Scared to Sleep in the Woods Alone?

Here’s How to Get Over It.

I think a lot of the fear about adventuring in the outdoors comes from a simple lack of knowledge.
— Brianna Madia
 
 

I’m sure you will agree with me that badass women, who conquer the backcountry, are pretty damn inspiring.

Whether exploring solo or not, they appear to have a fearless freedom. One that, at times, I have found intimidating.

The wild always makes me feel vulnerable. It never ceases to feel like the unknown. Once the sun goes down, I am at the mercy of every snapping branch and random sound.

I have felt scared….countless times.

There have definitely been moments when I've wanted to be more like those women who seem to wander through wild and majestic backdrops unafraid. 

Do you ever wish you could be as brave as them too?

The truth is, you are. (Even if you don’t know it yet.)

Anxieties about trekking through nature as a female are common. So common actually that most of the women that you admire on social media have felt the same fears as you.

How do I know that? Because they told me.

Today we are going to dig into the necessary tools for overcoming your outdoor fears, as well as take a look at their advice so that you can start feeling more confident out in the wilderness.

Let’s go!

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Acknowledge Your Fears Without Judgement

(Arm Yourself With The Right Wilderness Knowledge)  

If you love the outdoors, then it is your place to be outside. Nothing should take that experience away from you, especially not fear.

One of the first women I reached out to, was Laura Hughes. Laura hosts one of my favorite podcasts called ‘Women on the Road’. In it she captures the stories of women exploring nature while living in converted camper vans.

 
 

Laura, herself, spent a period of time living out of a Ford Transit, and is no stranger to adventuring the outdoors. I knew her input on the subject of fear would be extremely valuable. And it was. But more than that, her response really summed up my intention for writing this piece.

I want to be clear that I don’t often camp alone in the wilderness, but that said I feel like we all have our own personal journeys out in the wild, whether we travel with friends, a partner, a dog, or by ourselves.

“To be honest, I still have plenty of fears...it’s natural as humans to feel fear in the unknown of the outdoors. At its roots, this fear is a survival instinct. But sometimes anxiety can get in the way and amplify our fears unnecessarily.”

“I find that when I’m alone, or when it’s dark out, and I can’t make as much sense of my surroundings…. anxiety can take hold a lot more easily and make it hard to distinguish between what fear I’m feeling for my own safety and survival, versus what fear I’m feeling because I’m anxious.

Just this acknowledgment alone helps me to pause, enjoy my surroundings (even in the pitch dark), and breathe.

Anxiety has a way of clouding reality, whether you have gone on 1 hike or 1000 hikes. But if you can acknowledge your fear without judgement, understand it’s innate role, and arm yourself with the right wilderness knowledge, than you will find necessary balance.

 

 

The Backcountry is Safer Than Your Home

I have heard people say that before, but it was hard for me to believe.

It was no surprise when I chatted with various women, regardless of their experience level, that many revealed that they were afraid of being murdered, raped, or assaulted in the backcountry.

I asked friends, family, women on the trail, women in forums, etc. This was a fear of everyday women like you and I.

One close female friend shared:

 
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It broke my heart to hear that.

Women’s safety is a critical concern, not only in the backcountry, but in day to day life.

 

That is unacceptable. As a society and a culture, we need to do better.

I am one of those rare native New Yorkers who grew up in the city. 

Crime is a normal part of life back home. Many of the kids I grew up with, including me, were ingrained with defensive instincts. 

I always felt ready to fight if approached.

 

This is me. 7 years old at an arcade in Queens:

 
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          (No one's gonna f* with my tickets)

 

New Yorkers live confidently. Alert but at ease.

Sure, terrorism and crime has played a role in their life. But locals assess the risk of walking to the store at night and do it anyway. They carry on with life. They don’t live in perpetual fear.

With all that said… when it came to the idea of CAMPING?! nope. no way. I thought the idea of sleeping in the woods was terrifying and completely insane. I wasn’t alone.

