When I talk to women about what prevents them from going for long adventures runs, I often hear about safety concerns. Some of us are scared of wild animals, of getting lost and most of us are scared of ill-intended humans.
It’s okay (and normal) to be scared. An undertaking becomes an adventure when the outcome is uncertain, when there is risk involved. For most of us, risk causes nervousness and fear. But bear in mind the relationship between risk and reward. Like most of you, however, I want to return home safely at the end of my adventures. Thankfully, there are many steps we can take to maximize our chances of staying safe even as we take a risk and adventure on the trails.
The most important step to adventuring safely is to plan well. Many common safety-related crises are easily prevented with proper planning. For example, running out of water in certain conditions could pose high consequences, but by carefully studying your map pre-run and accurately estimating the duration of your run you can bring the right quantity of water. Similarly, taking a wrong turn can be frustrating at best, but familiarizing yourself with your map and knowing what type of terrain to expect means you can more quickly detect and correct an unplanned detour. Likewise, knowledge of surrounding trails and roads can help to more easily access help in an emergency.
Another important safety step is packing well. Hypothermia, untreated, can be life-threatening, but it can often be avoided with waterproof layers. An adventure that lasts past sunset can mean either an unplanned overnight if you can’t find your way out or a few miles of night running if you brought your headlamp “just in case.” What you leave behind also matters; an overpacked, heavy load slows you down unnecessarily and at best makes your day less fun. Plan and pack carefully so your margin of safety increases.
Prepare for backcountry emergencies by taking a wilderness first aid class. Several reputable providers offer this hands-on 2-day course at locations across the country. You’ll learn to prevent and respond to common backcountry medical situations and practice responding in scenarios complete with stage makeup for added realism. You’ll also hear from experts regarding considerations for a backcountry first aid kit.
Respond to Emergencies
Sometimes things go wrong despite excellent preparation. Increase your chance of making it home safely in the end by being ready to respond the these emergencies.
One easy safety measure is also easy to neglect: tell someone where you’re going and when you plan to return. No matter what goes wrong, if you follow this step, you can at least have the peace of mind that help is coming when you are overdue. The more details you discuss with this person, the more peace of mind you can have in an emergency. Does your person know who to call? Which trailhead you planned to park at? Regardless, if you’re overdue, your person’s 911 call will initiate a professional rescue. Make this simple safety precaution a habit… and of course make it a habit to text your person when you get back from every incident-free adventure.
Another easy way to add some peace of mind is to use an emergency messaging device. There are several of these devices available. They’re somewhat expensive investments, and they usually also require a paid subscription to the company’s emergency response service. No price will be too high, however, when the technology saves a life. Look for a device like the SPOT GPS tracker or DeLorme In Reach; these devices convey your location via GPS to rescue services at the push of a button. Many devices also have other helpful features, like messaging a predetermined contact in a situation in which you need help but not necessarily a search and rescue team. Another common feature is the ability of friends and family to track your location in real-time when you’re on the trails.
The fear of getting lost in a situation without course markings to keep you on track can be intimidating. On a self-supported adventure, it’s up to us to stay found. Often, when exploring a new trail, it’s helpful to abide by the saying, “Go slow to go fast.” It’s worth a few extra seconds to confirm you’re still on course when social trails intersect the main route. Many wrong turns are simply the result of moving too quickly to pay attention.
Inevitably, you will at some point find yourself off-course. Trails disappear, junctions are easy to miss, maps become outdated and signs fall down. I found myself lost once this summer. I’d been following a map I found online of my intended route, and based on the map, my route appeared to keep to one forest road for miles. So I kept to the road, and as I steadily climbed up and away from the valley I knew I should have been in, it became clear that something was wrong. I was hot and low on water, and my day was not going as planned.
