9 Sure Ways to Conquer Your Hiking Anxiety
The Big Bad Wolf of Outdoor Adventure
A lot of women who would like to go hiking, don’t do it because of fears. Sometimes it’s even hard to identify what exactly it is that scares them off - it’s just the generalized fear of Nature, hiking or camping solo or the unknown.
There is this anecdote asking how can a person lift a huge rock? The answer is: by breaking it into much smaller pieces and lifting each one separately, step by step. Same is with fear: when it’s unidentified, generalized fear of an idea, it’s hard to do anything about it, it’s paralyzing. But when you are able to name the particular source of anxiety, there is a chance we can work around it or with it.
Now, just to be clear, most of the tips here are useful for both male and female hikers. There are some that are more of a consideration for women, though. I want to make sure that you know I write this article as a response to realistic need – not necessary an ideal situation.
As much as I know women are not at fault when they become victims of accidents or assaults, the reality is, the fear is stronger on the side of women than men. We, women, are brought up to constantly be on the look out for danger and told it’s our fault when we go some places or do non-typical things, like hike solo.
We have the right to be in the outdoors – be it solo or with friends. We should feel aware of real dangers and risks and be empowered with knowledge and skills to deal with them. Many of us see ourselves as incompetent and not good enough - and give up trying all together. Which is a terrible thing, because no matter who we are, what we can or cannot do, we are enough. Just the way we are. There is a trail for you out there - be sure of it.
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I realize that for many women the one thing that keeps them away from enjoying Nature is anxiety and fear of what’s out there. It’s crucial to be aware of it - and learn to distinguish between what is a real danger and what might be a culturally imposed on us fear of being a woman in the Outdoors.
It happens pretty often to me that when someone listens to my excited report of recently completed hike or plans for a solo camp in the future, they comment on how “brave” I am. And I never get it. Am I not scared? Yes, of people. That’s why I fear walking down a city street when it’s dark and deserted. I fear drunk young men in groups. But Nature? No. I have a huge respect for Nature and I know of risks, I know how to prepare and know when to get out of there.
I love hiking and camping – and I do it almost only by myself. I want all women to be able to access the fantastic opportunities of being in Nature - alone or with friends. I hope this little article helps tame your fears and prepare for real challenges of the Outdoor adventure.
Tame Your Fear Tip #1: Prepare Well
Mountains are not for spontaneous adventures. They require preparation and thoughtfulness. This is especially important if you plan on doing it alone. There is no fun in getting injured because you hadn’t prepared for the trail’s challenges and there is definitely no fame in forcing mountain rescue to get you because you just didn’t think of sudden changes in weather and are freezing your butt off somewhere up high. It’s stupid and shameful, and can endanger other people (like the rescue team).
So, what should I do before the hike?
Research, research, research! Read about the trails you want to take, check trail reports from other hikers and see what you need to complete the hike safely. Google till your fingers go numb! Do you need a tent? Does the trail cover a big range in heights? Is there scrambling involved? What about stream crossings? Can there be snow up there? What were the things other hikers complained about?
Plan your hike and choose your trail carefully. Be realistic about your own skills and fitness level. If it’s your first hike (or one after a longer break) and you have no idea how long you can walk in a mountainous terrain, always go for easier than suspected. If you complete it with no bigger effort - great! Now you know that the next time you can choose a bit longer or steeper one.
Never go out without checking the weather forecast and preparing for worse than expected.
When you know a lot about the trail, you know more about possible scenarios and what could possibly go wrong. And then you can prepare appropriately. If the trail is known to be wet, windy and cold – grab the right clothes. If it’s muddy and slippery – take water-proof boots, gaiters, and trekking poles.
Whatever gear you have to take - you must know how to use it. If you just bought or borrowed a new piece of gear, try it out - at home or in the local park.
Check some good packing lists to see if you have all you need. I can offer two useful resources: what you need for a one day hike in the mountains and a complete packing list for women for multi-day hikes.
