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We all remember the first time we felt truly free in the outdoors.
For self defense expert Nicole Snell, it was getting her shoes dusty walking among the creosote brushes near her childhood home in the California desert, watching the mountains change colors as the sun went down. For South African hiker Christine Koekemoer, it was hiking the seemingly endless trails around her childhood home, dreaming of hiking every one in the country. For outdoor educator Saveria Tilden, it was hiking, scrambling, and snowshoeing in the mountains around Los Angeles during a wilderness travel course, learning life-changing skills along the way.
That feeling—of escape, independence, boundless potential—is what drives us outdoors. On a trail, we can discover our limits and push past them. But what happens when someone else limits us? For many hikers—especially BIPOC, disabled hikers, and women—intimidation from other trail users is common.
In a 2004 study at South Mountain in Arizona, 40% of women surveyed reported having experienced harassing behaviors while recreating outdoors, leading them to feel “significantly less in control, comfortable, and safe from others when recreating alone.”
“I do find myself being extremely cautious if I see people, either if I can feel somebody’s behind me or if somebody’s in front of me and they seem suspicious,” said L.A.-based hiker Patrice Richardson.
While going solo is often perfectly safe, this fear can dissuade women and people of color from exploring outside, and leads to outdoor spaces that are not as diverse as the communities around them.
“People, primarily women, tend to have this fear of: What if a man attacks me, what if I’m by myself?” said Snell.
Whether or not those fears are grounded in reality, Snell hopes to help women understand ways to diffuse conflict and protect themselves, leading to more comfortable outdoor experiences. She taught one such workshop last September as a part of a women’s wilderness escape in Georgia organized by AdventurUs Women. In the workshop entitled “Yes, I’m Hiking Solo: Self-Defense for the Outdoors,” participants learned to be aware of their surroundings, and, if an encounter felt uncomfortable, how to get into a “power stance” and use simple, clear communication: “No, back up, I don’t want any problems.”
“It was partially about mental attitude and just being aware of your surroundings,” said Richardson, who participated in the class. “She really taught us to, when exercising outdoors, walk with purpose. Walk with your shoulders back, and your head up.”
The women in the class had a variety of motivations, from concerns about dangerous strangers to a desire to grow from traumatic past experiences.
“People just want to feel safe,” said Snell. “They want to feel like they are capable of defending themselves. I’m a survivor, and there are a lot of survivors that take my course because they want to feel confident in their ability to protect themselves if they need to in the future.”
Snell teaches empowerment self defense—which emphasizes non-physical methods of deterrence, including boundary-setting, verbal resistance, and body language—in addition to more traditional physical defense techniques. From practicing yelling “No!” to expressing a boundary by placing your hands in front of you, these strategies are accessible to people of all physical ability levels, giving them a concrete set of steps they can take to find safety within themselves.
“It doesn’t have to go from, ‘Oh, something’s uncomfortable,’ to fighting someone right away,” said Koekemoer, another participant in the class. “You have a range of tools that you can use before you even get to that.”
Many of the methods participants learned counter social rules that women often learn growing up, including avoiding confrontation and risk.
“Women are taught to be accommodating all the time,” said Koekemoer. “That can sometimes lead to problems. So if someone tries to engage you, you are allowed to say, ‘Please leave me alone, I don’t want to talk to you.’”
Jocelyn Hollander, a sociologist at the University of Oregon, has been an instructor of empowerment self defense for 30 years, and her research over the past two decades has demonstrated clear benefits of the approach. What differentiates empowerment self defense from other forms is a focus on verbal communication and boundary setting.
“When you set a clear boundary, it’s much easier to notice when somebody tries to push that boundary or cross that boundary, and then you can respond much earlier,” said Hollander. “It’s really gotta focus on prevention, rather than just responding when you’re in the middle of something.”
Hollander’s research has shown that the benefits of empowerment self defense go beyond just reducing assaults in ways that make it especially applicable to outdoor recreation.
“People feel more empowered, they feel more confident, not just about their abilities to defend themselves, but in areas of their lives that are really distant from any kind of threat,” said Hollander. “People say they now feel more confident doing things alone, going hiking alone, or being outside alone. They don’t feel afraid of the outside like they did before.”
For Richardson, that looks like sleeping in a tent in the wilderness for the first time. For Christine Koekemoer, it means planning a solo backpacking trip near her home in Southern California. Regardless of each participant’s personal limits, taking a course focused on building confidence does just that.
“No matter whether you’ve been on a trail in your life, [Snell] does a great job of helping you realize the confidence in yourself,” said Tilden, the founder of AdventurUs Women. “So much of it is just in your words and your body language and your awareness and your intuition.”
The Covid-19 pandemic and the associated shift to virtual learning has helped empowerment self defense become more accessible and popular, Hollander says. Tilden and Snell’s first collaboration was a Zoom workshop, before moving to in-person for the class in Georgia. Participants expressed interest in continuing self defense classes going forward.
Snell emphasizes that her classes can’t eliminate every potential threat, and that helping the outdoors become a safer place will take a lot of work in a lot of areas.
“It’s gonna take a shift in our culture and how we look at women, and the power structures and racial inequalities, the list goes on and on,” said Snell. “What I teach is not the only solution, but it is one of the solutions.”
In the meantime, Koekemoer feels ready to take on new adventures and challenges, empowered with skills to help her through difficult situations.
“I have some tools to take with me. And the great thing about it is it wasn’t this list of 10 things you need to do: It was so intuitive,” Koekemoer said. “I will definitely be more comfortable going out alone.”
For hikers looking to adventure solo more often, here are some expert tips to help you feel safe:
Trust your intuition.
If a situation feels uncomfortable or something feels off, it’s OK to turn around and head back to safety—a trailhead, parking lot, or populated area. The trail will always be there tomorrow.
Use clear, confident communication.
If someone is following you, acting aggressively towards you, or doing anything that you’re not comfortable with, be proactive with your verbal communication: “Are you following me?” “I don’t want to talk to you.” “Please leave me alone.”
Get into “Ready Stance”
Legs shoulder-width apart, hands in front of your chest, palms facing away from you. The stance isn’t overly aggressive, but helps create a physical boundary.