The fear of hiking and camping alone as a woman
“You’re walking alone? Gosh you’re brave.”
“Your parents must be worried.”
“You do realise you’re risking being raped and murdered in your sleep.”
As a woman walking with a big backpack on the Cornish South West Coast Path, I got a fair amount of unsolicited opinions. And in truth they hit a nerve, as I probably subconsciously shared these concerns. If someone had told me I might get eaten by a bear, or the route is one that hikers rarely emerge from alive, I would have easily cast them aside. There are (at time of writing) no bears in Cornwall, and the South West Coast Path is a popular British long distance hiking trail which is used by day hikers and long distance hikers very regularly. I had, after all, done some research. I’d even gone so far as to rule out hiking and camping by myself for the first time ever in a new country where I might not speak the language, and might have more difficulty getting help or advice if I needed to. That’s how deeply rooted my own self-protection/fear of the unknown goes. But hiking on my own and camping at registered campsites in Cornwall really hadn’t seemed remotely threatening. Until I noticed everyone else seemed to think so.
The night before I set off on my trek, a friend I was travelling with spoke the thought I believe many women think fairly regularly, consciously or not. “You DO know you could get raped or murdered, right?” Granted, it came out in a stressful moment of worry about my ever greater adventures in the wild. But it stung nonetheless.
I categorically dislike it when people use gender as a reason to do or not do a thing, and I reacted with feminist fury. We argued, then googled articles by women hikers on tips for safe solo camping. At first I resisted my friend’s fearful attitude. But slowly, and supported by the huge availability of these sorts of articles online, I started to get worried myself. The most common advice was to follow the basic rules of Stranger Danger. Don’t tell anyone (especially men) where you’re going, say you’re meeting friends at camp, let a relative know where you’re headed and check in with them regularly. It’s infuriating that as women we’re encouraged to feel the threat of violence so acutely, and maybe a motivating factor in why I keep wanting to prove to myself that I CAN do things by myself, as a woman. But slowly my confidence began to seep away. I was starting to get the feeling I’d made a mistake going about this on my own, but had no option but to go through with it.
I spent the first three days in a low-level terror of humans. I walked through narrow passageways through hedges convinced a SCARY MAN would be waiting on the other side to pounce on me. I didn’t speak to anyone along the trail. I walked fast, purposefully, to get to camp as soon as possible to see IF IT WAS OKAY, and then zip up my tent as early as I could, hoping no one had noticed I’d gone in by myself. Because also at camp (!!) the Stranger Danger Rules persist! My friend’s concern had inadvertently flooded my brain with visions of a whole GROUP of SCARY MEN getting DRUNK to set out on a bear hunt for my tent at night. You can imagine how great my first night’s sleep camping alone was.
Thankfully, after a few days of this crappy, lonely and emotionally draining state, I started to calm down. I spoke to people who had done a lot more camping than me and assured me that hikers, as I had found to be true in ALL my previous hiking experiences, are a kindly folk. That people would probably be really curious what I was doing, and I should TRY to have chats along the way to break up the day and share the experience. A waiter at a pub asked me how far I’d walked and where I was headed and I invited the possibility that it was to say “That’s amazing!” instead of plotting to murder me. I had a nice chat with a group of German hiker ladies on their annual group hiking holiday. I definitely started to feel less freaked out, and more able to enjoy the beauty of the coastal path, and deal with the sheer physical exhaustion I was experiencing instead of the stress of mental anguish on top.
And then, oddly, something actually very scary did happen. On the fourth day of my hike I witnessed what looked like one man about to shoot another man, about 20 metres away from me. I saw an actual gun being pointed at an actual human being who was lying on the ground beside a driver’s car door. It was an absolute freak coincidence that this was unfolding in front of me, but there were no other people around, and I, worried but also oddly calm, turned around quietly praying I hadn’t been seen, and walked 100 metres away where I hid behind a bush and called the police.
For what felt like a very long time I was hiding behind a bush, waiting for a gunshot, and the gunman to come looking for me next. I was describing what I saw to a police officer on the phone who kept repeating to “stay hidden” and that I was “doing great”, while I was getting ready to run for my actual life. I took my backpack off so I could run faster, and crouched instead of sitting down so I could bolt. After all that generalised fear of strangers I felt before, this felt surreal, of course, and surreally calm and manageable because I was so totally focussed. I was doing what I had to do, yes I might die if things really went tits up, but even so a little voice kept joking “THIS WEEK, ON CSI CORNWALL…” in my head. Equally, I was very afraid. After about 25 minutes some other walkers came along. I was still crouching on the floor on the phone and frantically waving at them to hide. And somewhat ironically, I scared the living daylight out of them. They had assumed I was faking an injury to mug them. Lol! Once I explained the situation they were nothing but understanding and helpful, one sitting beside me chatting as if I was in shock, the other watching the men (now no longer holding the gun) walking around their car, and describing it to the cop on the phone. It was really weird but everything was ok, and we were definitely in it together.