In such moments, panicking is an attractive option. Unfortunately, however, panicking rarely helps one get back on course. There are several options in situations like this one. First of all, though the thought of turning my loop run into a long, hot out-and-back by reversing course to my car held no appeal, I knew that I could retrace my steps if absolutely necessary. So long as that’s an option, you have a sure route out of the woods, so to speak. Another step in becoming found again seems obvious: stop and study your map. Sitting down, catching your breath and really looking at your map will likely reveal where you went wrong. On this particular day, I’d fallen for the bias of seeing what I wanted to see on my map. Closer inspection revealed that, though it was difficult to discern based on the map’s colors, I had missed a turn. Of note is the value of a paper map of the broader area. Even when using a map downloaded onto a phone, eliminating the need for cell service, the screen size limits how much of the broader area is visible. But when I’ve gone off-route, getting my bearings requires a map that shows a wider view of the surrounding area. To get back on track, I could have also backtracked to the last point where I was certain I was on the right trail. Again, giving up hard-earned miles can be demoralizing. But sometimes the reality of finding our way in a new place is an extra few miles and extra time running.
Finally, when possible, it’s okay to ask for help. This can be tricky, as revealing yourself as lost (especially if you appear panicked or scared) can put you in a vulnerable position to someone of dubious intentions. So go with your gut. But if you happen to encounter another trail user when you’re uncertain of your whereabouts and you feel comfortable asking the stranger for help, take a deep breath and ask a specific question. “Did you come from XYZ Lake? That’s where I’m headed, but I’m not sure I’m on the right trail.” Or “Did you see the junction with ABC Trail? I think I should have seen it by now but am not sure I’ve gone far enough.” Compare maps with the other trail user to see if there are any updates yours doesn’t show.
Very rarely, even after studying your map, backtracking and asking for help, you can still find yourself disoriented. In such situations, becoming found involves taking a risk. If you’re confident of your location on the map but the trail has disappeared, you can navigate off-trail towards a known point, like a trail junction or vantage point. Doing so requires basic map-reading skills described here and practicing those skills prior to your adventure. When traveling off-trail, remember that your pace will slow dramatically; in dense vegetation, one mile per hour is not uncommon. If you know you’re off your intended route but on an identifiable road or trail, you could take the nearest exit route to a trailhead and rely on the kindness of strangers (or cell service, if possible) to catch a ride back to your car.
When lost this summer, I used a combination of these options—backtracking, studying my map and asking for help—to get back on route. Ultimately, though I felt tense in the moment, I realized I wasn’t ever in much danger, and making decisions calmly was much more helpful than panicking.
Wild animals are a common fear of many runners. Good news: a healthy bear, snake or mountain lion wants only to avoid you. But we’ve all seen enough news stories about animal attacks to give us pause. See below for specific instructions on traveling smartly in the habitat of scary animals. Above all, keep in mind that though it’s smart to know this information just in case, animal encounters gone bad are rare and can generally be prevented by traveling respectfully through the animal’s home.
When not habituated to humans, the black bear is a skittish creature. Black bears are instinctively scared of humans (potential predators) and, when healthy, want to get away from us as fast as possible as soon as they detect our presence. Things typically only go wrong when you scare a black bear or get between a mom and her cubs. If you’re with a partner, make conversation in black bear habitat with limited visibility. If you’re alone and worried about a black bear encounter, you can clap, snap or talk out loud to alert possible bears of your presence. If you see a bear, make sure it knows you’re there (a loud “Hey, bear!” works), and it will most likely run away.
Sadly, in high-use areas, black bears have learned that human presence means food and, in their quest for chips and candy bars have become far less fearful of humans. Even if a black bear stubbornly sticks around, get big and loud. Wave your arms, yell, make noise with whatever tools you have. Don’t run (bears are fast); don’t climb a tree (bears climb trees). In the very rare worst-case scenario that a bear stalks you, stay big and loud all the way back to the trailhead.
As in black bear habitat, it is important to avoid startling a grizzly or getting between a female and her cubs. Unlike black bears, however, grizzlies are more commonly aggressive. Take precautions while running in grizzly habitat: run in a group, and talk or make some noise. Consider wearing a bell. Also consider carrying bear spray, a can of pepper spray specifically designed to deter grizzlies when they attack. If a grizzly charges, get big and loud. On the rare occasion that a grizzly attacks, curl up in a ball, protecting your head, neck and internal organs, and play dead.
For lots more details about how to handle bear encounters, including info on bear-deterrent pepper spray, check out this info from the Get Bear Smart Society.
