It pained me to see a news item come in this morning regards a young woman that was murdered on a “hiking trail” in Winter Haven. The trail in question, the Chain of Lakes Trail, is a paved rail-trail connecting Winter Haven and Lake Alfred, and by the comments on the TrailLink website, passes through a area where trail users don’t feel safe.
Having just spent this Sunday exploring a portion of the Cross Seminole Trail that I’d never seen before – the Florida Trail follows it for nearly 30 miles through suburbs north of Orlando – it’s a reminder that heading out there alone, especially in an urban area, is a much bigger risk than hiking with a friend.
How, as a solo hiker, can you soften that risk? Having hiked alone for many years, here are some of the methods I’ve personally used.
Know where you’re going.
Research the destination. Is the trail in an urban area? If so, what surrounds it? Is it in a very remote area? If you don’t feel comfortable as you’re driving to the trailhead, follow your instincts and move on. If you’re on a linear trail and you don’t like where it’s headed, turn back.
Let someone know where you are and when you’ll be back.
I’d call or text a friend before and after taking solo hikes, just as a safety precaution. And I’d do so before I ended up somewhere with no cell phone service, just in case.
Don’t step into a situation in progress.
If you arrive at a trailhead and don’t like what you see, leave and call 911 or the local sheriff. I’ve done that more than once, alerting the authorities for reasons ranging from illicit dumping to indecent exposure, prostitution, and cruising, mostly in urban parks.
Be aware of your surroundings.
Be as alert on the trail as when you’re walking down city streets. I still can’t understand folks I see hiking alone with earbuds and an iPod. They won’t hear the rattlesnake, but I will.
Have a plan of action.
What would you do if someone tried to do you harm? Or if you saw an alligator on the trail? Or a pygmy rattler? Or if a branch fell and hit and injured you? Think through scenarios and plan what your response should be. By doing so, you may change some of your own behaviors in response. I kept my cell phone handy when out on my own, whereas I’d bury it, shut off, in my pack when hiking with friends. I also carry a walking stick when I hike alone, and have used it more than one to scare off an alligator or snake from the trail.
Don’t let “what could happen” mess with your head and spoil your enjoyment of the outdoors, but be aware – especially when spending time on trails and parks in urban areas – that it’s your job to watch after your own safety when you’re taking a walk in the woods.