**Jake Treks is proud to feature this article by Leah Lipka, scroll down for her bio.**
“Take a course of good water and air, and in the eternal youth of Nature you may renew your own. Go quietly, alone; no harm will befall you.” -John Muir
Have you heard the one about the woman who hikes alone at night and nothing bad happens? Probably not. But you have definitely heard the one where something terrible happens and no woman should go out into the woods alone ever, especially at night. It would be reckless.
Contrary to the anecdotes, solo hiking was the best experience I ever could have asked for. I grew into a whole new person out there. That feeling has stayed with me long after I physically left the mountains. A thru hike is a gift and my dream is that every solo woman on the edge gets that little push. I believe with each woman who takes to the trail, the world gains another Mountain Goddess Warrior. More women who say yes I can into the face of no you can’t. More women who dream so big it scares them and then do it anyway with shaking hands and a racing heart.
I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail without any experience because I didn’t want to miss out. I didn’t have the security of a hiking partner or friend. I just knew I didn’t want to die with a perfectly good dream inside of me. I believed I was capable of walking across the country even though the thought of it made me want to throw up. Even though I kept getting asked if I was bringing a gun. I hoped that by chasing after what I wanted no matter how wild it seemed, I could encourage others, especially young women, to do the same.
So I took off to Georgia.
It was a slow process at first but I found my footing. The very first night on trail, I waited until no one was around to cook dinner. I didn’t actually know how to use my stove and had fears of being called a fraud, or worse, burning the shelter down. Eventually, I could balance my stove on a rock and light it with one hand. I could break down and set up camp like clockwork, no matter the weather. I stayed calm(ish) in the face of a mama bear and her cubs. I recognized the scent that signaled a storm approaching and I knew what to do if lightning struck too close. I always kept my sleeping bag dry and an extra set of batteries for my headlamp and GPS. I was taking care of myself and I was fine. I was becoming the woman I dreamed of being from my couch.
By the time I got to Vermont, I’d been calling tuna with hot sauce gourmet for 1,700 miles. I was in the home stretch and if my body cooperated and my bank account held on, I was going to finish. The leaves in Vermont had a little more life in them than anywhere else on the trail. Their green is just a bit more vibrant. The crunch of dried leaves was replaced with the slosh of mud, the summer heat for cool, comfortable air. Perfect for hiking.
This day started with a tough climb, but I like to climb first thing. I put in my headphones and I hike.
I pass a South Bound Hiker (SOBO) and give him a friendly wave but I don’t really want to lose my momentum and stop. I’m cruising and about halfway up the mountain. He motions for me to take out my headphones. I oblige, sometimes there are bear sightings or news about lacking water sources.
“I don’t want to get you upset” He cautions “But I just want to warn you that the trail doesn’t get flat up North.”
“It’s going to be a lot of up and down. It’s gonna be tough.” Quick recap: he’s in his 3rd state, I’m in my 13th. I’ve been on trail for the last 5 months climbing up and down every damn day. The urgent message was that the Appalachian Trail is indeed, not flat.
Annoyed, I put my headphones back in and pressed on. This man interrupted me, slowed my momentum because he felt like he needed to help me. He stopped me to tell me what I already knew with pretentious urgency. I trudged on.
This SOBO was not an isolated incident. The advice I received on trail was frequent, often bad, and almost always unsolicited from men with less experience than me. When buying my gear the store clerk mocked me for choosing a pink water filter. I was told “be careful” while the men around me were told “have fun”. I was asked if I was okay a lot. Sure, there were times when I needed help and I was grateful when it arrived. But my experience compared to a solo 30 year old man’s was unquestionably different. It was as if all my miles, storms, tears and blisters didn’t add up to the same level of expertise as the men who where at the same mile marker as me. We hiked the exact same path.
In the beginning I clung firmly to each piece of advice. I measured up my methods against others. When I was told to do something differently, I did. As the trail moved me forward, I came to understand that I was the expert. I didn’t need the advice. I had done my research and I understood what was safe, what was right and what was best for me. Learning not to rely on the input of others was the one of the most valuable lessons I gained. I let it roll off my back when they said my pot was too big, because actually, it was just the perfect size.
As much as I tried to stay above it and focus on all the good, there were moments I couldn’t let it go. I once climbed an entire mountain fighting back tears and powered by boiling blood because a man reached out and tapped the top of my pack. He laughed as he informed me my pack was too heavy “for a girl like me.” I was frozen in the moment. I just stood there and he walked away. I spent the next 8 hours crafting the perfect response.
