When a womxn says she’s going to do some monumental task, or when she completes one, she gets asked different questions than a man does. People asked me a lot of questions about my preparation for the trail and my experience on it, and I think men don’t get asked most of those questions. Still, I think some of them are important to consider a stance on. What follows are a handful of questions I was frequently asked, and my answers to them. I want to be clear that I’m only speaking for myself and not for all woman, but I also speak from observing others.
First of all, I don’t think I looked very traditionally feminine on the trail, at least not at first glance. With my short, unruly hair, flattening sports bra, and lack of make-up or jewelry, there were times when people didn’t, or at least almost didn’t, stop for me when I was hitching into town because they thought I looked like a man (ah, reverse sexism? Tricky).
So, only with that mental image of me available for the readers do I continue to write about what it was like for me to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail as a woman.
“As a female, do you feel you should have a male with you for protection?”
In short, no. I hiked alone for around 700 miles of the trail. Plus, even when I did have hiking buddies, more often than not we were a mile or two apart from each other until the end of the day. I’m very grateful for all of my male hiking buddies along the way, but I never felt like I needed them for protection – certainly not just because they were male. I needed humans in general to protect me from isolation (sometimes), but not men specifically. People at home are much more likely to ask their female thru-hiking friends about safety on the trail. The truth of the matter is, I feel safer on the trail than I do in any town or city. While there is occasional crime on the trail, rates are extremely low compared to what occurs in urban areas. After all, how many people are really going to hike miles and miles into the woods just to steal from someone or hurt somebody. Not very many, it seems.
“Did you carry any protection with you? A gun? Bear spray? Knife?”
Nope, nope, nope. Guns have only recently been allowed on the trail, but only with the proper permits for each park. Plus, they are heavy, I’m not trained on how to use them, and even after hiking the whole trail, I can’t imagine an instance when I would ever need a gun on the trail. Bear spray is also unnecessary on the east coast, where the only bears around are black bears, which are easy to run into but hard to agitate as long as you know some basic, intuitive bear etiquette. The other thing about bear spray is that bears are actually attracted to the scent, so even if you do use it properly it can be counterproductive. Finally, knives. These are multipurpose and can actually come in handy, but not so much for protection. Unless you’re planning on doing a bunch of hunting along the way, maybe skinning fish or something, the most you’ll need is a tiny single blade pocket knife. Personally, I felt that a mini pair of scissors was more useful (even more multi-use, since you can trim nails with them). I did start with an off-brand swiss army knife, but a) it was too heavy, b) the blade kept getting stuck and most importantly c) I really didn’t need it.
“You must be so brave. Weren’t you ever scared?”
Of course I was scared sometimes, but really just a few times when I was stealth camping alone, especially if I was close to a road. I got a little scared for a few minutes when I was climbing through Mahoosuc Notch – I had climbed down into where I thought the trail went, but then I couldn’t find where it continued and couldn’t figure out a way back up over the rocks, and it started raining. Rain would make the rocks slippery and almost double the difficulty of what is already considered by many to be the hardest mile of the whole trail. Fortunately, the sprinkling stopped very quickly, and I found the way through (I had to go under the rocks). There were only a handful of other times I was truly scared. Honestly, though, I always felt safer on the trail than I do in towns or cities. There is such a strong sense of community on the trail, and hikers are always looking out for each other. Whenever there is a sketchier character on the trail who posed any potential threat, every hiker and hostel owner knows about it.
“Wait, what did you do for periods on trail?”
Turns out pads will cause rashes when you’re walking through rain for days on end. As such, I definitely recommend using tampons or a menstrual cup. Note: if you use pads or tampons, please practice Leave No Trace. All you have to do is bring a zip lock baggie or something similar to pack out your trash. In theory, menstrual cups sound mostly great for hiking, but be warned that they take some adjustment time (try using for a few cycles beforehand), and then you’ll also have to sterilize them. Not a huge deal, but something to be aware of.
“Did you feel like you could keep up?”
Ha. Yes. It’s well established now that women have greater endurance than men. So, while men will look haggard and skinny and wild at the end of their hike, women will look fierce and strong. Some people certainly outhiked me in the day to day, and some people took less time in towns and therefore passed me in the long run, but overall I’d say women can be super strong and steady on the trail and from what I observed, have no trouble keeping up!
I hope these answers give womxn more confidence to pursue their backpacking goals. When in doubt, remember this: when record-breaking Jennifer Pharr Davis was asked about pursuing the speed record on the trail as a woman, she responded, “…The fact that women give birth and live longer than guys makes me think that we might even have an evolutionary edge.”*
*Brew Davis’ 2011 book, 46 Days: Keeping up with Jennifer Pharr Davis on the Appalachian Trail.