• Kara Swenson

Women in the Wild: A Guide on Mountain Safety for Female Solo Hikers

Updated: Sep 8

Solo hiking, there’s nothing quite like it. Alone on the trail, not another soul around, soaking in the sights and sounds in complete peace. I’ve grown to love solo hiking over my career on the trail. It’s one of my favorite ways to hike.



It wasn’t always this way. It took time to learn the necessary skills and safety measures for me to feel at ease and comfortable venturing off on my own. I got lucky in a few instances when I wasn’t prepared. It is important to know how to handle yourself in any situation in the wild. When you’re alone, there is no help. You are your best aid.


This guide is designed to give you my top 6 safety tips for hiking alone as a badass female. What I do every time I’m on the trail. The things that give me peace of mind. And some tips on how to handle yourself if you find yourself in a less than ideal situation.


The good news is, the “things” that will keep you safest in the forest are things we all have; eyes, ears and a gut instinct.


1. Eyes & ears - the best defense you’ll ever have in the forest are your eyes and ears. Being in tune with your surroundings will keep you safer than anything else. Listen and watch.


When I hike alone, every 10 minutes or so I stop. I silently watch and listen for a few moments. Usually this is when I spot animals or fun little slithery creatures. But it also gives me a chance to check in.


How do I feel? What do I see? Do I feel safe? Do I hear anything? Are there people around? I look up at the weather. I look for movement. I stop, look and listen. I check in with myself often.


Our ears process sound quicker than our eyes process movement. I never wear headphones when I solo hike. I know we all love music, but solo hiking isn't the time to have a concert blaring in your ears. It takes away our best defense. I repeat: Don't use headphones.


2. Listen to your gut - your gut instinct is powerful. We have one for a reason. As women, we’ve been taught to ignore it, to shove it off and think we’re paranoid. I’m here to tell you, don’t. That little voice in the back of your head. That alarm that goes off. That feeling in the pit of your stomach that something isn’t quite right… is there for a reason. To protect you and guide you. Listen to it.


That split second, the one that we so easily dismiss when something feels off, will keep you safe. Trust yourself, you’re not paranoid. You’re being diligent.


There have been times I’ve felt incredibly comfortable on remote trails I’ve never traveled before. And there have been times I’ve turned around on popular trails I know well, when it didn’t feel right. It has less to do with the trail, and more to do with the feeling on the trail that day. Listen to your gut.


3. Always tell someone where you’ll be - whether you’re solo hiking or in a group, this is always best practice. Let someone know exactly where you’re going, and when to expect you back. Give yourself grace and add an extra hour or two to the time you think you’ll be back.


Tell your “watcher” if they don’t hear from you by such-and-such a time, to call the local authorities/rangers to the trail you’re on. There have been two vivid moments in my hiking life, I’ve been very thankful someone at home knew where I was. It comforted me exponentially when I was turned around in the woods.


It doesn’t matter who your “watcher” is as long as they’re diligent, trusted, and able to pick up a phone.


4. Protection: Pepper spray, bear spray, knife, taser, gun, badass mountain dog (& a whistle) - whatever method of self defense you believe in. Learn it and know it well.


I don’t care how you choose to defend yourself, but I’m here to promote that you do in some way. I’ve had the same knife since I started backpacking. I know exactly where I keep it close at hand. I can grab it and flip it out without looking while simultaneously grabbing my bear spray.


Pro tip: Forget pepper spray and go straight for the BEAR SPRAY, it’s stronger. If it will work on a grizzly, it will work on a human.


You will most likely never have to use any of these items. I hope you never do. I’ve never had to. But 100% of us would rather have them and not need them, than need them and not have them.


Always be sure your defense is close and within a seconds grab. I keep my bear spray in my water bottle pouch on the side of my backpack. Easy to grab without taking my pack off. And my knife I have in my pocket or around my hip. As well as my whistle that can be heard for miles.

5. Healthy caution and wariness of people - ladies you are not on the trails to be nice. You don’t owe smiles or pleasantries. You definitely don’t owe conversation.


I have a healthy wariness of humans when I solo hike. Especially men. There’s no way around it so might as well state it. You’re more likely to have a bad experience with a man than you ever will with an animal.


On the trails, I prefer my space. Good line of sight. If you meet me in the woods, I won’t be the same bubbly human you see teaching a fitness class or on instagram. *It’s okay to be different versions of yourself when the occasion calls for it.