“I’m not a girl, I’m a 30 year old woman.”
“I’ve lived out of this pack for months and I know exactly what I’m doing.”
“Who do you think you are?”
“I didn’t ask for your advice, I don’t need it and I don’t want it.”
“You’re in jeans and cotton, bro. Have you ever even camped?”
But in the moment, nothing came out. I don’t want to fight with anyone, especially on trail. I love the trail and the magic it brings. Having recently been a novice myself, I want to welcome people into this community, not judge them. I love the unique opportunity to connect that the trail provides. I love so many of the people I met out there. But I don’t want to be belittled. I don’t want to be underestimated and I don’t want to have to explain my mere presence.
Please, don’t assume because a woman is alone she has no idea what she is doing. The truth is, the thing that makes hiking as a solo female more tedious and tiring isn’t her fragile feminine make-up, it’s the the energy she loses being mansplained to. It’s the time she loses being talked at or told she isn’t strong enough. It’s hard to convince yourself you are capable when you hear you are not. BUT YOU ARE. And you have no need for a gun.
With each woman who takes to the trail alone, it becomes less of a curiosity and more of a norm. On days I was really struggling to see the bigger picture, I reminded myself that my presence on the trail was enough to chip away at the statistics of male and female representation in the woods. I kept thinking back to the young girls I was trying to inspire, trying to spread a message of positivity and girl power. I got better at learning to walk away or saying no thank you to advice I didn’t need. Maybe if people on trail came across more solo females, I would get asked less “All by yourself?!” and hear more “Keep on trucking, Lady.”
One night I pulled up to a shelter with a small group of friends I’d been hiking with. They began to set up camp but the little voice inside me whispered to go on. Usually I am thrilled at the sight of the shelter, the idea of being in cleanish clothes and crocs and lured by the temptation of hot ramen. But this night was different. I had energy and I didn’t want to waste it. I left my friends and pressed on. I hiked 6 extra miles as the sun slipped low, as the golden hour came and went. From deep in the green tunnel, the trail veered into a field. With the sun gone, I stood in the wide space alone as it filled up with fireflies. All by myself. I hiked into the dark.
When I came to a ridge, the trees parted and the sky was bursting with stars. Far away from city lights, they were magnificent and sparkling against the inky black. Humbled by their enormity, I stood peaceful in the darkness. Knowing I was exactly where I needed to be.
I pressed North. As I walked, all I could think was that I was not scared. But everything I’d ever heard told me I would be. A woman alone at night in the woods. I was told that something bad was going to happen. I was told there was something to be afraid of and there wasn’t. I felt like I’d been lied to and I was just finding out the truth. Now that I knew it, I wanted to shout it out. There was no Bad Man hiding behind a tree miles from town about to jump out and get me. If there was nothing to be scared of here, where else could I go?
Is it 100% safe for a solo female to thru hike? Not necessarily. There are inherent risks. But there are risks for men too, which get swept aside in the name of bravery. There are also risks every time you get into a machine that speeds 60 miles per hour down a freeway. Of the nearly 180 days I spent on the Appalachian Trail I felt scared, really scared, about 5 times. Honestly, you probably won’t even be alone for very long unless you want to be. The people you do click with will become your best friends. Despite starting alone, I met wonderful people and I mixed my time between company and solitude. There are steps you can take to be responsible and lessen the dangers you may face. Do your homework, leave no trace, trust your gut. Be responsible, but for the love of the wild, go.
Clear and blinking over the forest, the stars are in the sky right now. Hike out there and see them for yourself. Let them humble you, let them change you. Let them teach you to trust yourself. Hike alone at night and realize that there isn’t and maybe there never was, anything to be afraid of.
Where to Start:
There are many amazing resources and blogs out there to help you get started with the logistics of thru hiking.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy is your first stop for all things AT planning related with excellent, up to date advice and insight.
Mountains With Megan Covers lots of topics about thru hiking as a kick ass lady
If you aren’t already watching Dixie’s Youtube channel start RIGHT NOW. From zero to Triple Crown, she is a true inspiration and breaks down all the questions you are afraid to ask.
Be careful in forums and facebook groups, advice is at worst dangerous and at best subjective. Take advice from people you know and trust and have extensive personal experience.