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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3 outdoor women’s tips on hiking and running the trails solo

Going solo on a hike or trail run can be a rewarding experience. But it pays to know a few things to do before you head out.

Going solo on a hike or trail run can be a rewarding experience. But it pays to know a few things to do before you head out.

“Is there anyone out there?”

That’s what I heard while running some trails around dusk last week. I’d heard the woman’s voice before, but didn’t think anything of it until I heard that question emerge from the woods. I stopped in my tracks, listened, then answered, “Yeah, right here!”

“I need help!” was the reply.

What followed: I kept talking to her, picking my way through the brush, homing in on where she might be. Then I saw a small but bright cellphone flashlight through the trees.

When I came up on Crystal, she was a little spooked but grateful someone was around. She told me she came out on the trails a little later in hopes of avoiding the crowds. But she’d never been to this place before, and when it started getting dark, the menagerie of side trails and shadowy woods left her lost, at least a couple of miles away from the trailhead parking lot.

Not exactly “127 Hours,” but to this gal, it was enough to cause more than a little fear. We hiked out of those woods together to a clearer trail and ran back to the trailhead safe and sound.

This incident brought me back to a question I received from a friend of mine named Jennifer who lives in Arkansas. She loves hiking and has dabbled in running, but was wondering what precautions she should take if she were to venture out on the trails for a solo hike.

A great topic. I go out on solo trail runs and hikes regularly. Bigger adventures alone have also happened, including a solo summit of Missouri Mountain in Colorado. Most of the time it’s gone fine, though there has been one near-miss buffalo encounter. Still, no harm was done and those solo hikes and runs are often the most memorable.

But I also realize that it’s just different for me than it is for Jen, or Crystal, or just about any other woman out there.

WOMEN’S PERSPECTIVE

I could try to muddle my way through this topic on my own, but it’s better to let some women’s voices flesh it out. So I went to social media and got a few outdoor women to give me – and thus, you – their thoughts.

Heather Balogh

Heather Balogh

Heather Balogh is an experienced backcountry adventurer, traveler, hiker, mountaineer and trail runner. Her take is pretty simple: Don’t let the idea of going solo on the trails intimidate you.

“Honestly, I’ve never been concerned. I do always keep my cell phone with me in case and always tell someone where I’m running with a general idea of time frame so they’ll know if I’m gone too long. Otherwise, I think trails are WAY safer than roads. Any weirdo can be on a road. Trails take commitment and usually, creeps don’t have that level of determination.”

Heidi Nicole Kumm

Heidi Nicole Kumm

Heidi Nicole Kumm is a trail runner and recently, a 100-mile ultramarathon finisher. She gave a great bullet-point list of things to think about before heading off on the trails alone:

“Try to hit up popular trails during busy times so you’re not truly alone.

“Let someone know where you are and your route — then stick to it.

“Go on trails you’re comfortable with…that way if anything is ‘off’ you’ll pick up on it sooner.

“If you don’t have runners to go with, maybe recruit mountain biker friends to at least be at the same trailhead. Or even hikers.

“If you can avoid it, don’t run at dusk/dawn — mostly because of animals, not people. I’ve only ever seen rattlesnakes at dusk.

“Know what kind of animals are in the area and if they are a threat (when I moved to Colorado, coyotes scared me. They don’t anymore, although I do know what to do if they get too close to me, so I’m prepared).

“Oh, and if it makes you more comfortable, run in areas that have cell service — then you can call for help if there is a rattlesnake bite or you can call a friend to chat if there is a creeper person around.”

Noel Johnson

Noel Johnson

Noel Johnson is a hiker, climber, backpacker and mountaineer who got her start solo hiking up the slopes of Pikes Peak. Since then, she’s tagged more than a hundred high summits, many of them solo. I’m lucky to have accompanied her on a few of these. Anyway, security is one thing that is on her mind, as well as being prepared for worst-case scenarios.

“For me… I ALWAYS inform my husband or someone reliable of my start time/approximate finish time, trail I will be on, and I make certain to call as soon as I’m in range to let him/them know I am on my way home.

“I used to carry pepper spray with me, but I have been told that even the slightest wind shift can backfire it onto me if I had to use it, so I carry my stun gun on my pack within easy grabbing reach.  I also carry a whistle on my pack (I’ve heard that can be deterrent if any creepers come around).  Trekking poles (at least one) can be used quite handily as well in many situations.

“ I know, I’ve mainly focused on safety against attacks….but in other solo hiking good tips….I ALWAYS carry a headlamp (no matter if I’m just on a short day hike…along with the 10 essentials of hiking).  Along with those, I carry an emergency bivy… a $12 item that could mean the difference between life or death in an emergency overnight in the woods. I normally always have an extra pair of gloves/mittens and enough food to last a couple of days.

