DISCLAIMER: This post is not directed specifically at any one person or group of people. It is intended to help friends and family understand the best ways to discuss their concerns with their hiker, recognize and address legitimate fears and threats, and to understand how persistent worry can actually hurt your relationship with them. There is also going to be some frustration and venting, so please “bear” with me.
This is a topic that has been on my mind a LOT recently. Many of the people I talk to about the trail become intensely worried, and think up all kinds of terrible scenarios in their heads and then try to convince me to find a hiking partner so that I am not alone, take something extra to aid in that scenario or to just not do the trail at all. This is not just limited to me or the people around me: there was a post in a women’s hiking and backpacking group on Facebook yesterday about it that has already received 75 comments and many more “likes”/reactions, and is by far not the first of its kind. Women hike. Sometimes alone. It can be dangerous, yes. But please, PLEASE, read this post before heckling someone about the dangers of the trail.
If you are truly concerned about someone’s safety or well-being while in the wilderness, take the time to do some research. What are the legitimate dangers of the area they are going to? What kind of skills and experience does your hiker have? Being in the wilderness IS dangerous, but in general, people to not think of the real dangers but are instead distracted and overwhelmed by the sensational and media-driven. Keep in mind that as an American citizen, I have a 1 in 18,690 chance of getting murdered in any given year. Also, three Ohioans (my home state) die every day in motor vehicle accidents. Just to keep things in perspective.
In my experience, most people think of bears and “bad” people as a lone hiker’s main threats on the trail, but these fears are, simply put, completely illegitimate. Bear attacks in North America are incredibly rare (see a list of all fatalities here) and typically are a result of some sort of provocation or threat (such as getting between a female and her cubs). In regard to the Pacific Crest Trail, the last (and only) time someone was killed by a bear was a 4 year old child in 1974. Bears do tend to get curious about the food we carry and what on earth we are doing in their territory, but rarely does this result in any sort of attack. As backpackers, we spend a lot of time (and money, and effort) finding ways to protect our food (and therefore ourselves) from hungry and curious bears. This creates a kind of “herd immunity”- if the bears think they aren’t going to be able to get any food, they don’t even bother coming into camp. Being responsible protects all of us, including the bears.
As far as “bad people” go, while the wilderness does seem like a good place to hide and commit crimes, the facts just don’t support this thought. The most popular National Scenic Trail, the Appalachian Trail, has seen its fair share of violence, which seems to be where many people’s fears originate. Even so, a visitor to the A.T. has a one in 13 to 17 million chance of meeting a violent death. Interestingly, even with its rising popularity since the release of the book and subsequent movie Wild, the Pacific Crest Trail is considered safer than the Appalachian Trail and has never in its history seen a single murder along its entire 2650+ mile length.
Aside from bears and baddies in the woods, most people don’t seem to think of other things to be concerned about, except maybe getting lost or “falling off a cliff”. As a supporter, do your research. Once you know what the LEGITIMATE concerns are for your hiker, approach them respectfully about those concerns. Don’t assume that they have not also done their research. Most thru-hikers begin planning and preparing for their hikes well in advance, many months and sometimes years before they set out on their adventures. Don’t insult their intelligence by assuming they are going out unprepared. There are some subtle differences in how to approach your hiker with your concerns.
For example: Concern: Hypothermia (AKA “freezing to death”)
DON’T: “You’re hiking through mountains?! I heard about that lady who had to get rescued in Washington- you’re going to freeze to death out there!”
DO: “I’ve read that the high elevations in those mountain ranges can get really cold. Have you tested out your tent/sleep setup/warm clothes yet? It would really suck to be cold all night up there.”
THE DIFFERENCE: This is exaggerated (though only slightly) and should be obvious, but the first statement A) assumes the worst, which in itself is sensationalized and unlikely, and B) assumes your hiker is an idiot and doesn’t know the mountains are cold. The second statement makes a suggestion that YOU have done YOUR homework and also suggests that you know your hiker has done the same. It opens the door to further discussion and suggestions rather than you just coming off as a “spaz” and your worries being brushed aside and ignored entirely.
Example #2: Concern: Backcountry skills/navigation (AKA getting lost)
DON’T: “That’s really far out there- if you get lost, no one will ever find you!”
DO: “That’s really far out there- what kind of navigation setup are you using?”
THE DIFFERENCE: Again, don’t be a spaz. Asking questions instead of jumping immediately to “this terrible thing WILL happen” will be much more likely to result in a productive, informative discussion. In this case, maybe your hiker is using a GPS unit- you could then inquire about the type of unit, what its stats are in cloud cover/dense canopy/etc. Maybe they are relying on maps and a compass- ask how they’ve been practicing that skill recently.
HOW YOUR WORRY HURTS YOUR HIKER
Far too many people utilize the sensational “DON’T” approaches shown above. While your hiker will likely recognize that you are just concerned for their well-being, these types of comments often come off as unsupportive and sometimes insulting. Do you REALLY think that your hiker is dumb enough to go out there without doing some research first? This adventure may be all that they seem to be able to talk about- do you REALLY think that they are so oblivious to the dangers of the trail that YOU need to tell them about them? Hikers generally have fears of their own- dangers they may face on the trail that they aren’t entirely certain how to handle. If you freak out about every worry you have, it is highly unlikely that they will raise a legitimate concern with you. Maybe they’ve been trying to find a solution and even though they can’t come up with something, they MIGHT go out there still feeling unprepared because they didn’t want to start yet another argument about safety with you.
These “safety arguments” can also drive a wedge into your relationship with your hiker. They are excited and also maybe a little scared, and are generally looking for support when they talk to you about the trail (even if it seems to be ALL they can talk about). If you respond with constant panic-induced worry, or try to convince them not to do it because of the dangers, how is that being supportive? When I informed one of my friends that I was doing this, her completely serious, panicky response was “I can’t believe you’re doing this. I’m deleting your number out of my phone before you leave so if you call me I don’t have to listen to your last breaths as you die out there.” Some friend. Even my mother can’t talk about this incredible adventure with me for more than a few minutes before getting overwhelmed with worry, but she refuses to research the trail or even to listen when I try to ease her anxiety.
Utilizing the less sensational, more conversational approach will likely quell many of your fears and could bring up things that your hiker may not have thought about yet or hadn’t figured out how to deal with. You may be able to brainstorm ideas on how your hiker can reassure you of their safety while on their adventure (like using a satellite messenger). They will be so happy to talk about the trail with a supportive friend or family member, and will likely open up about their true fears and the real dangers they may face.
Be supportive of your hiker, do your research, and use your worries to help them be as prepared as they can be when they embark on their grand adventure!