Travel writer and hiker Kathi Kamleitner outside her tent on the Hebridean Way in Scotland.

The power of hiking alone as a woman

After hiking 155 miles on the Hebridean Way and spending three days on my own on West Island Way on the Isle of Bute in 2018, I fell in love with solo hiking, camping and trekking long distances. There is something about being out there by myself, that gives me confidence and makes me feel in touch with myself. But adventuring and hiking alone as a woman is still a touchy subject for many…

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I have been solo hiking for years and have hiked mountains in the Austrian Alps, the Canadian Rockies, the lonely hills of Iceland and the Scottish Highlands. The landscapes may have changed and I have certainly developed many skills along the trails, but the questions I get asked, have always remained the same:

Is it safe? What do your parents think about your travelling/hiking alone? Why does your boyfriend let you go out on your own? Aren’t you scared?

The truth is, I feel stronger when I’m hiking by myself than at any other point in my life. Hiking alone as a woman is a powerful experience and I hope that more and more women will go hiking by themselves or travel solo around the world in the future. But as much as I blow the whistle for solo hiking, there will always be voices spreading doubt among women. The media is full of tragic stories of women who were harmed on the road; commenters asking what a woman was wearing and whether she was drunk; why she was travelling on her own in the first place; what she thought was going to happen to her. It’s quite frankly disgusting, that some people blame the women who were attacked on their travels, instead of the (usually) men who attacked them.

My friend and fellow travel blogger, Vicky wrote an amazing blog post on the subject, following the death of Grace Millane in New Zealand. For her, solo travel is a feminist issue and the fact that nothing ever happened to her (or me on my travels) is the result of the pure chance that we never bumped into a psychopath who wanted to harm us. Nothing we as women do on the road or on the trails, can protect us from someone who has horrible intentions – so can we please stop blaming women who travel or hike solo for the things that might happen to them?

To me, solo hiking is also a feminist issue. From fighting against stereotypes to overcoming fears and worries to the pure feeling of empowerment – hiking alone as a woman to me is a feminist act. The outdoors is such a male-dominated space. Do an image search for the words hiker, adventurer or explorer, and you’ll get a sense of just how men dominate these activities. Take a look at famous adventure novels or films – most of them are written by men and about men – they go out and have these amazing adventures, meet different people and see the world, but the women are left behind. Of course, there are exceptions and in recent years this image has been shifting. There are more and more books and films about women in the outdoors, podcasts, blogs and articles about women who hike, communities for active women and so on. But when it comes to solo outdoor adventures, women and non-binary people still face many more challenges than men.

In this post, I’m trying to capture some of my feelings towards solo hiking and hope to inspire many future solo adventures in the mountains!

Carrying my big backpack through the mountains of Harris along the Hebridean Way.

DOUBT

Before my first solo long-distance trek, I had a lot of doubts. Some of them were external – the typical questions about safety, my boyfriend’s opinion and what I would do for two weeks by myself (hike without dying, duh…). But some others were internal doubts – and those I took more seriously. Was I packing too many things I didn’t need or forgot something essential? Were my navigation and map-reading skills sufficient? Did I pack enough food and would the shops on the way have the right vegan things to restock my supplies? Would I physically be able to walk 155 miles in twelve days? Would my feet last?

As you can see – I had a lot of doubts, mostly to do with packing and my physical abilities. However, I did not let the doubts kill the joy of prepping for my trip. Instead, I did what I always do – I prepped even more. I made meticulous spreadsheets, listing all potential shopping options in the Hebrides. I planned my day-to-day route and a few alternatives, should I take longer. I followed the advice I picked up in ‘Wild’ and sent myself a parcel of extra supplies to my half-way point.

I fought doubt with knowledge and preparation and overcame it all in the end.

 

The view from my tent at Glencallum Bay on the Isle of Bute.

FEAR

I am the first to admit, that hiking alone as a woman has its scary bits. I was afraid a few times on the trail, but I would not let that fear hold me back. When I camping on my own for the first time on the Isle of Bute, I woke up in the middle of the night – scared to death. I had pitched my tent near the water in a lonely bay in the south of Bute. I was the only one there and the next village was a 45-minute walk away. I had dinner at sunset and crawled into my sleeping bag with a hot water bottle to keep me warm. But now, at 3 am in the morning, there was something wrong. The ocean sounded so close, the waves crashing into the sand-bank with a thunder – again and again. Had I pitched too close to the beach? Was high tide going to reach my tent? Would I get soaked, or worse – swept away into the cold Atlantic ocean? I was petrified with fear and could not get myself to get up and check. Eventually, I gathered up enough bravery and sat up. I leant forward, unzipped my tent and – saw the ocean.

