Saturday, March 22, 2014

Personal Safety for Trail Hikers...Preparation & Awareness

All trail hikers should practice personal safety on the trail. Potential dangers to the trail hiker are becoming lost or injured, venomous snakebite or animal attack, and violent assaults by people on the trail. In this blog post I'll discuss tips for having safe hikes. At the end of this article, I'm going to discuss strategies for coping with violent physical or sexual assaults in detail, because I feel this is a very neglected trail topic.

Trail Safety Tips

1. Make a Hiking Plan - Plan your outing in advance. Identify where you will park your vehicle, the trail(s) you plan to hike, entry and exit points, and any side trails you plan to take, time of departure and time of return. Write the plan down and make a sketch of the trails, and then leave the plan with a reliable friend who will call law enforcement if you fail to return. Leave a second copy inside your vehicle for Search & Rescue [SAR personnel] should your friend/family member lose theirs. Finally, don't deviate from the plan. If you become lost or injured, Search and Rescue personnel will be relying on your Hiking Plan for conducting their search. If you deviate from the plan you will hamper their efforts to locate and recover you. An excellent hiking plan is available here: Ojai Search & Rescue Hiking Plan

2. Hike with a partner -Whenever possible, hike with a friend. Cougars and criminals are much more likely to assault a person walking alone than a pair of people...there's just too much risk to their success. Both are predators...they look at a person and the situation presented and decide if the opportunity is in their favor. If it is not, they'll likely look for another target. A pet dog, especially a large dog, can be a good deterrent if you can't get a friend to come along on your hike. I was hiking recently and encountered a lady walking with two dogs. Even though our conversation was friendly and I kept a safe distance, I noted how her dogs actively maintained position between us. Just be sure to observe trail rules such as leash law requirements.

3. Be Aware! - Walk with your head up and be aware of your surroundings. Wearing an iPOD or similar personal music system with earphones will inhibit your ability to hear someone running up on you from behind. Always have your head on a swivel and watch your back trail...attacks from 2 and 4-legged predators are most likely to come from cover, from the side or, more likely, from behind. Scan your environment and watch for strange behaviors such as persons who appear to be following you or loitering on the trail ahead of you. Being aware of everything around you will greatly minimize your exposure as a target. 
Isolated trails can be aware!
4. Plan to spend a night or 2! - GOOGLE search "Lost hiker" at any given time and you are likely to find a recent news report of an ill-equipped lost or injured hiker who spent a cold night on a trail. Anyone can step wrong and twist or injure an ankle on a trail or start a late hike and become lost in sudden darkness. In March 2014 a pair of hikers in Santa Barbara, CA became injured when they were caught on a trail after dark and suffered falls. One sustained 2 broken ankles, and the other died from injuries sustained in a fall while going in search of help for the injured hiker. Always carry the essentials of basic survival in a day pack...a space blanket, extra water and food, a First Aid kit, a pocketknife, a means of making fire, a flashlight and a whistle. These items weigh little and will allow anyone lost or injured to care for themselves, avoid hypothermia, and signal for rescue. Also, make sure you label all your gear with your name. It's very common for lost hikers to lose or ditch gear. Marking equipment with your name aids searchers and clues them they are on track.
Essential trail kit displayed on a  Space Blanket.
5. Use "heavy-traffic" routes – Trails that are popular and heavily trafficked will offer greater safety for you. Again, Cougars and Crooks don't like to take risks. They will select isolated locations, areas with concealment, such as a brushy section of trail or an isolated side trail that will offer a vantage point and concealment to watch for a victim, provide privacy for their acts, and have few [if any] witnesses.
6. Watch for suspicious people! - Be alert for people who appear to be following you on the trail, people who approach and are overly-friendly or who are loitering on the trail or in a trail head parking lot.  Obey your instincts. We all have a "primitive brain" that reads and signals potential danger. If the hair on the back of your neck stands up, there's a reason! Turn around, go back, but whatever you do obey your instincts and take actions to protect yourself.

7. If you are confronted on the trail - Cougars: Do not run...this will trigger the cat's prey instincts to attack you. Several years ago a trail runner fought off a cat attack, but was attacked a second time and killed when they started to run away. Face the cat, open your jacket and make yourself appear large, and yell at the cat. Back away slowly and NEVER turn your back on the cat.  If you have pepper spray, use it. Aggressive humans: Assuming you aren't able to run, walk away, or otherwise avoid the person, be assertive! Stand your ground; be loud, aggressive, and indignant. Yell at the person, "WHAT DO YOU WANT!" You need to communicate that you are not going to be an easy target. DON'T turn your back on them. DO maintain distance between you and the assailant. If possible, move to position an object such as a car or bench between you and the assailant. Scream, shout for help, and draw attention to yourself. It may be enough to deter the suspect from attacking you.

8. If the suspect grabs you on the trail - Only you can decide what you can or can't do in that situation, based on the totality of circumstances you are presented with. You may decide not to resist OR you may decide to fight. If you do fight, think in terms of applying "Strengths to Weaknesses". Select soft, vulnerable targets like the eyes, throat, and groin for jabs, grabs, punches, kicks. Use personal weapons such as teeth and nails. Fight dirty, break free and run. Again, most suspects are cowards and want easy prey. Your nails may collect tissue and/or blood evidence from the assailant [i.e., DNA evidence useful for later identification], so do not wash your hands following an attack and go directly to the local law enforcement agency, file a report and ask the officer to have a technician collect the evidence from your nails.

