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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
@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
up vote 19 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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Upvoted for good answer with reference, but makes me really sad :( – Generic Error Nov 19 '14 at 6:26
Note that the Appalachian Trail has one of the highest population densities of any "wilderness" area. – Mark Jan 19 at 3:28

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 '14 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 '14 at 21:06

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. – Danubian Sailor Apr 1 '14 at 5:56
@Łukasz웃Lツ, why would it be false sense of security? – Vorac Apr 17 '14 at 8:02
@Vorac Because once you start waving it at folk you've got a good chance of being shot. – Roddy May 6 '14 at 22:26
As far as I understand, these comments are condemning assaulting someone in the wilderness. Why would a hiker want to do that?! My point is that if you are the victim, calling the police while in the woods is much less effective then in a city. The police is not there to protect you, at the moment of the attempted crime. Dyh! – Vorac May 7 '14 at 8:20

Woman here. No, I do not believe it's safe for women to hike alone. While most men in the western world would never harm a woman, women are magnets for the minority who would, and there are enough opportunistic predators out there that women find themselves being assaulted at the most random times while trying to perform the most mundane tasks.

I don't think the good guys out there really are able to understand what women actually face with regards to their safety, unless they have daughters, but I don't fault these men for their lack of insight and understanding. In most instances, as they are good guys who are down right disgusted by the thought of a man hurting a woman, they just really have a hard time fathoming that there are any non-negligible quantity of guys out there that would hurt a woman at all. And they don't have the life experiences of a woman to show them otherwise.

I spend 95% of my time surrounded by men, often in primarily male environments, and with that in mind, the number of times I've been threatened or harassed in some way by a man, for the fact that I am a woman, is small. However "small" is not "zero", and it only takes one instance of violence to harm or kill or victimize you.

In my life, I've had random, often much older men try to coax me into their car on more than one occasion, and men online send me unsolicited photos of their genitals on countless occasions. I've been harassed on public transportation by men who have approached me to say sexually explicit things, and have then proceeded to follow me and would not leave me alone until crowds scared them away. I've had men become hostile because I've told them politely that I wasn't interested (one told me to "f#ck off and die"), and one acquaintance, who thought I had rejected when i informed him that I was busy on the day he had asked me to go out with him on, responded by tossing a full cup of ice out the window at me from a speeding car. I've had guys say "Hello" to me on the street as if they were nice, respectable people, only to start harassing me with sexual suggestions when I was kind enough to say "Hello" back. And this was in a city where, sure, you run into more people, and thus more bad people, but a lot of them are inhibited by the crowds.

But what if I were to run into one of these guys alone in the middle of nowhere? What is to stop them from going as far as they want?

I will level with you all. I'm 5'2, 127lbs and have trouble benching the bar, which is 40lbs. At my strongest, with serious training, I could never bench more than 65lbs. Do you think I could easily subdue the average sized man? Women do not fight men off with their strength. When you hear on the news that a woman managed to fight off her attacker, what actually happened was the woman made a commotion and scared the attacker off because he was afraid other people would come see what all the commotion was about and find out what he was trying to do to her.

I'd love to live in a world where I did not have to deal with these issues and had the same freedom to explore on my own without the added liability that being a woman presents. Heck, I'd even settle for a world where taking the trash out at 2am wasn't something that forced me to ask myself "Do I take the trash out and risk getting raped? Or do I put up with the smell until morning?" but that's just not my lot in life.

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Whilst this may be true, it mostly isn't that relevant to the question. The question is looking for stats/hard information about hiking on remote(ish0 – bon Jan 15 at 13:15
This doesn't really address the issue of the backcountry. I think it's obvious that there's a concern overall, otherwise the question wouldn't have been asked in the first place. But this question is specifically asking in regards to backcountry hiking, not taking out the trash or people pulling up to your in cars. – radpin Jan 15 at 20:53
@radpin This woman is concerned that even a tiny percentage of the creeps who harass her in the city will get out onto a trail and harass her there -- or worse. She says " only takes one instance of violence to harm or kill or victimize you." My working assumption has always been that creeps don't get far from the road, and I have hiked alone many times without incident, but never in places close to a city or in redneck territory. – ab2 Jan 16 at 2:24

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