To this day, many of my childhood friends have never gone camping or backpacking. My mother's idea of hiking is walking from Union Square to Midtown.

Ironically, the backcountry is so much safer than our cities.

Violent crimes are incredibly unlikely to happen at a National Park.

Like, as in, they almost NEVER happen.

Here is a depiction of the National Park’s most common causes of death as found in the Washington Post:

 
 

You are far more likely to die in some form of transport, like driving to the trailhead, than to be stabbed by a lunatic in woods.

Yea, sure. There are a few horrendous stories that make headlines and get magnified by the media once in a while.

But they are rare cases. These are not commonplace events.

Our anxiety of the outdoors does not reflect the odds.

So how do you quell some of that natural anxiety?

The best realization that I had while camping alone in the middle of nowhere, is that we have a choice over how we feel.
— Camille Collett
 
 
 

I connected with Camille Collett, a climber, geologist, and writer to talk about her fears. She recently road tripped solo across the US in her Toyota 4Runner, camping alone along her entire trip. 

Despite ample experience in the outdoors, she still felt these anxieties concerning creepy men.

At first it was a little intimidating camping by myself. I would hear people camping nearby and my mind would think the worst possible scenario.…..but very rarely does the worst case scenario happen.

We talked a bit about shifting perspectives and using humor to disarm on-edge moments. Looking back on her time while camping on BLM land, she said,

There were a couple of instances when I realized…here I am freaked out by these solo dudes but they probably think I’m weird.

Maybe to them, I am this weird girl cooking dinner in the middle of nowhere, by herself. That kind of made me laugh.

Putting things into perspective helps. It’s a lot less scary once you relax and think logically.

In my experience, many of the men on the trail are there to enjoy nature, just like us.

More than likely, they are focusing on their own adventure goals and battling similar fears.

I asked a male friend of mine what freaks him out most about sleeping alone in the woods. And he replied:

 
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This doesn’t mean you have to talk to any person who makes you uneasy.

I’ll be the first to admit that groups of ‘bros’ or men who give off a weird vibe, make me hyper alert. (The New Yorker in me never goes away.)

But try to keep the statistics in mind before you start reaching for that pepper spray :)

 


STILL SCARED?

Here are some tools you can lean on so that you can feel more at ease.

  • Take a local self defense class. I took one and it was an awesome confidence booster

  • Bring a satellite messenger like SPOT Gen3, that have a messaging system to let people know you are ok.

  • Leave an itinerary with someone back home in the event of any emergency.

  • Some women felt that avoiding “feminine” colored gear, like pink or other bright colors, helped them feel less like a target in their tent. 

  • Take pepper spray. Some said it made them feel better to sleep with a knife under their pillow (but keep in mind, there is a very low chance you will ever need to use it)

 

Being Ripped Apart By Animals

 
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Obviously, this adorable little monster isn’t going to tear you to shreds.  

(Maybe just your heart.)

 

Being attacked by scary animals is a fear that comes up often around the topic of camping. The list of animals that people found frightening and threatening ranged from bears, to coyotes, cougars, snakes, spiders, etc. Many of the individuals I asked (men included) believed that they could be killed by a predator while camping overnight.

National Park data to the rescue again!

As depicted in this National Park fatality chart, wildlife related fatalities are the LEAST likely way to die in a national park.

 
 
 

Still feeling nervous?

Brianna Madia, inspires countless people through her writing and gorgeous desert photographs. She is a climber and wilderness adventurer best recognized in photos alongside her orange Ford Clubwagon (and her two dogs, Dagwood and Bucket).

She was kind enough to give me her take on this particular phobia.

 

 
                                (that's Bucket sleeping in her lap)

                                (that's Bucket sleeping in her lap)

 
I think a lot of the fear about adventuring in the outdoors comes from a simple lack of knowledge. At first glance, everything unknown can look dangerous.

