Personal safety on the trail: What to know, what to do, and how to carry yourself

Looking down the trail on Cupid Peak. Front Range, Colorado. Everyone should be able to enjoy trails like this, or the streets where they run, without fear of being harassed — or worse. Even so, there are things you can do to keep yourself safe.

NOTE: This is an adaptation of a piece I wrote for the Tulsa Urban Wilderness Coalition a few weeks ago. While it bothers me that we must discuss these topics, it is also a reality. And for further reading, take a look at this article via Runner’s World.

One of the last things we want to think about on the trail is what we’d do if confronted with an unwelcome or hostile person. You’re out there for a run, a ride or a hike, looking for exercise or a retreat away from daily life. A confrontation is not on the agenda.

But the fact is this: The world has a lot of good people in it, but there are some bad ones, too. And sometimes they make their way to our trails.

How do you deal with a situation like this? Here are some ideas:

Keep your car clutter free

The less junk in your car you have to deal with, the quicker you can get on the trails and once done, get home. Most people are at their most vulnerable while fussing with the clutter that can pile up in your car. This is when you drop your guard. A great side effect to a clean car: If there is nothing in the car to steal, thieves tend to move on.

Hit the trail with a friend

The old cliché is that there is safety in numbers. But it’s also true. A person with bad intentions is much less likely to bother a group of people.

When you’re solo, be situationally aware

We love to lose ourselves in the moment when we’re in nature, but it’s wise to keep your eyes and ears open. Be aware of other people. That way you don’t get surprised.

Ditch the earbuds

Music and podcasts are great on a long ride or run, but the problem with that is you take one of your senses out of the picture. This is especially important on the trail, where you might not hear a bike coming behind you, or people around the bend. Earbuds even at a low volume put you at risk for an accidental collision with other trail users, and certainly leaves you more vulnerable to people with unsavory motives.

Be purposeful in your movement

You’ve got places to be, goals to achieve, a pace to keep. Show that. People are less likely to bother someone who is moving down the trail with a sense of purpose and confidence.

Bring your dog

If you have a dog that likes to run or hike trail with you, bring it along. The presence of a dog can be a good deterrent, especially if it’s a bigger dog.

Tell someone your plans

Before hitting the trail, let someone know where you’re going, your planned route, and how long you expect to be out there. That way there is a person out there who knows something could be wrong if you don’t check in.

Trust your instincts, and act accordingly

Listen to that prickly feeling on the back of your neck. If there are people on the trail who make you feel uneasy, reroute to an area that is more open or heavily trafficked. Then find your way back to a trailhead parking lot.

Bring your phone

A simple phone call or text could be vital to alerting friends or the authorities if something is amiss. You can use your smartphone camera to document unwanted interactions, which in turn can be used if the incident is one in which law enforcement needs to be called.

Consider personal protection

Plenty of hand-held devices like pepper spray exist that can be easily carried. Be familiar with how to use it and bring it with you.

If faced with a potential assailant, leave the area as quickly as possible

Make noise. Shout, yell for help, etc. If a physical confrontation is unavoidable, fight back. Strike at sensitive areas like the eyes, groin, nose and throat, using your fists, elbows and knees. You might be in the fight for your life, so there are no rules. An attacker will be more likely to give up if a potential victim becomes difficult to handle. Whatever the outcome, alert police as soon as you can, and be ready to give a description of the assailant, what happened and where.

THE FLIP SIDE OF THE COIN

All these ideas can help keep you safe. But it’s only one side of the coin. As a trail user, there are ways you should handle yourself to prevent the perception of being a threat. Some thoughts on that:

Let others do their thing

Remember that other trail users are there for a reason and might not be open to having their run, ride or hike interrupted, even if your intentions are benign.

A simple “hello,” a wave or a nod are good ways to acknowledge other trail users in an unobtrusive way.

If your greeting, wave or nod is not acknowledged, don’t make a thing of it.

Someone on a hard run or ride might be concentrating on the workout. Don’t take it as being disrespectful. Just move on and do your thing. If the person wants to reciprocate a greeting, they will. If they don’t, it’s their choice – and their right. Leave it be.

Be mindful of trail users who are solo

They may be less welcome to talking to people they don’t know on the trail. Give them their space.

And this should go without saying, but here it is: The trail is not a place to pick up dates.

Any amorous advances toward someone you don’t know on the trail very likely to be rejected and may be perceived as threatening. Save your game for more appropriate places; the trail isn’t it.

One last thing, just to wrap things up: There are remarkably few bad interactions and incidents occurring on our trail systems. But because people are involved, there is always the potential for bad actors to show up. Be aware of your surroundings and take the precautions you believe to be appropriate, and be mindful of how you might be perceived by others you meet.

Bob Doucette

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