“Also, I bring a GPS and map and compass (although I could use another navigation course to refresh for the latter).

“You should know the trail system that you are going to hike, too… I’ve made mistakes in the past and have gotten off course… it can be a bit intimidating.”

LOOKING AT DECISIONS

So let’s go back to the situation I found my fellow trail runner in. Clearly, she made a couple of mistakes. She went out in late afternoon on trails she didn’t know, and then got caught alone in the dark.

However, let’s look at a couple of things she did right.

For starters, she had her cellphone with her. She told me that she’d called her boyfriend about her predicament just before I heard her. So even if no one had come along, someone knew she was in trouble and could either come looking for her or send for help.

Secondly, she didn’t panic and just sit there. She recognized she had a problem and kept making decisions. One was the call to her boyfriend. Another was calling out for help. As it turned out, that second action is what eventually got her on a more secure footing to head home.

And that leads me to re-emphasize that point. If you ever get lost, the best thing you can do is keep making decisions. This will keep you from panicking, it will put your mind and body in a proactive posture (although sometimes staying put when you’re lost is the best course of action), and may ultimately give you the solution to your problem, which in this case was being lost in a strange place.

So there it is. Good, trustworthy advice from three women who have high outdoor cred. Learn from them and don’t be afraid to explore the trails on your own.

Want to know more about these gals? Check out Heather’s website or follow her on Twitter @AColoradoGal. You can catch up on Heidi’s doings here or follow her on Twitter @runaroundaroo. And to find Noel, just hike the 14ers or search 14ers.com and ask for the Cookie Hiker.

Bob Doucette

Meg’s Miles: Three observations from the tragic death of Meg Menzies

Seen on the run during my own observation of #MegsMiles.

Seen on the run during my own observation of #MegsMiles.

I never knew Meg Menzies, but her tragic death last week resonated with me.

Meg was an avid runner and a Boston Marathon competitor. Last Monday, she was out on her morning run when she was struck and killed by a drunk driver. She leaves behind a husband and three kids.

Her story spread nationally. People wanted to do something to commemorate her life in light of her tragic and needless death. That’s when Meg’s Miles was born.

The idea was for people to commit to running last Saturday, then post about it on a Facebook page created for this event, or to write about it on other social networks with the hashtag #MegsMiles. Nearly 95,000 people indicated on the Facebook page that they would participate.

For me, this included a little trail time plus some road miles in my hometown. Others ran short distances and long.

I was impressed by the response people gave, and I’m sure Meg’s family and friends appreciate it. Running communities are pretty special, and we tend to rally around causes like this.

But it also got me to thinking about a few things.

First, it made me recall the times I’ve almost been struck by drivers. Motorists tend to focus only on what they’re doing behind the wheel and other drivers. They creep into crosswalks, roll through intersections, speed down roads where pedestrian traffic is heavy, and otherwise don’t pay attention to anything else that is not a car (that includes bicyclists and motorcyclists, too). Many drivers are also distracted, reading texts and texting while operating their vehicles. I don’t have troubles with oblivious drivers on trails — there are no cars there. But on the streets, it’s another matter. In cases of auto-pedestrian accidents, the person on foot always loses.

Second, it made me think about what I can do to mitigate that danger. If I wear headphones, I keep the volume low. I run facing oncoming traffic. I don’t assume drivers are going to do the right thing.

Third, drunk driving is no joke. I would have figured the stigma that goes with it would have all but eliminated driving while intoxicated by now, but it hasn’t. People still get behind the wheel when they’re stone drunk. In Meg’s case, I cannot fathom the sheer idiocy of driving drunk during the hours people are going for a pre-workday run. If you find yourself tanked a 6, 7 or 8 a.m., do yourself, your loved ones and everyone else a favor and get help. Now.

Meg Menzies. (Meg's Miles Facebook page photo)

Meg Menzies. (Meg’s Miles Facebook page photo)

So what do you do to keep yourself safe while on the run? Did you participate in Meg’s Miles? What did you do? Share your stories with me in the comments.

Bob Doucette

Climbing with your kid on your back: Good idea or not?

Coming to us from the UK’s Telegraph, I bring you this photo:

Menna Pritchard climbing with her daughter. (Hook News photo)

The two are pictured climbing in the UK. According to the article, they were climbing a relatively easy route, and as you can see, they’re top-roped in and have a spotter on belay below.

There’s a little uproar over this. Is it safe? Do any of us have a right to judge what outdoorsy people do with their kids? Are we so overprotective of our kids that we scream bloody murder when we see this? Or is this just too risky?

I’d like to hear your thoughts.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088