So often we see comments from folks assuming that because we’re rappelling off the side of a cliff, we must be in imminent danger...but they only assume that because they don’t understand the complex and tremendously secure system of rigging ropes, anchors, tandem rappel setups.

Similarly with animals, people seem to assume that animals are just out there lurking in the shadows waiting to kill them, when that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Investing in a field book of local flora and fauna, and learning about animal behavior or patterns, will completely put your mind at ease.

For example, I think coyotes are pretty awesome.

I love when they howl and it reverberates against a dusky canyon. But whenever I share this love with others, I am often met with their extreme worry.

People truly believe I could be killed by a coyote.

You’re more likely to die from a vending machine falling on you. And yet, when we post videos of coyotes howling, we get hundreds of messages asking us why we aren’t running away.

 

Ok, what about Bears?!

First, of all, being versed in bear protocol is the first step towards understanding bears and avoiding them. If you want to camp in bear country, it is your obligation to learn this in order to minimize encounters.

Here’s a few quick tips:

  • Avoiding interactions is the best prevention.

  • Use a bear box

  • Don’t sleep with food in your tent

  • Avoid Heavily scented products. Keep all toiletries in your bear box.

  • Place bear boxes 100 ft from campsite.

  • Pay attention to your surroundings

  • Avoid startling a bear while hiking (talk or sing so they know you are there. It will give them a chance to avoid you)

Brushing up on all these precautions will help keep the bears away.

If you want a couple more tips, check out this BEAR SAFETY article written by the NPS.

 

One time while backpacking in California, my group and I set up camp before noticing a mama bear prowling around with her cubs in the distance.

We decided not to leave, as crazy as that may sound.

And we were totally fine.

It was definitely nerve wracking spending the night there, but we followed the precautions above and the mama bear left us alone.

When we woke up to an amazing sunrise, not even our bear boxes had moved.

 

(it’s obviously highest in the backcountry, compared to roadside campgrounds)

 

Watch this short GoPro documentary about Casey Anderson, whose best friend is a grizzly bear :) Casey founded the Montana Grizzly Encounter, which does tons of education and conservation work. http://www.grizzlyencounter.org/

 

STILL SCARED?

  • Take a bear bell in case you are feeling nervous

  • Consider bear spray. But first check local regulations. It is not allowed in all parks. (also, remember that bear spray and pepper spray are not the same thing)

  • Loksak Oksak are excellent odor proof bags to help keep food smells to a minimum (not a replacement for bear boxes in bear country)

  • Avoid areas that have native bear populations if you are still freaked out. 

 

Crunching Leaves! Snapping Branches! What's Actually Out There at Night?

I am a light sleeper. Any little noise will freak me out, to be totally honest.
— Camille Collett

Freaked out by all those random sounds at night?

Yea, totally get it. I am the same way.

While I was camping in New Zealand, I heard rustling outside my tent one night when suddenly, something began aggressively tugging at the strings of my tent.

Totally freaked me out.

I jumped up inside my tent. The “thing” out there got startled and let out a loud jurassic shriek. I unzipped my tent door to find a family of Weka birds running for their lives. :)

When it’s dark and you hear a strange sound, it’s easy to get spooked. With anxiety taking hold, your imagination will provide every worst case scenario.

So what is actually making all that noise?

The leaves you hear are more than likely birds and rodents.

Rodents are often the culprits for why your bear box moved, and also are more likely to be the ones to chew through your gear. (If you're worried about them stealing your snacks, some food storage bags can help protect your food)

Learning about these little guys is just as important as learning about large animals. 

It maybe a cliche, but breathing helps. I try to reflect on what’s really a rational thing to fear for my survival in that moment, and what’s just anxiety on top of that.
— Laura Hughes

If your hairs stand up when you hear that popping and crackling of a branch, remember to breathe. It’s likely not a mountain lion. Often, it’s a tree dying. As the branches fall, they make those sounds and you hear their echo.

