vickery creek

Personal Safety on the Trail

So friends… let’s keep it real. You know that’s how I roll here.

There are countless dangers in life. There’s no escaping the hazards of existing in this world. The risks of outdoor adventure may seem dramatic but climbing into your car to go to work everyday is far more dangerous. But just like putting on your seatbelt, there are certain precautions and measures we can take to shift the odds in our favor and still freely live our lives.

Bee in your bonnet, Val?

What has spurred on my mini-rant are news reports of recent attacks on local trails here in Atlanta.

hiking
Hiking with friends is fabulous… but that can’t always be arranged.

I believe in the power words and how situations are framed with them. I will say that most news outlets are simply urging awareness and caution but I take great umbrage at the ones talking about “inviting trouble” and “making a target of yourself” if you “insist on being out alone.” Just wow… and some other words that aren’t exactly blog-friendly.

This victim-blaming attitude is unconscionable. Even the brother-in-law of the woman severely beaten on the Silver Comet Trail said “Please don’t be scared to go down there. Be smart, but please don’t be scared.”

Yes, real dangers exist and we are responsible for doing everything we reasonably can to protect ourselves but to think we can never leave the house without an entourage is absurd. A buddy system is great. I love heading to the trails with my friends but isn’t always a viable option. So I head out alone rather than sitting at home, my life held hostage by a few unsavory individuals. If I succumb to their actions, I become a prisoner. We all do.

No. Just NO.

Trail tactics…

So having said that, there are obviously measures we can take to protect ourselves from hazards on the trail, human or otherwise. I am no expert on the matter but here are some of the things I find helpful:

spot locator
Trekking poles and a SPOT locator device are part of my trail safety strategy.

  • Know your course: I do some research in advance. Knowing the lay of the land is one of the best things tactics. Not only does it help prevent me from becoming lost, I have an idea of my options should I need to change course unexpectedly.
  • Buddy system: Sure… when I can, I go with friends. But I also like to go alone. As a homeschooling mom, that’s sometimes the only solitude I get.
  • Situational awareness: Regardless of whether I’m with others or alone, I pay attention to what is happening around me. This goes for any time and place: the trail, a parking lot, walking down the street, etc. I also make eye contact and smile at passing hikers… not only does just being friendly help elevate your trail experience, it helps me keep in mind how many other folks are in my proximity, and helps them notice me as well.
  • Listen: I do have headphones on when I’m on the trails for daily local outings but I keep the volume to background level, not shutting-out-the-world level. At the very least, it allows me to be courteous and aware of other trail users who may need to pass me. And in a worse-case scenario, having my ears tuned into potential hazards of any kind, human or wild critter, is clearly beneficial.
  • Trekking/Hiking Poles: I reluctantly started using trekking poles as my knees decided to rebel against the demands of hiking. It took some time to get used to not having my hands free but now I’m a true believer in carrying them for their many uses, one of which is having something to distance yourself from threats. And I have accidentally poked myself with the pointy of mine. Trust me, it hurts. That can be used to your advantage.
  • Whistle: Most packs these days have whistles built in to the chest strap buckle but a couple of mine don’t so I’ve just attached those inexpensive little REI whistles. I think whistles are far more effective than screaming in attracting attention to yourself when you need it. Their pitch carries well and isn’t as likely to be disregarded as someone just being boisterous.

In addition to these measures, I also use a couple of apps as a broader safety net.

Spot…

I’m a recent convert to the SPOT Connect. I resisted for a long time because of poor reviews of the customer service as well as some complaints about the reliability of the GPS. I was wary of diving into the cost of the unit (about $125) plus the significant annual service fee (currently $150) under those circumstances.

SPOT locator
One of the in-phone app screens for SPOT.

I’ve kept an eye on it over the last several years though. It seems they’ve improved and with the endorsement of some friends, I finally took the plunge knowing how much I would be out of cell-signal range on the Pacific Northwest Tour. So far I’ve found it very easy to use and the customer service to be just fine.

There are few varieties of SPOT devices but I use the Connect that pairs with my cell phone to send texts even without a signal. It allows me to customize multiple contact groups and messages from my phone so I can tailor messages to the situation. I have a handful set up that run the gamut from letting my contacts know I’ve arrived ok to specifying a medical or mechanical emergency. The SPOT web interface also allows you to share your map with others so they can track your path if you like.

I mainly got the SPOT Connect to help with out-of-signal travels but having it on the trails at home is a little piece of mind. Even with a strong cell signal here, it’s still useful to have pre-made messages and contact lists ready to go instead of having to put it together on the fly in an emergency. And in a hard-core emergency, the device itself is equipped with an SOS button that alerts rescue agencies of your location with one touch and no need to fumble with your phone.

Bugle…

Before I added SPOT to the mix, I was using an iPhone app called Bugle.

bugle app
The Bugle app gives you options for sending your itinerary as well as custom contacts lists for each activity.

It’s a check-in app that lets contacts know your plans and sends out warnings if you don’t check in as planned. Obviously this requires a cell signal so while it has that limitation, it also doesn’t require you to physically send out a distress message; it simply notifies your contacts that you didn’t check in safely. Of course, that time has to pass before the message goes out.

The app lets you reuse events so you don’t have to recreate commonly-used ones each time. It also lets you assign different contacts to those events so you can customize it based on your adventure.

Even with SPOT I still use Bugle since it’s mechanism for sending notifications is different. My contacts are duplicated on both apps so in the case of an emergency, they have both tools to get me help.

The big picture…

Having started this post with the ugly specter of a human attack, the truth is I’m more likely to face an issue with a wild critter like a snake, and it’s even likelier that a situation will arise from my own klutziness. I’m always concerned that I’ll trip over a rock or root and knock myself silly far more than any other hazard.

rei
You can find SPOT, trekking poles, and whistles at REI.

Even with all of these precautions put together, there are no guarantees against problems out there. Awareness will help minimize them, other tools help me help myself to some extent, and my electronic tools provide the prospect of getting outside help more quickly, which can obviously be crucial depending upon the situation.

Hopefully between my wits and my gadgets, I’ll continue to adventure as safely as possible while still living life to its fullest. I hope you will too.

Happy adventuring!

And now for your moment of green…

My favorite local trails need not be intimidating if I take reasonable precautions.

4 thoughts on “Personal Safety on the Trail

  1. I know it is serious and shouldn’t, but your interesting post made me remember my youth and smile a little. I began taking to our UK hills on my own as a 20 year old university student. Roundabout that time a disturbed man was occasionally going around one of our national parks and taking odd pot shots at people from a distance with a gun.

    My parents were horrified when I started to head off alone, and when I tried to reassure them that I was taking as many mountaineering safety precautions as I could, I discovered they hadn’t even any concept of those dangers, and were instead scared that I’d be shot. When I asked my Mum how walking in a group was going to help me avoid that, she replied, “They might shoot someone else instead!” Sorry, but 25 years on that still makes me smile.

    Thankfully our main risks here are still falling off something or being overcome with exhaustion. If people in the US are at risk of being beaten, would carrying pepper spray (as I think some do for bears anyway) be helpful, to back up the hiking poles?

    1. Ok, have to say I laughed. It’s one of those odd truths.

      Yes, pepper spray is another option and, like you said, some people already carry it for bears. Multipurpose! 🙂

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