Don’t you know it’s risky out there?
Yourself, and society
At first, I would have answered this question in one, easy, short, simple word: No.
I started hiking in Ohio. For my friends from outside the U.S., or those geographically challenged Americans, Ohio is flat and fairly developed. There are virtually no bears in Ohio, and any other large predator animals have been well hedged into forestlands by development and roadways. Ohio has more than its fair share of wide open farmland, and quaint, eye-blink sized towns populated by old folks and Amish families, but I can’t say I ever lost mobile phone signal anywhere in the state. In fact, I can sheepishly admit now, I was nearly 30 years old before I realized it was even possible to travel by land to a place that didn’t have phone service.
So, then, when I decided to start exploring, it never occurred to me that it could be any riskier than a walk through my neighborhood.
It wasn’t until my impending move, for work-related reasons, to Oregon, that I began to fully understand that exploring the outdoors could have some element of danger. Oregon is a state where over half of the land is owned by the government; that’s an American way of saying it is undeveloped and wild. If we could straighten out the state’s undeveloped forest roads and fashion them into one long ribbon, it would wrap around Earth’s circumference with plenty of roadway to spare. I was moving into a place where it wasn’t just possible, but probable, that I would find myself somewhere far removed from foot-traffic, passers-by, and easily navigated, paved routes to civilization. It was prudent, then, to start studying the 10 Essentials, back country safety, and planning for emergencies. I learned that it could be risky to venture out without a water purifier, emergency shelter, and a box of waterproof matches. I learned it could be dangerous to find myself confronted by a startled black bear if I were not armed with bear spray.
I also learned it was hazardous to hike alone while female.
This immediately did not sit well with me. I started debates about it with – well, with pretty much anyone who would humor me without filing a police report for verbal assault. “What makes me, a woman, more at risk than a man, especially if I’m better prepared?” I asked, and repeatedly, I heard the following responses:
- “No one sexually assaults men!” (This is a blatant falsehood.)
- “There are a lot of creepy people in the world.” (Well, sure, but why are they hiking fifteen miles into the national forest to creep out women?)
- “I’m just saying, I’d prefer to be out there with someone who’s carrying a gun.” (Okay, that’s your preference, but does that gun-toting someone have to be a man?)
- “What happens if you get hurt and you’re alone?” (What would happen if a man got hurt when he was alone? Popular movies inform me that I should be prepared to amputate one of my own appendages – not an appetizing thought but hell, I’d do it if it was required for survival.)
Many people would groan and say, “Ugh, this isn’t some woman thing – no one, NO ONE, should hike alone.” This always puzzled me. I figured, sure, it is always safer to travel in groups, regardless of your gender. Isn’t that how human society started in the first place? The collective is stronger than the individual? That said, certainly people do adventure alone, and not just for a few dozen miles of walking on dirt. Some people climb mountains alone, or row their boat across big bodies of water alone. Some people traipse across continents with only themselves and a backpack. These people survive. The distinct message I was getting was that survival was less likely if these people were women.
I found myself feeling defensive after a while. By this time, I was well-versed on basic safety, and while I was not wilderness medicine certified, nor an outdoors expert by any means, I definitely was no longer green when it came to hiking the Oregon wilderness. Why did my sheer femaleness make me more vulnerable than someone else of equivalent experience? Finally, when a man repeatedly voiced his (admittedly mild) protests about my solo adventures, I pressed the issue: “Why does this bother you so much?” I asked. “Do you think I can’t handle it?”
“You can handle it,” he said. “I just don’t like the thought of you alone out there.”
That’s when I realized: It’s about love. We women are loved, and the world has sent a very clear message: When you love a woman, you protect her from threats real or perceived. The outdoors and all that we are still exploring is full of The Unknown, and The Unknown offers up boundless potential for threat. Thing is, it also offers up boundless potential for love – love of self, love of the world, love of experience, love of life.
I’ve set out to minimize risk through experience and knowledge. I believe we can never be too wise or prepared, particularly when we are exploring the world. But I’ve also committed myself to conveying – through my own activities – that outdoor exploration is an act of love. I do not get outside to feel like I am starring in my own version of a “woman versus the wild” program. I get outside to fill my heart, to be connected, and to refill my inner emotional wells.
Being alone in the forest is not how I put myself at risk. It is how I offer myself protection. And I want to paint that picture for the people in my life, and for you, the friends who feel this, too.
P.S. – What legitimate, or not so legitimate, safety warnings have you heard? How are the people in your life responding to your quests for adventure? What fears do you feel as an exploring woman? Let us know via message, video, or audio recording (you can use the voice recorder on your phone!), and feel free to share pictures as well! We’d like to include your contributions in future posts. Share via email at AskNatalieColumn @ gmail.com
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