Originally published October 19, 2009
BUFFY: What did your instincts tell you to do just then?
RONA: Block his attack, keep him off balance, gain the advantage…?
BUFFY: No, they didn’t.
RONA: They told me to run.
VI: They told me to run. They’re still sort of telling me to run.
BUFFY: Don’t fight on his terms. Your gut’s telling you to run, run. OK?
— Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Potential”
We all have instincts. Have you ever found yourself in a conversation with someone you don’t know, and started to feel like backing away? Something was telling you — signs the stranger is putting off, something he/she said, something you’ve noticed but haven’t consciously considered yet — that this person wasn’t trustworthy, or the situation wasn’t safe.
When discussing hiking solo as a woman — or traveling solo as a woman — there are a lot of “do’s and don’ts” to consider. While some of these rules are phrased as absolutes, all of them can be broken if the situation warrants. When to break the rules — or how to make decisions about something that isn’t covered by the rules — is something that you can only do by considering your situation and balancing the risks and the benefits of each choice.
Here’s one example: I have read solo female travel guides that advise women to never reveal that they are traveling solo, to always have some excuse, like they’re catching up to your group, or waiting for a husband/boyfriend. This isn’t a bad idea, at least as a fallback. The trouble is, it’s difficult to maintain (what if you’re at a restaurant, eating alone, or you’re walking behind a group on a trail, by yourself, etc.). Also, it will deprive you of one of the great joys of traveling alone: meeting people. That’s why it’s not a rule on my list. However, it falls under the umbrella of Rule Number Three:
For God’s Sake, Use Your Head: Instincts Are Your Best Tool
Like with anything else, there is a balance here. As a default, not revealing you’re solo status is wise, at least up front. But sometimes it can’t be helped, and really, all you need to do is pay attention and trust your gut. Don’t trust everyone blindly, but there’s nothing wrong with making friends while you travel, as long as you’re using your head and taking other precautions.
Here’s an example from my own experience: One day, I drove to Moab, Utah, with the intention of pitching my tent and spending the next day at Arches National Park. When I arrived, however, I found that the park’s campgrounds were closed for renovation. The private campgrounds on the side of the main highway made me uncomfortable. They were exposed (as it was, after all, the desert), and there weren’t any tent-campers, only RVs. It took me about thirty seconds to decide I didn’t want to risk being the only tent on the side of a major road, and I pulled into the Comfort Inn (or it might have been a Motel 6, I don’t remember).
Would anything have happened? Probably not. But there was something about the situation that said “don’t do it.” And so I didn’t.
Several nights later, I had no trouble having a couple of beers with an older couple from California while watching football at a local bar (Pats v. Colts, season opener) and sharing with them that I was on my own. I was camping that night, and I was just careful not to say out loud where I was staying — or even that I was camping that night — and since I was staying at a quite crowded campground, I was very comfortable. My caution was less about the couple I was hanging out with (they were really nice people), but more that I didn’t want someone else to overhear. In that situation my instincts were giving me the go ahead, with caution, and so I did.
Sharing your solo status, and meeting people, is only one example that falls under this rule. Some solo female travelers don’t touch a drop of alcohol while traveling alone, afraid it will impair their judgment. That’s a personal choice you have to make, but I wouldn’t advocate willingly impairing your judgment while traveling even if you were with a group. Or in your home city, for that matter. You may be in a more comfortable place, but there are still risks. It all comes down to using your head — don’t do anything willfully stupid, and trust your gut.
The bottom line is that you have a head. Use it. You have instincts. Listen to them.
Or, as Buffy says:
Your gut’s telling you to run, run. OK?