Once you have the plan and you know what trails you want to take and what campsites are on your way - leave that info with a trusted person (or a few). Someone should know where you are, what time you should be back, etc. If you change your plans - let them know. Every now and then, let them know where you are at that moment. One way to do it is to put that info on Facebook in a small circle of close friends and family. Update that group whenever you get signal. Just make sure you don’t post it for everyone to see!
Tame Your Fear Tip #2: Recognize Real Dangers
I wrote “tame your fears”, not “destroy”, as I think a healthy dose of dangerous situation awareness is crucial for survival and common sense. It’s more of reverence and respect for Nature, than fear, though.
Anxiety arises from irrational fears and seeing real problems in distorted way. It takes a bit of mental work to learn to see what’s real and what’s not.
What are the real dangers?
Generally there is a number of real risks that we have to consider and prepare for. It’s not the right way to deal with overblown fear and panic by completely dismissing any risks. Think of it as statistical probability of occurrence. Theoretically, you could be a victim of asteroid hitting your campsite but what is the probability of it?
I think these are the legitimate dangers that need to be analyzed and prepared for:
Animals & wildlife
Loneliness or other mental discomforts
Personal shortcomings, lack of skills, etc.
These are possible sources of real danger. But they should not keep you away from going outdoors. Let’s break them down and see how we can minimize the dangers they could cause.
Tame Your Fear Tip #3: Dealing with Animals and Wildlife
Here the research is crucial. You must know what kind of animals you could theoretically encounter in the area. Are there bears, cougars or wolves? Or maybe venomous snakes or spiders?
I don’t have much experience in hiking in areas with such dangerous creatures so if hiked where they lived, I would read all I could on bear canisters, protecting food, bear sprays, etc.
The closest place I hiked with some bear activity was in Quebec but everywhere I checked (including the Park’s rangers) the risk of actually seeing any was very low. Still, when I was alone at a campsite, I sung to myself on the way to the loo… I’m not sure if I am brave enough to hike where there is a strong presence of grizzly bears or cougars.
There are plenty of destinations without them, so why risking it? That’s my way of dealing with bear anxiety ;-). You have to identify your comfort level of fear - it’s OK to push it a bit, to get out of your comfort zone with one toe but there is no sense to jumping right away into the worst nest of anxiety inducing triggers, right?
I think if I wanted to go and hike in a bear country, I would choose to hike with someone. I would feel more comfortable and safe in a group of experienced local hikers. My bear fear would totally win with my social anxiety ;-)
The areas where I generally hike (in Europe) have small wildlife presence that could be dangerous to me. Actually, the most dangerous creature out there is the tiny tick and I prepare accordingly as I really don’t want to get the lime disease. This is a real risk - not inflated or made up by my anxious mind. The scientists see a staggering growth in lime-infected ticks, so it’s important not to ignore it.
There are also some wild boars here and there… other animals keep away, I know there live there (some deer, moose or wolves) but they run away when they see (or hear) humans.
The bigger animal that sometimes scares the bejeezus out of me are stray or loose dogs. They are everywhere in Spain or on Crete and when the trail gets through a village I’m always on a look out for them. Most are chained (a really sad issue but at least safe for us) but sometimes locals let them wander and they can be very protective of their area.
I was lightly bit (without breaking the skin) when I was hiking in Catalonia and it was probably the scariest animals-involving episode in my hiking adventures. And maybe when boars walked by my tent …
But back to the dogs - the trekking poles can be of help if it gets to that point. I try not to wave them when there are dogs but hold them in front of me and if a dog wanted to bit me, I would be ready to protect myself.
There are also whistles against dogs or pepper sprays. I haven’t used them but considered buying one or another before I went to Crete. I’ve heard mixed reports on the efficiency of the whistles or electric buzzers (that only dogs can hear). If you ever used them - let me know what you think!
