This is not your typical wilderness safety post about first aid and navigation. I delve into the reasons why people are constantly telling me not to go hiking alone, my opinions on the matter, and why I will never listen to them. I also share a very personal experience and how it changed my views on solo wilderness travel.
Warning: The following article contains content regarding sexual assault and possible triggers.
Ever since I was a kid, I was warned not to do certain things alone. This included everyday mundane activities such as walking home or to the bus stop, especially after dark. When I discovered the outdoors as a form of therapy in my teens, I often went hiking alone, much to the dismay of my mother and other family members. As I was currently living in a foster home, I felt that my mother had absolutely no say in what I did because it was her behavior that landed me there in the first place. Maybe I was resentful, but that is a story for a different day.
I actually found that the wilderness was a quite the safe haven for me. There was no one emotionally putting me down, such as my Mom, or even trying to sexually assault me as I had been lead to believe would surely happen if I went out by myself. And yet, back at my foster home, I had to fight off the pervy biological son of my foster parent on a daily basis. And then there was the time at the local supermarket, where I was working an after school shift, when a grown man pinned me against a scratch ticket machine and groped me in front of several people who turned a blind eye. I complained to management about the assault, and was told to keep quiet since he was a well-known member of the community and a regular customer. He was allowed to continue shopping at the store.
At the suggestion of my therapist, I threw myself into hiking and learning wilderness travel skills to cope with depression, and it became my passion in life. At the age of 21, I went on my first solo backpacking trip. I spent two nights alone in my tent, nervously waking to every branch snapping within a five-mile radius of my camp. But everything went fine. I saw a few other hikers on the trail that weekend, two of which were men who I kept leapfrogging over the course of a day. They were friendly, wonderful people who were there enjoying nature in the same way I was. I ventured out more by myself after that, finding a bright confidence deep within that had been buried under a dark lump of emotional abuse and manipulation.
The people who I encountered deep in the backcountry were just like me, there to hike, laugh, swim and eat crappy freeze-dried meals around a campfire. Nothing more, and certainly nothing sinister. No rapists or sexual deviants were miles out on the trail, on a remote mountaintop laying in wait for a solo female hiker to come along.
It was back in town, in the hustle and bustle of civilization that I found myself getting unwanted attention from people, such as the supermarket incident. And this, unfortunately, is something that happens to people everyday across the world; cat calling, unwanted touching on a crowded train, or maybe even a supervisor at work saying inappropriate comments to you. Now, I’m not saying that unwanted attention or an assault is impossible on a hike in the woods, but it is far more unlikely than, let’s say, an assault on a subway platform, or sadly, in your own home.
I’m now in my thirties, and fully confident in my wilderness skills and hiking abilities. I go out alone quite a bit, and the thought of being attacked rarely crosses my mind. My Mother, some family and even coworkers still seem to think that I’m incapable of handling myself. I am frequently reminded that because I am a woman, men want to rape me, and that I absolutely MUST carry a gun to protect myself when I’m hiking. This is something I greatly resent for so many reasons.
First of all, not all men are rapists and this is a totally unfair bias. In fact, all the men that I am friends with are quite the opposite. They are awesome people who respect women. And why do they assume that because I am a woman, I’m not strong? I promise you, I am strong as f*ck. I’ve hiked over 4000 miles in the last year and a half; that’s more miles than I’ve put on my car in that amount of time and I’m not slowing down anytime soon. And last of all, I am not going to carry a gun, no matter how much you insist, simply because I don’t want to add anymore weight to my pack. I’m also fairly certain that I would never have to use it. Just remember, it’s me that would have to carry it, and not you.
“The Coos Bay Incident”
I want to open up about a backpacking trip in Oregon that went terribly wrong and set my “strong female hiker” persona light years back with my family and colleagues. I want the story to be an example of what I was discussing earlier; about how a sexual assault is unlikely to be miles in on a trail, and how family and friends should encourage their passionate outdoorsmen and women to be strong and do what makes them happy. I also want to firmly state that my hiking partner and I did nothing wrong, and I won’t tolerate trolls or victim blaming of any kind.
The following is known as “That Coos Bay Incident” by my family. This incident makes me cringe when they refer to it, because in their minds it validates that I can’t protect myself and it’s frequently the basis to the argument as to why I should pack heat 24/7.
Some names have been changed.
In September of 2014, I was in the middle of a long distance hike on the Oregon Coast Trail. I had two companions to start with, my best friend, River, and my cousin, Gretchen. River had to quit the trail around the halfway mark because she needed time to prep before heading back to university. So from there on out, it was Gretchen and I. We had about 200 miles to go to the end at the California state line (we were walking south).
After spending the night on the beach near Bandon, Gretchen and I decided to follow the route along the beach to the Forest Service run Horsfall Beach Campground about 15 miles ahead. The day spent walking on the beach was rather grim; a thick fog had rolled in and obstructed our views of the sea, and the sand on this particular section was soft and difficult to walk across. We were both looking forward to the simple luxuries that the campground might have to offer, including hot water and flush toilets.
