The risks and rewards of hiking solo as a woman

Ever since I started solo hiking in college, my family and friends have expressed their worries that something terrible will befall me while out in the woods. I’ve been asked about the danger of wild animals and the risk of breaking a leg, but the most common cause for concern is the possibility that I might come across a dangerous person while on the trail, someone who might do me harm.

Those worries are valid, but they aren’t going to stop me from hiking alone.

In fact, on Wednesday, March 28, I’ll be joining a panel of women in Greenville to talk about this very topic: adventuring alone in the wilderness. The free event, hosted by Moosehead Trails, is called “Going Solo: Women in the Woods” and is scheduled from 6 to 7:30 p.m. in the Community Room of the Greenville Town Office at 7 Minden Street.

Fall foliage on Pleasant Pond Mountain, A hike I did solo.

The other two panelists will be Alexandra Conover Bennett, a Maine guide with more than 30 years of experience leading professional canoe and snowshoeing trips in Maine and Canada, and Jen Dumont, a teacher and Appalachian Trail thru-hiker. Each of us will give a short talk (about 15 or 20 minutes), then we’ll all participate in a Q&A.

In preparation of the event, I have to sit down and think about why it is I value solo hiking so much, as well as the measures I take to protect myself.

To the first question, “Why do I solo hike?” the answer is simple. I enjoy it. I’m the type of person who likes being alone sometimes. Doing something alone gives me a unique sense of freedom and independence. And when it comes to hiking, it means I can hike at my own pace, change my course, rest when I wish and take 10 extra minutes to photograph a woodpecker if I want to, without consulting someone else or worrying that I’m being tiresome. That being said, I also enjoy hiking with a companion and with groups for the social joy of it, the sharing of experiences and beautiful scenery. It just depends on what I’m in the mood for, solo or group hiking.

Another reason I enjoy solo hiking is because it gives me an opportunity to feel closer to nature. In fact, because I usually make much less noise while solo hiking (seeing how I don’t talk to myself too often), I tend to see more wildlife when I hike solo than when I hike with groups. And then there’s just something about being in nature alone that makes you feel more connected to it, when your only companions are the ferns brushing against your legs, the red squirrel scolding you from a nearby branch and brook trickling across the trail.

BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki
A red squirrel follows me while I walk around the Nature Center on March 10 at the Fields Pond Audubon Center in Holden.

The follow-up question to that — how do I protect myself? — is more difficult to answer. In my opinion, the woods of Maine are a pretty safe place, but I do take some measures to avoid certain dangers.

First of all, I pack survival gear, even if I’m just going out for a day hike. This includes a first aid kit, emergency blanket, navigational tools and plenty of food and water. And I dress appropriately, which in Maine — the land of the ever-changing forecast — is quite important.

But more importantly, I file a hiking plan with someone who cares about me and will notice if I don’t return. This plan includes where I plan to hike and when I expect to be back. That way, if I do break a leg, someone will notice fairly quickly and they’ll be able to come rescue me. And meanwhile, I had the proper emergency gear in my backpack to get through a night or two waiting in the woods.

Also, in terms of rescue scenarios, carrying a satellite tracking device is also a good idea. I have a SPOT, which is a satellite tracker that allows you to send SOS messages and also tracks your movements on a password protected website. I’ve also heard that the Delorme inReach is a great tool for this and in fact has more features. These pieces of technology are a bit expensive, but for any person who hikes solo in remote places, they’re worth the peace of mind.

Aislinn Sarnacki in Baxter State Park, all packed up for a day hike.

But then, after all that, you get to the controversial topic of carrying some sort of weapon while out in the wilderness. I’ve had a number of people tell me I should carry a handgun when I hike alone. Others have suggested pepper spray. And another option presented to me was a shootable taser gun. In my opinion, the suggestion to carry some sort of weapon while solo hiking isn’t a bad one, but it’s something to be taken very seriously. I also believe that it’s very personal, and that each individual may have reason for carrying or not carrying a weapon, as well as what kind.

And let me make this clear: In the Maine wilderness, carrying a weapon while hiking is just as much a defense against malicious people as it is against an animal attack, both of which are rare. In Maine, the most dangerous animal would be any animal with rabies (we often hear of raccoons) or a mother bear protecting her young, and incidents of people falling victim to these creatures are few and far between. The same goes for dangerous people. In general, dangerous people don’t go backpacking in the woods of Maine. But there have been a few incidents — including murders on the Appalachian Trail — that I think should teach us something. And I will admit, as a woman, statistically, I am more at risk of falling victim to a malicious person than a man.

So there’s a lot to talk about in this upcoming “Going Solo: Women in the Woods” panel. I won’t get into all of it now, but I think other aspects of this topic include practicing how to navigate with map and compass, not relying on technology, taking courses on wilderness first aid, learning about survival tactics and the safety in hiking with a dog. (My dog Oreo is an exceptional protector.) But I will wrap up this blog post with a little extra food for thought…

Like many things in life, deciding when and where to adventure solo is all about weighing risks and rewards. For me, hiking solo is usually worth it because I know how to minimize risks and I get a lot of joy out of it. However, for someone else (perhaps someone who is a bit more social), solo hiking may not be worth it because he or she doesn’t find it very enjoyable. Or maybe that person doesn’t have the gear and knowledge to minimize the risks. In both cases, the rewards don’t outweigh the risks. And if that’s the case, why hike solo? Hiking with companions is almost always safer. So find a hiking buddy and plan your outings together. Hiking alone isn’t for everyone.

Please feel free to post your own opinions about solo hiking and adventuring in the comment section below. I’d love to hear from you.

Me and my frequent hiking companion and husband, Derek. 😀

Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at