In the woods I am cautious. I don’t assume everyone is friendly. I lock eyes with people as I pass. Sometimes not smiling. Although a friendly hello or wave is always okay. I turn my head to check that hikers have continued on their way after passing me... I protect myself. In small and big ways.


I never feel paranoid about it, but I do feel diligent. I know what’s happening around me. It IS possible to be completely at peace on a solo hike, and alert at the same time. Most of these things are second nature to me now. I don’t even have to think about them. But it took practice.


YOU DO NOT OWE ANYONE YOUR ATTENTION OR PLEASANTRIES ON THE TRAIL.


6. Practice, practice, practice - start solo hiking on easier trails close to home that have cell reception. Start off in a safe space for you. Perhaps on a trail you’ve done with a friend before. Then repeat until you’re comfortable.


The one thing I wish I could repeat until it soaks in… if the day ever comes that you need to defend yourself, be the PROactive one. Don’t wait for the bad thing to happen. Being the reactive one - caught off guard - could mean the difference between life and death.


Listen to your gut. Please. If you feel in danger in a situation, there’s a good chance you are. Do NOT hesitate to use your tools to defend yourself.


Be proactive. You are in charge of your hiking experience.



Here are some practical tips on what to do if you ever find yourself in an “uh oh” situation:


1. Animals: general rule of thumb. Don’t bother them and they won’t bother you. You are more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by a cougar. Moose are more dangerous than bears. Leeches exist in many high alpine lakes (dun dun dun). Rattlesnakes love to bask on the trail midday. Bull elk and deer are territorial, they won’t hesitate to charge. There are a lot of wild things out there! It makes hiking exciting. Respect nature, give wildlife space. Remember this is their home, and we’re just visiting.


The “what ifs”


If you ever find yourself face to face with a bear or cougar: put your arms up and get big. Talk calmly and slowly. While slowly backing away. Remember how you have that bear spray handy? Grab it.


If attacked by a black bear or cougar, fight back with everything you have. If attacked by a grizzly bear, play dead (you won’t win the fight).


If charged by a moose or elk: dash behind a tree or blockade as quickly as possible. And grab that bear spray.


If bitten by a rattlesnake: get to the hospital as soon as possible. The only place where you’ll receive anti-venom. Do not panic. Death via rattlesnake bite is extremely rare. Try to keep your heart rate steady and slow. Do not try to suck out the poison. If you're able, slowly walk yourself out and get to the nearest hospital with anti-venom. Or call an ambulance if you have cell service. (source: UCIHealth.org)



2. Humans: these are the creatures we have to be most wary of. At this point, you have all your tools with you. Your bear spray, your knife, gun etc. Preferably no threatening person would come within 20 feet of you. But what if they do?


You will be okay. And you’ll be ready, sister. The goal is to decapacitate someone enough that they cannot chase you. There are MANY ways to do that using our bodies.


Knife: I always wear mine around my waist or have it in my pocket. Knives are useless unless you know how to use them. Know how to hold it. How to grab it safely. And how to use it properly.


Knee kick: It does not take very much pressure to hurt someone’s knee. If someone is that close, line your foot up, and kick as hard as you can toward their knee cap. If you make direct contact, they will not be able to chase you.


Ear rip: It only takes 8 pounds of force to tear someone’s ear off. That’s a hard yank. If they manage to get face to face with you, grab their ear and pull down as hard as you can.


Eye gouge: Humans are basically useless without eyes. We have nails. Use them. You can gouge an eye out with your thumb, start at the inner part of the eye. If scratching, use your whole hand to scratch. Again, start at the inner part of the eye and scratch out towards the ears.


You already know: Last but not least, the groin. Make sure they can never try to bear offspring again. Unleash hell.


Remember the goal is to have ample time to get away.



I did not write this guide to instill fear, but to harbor confidence. If you’re prepared, you have nothing to worry about. You’ll find your home in the mountains and experience a serenity that only comes to humans willing to solo hike.


Get out there ladies! And be diligent and safe. Never be scared to protect yourself. But mostly be proud of your badass self for climbing that mountain!


When my big brother went hiking with me last year, after watching me pack my gear he said, “I pity the fool that ever tries to mess with you in the forest.” THAT, ladies, is the attitude we need in the woods.

  • all photos in this blog were taken on epic solo hikes

Gear links on Amazon:


Bear Spray


Pepper Spray


Hiking Poles


Knife


Taser


Hiking belt


Whistle from REI


Microspikes for Winter Hiking


Be bold. Be inspired. Be you.

With love, Kara

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