The moment you learn there is a particular animal to be aware of – learn all you can to protect yourself and the animal. Don’t handle any (even small), learn to identify the ones to be careful about (like snake patterns) and what to do if you get bit.
Never get close even if the animal seem asleep or bored/tame. These are wild animals and can cause you injury if threatened. You don’t need that close-up photo or a selfie with an alpha-male deer. Really, you don’t.
Anyway, it’s not only about our safety - it’s their safety, too. And their right to be left alone.
Tame Your Fear Tip #4: Dealing with Humans
I think humans are the most serious source of danger. I’m not scared much of the Nature – I respect it and know how to behave. But humans? Unpredictable. I’m a bit of a special case as I suffer from social anxiety. That’s one reason why I choose to hike alone. I’ve been hiking for quite a while and encountered other hikers on my trails. The only time I felt uncomfortable was close to towns where there are “Sunday tourists”, going for short walks in the mountains. The deeper into the Wild I go, the less I’m anxious about meeting people there – even lone men. I mean, logically, where would a rapist go looking for a victim? In deserted mountains or busy city club?
Statistically, there are far fewer crimes committed in the Outdoors (Parks, etc.) than any town. There are movies or tv-shows (I’m looking at you, Criminal Minds) that bring some scary images of serial killers attacking hikers but the reality is, we are more in danger when we go shopping to our local store.
People who go long-distance hiking are just unique. Does that mean there can’t be any weirdos or opportunist criminals out there? Of course there is a chance. Rape culture is pervasive and there is the risk of bumping into a privileged prick who feels entitled to your time and attention (and, possibly, your body). But again, it’s a much lower risk than in any town or a city.
Still, what can you do to ensure your safety? Here are a few tips:
- Avoid places which are known for hunters’ destinations.
- Don’t wild camp close to parking lots, roads, trail heads or drivers’ resting spots.
- You may choose trails where you have the option to stay at established campsites or hostels
- Don’t listen to music/books on your earphones. You should be able to hear what is going on around you, be it approaching humans or other risks.
- Don’t go alone in the beginning if you are not sure about what kind of people populate a particular destination. Go with two or three friends to feel better.
- You have no obligation to talk to or entertain anyone. If you don’t feel like talking with someone – just move on or make an excuse to cut your break short.
- If during a break someone joins you and you don’t feel comfortable about the questions (where you plan to camp or so) he asks – again, you have no obligation to answer. If you feel strange to just not answer, lie and then move on. You can casually drop in a conversation that you need to go to catch up with your friends/dad/girlfriend/family, etc. Trust your gut – if something feels dodgy – find an excuse to leave that situation.
- If you don’t feel comfortable about someone – see if you can join someone else or a group of hikers and go with them for a while.
- If it makes you feel better – you may carry a pepper spray but make sure you know how to use it.
- Now escape routes off the trail. If you feel there is a creep following you on the same trail and you dread looking for a wild campsite – know if there are routes that could cut the hike short and take you back to civilization. There is no shame in it – no matter the reason. If you don’t enjoy the hike anymore, cut it short and get out.
- Always carry an emergency whistle and if a situation is scary – call for help. The accepted signal is 3 times blasts. Whistles are much better than your voice. Attach the whistle to your backpack’s strap to have it always close.
- Make sure your phone is always charged. Take a power bank with you to ensure you don’t run out of juice. Even if the reception is weak, the emergency number (112) works. If you go into a bit more remote areas, you might want to invest in a personal locator beacons or satellite messenger to calm your (or your family’s) nerves.
Tame Your Fear Tip #5: Avoiding Getting Lost and Finding Your Way (When You Did)
And we are back to the most important thing: research. Never go on a trail you know nothing about hoping the marking is clear and that would be enough. Have a paper map and an app on your phone for GPS location (there is a number of good apps, I like ViewRanger). Have a compass with you and learn how to use it.
Avoid situations that could risk you getting lost:
- Absent-minded style of walking, not paying attention to your surroundings.
