Before I learned the sting of breaking in new hiking boots or the aching cold that is a tented night in Northern California, I learned that backpacking—especially as a woman—is dangerous.
Everyone said it: Aren’t you afraid of being a woman alone in the wilderness?
The wilderness is an unforgiving place. One sloppy mistake can cost you your life or, at the very least, a warm night and a hot meal. My backpacking trips are carefully calculated. I pack enough food, and a Snickers bar to boot. I map my water sources and fill up often. I’m alert, taking a mental inventory of every snapping branch. I note fresh prints and piles of scat. And because I grew up in Ohio, a state with very few wild predators, even the sound of a scrambling chipmunk can heat my blood. Fortunately, I’ve always arrived at the trail’s end, tired, breathless and hungry for a hot meal.
My off-trail life is different, though. Beyond the pines, I don’t have to cock an ear to hear a predator. The shrill catcalls are audible. So are the shuffles of too-close footsteps. I can feel the grabs, the tickle of a brushing hand, and the heat that boils near my hairline when a man’s gaze lingers. These off-trail predators aren’t hidden by trees. They’re visible, often aggressive, and always unprovoked. It’s my off-trail life, though, that is more dangerous.
I was 23 when I caught the attention of a man I’ll call Josh. I was young, petite, brunette—just his type, police would later tell me.
I don’t know when or why Josh first took interest in me. What I do know is that, for at least two months in 2014, he watched me through the windows of my one-bedroom apartment. He called just to hear my voice when I answered the phone. He knew where I worked and which library I frequented. One night, he removed clothes from my car’s trunk and draped them across its hood, taking care to hang a white, lace bra from the side mirror. It was retribution, I suspected, for calling the police a day earlier.
During the time Josh stalked me, I called the police, daily, in sobs. Dialing 911 became a familiar routine—a race to get authorities on the line before Josh interrupted with a call. But the police did nothing to soothe my fears. They often didn’t respond to my pleas to check my complex for Josh. And the few times they did show up, they offered little solace. You can try to press charges, one male officer told me, with the caveat that a restraining order was unlikely. The thought of seeing Josh in court made my stomach churn. The thought of not being granted a restraining order, of him thinking his behavior was acceptable, made my skin hot.
As the weeks progressed, Josh’s calls became more frequent. He rarely spoke on them, but when he did, he would ask about my underwear. Was I wearing any? What color was it? One night, after a particularly startling phone call, I asked two officers to come to my apartment to check for him. The moment they showed up at my door, I burst into tears. One of them cracked a smile. He leaned in and propped an arm against my door frame. Gently, he told me that Josh hadn’t done anything wrong. Nothing, at least, that I could take to court. Josh didn’t know better, he said softly. He had an unusually low IQ. And, anyway, he was probably harmless. Just in case, the officer suggested I remove my professional headshot—a smiling version of myself in hiking clothes—from my personal website. You’re enticing him, he told me. I choked back a sob. Or maybe it was a scream.
One night, I sat alone in my apartment, huddled on the floor. My blinds were drawn and my door locked. I hadn’t slept in what felt like weeks. Tonight was no different. I watched my phone light up on the floor. It was Josh. A tear rolled down my cheek. My hands trembled. My gaze shifted from the door to my windows to the cheap kitchen knife in my lap. I grasped its plastic handle with a sweaty palm. A smaller knife lay beneath my pillow, just in case. But everything from the locks on my door to the flimsy knives seemed to offer only superficial protection.
In that moment, my mind shifted to Heather Anderson, who, after setting a speed record in 2011 for hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, told a reporter that the wilderness is the safest place for a woman to be alone.
At the time, I had only recently begun hiking. I didn’t own a tent or a camp stove. I had two packs, but neither of them were very large. I’d never used a compass, and I’d never spent a night in the wilderness—much less a night alone in the wilderness. Still, I considered it. The idea of putting hundreds of miles between myself and Josh was tempting. I created a mental checklist of the things I’d need to survive a night or two alone in the backcountry. Water. Food. Tent. Lantern. A large pack to carry it all. I had none of these things. I knew that I was unprepared. But the idea of camping alone, somewhere far from Josh, still felt safer than my apartment.
I imagined hopping in my car and driving north for hours, taking winding turns and little-known backroads. I would park at a trailhead beneath the cover of a pine, I thought. Then I would hike for miles in the safety of solitude. No police. No cell service. No Josh. Just me. Like Anderson, I thought I’d be safer outside.
Four years later, I still think that. I’ve made countless campgrounds my home since my first backcountry trip in late 2014. But even out there I get angry. I shouldn’t feel safer summiting an icy peak than I do in my own home. I shouldn’t feel safer walking among 400-pound grizzlies than I do walking among my male co-workers. I shouldn’t feel safer walking alone on a trail, miles removed from civilization, than I do walking through the grocery store.
Backpacking, for me, is an escape from many things—emails, co-workers, relationships, routine. I feel at peace beneath the weight of a pack. My thoughts quiet during uphill ascents. The knots in my stomach unwind. I stop overthinking, a rarity for me. Hiking is medicine for my anxious mind.
After two months, Josh’s calls stopped. Police finally paid him multiple visits, and he got the point. Or at least it seemed. But I still had a nagging feeling he was watching me. I worried that if I was no longer the target, someone else was.
I still see versions of Josh everywhere—on the train, in the gym, at holiday parties, in my neighborhood. But I don’t let those encounters define my days. I don’t give him power over me.
Instead, I envision a world where I can walk alone at night, anxiety free. A world where I can wear what I want without someone telling me I’m “asking for it.” Where I can take public transportation without the lingering stares, catcalls and crotch rubs. A world where people like Josh are prosecuted immediately.
But until that world exists, you know where to find me.