When we arrived at Horsfall Beach, we were incredibly tired and disappointed. The campground was nothing more than a paved parking lot, catering to ATV riders who came for the sand dunes and were staying in RVs. There was, however, potable water and toilets, and we were far too knackered to complain too much anyway. We paid the fee and found a nice sandy spot tucked away near a hedge and pitched our little two person tent. We went straight to bed, even though it was still a bit light outside.
At around midnight, a booming voice woke me up. My heart was pounding out of my chest as I sat up slightly. Gretchen stirred a bit inside her sleeping bag. The street lamps overhead were illuminating the inside of the tent, and that’s when I noticed them: two shadowy figures standing over the tent. My heart instantly sank into my gut, and I tried to control my heavy breathing so they wouldn’t hear me. They spoke again, and Gretchen shot up. We stayed as still as we possibly could.
“Do you ladies like it in the ass?” They were laughing. One of them dumped the rest of his beer over the tent, then threw it onto the pavement. It shattered, and we jumped. We were overcome with panic.
“I bet you do.” They continued to harass us, saying awful, graphic things. They described what they wanted to do to us, laughing the entire time. I clawed through my belongings, searching for my phone and when I found it, there was no service. Gretchen grabbed hers; a single bar hovering in and out, and the battery in the red. We’re trembling almost too much to dial, but somehow manage to call 911.
The operator picks up and asks what the emergency is.
“I’m at Horsfall Beach, at the campground, near Coos Bay,” I whisper, “there’s two men here, they’re threatening my cousin and I.” She asks my name and my exact location, but all I know is the name of the campground. I’m stumbling over my words, a combination of hot sweat and an icy chill is rushing my body. “Please hurry, they’re going to hurt us!”
The phone dies, and we wait. The men continue talking and laughing, and calling us terrible names. One of them then begins to urinate on the side of the tent, and the other throws his beer bottle at us. We both jump and the tent shakes, which they notice. The one urinating steps back a bit, and the other continues with name calling. Eventually they wander off, the sound of heavy riding boots fading as it crosses the parking lot. The police arrive shortly after, and we crawl out of the tent.
I tell the police what I know: two males, drinking beer from glass bottles and wearing riding boots. They photograph the vandalism to the tent, collect the beer bottle that was thrown at us, and go to interview some of the other campers at the site. They find two people who fit what I described, but since we never physically saw the two, Gretchen and I can’t identify them. No charges can be pressed.
Two officers offer us a courtesy ride away from there and into town, where they drop us off safely at a Motel 6. Our ordeal is finally over. From this point forward in my hiking adventures, I would make it a point to never camp near a town, parking lot, road or any form of civilization again.
I want to start by saying that the responding officers from the North Bend Police Department, all six of them, were great and handled everything very professionally. Not one of them said anything that made us feel as though we were at fault. In fact, one of them said “You shouldn’t have to deal with stuff like this, you’re just out here trying to hike and have a good time.” I commend every one them for their quick response and kindness, and I really wished that I had gotten their names so I could thank them personally.
I wish that my family and coworkers had been as courteous. I know that they mean well, but saying things that puts the blame squarely on Gretchen and I is wrong, period. Speaking as a woman, why is it my responsibility to avoid situations where I could be assaulted? Why can’t we teach our sons not to rape women? If I spent my entire life avoiding things because of the possibility of attack, I’d never do anything. Then to add salt to the wound, the following cringe-worthy statements were said to me by my own Mother:
“I knew something like this would happen. You can’t expect to just go out into the wilderness and not get into trouble.”
And then this doozy of a comment:
“You shouldn’t have been alone out there.”
My opinion on these statements is strong, and I was deeply offended by the suggestion that we were the ones “getting into trouble.” First and foremost, she had no idea something like this would happen. We stayed in a public campground, with a camp host and lots of people around. There were several street lamps that kept the area well-lit, even in the middle of the night. This place screamed safety, by most people’s standards.
And we weren’t exactly in the wilderness, which, I guess is the point I’ve been trying to make all along. The night before, we had camped alone in a primitive campsite. We saw no one the entire time. The following day, before reaching Horsfall Beach, we had walked all day along a remote stretch of coastline without seeing another soul. An attacker isn’t going to take the time and effort to wander miles out into the backcountry in the off-chance that a victim might come along.
And finally, I wasn’t alone, I was with Gretchen. When I pointed this out, my Mother said, “You know what I mean.” I can only assume this means going with someone she feels is capable of being a white knight to save us weakling girls from danger. It’s really quite frustrating and a little heartbreaking knowing that the people who should be supporting my passion and celebrating my strengths actually have no faith in me at all; that they view a big strapping lumberjack type to be more fit in taking care of me than myself, their own kin who just trudged a couple of hundred miles up and over mountains with a full pack on.
Even in the face of the traumatic experience at Horsfall Beach, I still managed to finish hiking the length of the Oregon Coast. Two years later, I thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. I started solo and hiked beyond the halfway mark, around 1400 miles, before hooking up with a crew to keep me company until the end. There were no incidents of harassment, from strangers or my fellow thru-hikers, the entire way. This is my proof that I am strong, and can do amazing things; that I don’t need the constant protection of another to live my life.
So parents and friends, have some faith and confidence in your girls, and your sons too. They are capable of great things. We know that you’ll worry, but stay positive and offer encouragement. Everything will be okay, we’re stronger than you think.