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We all remember the first time we felt truly free outdoors.

For self-defense expert Nicole Snell, it was dusty walking among the creosote brushes near her childhood home in the California desert, watching the mountains change color as the sun sets. For South African hiker Christine Koekemoer, it was about hiking the seemingly endless trails around her childhood home, dreaming of hiking all over the country. For outdoor educator Saveria Tilden, it was about hiking, scrambling and snowshoeing in the mountains around Los Angeles on a wilderness travel course, learning life-changing skills. along the way.

This sense of escape, of independence, of unlimited potential is what pushes us out. On a trail, we can discover our limits and go beyond them. But what happens when someone else limits us? For many hikers, especially BIPOC, disabled hikers and women, bullying of other trail users is common.

In a 2004 study in South Mountain, Arizona, 40% of women surveyed said they had experienced harassing behaviors during outdoor recreation, which made them feel “much less in control, comfortable and sheltered from others when they play alone”.

“I find myself extremely cautious if I see people, either I can smell someone behind me or someone is ahead of me and they look suspicious,” Los Angeles-based hiker Patrice Richardson said. .

While going solo is often perfectly safe, this fear can deter women and people of color from exploring the outdoors and leads to outdoor spaces that aren’t as diverse as the communities around them.

“People, mainly women, tend to have this fear: what if a man attacks me, what if I’m alone? Snell said.

Whether or not those fears are based in reality, Snell hopes to help women understand ways to diffuse conflict and protect themselves, leading to more comfortable outdoor experiences. She taught one such workshop last September as part of a women’s getaway to Georgia organized by AdventureWe Women. In the workshop entitled “Yes, I’m on a Solo Hike: Self-Defense for the Outdoors”, participants learned to be aware of their surroundings and, if an encounter felt uncomfortable, adopt a “power stance” and use simple, clear communication: “No, back off, I don’t want any trouble.”

“Part of it was a matter of mental attitude and just being aware of your surroundings,” said Richardson, who attended the course. “She really taught us to walk with purpose when we exercise outside. Walk with your shoulders back and your head up.

(Photo: Cavan Images/Cavan via Getty Images)

The women in the class had a variety of motivations, ranging from worries about dangerous strangers to a desire to grow from traumatic past experiences.

“People just want to feel safe,” Snell said. “They want to feel able to defend themselves. I’m a survivor, and there are a lot of survivors who take my course because they want to have confidence in their ability to protect themselves if they need it in the future.

Snell teaches self defense empowerment— which emphasizes non-physical deterrent methods, including boundary setting, verbal resistance, and body language — in addition to more traditional physical defense techniques. To practice shouting “No!” to expressing a limit by placing your hands in front of you, these strategies are accessible to people of all levels of physical ability, giving them a concrete set of steps they can take to find safety within themselves.

“There’s no need to go from ‘Oh, something’s uncomfortable’ to fighting someone right away,” said Koekemoer, another class participant. “You have a range of tools that you can use before you even get to that.”

Many of the methods learned by participants go against the social rules that women often learn growing up, including avoiding confrontation and risk.

“Women learn to be accommodating all the time,” Koekemoer said. “That can sometimes lead to problems. So if someone tries to hire you, you have the right to say, “Please leave me alone, I don’t want to talk to you.”

Jocelyn Hollander, a sociologist at the University of Oregon, has been an empowerment self-defense instructor for 30 years, and her research over the past two decades has demonstrated the approach’s clear benefits. What differentiates empowerment self-defense from other forms is its emphasis on verbal communication and boundary setting.

“When you set a clear boundary, it’s much easier to notice when someone is trying to push that boundary or cross it, and then you can react much sooner,” Hollander said. “You really have to focus on prevention, rather than just reacting when you’re in the middle of something.”

Hollander’s research has shown that the benefits of self-defense go beyond simply reducing aggression in a way that makes it particularly applicable to outdoor recreation.

“People feel more empowered, they feel more confident, not just in their abilities to defend themselves, but in areas of their lives that are really removed from any form of threat,” Hollander said. “People say they now feel more confident doing things alone, hiking alone, or being outdoors alone. They are no longer afraid of the outside as before.

For Richardson, it’s like sleeping in a tent in the desert for the first time. For Christine Koekemoer, that means planning a solo backpacking trip near her home in Southern California. Regardless of each participant’s personal limitations, taking a confidence-building course does just that.

“It doesn’t matter if you’ve been on a track in your life, [Snell] does a great job of helping you build confidence,” said Tilden, founder of AdventurUs Women. “There’s so much in your words, your body language, your awareness and your intuition.”

The Covid-19 pandemic and associated shift to virtual learning has helped self-defense become more accessible and popular, Hollander says. Tilden and Snell’s first collaboration was a Zoom workshop, before dropping by in person for class in Georgia. Participants expressed interest in continuing the self-defense courses in the future.

Snell points out that his classes cannot eliminate all potential threats and that helping the outdoors become a safer place will take hard work in many areas.

“It’s going to take changing our culture and our view of women, power structures and racial inequalities, the list goes on and on,” Snell said. “What I teach is not the only solution, but it is one of the solutions.”

In the meantime, Koekemoer feels ready for new adventures and new challenges, equipped with skills to help her through difficult situations.

“I have a few tools to take with me. And what’s great is that it wasn’t this list of 10 things you must do: it was so intuitive,” Koekemoer said. “I will definitely be more comfortable going out alone.”

For hikers who want to go on solo adventures more often, here are some expert tips to help you feel safe:

Trust your intuition.

If a situation seems uncomfortable or something is wrong, you can turn around and return to a safe place, at a trailhead, in a parking lot or in a populated area. The trail will still be there tomorrow.

Use clear and confident communication.

If someone is following you, acting aggressively towards you, or doing something you’re not comfortable with, be proactive in your verbal communication: “Are you following me? ” “I do not want to talk to you.” “Please leave me alone.”

Get into a “ready position”

Legs shoulder-width apart, hands in front of chest, palms facing you. The position is not too aggressive, but helps create a physical boundary.