- Going off the trail. It’s natural that you have to go off the trail when you want to use the bathroom but pay extra attention where you go and how you can get back. Never make shortcuts unless you see the endpoint very well and the path between you and the place.
- Whenever you pass by an off shoot path – check if there is no trail marker on it. Just because you walk on a wider track does not mean that’s where the trail goes all the time.
- Pay extra attention when you walk on terrain that does not show paths easily – like rocks.
What if I got lost?
Retrace your steps back to the last trail marker. Check your phone’s GPS app and map. Never just keep on going in hopes of finding the trail somewhere there.
If you have a hard time localizing yourself on the map because of thick fog and low visibility, don’t just trudge on – stop in that place. Sometimes the app can help significantly but if it’s not clear what’s the trail direction – don’t risk it by just going somewhere. Stay and wait. That’s why you have to have an extra gear or food with you.
A few things that help me stay safer and warmer when hiking:
Can’t see anything? Try refreshing the page.
If the situation gets dangerous (the temperatures drop below freezing, you have no shelter, etc.) - call for help. Again - always have your phone with you with a power bank as a back up. Navigating apps, searching for signal in a bad reception area, and your phone’s camera use up a lot of power, so the phone can die much faster than during a regular usage. Since last year, when my 5000 mAh power bank proved to be basically a heavy toy, I started to hike with a much more powerful storage - 20k. It might seem a bit excessive but at least I don’t have to worry my phone (or my camera!) dying on me.
Always take a source of light - headlamp is the best option, as it leaves your hands free. This is especially important during fall, winter and spring, when the days can be surprisingly short.
Tame Your Fear Tip #6: Avoiding, and Dealing with, Injuries
The most important thing is to avoid injuries. If you are careful and know what you are doing, it’s quite possible to - I’ve been hiking solo for years in variety of conditions and terrain and only had minor scratches, cuts or blisters, plus one recent twisted ankle, which I think is a pretty good result. You can read this article on preventing most common injuries to help you.
One piece of gear that helped me tremendously during hiking are trekking poles. I don’t even know how many times they saved me from slipping or falling and helped to cross through a stream or on a difficult terrain. They also help your knees and can serve as a probe to check how deep a mud puddle is or to let the wildlife know you are coming.
Always check the forecast and see if you can find one for the mountain area you want to hike in. Forecast for a town can be quite different to the weather conditions you encounter just 15 km away but 700 m higher. You must be prepared for the worst possible weather – make sure your footwear is up to the task! If you are not ready to walk on ice, don’t go onto trails that keep snow patches all year round. Common sense, right?
Hypothermia is one of the most serious risks. Be prepared with appropriate clothes and gear. Always have a set of dry and warm clothes in your backpack and source of fire. When you stop for a break - put a puffy on right away. Hypothermia can occur even when the temperatures seem mild, not only below freezing.
Be prepared for the most common injuries. Always carry a first-aid kit with you and know what to do with it. If you have special medical needs, make sure you addressed those when you packed for the hike.
Assess the injury. Can you still walk? Is there serious bleeding? Can you stop it? Are you close to a village or town? Should you call mountain rescue?
Here again it’s worth knowing the “escape routes” for cutting one’s hike short. Always take care for your phone to be charged and carry a power bank on you. Nowadays there is really no excuse for phone dying on you. It can save your life! If the weather is cold, carry it close to you to warm it up. Cold battery dies fast.
Tame Your Fear Tip #7: Weather and Elements Risks
The previous two tips (getting lost and injured) often connect with weather conditions and the general elements. It’s pretty obvious that it’s much easier to get lost when there is a thick fog or snow blizzard and more likely to slip and twist an ankle on wet, muddy trail.
What is crucial is to be aware of rainfall - and not just in the exact area you head to. It can rain miles away but your trail might be on the flash flood’s route. If heavy rains are in the forecast, don’t go hiking in long narrow gorges and canyons. You might want to cancel a trip where there are stream crossings, which might become impassable in spate.