Afraid to be squashed to death by a falling branch?

This fear can definitely be addressed with proper tent set up, and being able to identify a hazardous tree. Sleeping under falling branches is dangerous, and taking the necessary precautions is important.

How to tell if you are sleeping under a hazardous tree? This article has excellent information: 

9 Signs of Hazard Trees (Via "Ruin Your Knees")

 

STILL SCARED?

  • Bring noise reducing headphones

  • Listen to an audiobook, music, or even white noise

  • Take earplugs

  • Breathe

 

 

Afraid of the Dark? Conquer Your Fear of the Paranormal.

The backcountry can feel like the unknown. It’s the perfect backdrop for ghosts, demon creatures, Big Foot, and all those other mythological creatures that inundate cinema.

I reached out to Cotezi a.k.a Dirty Avocado, on instagram. She is a female thru-hiker who has been chronicling her awesome PCT adventures on youtube. I asked her about her fears on the trail.

Her answer was a common one:

The only fears I had were big animals coming to my tent at night and maybe aliens too (I know it’s ridiculous).

Aliens. Yep. Totally been there.  

 
 

In the process of talking to people about their fears, these types of heebie-jeebies are often reluctant admissions.

Many of us feel silly and childish admitting that we are afraid of the paranormal. But, these kinds of phobias are totally familiar in the dark woods.

Despite occasional thoughts about Aliens, fear did not keep Cotezi a.k.a Dirty Avocado, from hiking the entire PCT.

there’s really nothing you can do expect just ride it out on those nights. Listening to music eased the fear for me. But those feelings organically went away the more ground I covered. Confidence came naturally.
And that’s what I love about the trail. It forces you to face your fears and FEEL instead of escape them.

The more practice you get, the more control you gain over these feelings.

Camille had similar feelings too:

I definitely learned that when you’re alone at night, camping can be spooky... i would look for constellations, and photograph the stars. That was a very comforting distraction and gave me perspective. I am here to enjoy nature, not to be spooked out
— Camille Collett

Watching the Behind the Scenes of movies is a great way to demystify some of those hair raising creeps.: Hilarious BTS from Famous Horror Movies

Building a routine before bed can help. And make sure to always incorporate logic when your mind starts to wander.

Is there is a more logical explanation to whatever it was you just heard or saw?

Humor is in some ways the antithesis to fear. Don’t forget to laugh when things get scary.

If you can reclaim a new perspective about your fears, by seeing threats from a more humorous angle, it can be a relief.

Does Big Foot have a funny voice? Do aliens play fetch?

 
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Turn all your paranormal characters into cartoons. Create rules and boundaries around their world. Make it fun.

The more information you assign to these unknown creatures (even if its silly), the more power you have. If you leave them unknown, then your anxiety has opportunity to fill in the blanks with fear.

You get to control that.

 

STILL SCARED?

  • Count Stars

  • Bring along a book or kindle

  • Sketch or draw. Make art!

  • Do some breathing and/or Meditation exercises

  • If you think your anxiety is rooted in past trauma, consider seeking the advice of a therapist or counselor. Zero shame in that.

 

 

Lightning

In the backcountry, where you are vulnerable to the elements, it makes total sense that you may feel scared of lightning.

Noël Russell is another inspiring adventurer who has spent her whole life exploring the backcountry. If you follow her on instagram, then you have seen all the mesmerizing photos of her van life, and the beautiful stories she shares in her posts.