The men left in the car (both still alive) and I made my way to my campsite, which thankfully wasn’t far. I’d told the campsite owners what happened and they couldn’t believe it, and a lovely older couple made me a coffee from their campervan. The police called me back to tell me they’d caught the men but had decided to let them go as everything was “ok”. A few hours later, I sat on a beach and tried to process what had just happened. I briefly felt silly and questioned if I’d overreacted, then the enormity of how difficult this whole hike had been hit me, and even considered packing my bag for the next bus right outta crime-ridden Cornwall.
About an hour later I made a really empowered decision: I was not going to let this weird incident stop me. Bad things happen extremely rarely, but it only takes one person (and one gun) and you might get seriously unlucky – whether you’re a woman or not. And yes, exactly that had happened. TO ME! But I was well, a bunch of people had been super nice to me (after realising I was not trying to mug them), I had amazing friends messaging me every day cheering me on and checking on me. Plus I’d actually walked half of the stretch and finally had my goal sort-of in sight. And yeah, I am brave! So the next morning I kept going. I set off at 8am in the cool morning mist, and hammered through the first 7km before breakfast. I got back on trail and reached my intended goal of the day by lunch time. I took an hour’s break for food and asked the barstaff where the next campsite was. They replied there was one 3km inland, or another a “nice 4 hour walk away”. I felt hungry for more (kilometres) and set off back on the undulating coastal path. I climbed sandy staircases up and down cliffs, had views across rocky beachheads to myself, walked past abandoned mines and landslides, following the meandering path through the grouse. I spotted a seal swimming beside me in the bright blue sea, dipping his black head in and out of the water, gracefully slipping away under the surface. By the evening I had walked for 8 hours in total, covering 27km from St Agnes to Gwithian, the furthest I’ve ever walked in a day.
The following morning I woke in my tent, patched up my 6 blisters (27km wasn’t all plain sailing) and decided to walk the remaining 14km to St Ives in a last push. At 3pm I arrived in St Ives elated – and neither raped, nor a central figure in a particularly intriguing episode of CSI Cornwall. I was REAL proud of myself that I had finished the walk, despite my fears and how challenging it had been for me. It felt like the most monumental walk I’d been on, and I felt a huge sense of accomplishment for reaching my goal.
For other women hikers out there, here’s my two penneth worth if you’re feeling the fear of hiking and camping alone.
DO tell your friends and family where you’re going and what you’ve got planned, but mainly so they can see how AWESOME you are.
DO talk to other walkers along the way! Share the experience of how lovely the weather is, pet a dog, take a photo for a couple struggling to take a selfie. If someone makes comments about how brave you are all alone out here, agree with them. You are brave! You’re not stupid though.
DO listen to your instincts. If someone is acting weird or you feel uncomfortable in any way put on the iron stare of CONFIDENCE. The more you know what you’re doing the more you will be left alone if you wish to be. You’re a badass hiker bitch. Remember this and let people feel the power this gives you.
Don’t share your exact sleeping location on social media. I admittedly hadn’t really thought of this before but am grateful I picked this one up from the otherwise terror-inducting safety articles I read.
If shit DOES go down (you get hurt, someone else does, you witness a crime), do not panic, do not text your boyfriend, but call the police. Don’t feel weird or guilty for making the decision you’re in a dangerous situation, and DO NOT feel guilty about it after you find out everything is ok. Take charge of your personal safety and that of others.
On average I have to say I was scared quite a lot during this trip, which kind of became part of why this journey turned into as much of a Spirit Quest as a multi-day hike. Fear can totally happen when you’re pushing your boundaries, and is totally normal. What really helped me was to think BIG POSITIVE THOUGHTS, all the time, like “I’m stronger than I thought I was, I’m safe and I’m doing what I love.” Whatever works for you. Training your brain away from negative thinking is a major life skill, and if a solo hiking trip is where you learn how to do it, then GO YOU!
Have FUN. Listen to happy music, sing along to KCI & Jojo alone on a hill, be silly. You’ll have so much more energy for hiking when you’re smiling and happy than if you’re constantly overthinking. And, you’ll have FUN!! Fun inspires confidence, which inspires other people, which means you will connect with amazing folks that will think you are a BADASS, which will make YOU realise you are a badass. And good things will happen to you, you amazing creature. <3