Be aware that when you are tired you feel colder than normal. If you go camping, bring a sleeping bag with comfort temperature much below what is expected. That’s also the case when it’s wet - we just feel cold.
If your trail takes you on a narrow edge over a cliff be aware of the winds as stronger gusts could push you off over the edge. It might be necessary to cut the hike short and go back if the winds get really strong there is an exposed, narrow path above a fall.
One the scariest (to me) weather forecast/occurrence are thunderstorms. If there is one in your forecast, think about possible shelters. Thunderstorms are often in the afternoons and evenings, so it’s good to hike early on and then find a shelter. When you are surprised by one - avoid high exposed places, tall single trees, metal poles. Try to make yourself small by squatting and if you can - insulate yourself from the ground. You can sit on your backpack (if it has no metal elements) or a sleeping pad. Don’t lie down on the ground, you contact with it should be as small as possible.
Being aware of the conditions on trail and preparing do not mean canceling your hike right away just because it can rain. It’s all about assessing the risks and adjusting clothing and gear (or changing the destination or date). Hiking and camping in the rain can be fun and safe, as long as - you guessed it! - you prepare.
Tame Your Fear Tip #8: Dealing with Loneliness and other Mental Discomforts
Well, this one is very subjective. I don’t think I ever get lonely but I know many people do. Even extroverts need some time alone to clear their heads.
But what if you do get lonely? Have a book with you, go for a walk around your camp to take photos, call friends (if you have signal). If you hike in a good reception area, there is nothing wrong with getting on Facebook and sharing you experience with friends.
If you feel going solo for the whole time is just too much, you may opt for staying at established campsites or hostels where there is always someone to chat with or simply be around other people.
Another issue can be the opposite - what if you go with your friend or partner and the close proximity and constant contact drives you mad? It’s worth stating that you need some time by yourself, going for a short walk around the camp, hiking separately with some distance between you or going to sit alone for a while and reading a book. Another good idea is to grab two shelters - tents are often really small and what the producers call “ two person tent” is really one person + gear.
There are other issues as well - there might be sudden pangs of anxiety or depression if you struggle with them. Remember to always take your medicine with you if you need any and never treat a hike as a medical treatment instead of prescribed medicine. Being in nature is absolutely amazing and has tremendous benefits for our physical and mental health but should not be treated as anxiety or depression treatment. If the trip could have potential triggers - talk with your health care professional about the options and possible coping mechanisms. It might be better to also go with someone who knows you well for the first time.
Remember - if you don’t feel comfortable, you don’t have to suffer through it. See what are the ways to leave the situation - can you cut the hike short? Can you catch a bus or ride with a ranger? Can you go to an established campsite instead of wild camping? Don’t stay in a miserable situation just because you told everyone you were going solo camping. Whatever you do - it’s OK. There is no need to prove anything to anyone. Your first responsibility is your own safety - physical and mental. If to fulfill it you need to cancel your hike or change your plans in any way - you succeeded in being your own best friend. Congratulations!
Tame Your Fear Tip #9: Know Your Limits (the real ones)
I found that quite often we simply don’t trust ourselves, don’t feel confident about our skills or physical capability. The thing is, we might be right. So what can we do about it? We need to assess our skills, strengths and weaknesses objectively and realistically. When I recently posted a question about our fears on my Facebook, one person wrote: Chronic fatigue (worrying about exhaustion), another, What to do in an emergency, is my biggest fear, and yet another, Getting lost with no phone reception. I can’t read maps and can get lost in my own backyard.
Are those fears irrational? Not at all! It’s better to fear those than ignore any and walk right into a dangerous situation. But I do want you to go hiking, right?