Not at my tent though, but still metres away down the beach. I had camped on the grass above the sandy beach – I knew high tide would not reach this far, otherwise, there would be no grass. I was perfectly fine. That night I learnt to trust my instincts as well as my judgement, and that sometimes double-checking is the best way to put your mind at ease. Female solo hiking for the win!

Sitting by the ferry port in Rhubodach on the Isle of Bute.

PANIC

I was at the highest point of the Hebridean Way. It was day one on the trail, and I was crossing the mountains on the Isle of Barra – or maybe ‘hills’ is the better word to describe it. The mountainous heart of Barra is not high, but the ascent from sea level was steep and strenuous nevertheless – not at last because I was carrying a heavy backpack on my back.  It was also raining heavily and the clouds hung low. There was not really a trail, but it was easy enough to follow the waymarkers across the boggy slopes of the hill. The further I walked up though, the harder it became to see the posts. At times I had to squeeze my eyes real hard or walk a few steps until I could see the next. Luckily, the disks which were attached on the sides of the 4×4 posts indicated which way I had to look for the next one. It was fine.

Then, nothing. I was surrounded by a white cloud – it looked almost like the famous white-out photos from the Antarctic. OK, maybe not that extreme, but it certainly felt like that to me. I was wet from head to toe (rain from outside and sweat underneath my Fjallraven rain jacket and waterproof trousers). I was hungry and my shoulders hurt. Since it was raining, I had not bothered to stop for a lunch break since I had left Vatersay beach several hours ago. And I could not see the next waymarker post. I panicked.

Close to tears, I thought, that was it. Day one on the Hebridean Way and I would have to call it off. But then I remembered – I got this. I simply take a few steps forward, squeeze my eyes and maybe I will find another post. I wouldn’t walk too far to leave the one I was standing at right now out of sight. I could always find my way back. No problem. My breath got easier, the tears disappeared and my heartbeat calmed down. I turned around, squeezed my eyes and there it was, the next waymarker. I was fine. I could hike by myself.

 

The view from the top of Ruaval on Benbecula.

Strength

As a vegan, I feared I might not be able to sort out easy-to-cook dinners in the local shops, so I carried a lot of food. I brought dinners for a week and sent the second week of dinners to my halfway point. I also carried snacks and lunch supplies for 2 days and refilled my water daily. On the day before my first wild camping night on the trail, I walked a detour to a nearby village for a supermarket. I still had a few supplies, but I had 2-3 nights of wild camping ahead of me and no shops in sight, so I wanted to stock up. After I packed away my food and filled up my water bottle as well as the 3L bag I tried to lift my backpack. It wouldn’t move. I tried again, harder this time, and just about managed to lift it off the ground. This was not going to work. I dragged my backpack over to a small wall, managed to lift it up and weaved my arms through the straps. I channelled everything I had learnt from ‘Wild’ again, engaged my thighs and stood up. My backpack and I were back on the road. I will never forget the look on the two cyclists’ faces who stood next to me throughout this whole ordeal. But guess, what I made it!

Admittedly, I did my best not to pack my backpack this full on the trail ever again, but it was great to see what my body is capable of. It carried me and a heavy backpack for 155 miles across the Outer Hebrides. I set out to test my body and brought it to its limits. Hiking along as a woman has taught me to look beyond the flaws I used to struggle with – whether they would be fairly easy to train away, or just parts of the way I look. I found them hard to accept, hiking alone as a woman I learnt to accept them – my body is strong, no matter what it might look like.

 

Solo hiking in Scotland.

Confidence

From strength comes confidence. I usually prepare for hiking routes by going online and finding information on blogs and hiking websites. However, I also use Facebook groups and other forums to ask questions about personal route experiences, current climate situations and tops tips. I lost count how many useless or outright condescending responses I received, and I tie most of them to the fact that a young woman was asking the question. As if for some reason my questions don’t deserve to be taken seriously and no serious answers.