In one story, she discusses lightning fears and the beautiful way her mom helped her embrace storms. I loved it so much and asked if I could share it with you:

 
“Lightning used to terrify me. One night, while camping in the desert, there was an unexpected electric storm. I huddled inside our trailer watching the fiery bolts dart down across the horizon. My mom made popcorn, poured it into a big metal bowl and waved me over, “Come with me.” she whispered. We grabbed some blankets and headed outside. There we sat under the awning, and my mom told stories of her childhood adventures around the arid border towns my family calls home. She said whenever a storm rolled in, all her cousins would scramble outside to watch, “It was our favorite show”, she said smiling. And as we headed back inside, I hoped and prayed for a rerun tomorrow. Now, don’t get me wrong, lightning still makes me uneasy. But what I’m trying to say is - sometimes the best way to overcome any fear is to find someone you love who loves the thing you’re most scared of and start there.”

“Lightning used to terrify me. One night, while camping in the desert, there was an unexpected electric storm. I huddled inside our trailer watching the fiery bolts dart down across the horizon. My mom made popcorn, poured it into a big metal bowl and waved me over, “Come with me.” she whispered. We grabbed some blankets and headed outside. There we sat under the awning, and my mom told stories of her childhood adventures around the arid border towns my family calls home. She said whenever a storm rolled in, all her cousins would scramble outside to watch, “It was our favorite show”, she said smiling. And as we headed back inside, I hoped and prayed for a rerun tomorrow. Now, don’t get me wrong, lightning still makes me uneasy. But what I’m trying to say is - sometimes the best way to overcome any fear is to find someone you love who loves the thing you’re most scared of and start there.”

 

 

Shifting your perspective is a critical part of managing fear. As is, finding the beauty in every part of nature-- even if it intimidates you.

Learn!!!

Understanding lightning safety will equip you with the confidence to know the difference between when you are in danger or perfectly safe.

How to know if lightning is approaching?

  • Know the weather. Thunder is the first obvious sign.

  • Have foresight. While hiking, lookout for things like darker skies or a ton of cumulus clouds forming. If you hear thunder and see a flash, consider staying away from high ground, open areas, and water. Find dry and low areas. The key is to be as low as possible, wherever you can manage.

  • Look for smaller trees that are surrounded by taller ones, so that the larger ones become the more likely target. Don’t pick trees that are solo.

How far is the lightning from me?

  • There is a counting trick you can do. When you see lightning flash across the sky, count the amount of seconds that pass until you hear the boom of thunder. Divide that amount of seconds by five. This number tells you the amount of miles between you and the lightning.  If it’s 10 miles or less, get to safety immediately.

How do you know if you’re about to be struck?

  • Your body has the capacity to produce positive streamers under conditions where there is a strong electric field. If your hair is standing, then you are within the a strike zone. Crouch, on the balls of your feet, minimizing as much contact with the ground as possible.


I really liked this article in Wild Backpacker, which gave tons of good information on surviving a lightning storm.

 

 

Tools to Bring

Going in prepared helps immensely. I always make sure I have what I need to be as safe as possible to begin with— First Aid Kit, headlamp, extra layers, food, water— so that if something happens while I’m outdoors, I’m not caught unaware. It might mean taking an extra pound or two with me on the trails, but it’s completely worth it so that I feel empowered to be as safe as possible no matter the circumstance— and that in itself helps to quell some of my fears.
— Laura Hughes

First, take the time to write down all your fears, no matter how irrational. No one will read this list, it’s just for you.

Each one of those phobias has an available solution, whether it’s to learn a skill, bring a tool, or understand your terrain. Taking classes, reading books, and picking out backcountry technology can help expel anxiety.

Another fear of mine would be getting seriously hurt in the backcountry. Usually, there are at least some other hikers around. You can also bring one of those Spot Gen GPSs. or I did a Wilderness First Responder course, and it helped wrap my head around what to do if something happens.
— Camille Collett

I know most of us are obsessed with ultra light backpacks, because it sucks to carry unnecessary pounds.

But if taking some extra items along would make you feel safe, than this sacrifice is perfectly OK. And after a few trips, you will feel more confident leaving some items behind.

Here are some examples:

Afraid you will be injured?