The real risk is not your physical shortcomings or lack of skills. It’s the ignorance about them or arrogant attitude while in Nature. That’s what gets people into dangerous situations - going carelessly unprepared up into the mountains, in just gym clothes, with no maps, warm clothing or appropriate footwear, thinking all gonna be fine. Mountain rescue is often called to such cases: hikers didn’t know how to get down from a tough spot, were cold and surprised the weather up there was different than in their town, or lost when their phones died.
Assess your limits in a safe environment
I believe there is a trail for everyone out there, even those who think of themselves as too old, too fat, too weak, too slow, too … you get the point. There is a trail that you absolutely can’t do, too. The trick is to recognize the difference and choose wisely.
Be realistic about what you can do. How long can you walk on a flat surface? Go to a local park or walk the streets. How many floors can you walk without respiratory issues or knees dying under you? Can you carry a heavier backpack? Can you go up the stairs taking two steps at a time? While carrying a backpack with 10 - 15 kg in it?
Find a trail that fits what you assessed as doable. If you could walk in a city for 2 h without issues, you can do the same in Nature. If you feel that’s the maximum you could do - find a trail that is a nice loop of about the same distance as you did. If you think you could do more - pick one that has a bit more of a challenge - like added vertical dimension.
Do you have a serious medical concerns? If you have any medical issues, always ask your health provider for an advice. I’m sure they will support you in your quest of getting out there! Walking is considered one of the best physical activities. If there is a need to be always able to call help, go hiking in local parks or areas with good reception, close to towns or bigger villages. Use personal location beacons or satellite messengers to be in touch or send pre-written call for help (or calming text to your worried family).
If you notice you can walk for a long time but have big issues with doing steps, find a trail in a flat area - there are plenty of beautiful walks around lakes or rivers that can take your breath away!
Do you tire easily? Give yourself plenty of time to rest whenever you need. Have a foam seat or even a camping chair in your pack to provide a comfortable resting spot, no matter the surface. Go alone or with people who know you and understand your needs, so you don’t feel the pressure to keep going to keep up with them. If it would make you feel better, use photography as an excuse (even though you shouldn’t need one) to stop and take a breather.
Do you feel your body does not belong among the young and fit? This one is really hard. There is a serious cultural pressure that pushes non-conforming bodies out of the Outdoors. We have the right to be there - no matter our age, size or physical ability. The trails should see more women, non-white folks, queer hikers, fat campers or disabled persons. Even when the outdoor industry might be telling you don’t belong by not making outdoor clothing in your size - you do belong. Claim your place on the trail!
Are you scared of emergencies? Do you worry you won’t be able to react properly to an emergency situation, like an injury? To ease the worry you might learn more about first-aid or even undergo a professional course on first response at a local mountain rescue or mountaineering club. Know how to assess injuries and how to act in the most common accidents. Make sure you have an insurance that covers mountain rescue and you have a way to call for help (phone with good batteries, whistle, sharp-colored jacket or backpack cover, a flare or other ways to signal your position).
In the beginning, it’s worth picking trails where there is some hiker traffic, so you know that in case of an accident someone would find you within hours at maximum. Always have a first-aid kit with you, plenty of water, extra food and clothes.
Do you have bad map-reading skills? Some people are good at it, some worse - even after taking courses in map-reading and orienteering. I know how to read a map (I can “see” the terrain) but my compass skills are rusty. I know I am bad at directions and I can never remember the path I took when I am in a new town or such. I know it’s my weakness - so I choose my trail accordingly. When I was in Scotland, I really wanted to do part of the Cape Wrath Trail, but when I’d read it requires good orienteering skills as there was no trail markers, I decided the sensible thing was to choose another trail. I think it was a good decision.
I research my options and go for destinations with established trails, I read other hikers’ reports and look for information on how easy it was to find the way. I got lost a few times but always went back to the last spot with trail marker, checked my phone and the map, to figure out my way. Sometimes I had to try to walk a bit one way or another to look for a marker. All in a calm way, knowing I could retrace my steps to the last seen marker.
Some trails are so well marked that getting lost would be an achievement. I love those! They are made for hikers like me :)