I see it happening every day in different groups – people comment on posts before they even read half the question; or they comment with outdated or wrong information; or they insult the person who asked for even asking. I have not crunched the numbers, but the vast majority of times I see this happening to (young) women, and the commenters are most likely (older) men. Personally, I felt like people want to make me feel stupid for asking a legit question about a specific hike. I knew my question was legit and I got a few useful responses from other women, but still, it ruined my confidence.

Going out anyways, hiking alone on the Hebridean Way and many other trails since has given me back that confidence. Not only did I learnt that my body was strong, but I also learnt to trust my instincts. I got proof that the questions I asked in advance were legit because I found the answers on the trail. I learnt to gauge situations and make my own decisions in difficult outdoor situations. I knew I could trust my body – it would carry me. I knew I could trust my mind – it wouldn’t panic. Now, I feel like I can take on any solo hike I want – and I know I can make it alone as a woman.

 

Travel writer Kathi Kamleitner at the end of the Hebridean Way walking route in Stornoway.

Empowerment

Going through all these stages – from doubt, fear and panic to strength and confidence – hiking alone as a woman became a feminist issue for me. I would like to live in a world where female solo hikers face the same challenges as their male counterparts, but at the moment that is simply not the case. Hiking alone as a woman comes with its own gendered issues: fears and doubts only women can feel; winnings and benefits only women can gain.

For me being outside and hiking by myself is a feminist act. I take up space that society tells me to hand over to men – because it’s unsafe for me; because I’m not strong enough; because I can’t have the appropriate skills. But taking up space is so important in our efforts for equality. Until it’s as “normal” that a woman or non-binary person goes out hiking by themselves, as it is for cis-men, I think it is important that we highlight the gender of an adventurer. It calls out the under-representation of non-male people in the outdoors and draws attention towards the challenges and barriers that exist. Only then can we dismantle them.

Documenting and sharing my hikes on this very blog is a way for me to take up even more space in the outdoors. I’m not only walking the trails. I’m also writing about them and share my personal experience and growing expertise with others. I hope that my hiking stories will inspire many other women to hit the trails by themselves.

What do you think about this issue? Do you go hiking a lot by yourself and do you consider this activity part of your own personal feminism? I’d love to hear your opinions!

My friend Freja Gyldendal Amby asked me some amazing questions about the connection between my love for hiking and my feminism and put together a video of my answers – take a look:

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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner.

8 comments on “The power of hiking alone as a woman

  1. That video is SO good. And congrats on doing the PHD that’s amazing. This article totally speaks to me, I love hiking but just don’t do it enough. I feel like I’m too often glued to my computer. I really should do it more and would love to have an epic adventure by myself. I’m going hiking in Nepal in a few weeks so I hope that will give me the kickstart I need to have the confidence to go out there.

    Thanks for including me in your post too.

    • Hey Vicky, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment! I loved your post – I wanted to write about my experience of solo hiking ever since I returned from a big hike in July, and your post and the questions I got asked for the video really inspired me to finally put my thoughts together! If you every find yourself up in Scotland again, it would be a pleasure to take you hiking! 🙂

  2. Pamela Ledgerwood

    Hi Kathi, Most impressed by your eagerness & enthusiasm to be & travel in Scotland.
    If you have a chance, go to the Findhorn Community in Forres, Scotland. I lived there
    for 6 months in 1981 & fell in love with the community. The book that is the amazing story
    of how the Findhorn Community became what it is, is called The Findhorn Garden.
    Its a must read!!! I wish I could live there, but after researching all the requirements
    that have to be met, I couldn’t do it.
    Alas, my heart will always be in Findhorn, but I live in the Bay Area of California. Fortunately, I was lucky enough when I was younger to be able to travel a great deal(3 times) in Western
    Europe. Good luck to you in your exciting adventures in dear Scotland.

    • Hi Pamela, thanks for your comment! I’ve never been to Findhorn, but I love that part of Scotland! When I go there, I’ll try to send you a photo 🙂 Have you ever been back for a holiday?

