When people learn I am a long-distance hiker, the most common question is, “You don’t hike alone, do you?” When I explain that I do, in fact, choose to hike solo, people begin rattling off the ingredients of a nightmare to argue their point that I should not wander the wilderness alone. The nightmarish concerns are typically limited to bears, snakes, mountain lions, and scary predatorial men lurking in the trees waiting for a solo female to pass by. The irony is, the actual dangers of hiking don’t usually make the list!
Take a look at the John Muir Trail (JMT) specifically, since this is my summer destination. This 211-mile trail overlaps with the 2,650 mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) for 160 miles. Most trail statistics that have been published are based on the entire PCT which runs from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon, and Washington and which also includes most of the JMT. “The only recorded death ever from a wild bear in all three states was a four-year-old girl in 1974. The last hiker killed by a mountain lion on the PCT? Never. The last time a person was murdered on the PCT? Also, never.”
The most likely causes of trouble for hikers along the JMT are falling, drowning, and extreme temperatures. Of the 15 total deaths on the PCT since 1983, six were from falling, two from drowning, two from hypothermia, two from heart-related issues, one from a tree falling, and two from a driver who hit a hiker couple who were trying to hitchhike into town.
It is harder to die in the wilderness than it is in the city. Take distracted drivers operating 1.5 ton machines that roll at over 55 miles per hour out of the equation, and, already the odds for survival are much greater. In 2019 alone, 12 people died in car accidents on Athens-Clarke County roads. Remember, since 1983, only 15 people have died on the Pacific Crest Trail. Total.
All that said, bad stuff can happen, even if it’s never happened before. None of us want to be the first person to end up a tragic statistic. If you are toying with the idea of going out on your own, whether on a forest trail or a city street, consider signing up for a martial arts or a basic self-defense class. The two years of Taekwondo training I received from Barnett TKD Academy in Athens built confidence in my own skills, strengths, and abilities to manage situations in which I would have formally felt helpless. The instructors at BTA are topnotch and work in self-defense concepts to their classes regularly.
The most crucial lesson learned was, awareness is the first and best line of self-defense. By being aware of her surroundings, a hiker is able to maximize her ability to manage a situation and reduce the element of a bad surprise. Employ all of your senses to maximize your visual and audible awareness of everyone and everything around you. Avoid earbuds while hiking. If you must have music while you walk, consider only using one earbud. You will be better equipped to hear the warning rattle of a snake or the crunching of leaves as someone comes up behind you. I recommend leaving human music behind and embracing the beautiful music of the forest that we often neglect to hear in our day-to-day lives!
Keep both eyes open. Most of our troubles, as we read above, are caused by falls, so hikers usually maintain a primarily downward gaze at the ground to minimize the possibility of tripping over an obstacle while regularly looking up and evaluating their surroundings. Remember, nobody trips over mountains. It’s the small pebble that causes you to stumble.
Even knowing the odds are in your favor, taking a few precautions can help allay any remaining fears. Communicate your hiking plans and itinerary with others and check in when possible. If you will be in a remote area without cell service, consider renting a satellite communication device like the Garmin inReach. Not only is there an SOS feature, but this device allows hikers to communicate with anyone via text and even offers an option for your friends and family to log in and see exactly where you are on trail at any time. When camping alone, find a few small rocks to stage outside of your tent in case a bear or other wildlife enters your campsite. Simply making noise and throwing a few rocks will usually deter the animal from coming closer. Bring a small canister of mace or bear spray where permitted, and have it within reach at all times.
Is hiking dangerous? It can be. But it’s less dangerous than living a sedentary life on a sofa going through bag after bag of potato chips. I would rather die with memories than dreams. Hike on, hike smart, and happy trails!
JMT Bound – June 25, 2021!
Do you love hiking and helping homeless dogs and cats find love? Click here to make a donation to Clarity’s community humane society and support her “Paws for a Hike” fundraising campaign where every mile benefits these guys!