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Should a woman legitimately fear to be assaulted or raped on popular backpacking trails in the US when hiking by herself? How common are attacks of that nature? How does it compare to residential areas, where we don't tell women to never be out by themselves?

I would like to keep answers focused on criminal behavior by others, and not the risk of having an accident.

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Good question. It probably depends on the location. If you're two miles from the nearest road, you're probably safer than at a road crossing. I don't have the numbers to back that up, but that's what my gut tells me. –  Don Branson Sep 7 '13 at 0:28
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@DonBranson I think this would be very regionally dependent, actually. But I agree the overall, as you reduce the size of the population, the probability that an arbitrary member chosen at random poses a risk to you should decrease (to a non-zero minimum). But it doesn't account for how remoteness affects this, and what happens when you come across a problem group rather than just one individual? (E.g. are you safe enough hiking in a group of 3, if you encounter a problem group of 10?) –  Nisan.H Sep 7 '13 at 20:42
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3 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Roland Muser wrote a book, Long-Distance Hiking: Lessons from the Appalachian Trail, based on surveys of 136 long-distance hikers, each of whom spent 3-6 months on the trail. Some relevant quotes (p. 133):

Two or three hikers had run-ins with local inhabitants, and some reported uncomfortable hitch-hiking incidents. More seriously, two hikers were threatened with guns, and there was one (not officially reported) attempted rape. [...] When one considers that we are dealing with the experiences of 136 people over three to six months, the unpleasant occurrences were relatively few. [...] When asked what they considered the major hazards on the trail about which they might wish to warn new hikers, responses boiled down to three categories [...]

In these responses, 23 people reported trouble due to other people (thefts, encounters with drunks, ...), 19 cited "trail/environmental hazards," and 14 issues to animals. The most common advice from ATers in terms of avoiding crime (such as getting your pack stolen) was not to camp at public car-camping campgrounds.

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I think it depends very much on the area. In my area, it's very uncommon to encounter anyone once you get in more than a mile or two from the roads. Back there people are generally safer from other humans than they are in town.

However, there is always the possibility and it is good to be prepared. Carrying pepper spray and/or a taser (depending on the legality of carrying such things where you live), and keeping them in a quickly accessible location is not a bad idea for anyone to defend themselves.

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A taser? Really? That seems a little silly. I agree that you're safer from violence in the wilderness than in a town -- and I assume you don't carry a taser on the subway. –  Ben Crowell Apr 2 at 15:24
    
Again, it depends entirely on the area you're in. In most wilderness areas the only people you're likely to encounter are good people, but I've encountered some sketchy individuals in some places and if I was out alone, the ability to defend myself would make me more comfortable. In southern U.S. border regions there is a high level of drug trafficking on foot through the mountains, and there have been incidents of hikers, cyclists and ranchers encountering smugglers, with at least one murder in the past few years. –  Jonathan Patt Apr 2 at 21:06
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I have had similar problems. Avoid "drinking houses". That is, shelters in the woods, that are accessible by cars, and where locals go in order to get drunk.

Other than that, carry a weapon when in the woods - a knife or a small axe. In the wild, you are on your own and laws are far away.

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+1 for avoiding drinking houses. -1 for suggestions that laws doesn't apply in the wild and you can kill people without consequences., and the false sense of security given by the axe. –  Łukasz 웃 L ツ Apr 1 at 5:56
    
@Łukasz웃Lツ, why would it be false sense of security? –  Vorac Apr 17 at 8:02
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