared for the worst and plan accordingly. Not everyone has the best intentions, but a little planning can keep you happy, safe and enjoying nature for your entire life. Above all, stay safe and enjoy all that the trails have to offer.
Please feel free to comment any additional advice below, this post is not all inclusive, merely some of the skills I’ve learned and personally use when I’m out. Don’t forget to share this advice with your friends in the outdoor community, it could save a life.
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