  3. I love this post and had so many thoughts as I was reading it. I’ve travelled and hiked alone for over 30 years. I know exactly what I’m doing and I’m completely comfortable doing it, yet so often I get told I’m brave. That’s the comment that drives me most crazy. The sad part is that it’s usually other women who say it. The feelings behind the comments change subtly as you get older, but the basic sentiment of ‘you’re a woman, you shouldn’t being doing this’ stay the same. The changes I’ve noticed are that as a young woman it’s more about staying safe from male predators. They’re only worried because if you’re a young female on her own you’re much more likely to be raped/sexually attacked because of course rape is all about sexually attraction and not male power/control/dominance over women and only women under 35 are sexually attractive. I really don’t know how people can still hold these attitudes and ideas. Following on from this it’s ‘How can your parents or boyfriend/husband ‘let’ you do this alone?’ Why aren’t they asking why the family/partner/friends of the psycho male attacker ‘let’ them out on their own?? Arrghh.

    As you get older its not so much about safety from male predators (coz who would want to attack a middle aged or even older woman?), but more about the appropriateness. As a woman in her 50s I’m expected to be at home cooking my husband’s tea and looking after my children or grandchildren. The only reason I’m on my own must be because there’s something wrong. Am I running away from a bad relationship? Am I having a mental breakdown? Again – Arrghh. I’m even madder about this than usual at the moment because a few months ago someone called the police because I was on my own. In Orkney. Possibly the safest place on the planet and a place where you get lots of solo travellers. I’m still struggling to get my head round it. (I wrote about it on my blog – shameless plug).

    Changing topic, another thing I picked up in your post was the feeling of slight panic when you found yourself in a whiteout in Barra. One thing I’ve learnt about multi-day hikes is that the advantage they have over day hikes is that you have everything you need on your back. If the weather gets too bad or the fog too dense I know I can just throw my tent up, make myself a brew, read my book, cook dinner, have a nap, whatever, and just wait it out. It’s a bit harder to do that on a day hike so if you’re worried about weather, etc then a long distance hike is a much better option than a one day hike! Maybe all new hikers should start out with a long distance hike of at least a week and save the short day walks for when they’re more experienced!

    I started by saying I love this post. Actually I don’t. I hate it. This sort of post should not need to exist in the 21st century. I should only be reading things like this in history books from over a hundred years ago. It’s sad that women are still having to write from this perspective and that’s what I hate (not your writing, I still love that).

    I’ll stop here or I’ll just rant for ages. Great video as well btw.

    • Hi Anne, many thanks for sharing your stories and insight, I really appreciate hearing from you! It’s a shame that people still have to say these things and an even bigger shame that some people still don’t get it – calling the police because of a solo hiker??? I mean, come on… It’s so true what you say about ageism and that it of course absolutely misses the point of gendered violence – it’s never about attraction, always about power!

      You’re so right about the benefits of trekking – you always have everything you need on your back and can get through a storm more easily than a day hiker! It’s just the carrying that scares many people off – I didn’t think I could do it myself at first either!

      Thanks again for sharing and your beautiful words about my writing! I hope that one day we don’t have to have this conversation anymore!! All the best!

  4. Dear Kathi,

    I’m Claudia from Germany and I have been following your blog for quite some months now. I love your work and I am so grateful for the information you’re sharing with us. Thank you so much. You can’t imagine what this means to me. You gave me the courage and the motivation to really think and plan and train for this long cherished dream of doing a solo hike in Scotland!

    I always thought that I wouldn’t be able to do it since I am a young and rather small woman, that it would be too dangerous, that I should take a man with me, that I might be too scared, however reading about your experiences convinced me that I am able to go on journey like this and that I will be stronger in the end, stronger than ever before. It’s not only about being on my own, enjoying nature and leaving my comfort zone or pushing myself to my limits and beyond…when reading your article I noticed that I definitely consider it as my own personal feminism because if I was a man I think I wouldn’t have been in doubt for a single second. I don’t want to live limited freedom, although I have to admit that I wouldn’t do a solo hike in any country. I love Scotland and feel quite safe there, so it’s perfect for a start into a new stage of empowerment.

    Have a great 2019!!♡

    Love,
    Claudia

    • Hi Claudia, your comment made my day 🙂 I’m so glad my experience resonates with you and that you find it inspiring! It was my dream when I was 17 to go hiking by myself in Scotland after high school, but my parents didn’t agree – now, I’m finally here and doing it! I hope you will find Scotland as charming and beautiful as me – it’s a great place to solo travel and hike!! Have a great new year and many adventures in 2019!!

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