Trail Safe

Karen's Take on Trail Safe

I got a wake-up call this week. A young female travel writer disappeared in Jamaica. And then Michael Bane's Trail Safe: Averting Threatening Human Behavior in the Outdoors, landed on my desk.

The incident in Jamaica stirred a lot of conversation among my outdoor and travel writer pals, some of which, inevitably, took the form of why something like that would never happen to one us.

Trail Safe discusses ways to make sure it doesn't.

I have to say at the outset that Bane's outdoor experiences don't exactly jive with mine. Bane's outdoors are filled with suspicious-looking characters. He is almost mugged at a trailhead. His hackles go up when a group of cyclists whizzes by. Three friendly young men sharing a bottle of something alcoholic say hello and his warning bells start ringing.

In contrast, I can only think of a few instances of truly "threatening human behavior" during my 15,000 or so miles on trails around the world. Sure, I've seen my share of camouflage-clad soldier-of-fortune types, a few creeps, and a couple of people who were certifiably insane. But for the most part, the strangers I've met while hiking have been full of stories, advice, and experience—not trouble.

Bane says that as more people take to the backcountry, crime inevitably follows. But the only hard statistic he offers is that 9 murders have been committed on the Appalachian Trail in the last 22 years. In the same amount of time, 39 people were killed, mostly by falls, hypothermia, or avalanches (and none of them by other people), in the Presidential Range of New Hampshire. Obviously, preparing to deal with backcountry crime is just one small part of wilderness safety, which encompasses a much broader spectrum of more common—and equally lethal—issues.

Bane may overstate the issue of wilderness crime, but if you do encounter one of his "human predators" in the middle of nowhere (or, as is more likely, near a trailhead or a road), his advice makes good sense. His three-pronged self-defense mechanism, which uses different levels of intuition, awareness, and fear, rings true, as does his advice on how to assess risks, de-escalate conflict, and prepare a self-defense strategy. His discussion about firearms is bound to raise debate.

Reading Bane's description of how he deals with real or imagined threats on the trail—by speeding up, looking for escape routes, tagging behind someone else—reminded me of the time when I lived in a rough Chicago neighborhood and used to walk home alone from the "el" in the middle of the night. Then, I was in a constant state of heightened awareness, watching everyone I passed, evaluating each loiterer and drunk as a possible attacker.

I've never felt that way in the woods—and hope I never have to.

But if I do run into trouble, Bane's advice may help me live to tell the story.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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