Feeling Safe Again While Backpacking

The recent murder on the Appalachian Trail of Ronald Sanchez has shattered many people’s confidence in their personal safety while on the trail. Unfortunately, the problems in society sometimes violently intrude even on special places such as the AT. As stated by Suzanne Dixon, President of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, “The Appalachian Trail is a relatively safe environment, a refuge that welcomes more than three million users a year. Unfortunately, like the rest of the world, the trail is not absolutely safe.” 

Statistically speaking, the trail is still very safe. With the millions of trail users per year, there have been 12 homicides over the last 50 years. The US as a whole has a murder rate of five per 100,000 annually. Many major cities have homicide rates up to ten times that overall average. Admittedly, this is an apples/oranges comparison, but the reason the recent terrible incident received so much news coverage was precisely because it was so rare.

Regardless of how safe the trail is for hikers, it can always be safer. In the 40 years since my first solo trip, I’ve considered and practiced a number of techniques to improve my safety. In addition, I’ve recently spoke on the subject with Howard Rahtz, a retired Cincinnati Police Captain. He’s written multiple books on community policing/safety, was the head of the city’s Police Academy and served as a Defensive Tactics Instructor and SWAT Negotiator. He’s also my brother. Hopefully, our joint experience can provide some advice on staying safer on the trail which then can provide some additional peace of mind for hikers, their friends and family.

Before sharing our conversation, I need to say the following: It is not my intention to second guess the actions of those victimized during the recent attack and should not be the interpretation of this article. I was not there and in circumstances such as these, decisions have to made quickly, under extreme duress. My intention is to provide my general thoughts based upon years of backpacking, often alone, and the advice of an expert in the field of community safety.

Keep in mind that these are general recommendations and not guarantees of safety. Each situation is different and there are countless variables that have to be considered as a situation unfolds, whether on the trail or at the local mall parking lot.

Jim: The AT is safer than most American neighborhoods, but reading about this attack was unsettlingly, to say the least. Also, if you are a victim, statistics don’t matter at all. Given that these kinds of incidents are statistically unlikely, what are your thoughts on what hikers can do to reduce the odds of being attacked. And if we are attacked, are there some steps to help us not only survive but to better get through the encounter?

Howard: Criminal acts on the AT are indeed rare, and it is discouraging to even have to discuss this. There are two important factors in avoiding victimization, and they are no different on the AT than they are on the streets of Chicago.

The first is to look and act like a difficult target. Criminals are looking for easy victims. When we look as though we’d be a “handful” for any attacker, the odds of being targeted go down. We can stand tall, speak loudly and look confident. Facial expression, voice control and a calm demeanor carry more weight than physical size. Potential attackers are sizing you up. You want them to look, and decide to move on.

Second, listen to that little voice inside that tells you when things are not right. Author Gavin DeBecker refers to this as the “gift of fear,” our intuition warning us of danger. I’ve spoken to a multitude of crime victims who say, “I knew something was not right.” When the hair on our neck stands up, the hollow in our stomach opens, the beginnings of panic floods our senses — we ignore those warnings at our peril.

Jim: Absolutely, listen to that inner voice. If a situation doesn’t seem right, get yourself out of it. Make up a reason, be rude, whatever it takes to separate yourself from that person or situation.

What about weapons? I get asked all the time if I carry a gun on the trail.

Howard: While it is a personal choice, carrying a gun can be a complicated matter. The requirements for concealed carry vary widely from state to state and not all states recognize another’s permit. In addition, most of us are good people who would find it extremely difficult to shoot another human being, even if the action was necessary for our own safety.

Jim: And there’s the extra weight of the gun itself and the weight of responsibility of bringing a deadly weapon on the trail where it can’t be locked away. You’d have to keep control if it every minute on the trail, a tall order. It just never seemed like a good idea to me.

Howard: On the other hand, I think pepper spray is great tool. It works really well on almost everybody. It is easy to use, causes no permanent damage and some brands even leave an ultraviolent trail that can assist in identification of a suspect. It can be used from a distance of 10-15 feet.

The key factors are to keep the spray readily accessible. Also, practice spraying a few times to avoid dosing yourself. When you need it is not the time to be reading the instructions.

Jim: I agree with that. I’ve backpacked, often solo, for decades now and have never had a problem. I’m also 6’ 3”, weigh 180 and, to put it politely, don’t look like a victim. However, I always carry a small container of pepper spray. It weighs 2 ounces, is legal (per the Pepper Spray Store) to carry anywhere on the AT and will work on a threatening black bear, dog or human. I think of it like a seatbelt. I’ll probably never need it, but if I do, I’ll be very glad I have it.

Anything else you can suggest?

Howard: Studies show people will fight harder for family members and those they care about than they will to save their own lives. We had police officers keep pictures of family members and those they loved in their hats or attached to the dash of the patrol car. When someone tries to hurt you, they are attacking the people who love you. Those pictures are a reminder of what is at stake.

Lastly, mental rehearsal. Think of situations that may arise. Picture yourself responding forcefully and effectively. Imagine it in as much detail as possible. When a crisis situation arrives, you’ll have the benefit of mental planning to help you overcome.

Jim: There are also a number of things hikers can do on a daily basis to increase their safety. For example, keep a charge in your phone. No matter how great the episode is, don’t use the last 10% of battery power listening to Backpacker Radio. If nothing else, you might need the battery power to order a pizza.

Howard: Also with phones, don’t hike with both ear buds in. Keep one ear available to hear what’s going on around you; situational awareness. Plus, to a predator, both ear buds in signal that you can’t hear, making you look like an easier target.

Jim: Concerning electronics; I also carry a Spot Satellite Tracker when I hike alone. There’s not always a cell signal on the trail so it’s great to send messages back home for peace of mind. And, if something ever happens such as a broken leg, I can let first responders know my exact location. That way, the search part of “search and rescue” is eliminated. At 5 ounces, it seems like cheap insurance to me.

There’s also non-electronics; the shelter register. If anything strange is happening in the area, odds are good someone wrote about it in the register. It’s a good idea to look over recent entries.

Howard: Getting on and off the trail is another area where it pays to be cautious. I’m not a big fan of hitchhiking. I’d look to use shuttle services and established trail angels whenever possible.

Jim: True, but sometimes the only feasible way to resupply is to hitch. For some hikers, meeting these new people is a positive part of the thru-hike experience that they don’t want to give up. Keeping a few items in mind can make hitchhiking safer though.
• Hitch with another hiker, or as part of a group.
• If you are hiking alone, don’t share that information.
• Keep your phone out and visible while in the car.
• As mentioned before, trust your gut. If you walk up to a ride and something just doesn’t seem right, don’t get in the car. Have an excuse in mind (I forgot my food bag.) to easily decline the ride and wait for one that seems better.

As a reminder, Report any incidents by calling 911 for emergencies, as well as the National Park Service 24-hour dispatch at 1-866-677-6677

All in all, hiking the AT is a nearly always a positive experience that can change your life for the better. A little preparation and awareness of the (unlikely) problems that can occur will improve your safety, your confidence as you hike and the peace of mind of the folks back home.