  • Take a miniature survival book, like the pocket SAS one. Learn how to use all those random items in your first aid kit. Sign up for some kind of Wilderness First Aid course beforehand.watch youtube videos. Get super nerdy!!!

Afraid you will get lost?

  • Take a navigator or Spot Gen3. Learn about compasses and reading maps. Take an extra day of food. Study new trails, find out what other hikers have said about your route.

What other fears do you have?

 

TIPS

  • Really get to know your equipment. Don’t just buy it and shove it in your pack. Play with it. Ask for tips from friends, local sporting goods store, REI employees, etc. Test out gadgets and new knowledge on day hikes. Make it fun!

  • If you are carrying more gear, do day hikes with your pack in order to get a feel for this added weight

  • Thinking to take a weapon? Be sure to learn your local rules and laws since some weapons are banned in National Parks. Be responsible, otherwise carrying a weapon can pose a serious danger to yourself or other hikers.

  • And remember the data…..you definitely don’t need a weapon for many campgrounds.

 

Fear Does Not Control You, Unless You Let It.

Acknowledging that it was YOUR choice to be out there in the first place is very empowering. It’s really important to feel and embrace fear, and not lie to yourself and pretend like you don’t feel it (I tried that).
— Cotezi a.k.a Dirty Avocado

Its an exhausting battle to be controlled by the things that scare you, don't you think?

There is a gorgeous freedom that awakens when you coexist with fear.

After all, fear is just data.

It can reveal deeper truths about what is stirring within us. It can shed light on things we don’t know. It tells a story about our limits.

But you get to choose how to use this data. You get to dictate your actions.

Yielding this power is definitely the first step in overcoming fears, whether they are related to the backcountry or not.

Yes, there are things about the wild that are inherently more dangerous than sitting on your couch...but who really wants to spend their life sitting on the couch?

Knowledge is power. It will help you advocate for yourself and the people in your party. It will help you feel at ease in situations you maybe once considered dangerous. It will help you to understand that existing in harmony with the natural world is completely possible if you’ve opened your mind to understand it.
— Brianna Madia

Fear can also tell us a lot about how we see the world.

I got to chat with Noël Russell, and her input was memorable.

 

 
 

Noël spends a lot of her time working at a homeless youth shelter in California. I loved hearing her big picture perspective, which connected backcountry fears to experiences that she encounters within her daily work.

Things that we are unfamiliar with become scary to us. You see this manifest in social settings, politics, and policy.

You can place judgement on a person standing at the street corner holding a sign….but there is a whole story there. There is so much value and beauty in that person.

Our natural sense is to turn our eyes and back up. But I may very well discover I love that person, if I am willing to remove judgement and really start to see them.

You might say ‘well that doesn’t have to do with outdoor fears’ but it so does. Being able to see this as one giant landscape encourages me and makes me excited.”

“Wild animals have been mistreated, marginalized, and killed because of misconceptions of how they function. There is a mystical lure around their place in the wild.

But learning about them gives you a chance to love and, maybe even, advocate for them. It allows you to coexist harmoniously.

Our fears are based on a lack of relationship and kinship with things. Erasing that is healthy for us and healthy for the world.

Couldn’t agree more.

I found the process of analyzing my own backcountry fears, and working through many of them, to be extremely therapeutic.

It opened up space in my mind and gave me more energy to explore. I felt like I had been missing out on so much joy and beauty that I wanted to regain.

And the truth is, when it comes to our beloved backcountry, a future is not guaranteed. Whether it is the fault of climate change, or natural disasters, or politics...we have no way of knowing how our favorite natural habitats will be affected.

This same guarantee goes for our health and bodies. If you are physically able to go on a hike today, count your blessings, and go for it. You have no way of predicting tomorrow.

So figure out which fears are holding you back and kick them in the arse. :)

I, for one, hope to look back at my life and remember it filled with epic adventures.

 
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Feel free to leave a comment below and tell me about your backcountry fears.  See you out there!

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Nickol MatallanaComment