Scared to Sleep in the Woods Alone?
Here’s How to Get Over It.
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.
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.
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:
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:
(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?
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.
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,
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:
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 :)
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
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.
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.
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)
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?
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.
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")
Bring noise reducing headphones
Listen to an audiobook, music, or even white noise
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:
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.
The more practice you get, the more control you gain over these feelings.
Camille had similar feelings too:
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?
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.
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.
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:
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Feel free to leave a comment below and tell me about your backcountry fears. See you out there!
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