Mountain lions are stealthy, nocturnal hunters. Encounters are rare. Runners are most likely to meet a mountain lion while running alone at dawn or dusk. If you see a mountain lion, the key is to make it clear that you are not prey. Get big and loud (do you detect a theme?), and stand your ground as predators do. Prey runs. Once the lion thinks that you are a fellow predator, it will most likely run away. In the very rare instance of a lion attack, fight back. Stab it with a stick, kick, punch and do whatever you can to prove you are not easy prey.
These stately creatures need their space. They typically only charge when humans get too close, scare them or get between a cow and her calves. Once again, make your presence known when traveling in moose habitat; moose love to hang out in dense willow thickets near water where they’re hard to see and so are you. Once you see a moose, let it know you’re there, and give it a wide berth. In the rare event that the moose charges you, run behind a tree or rock that puts a barrier between you and the moose.
Snakes are cold-blooded creatures, meaning they rely on their environment (sun, radiant heat from rocks, shade) to control their body temperature. Because they’re cold-blooded, in a hot environment snakes are likely to hide in a shady rock crevice during the day and be active at dawn and dusk, when temps are cooler. In a cooler environment, a snake might hang out on a sunny rock or trail. Travel slowly enough to pay attention in terrain and times of day where and when snakes are active. Keep your eyes on the trail. And for the rare, worst-case scenario, know which snakes live where you’re running and how to treat their bites (by taking that wilderness first aid class).
This category of safety concerns worries me most when I’m on an adventure. Perhaps it’s because no amount of first aid training, map studying or “getting big and loud” can prevent danger of this type. I am neither alone nor unfounded in my fears, as this year’s Trail Running and Safety Survey, a collaboration between Trail Sisters and iRunFar proves. Meghan Hicks of iRunFar writes, “The survey’s results are grim for female trail runners when it comes to perceived danger of and actual exposure to human hazards. And it’s not just some women in a few cases; the statistics tell us that it’s a lot of women in many cases.”
I hesitate to offer solutions to human-related safety concerns, aware that the true solution is a seemingly impossible change in centuries-old attitudes. From the #MeToo movement to the latest news cycle, efforts to change attitudes and behaviors toward women span the globe and extend far beyond trail running.
But practically speaking, for your next trail run, what can you do to stay safe? Look strangers you encounter in the eye and confidently say hello. Yes, most trail users are friendly dirt-seekers just like you, but just in case, send the message that you’ve noted their face. Consider carrying pepper spray (and know how to use it) and/or running with a phone or emergency GPS messaging device. Another option: take a self-defense class and practice what you learn often.
There are also things you can do to increase your and others’ safety in a broader sense, things that work toward the changes in hearts and minds that our world so needs. Trail Sister Liza Howard’s follow-up article to the safety survey offers some great suggestions, and the comments contain surprisingly thoughtful and (mostly) civil discussion. When you feel comfortable doing so, a gentle comment in response to unwanted behavior toward yourself or others can be enough to make someone question, maybe for the first time, the appropriateness of their actions. Stick up for yourself and others when you feel safe to do so.
Finally, it’s important to emphasize in any discussion of issues related to unwanted, inappropriate behavior and sexual assault that it’s easy to read an attack on men. Most men we encounter on the trails intend us no physical harm. Though unsolicited comments are fairly common, actual physical endangerment is rare. It is not, however, nonexistent. Though a man might find it extreme (or take offense) to know that part of my motivation in greeting him on the trail is to “note his face,” I ask that man to put himself in our shoes. In our shoes, most of us can tell a close friend’s story (or ours, or multiple friends’) of sexual assault, and we exist knowing it pays to take precaution.
Thankfully, you’re at a much greater risk of returning home inspired, refreshed and enlivened than of suffering harm on the trails. In a screen-based world, sometimes the trails seem like the safest place to be for our physical and mental health. But because things do go wrong, it pays to prepare for emergencies on the trail. Plan for safety concerns, knowing that preparing well for all contingencies is an excellent form of prevention. Then confidently hit the trail, assured that despite the inherent risks of our sport, the greatest risk is never hitting the trails at all.