Risks on the trail: Four thoughts on fears, security and exploring your trails solo

If you read too much of the news, you might be under the impression that running by yourself, particularly on trails, is risky.

I’ve been thinking about a few stories over the years that might give weight to this belief. One story mentioned booby traps set up on a popular trail system. Another referred to an assault. And still others mention mountain lion and coyote attacks on unwary runners and cyclists.

This is reflected in conversations I’ve had with some folks about why they haven’t ventured out on their local trails. Most of the time, the answer is that they would, but can’t find people to go with them.

They’re scared of hitting the trail alone.

A recent social media conversation seemed to confirm this more. In this instance, a runner was taking a friend out on their local trails to get in a five-mile loop. The trails in question are close to town and popular. The person in question showed up to meet her friend armed with a handgun and a couple of Tasers.

I’m not sure if this person walks around doing every day tasks with so much weaponry, but my guess is no. Something about running in the woods, even with an experienced partner, illicited enough fear to warrant packing heat.

I’ve written about carrying firearms in the backcountry before, and devoted another post where women adventurers shared their insights about hiking and running solo.

Looking back at the aforementioned stories, the conversations I’ve had with people, and what I’ve seen online, I’ve got mixed views on just how safe — or unsafe — going alone on the trails really is. Some thoughts:

  • Generally speaking, trail running on your own is pretty safe. Criminals are unlikely to commit the effort and time it takes to stage a crime or look for opportunities on trail systems. It’s too risky and too much effort. Places close to town have too many people, and remote trails are too much of a hassle. They’re more likely to break into your car at the trailhead while you’re gone. Hostile wildlife encounters happen, but are extremely rare. Your biggest risk is likely turning an ankle or some other injury that leaves you unable to walk out, and that danger can be mitigated by having a charged cellphone with you (if you have service) and letting people know where you’re going and how long you’ll be out.
  • More and more, we’re conditioned to be afraid, and the answer to our fears is increasingly a gun. Concealed carry and open carry don’t bother me. I don’t because I don’t see the need being so great that it’s worth the trouble. But others do. That said, there is a growing sentiment that the world is filled with bad people lurking around every corner, hoping for a chance to do you harm. I know plenty of people living in sanitized subdivisions, sometimes gated, with gun safes filled with all sorts of weaponry, almost as if they’re expecting an armed incursion into their neighborhood in the ‘burbs is on its way. Those fears tend to manifest themselves in people arming themselves when venturing out into trail systems. Do what you want, but generally speaking, that handgun is going to be nothing more than extra weight. My nightmare scenario: running on a trail, startling someone who isn’t paying attention, and getting blasted in the face.
  • I usually see hikers in pairs or groups, but most often see runners alone, regardless of gender. What does this mean? It means trail running is safe enough that runners are and have been fine with pounding out some miles on their own for some time now. Knowing your trails, being aware of your surroundings and moving confidently go a long way toward being comfortable out there. What’s different about them than my skittish friends? Experience. They’ve been out there enough to know that barring some really bad luck, they’re going to be fine. Tired, cut, bruised or beat up (trail running does that to you), but fine.
  • A bit of security that doesn’t require shooting/Tasing/spraying someone is a dog. A good running dog can be a deterrent to folks who might be on the sketchy side. Bonus: Dogs make great buddies.

When I think of trail running, it’s different from regular running in that it’s a real “outdoors” experience, and it comes with same peculiarities of related activities like hiking, backpacking and climbing. There are objective risks involved that deal with the terrain, wildlife and weather. The trick is recognizing how to mitigate those risks (good preparation is key) while ferreting out irrational fears.

If you feel more comfortable running trails with company, by all means, find a friend. If security is a large enough concern that you feel the need to be armed, do what you have to do (but please be competent with your weaponry before carrying it in a public space). However, I can tell you by experience — as can many women and men I know — that you’ll probably be fine on your own and unarmed.

In short, don’t be scared. Go ahead and explore those trails.

Bob Doucette

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