9. Weapons - If all else fails, you may have field-expedient weapons [pens, keys, etc.] and/or environmental weapons [rocks, sticks] at your disposal for self-defense. Having a walking stick or a bottle of pepper spray in hand is a great tool to add to your personal safety kit. Having it in hand allows the potential assailant to get a look at it and weigh the risk. Personal safety alarms can be useful. They attract attention, which crooks don't want. I do not recommend knives and guns. They require specialized training and in a worst case scenario you could be disarmed and have them turned against you, not to mention legalities of carrying a concealed weapon.

10. Take a Personal Safety class - Personal safety classes are available from a number of local sources, such as SARP Center of San Luis Obispo, Cal Poly, and private vendors as well. They will teach you several skills, including both verbal and physical skills to use if accosted by a stranger. Any skills you can add to your personal inventory will help you avoid being a victim, whether on the trail, or on a public street.

11. Carry a Cell Phone - Carrying a cellphone is wise, as it allows you to notify law enforcement and summon assistance if you encounter an aggressive animal or human. A few years ago a Game Warden friend told me about 2 people hiking in a local State Park who reported via cellphone that they were being stalked by a Mountain Lion. Unable to reach them soon enough, he requested a CHP helicopter to respond. The helicopter crew located the couple, moved in closely, and frightened the cat away. Have local law enforcement numbers programmed into your phone's speed dial. In the case of aggressive humans, immediate notification of law enforcement is especially important to increase chances of apprehension, so do not wait until you are safely home to make a report.  It may help prevent further crimes from occurring or it may provide a lead needed to solve an open case. Some people believe that law enforcement is ‘too busy” to be bothered. Nothing is further from the truth...they are never disinterested in your report. They may have other priority calls to respond to and be delayed in getting to you, but they do want to hear from you and will respond as soon as possible. 

Trail Tools...Cellphone, flashlight,
Pocketknife, Pepper Spray, Matches and Whistle.
12. What if the assailant is armed? – Again, only you can decide what you can or can't do in that situation. As I've stated previously, most suspects don't want to draw attention or alert anyone to what they are doing, and they may only be bluffing with the weapon to coax you into cooperating so they can commit a sexual assault. On the other hand if the subject has threatened to harm you, you may have nothing to lose by running for your life. As you do so, scream, yell, and draw attention to yourself from other hikers in the vicinity.

13. If you are sexually assaulted - I highly recommend that you notify law enforcement immediately. You will be assisted with accessing medical care for injuries and specialized post-sexual assault care. It is your choice whether you cooperate with a criminal investigation; however it may help protect others if you share some details such as attacker's description and method of operation. You will likely need support, and possibly long-term counseling, and law enforcement can help connect you with victim support advocates from the SARP Center [SARP Center, 51 Zaca Ln. Suite 140, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401 FAX: (805) 545-5841 E-Mail:].

Violent Assaults on the Trail

Compared to incidents involving lost or injured hikers  and animal attacks, violent criminal assaults against hikers are relatively rare. However, strange things do occur, even in communities that are considered safe and free of violent crimes. An example of such an aberration occurred locally in October 2011, when a 63 year-old man hiking a trail on Cerro San Luis was bludgeoned to death and possibly robbed according to police investigators.  Again, the purpose of this post is to offer some personal safety tips for trail hikers [especially ladies] and hopefully increase awareness of potentially dangerous situations one could encounter from "two-legged predators" on the trail.

I also want to stress that, regardless of environment, time of day, or season of the year, the key to personal safety is awareness and preparation, not paranoia. Personal safety awareness should be a part of every person's daily practices. I served 34 years with a law enforcement agency and investigated hundreds of assaults and other crimes and can say with confidence that the majority could have been greatly minimized, if not avoided altogether, if only some simple preventative measures and personal awareness had been practiced

Personal Awareness - a natural gift

Before I discuss specific tips, I want to discuss personal awareness in greater detail. All of us possess an Amygdala; a portion of the brain that processes emotion. It triggers emotion faster than consciousness, in part to protect you from harm. It does this by interpreting subconscious hints of danger to trigger lightning fast responses. This is why you get that “hair standing up on the back of your neck” sensation; your Amygdala is signaling you that something is being perceived dangerous [Precognition – a defense response mechanism]. 

One of the hardest things for modern humans is to recognize and obey that danger instinct. For example: A friend of mine was walking on a street in San Francisco one evening when they saw a man walking toward them. My friend said they instantly experienced the sensation of "the hair standing up on the back of their neck", however they decided to ignore the signal and continued on. As they drew abreast of the man he suddenly, and without warning, wheeled and sucker-punched my friend for no apparent reason. The lesson here is clear: OBEY your natural instincts and do not get sucked into rationalizing, denial, and thus inaction.

I also want to take a moment to discuss the "Nature of Violence". Just like a Cheetah assessing a herd of Gazelles on the African Savannah, human predators perform the same target assessment; who is slow, weak, ill, and vulnerable? Is the scene safe to carry out an attack? What will be the benefits versus risks?

 On the other side of this equation, the “prey” animal has the natural gift of “Fear”, a natural process that readies the body to survive by triggering physiological changes like adrenal dump to enhance fight or flight, blood vessels constricting and pouring blood into core organs, and cortisol releases to facilitate blood clotting of wounds and injuries.

In the natural world, all predator animals have binocular vision; that is, their eyes are located on the front of the head to permit judgement of other words, "Range to Target". Consider where man's eyes are located. Coupled with our intelligence, we were able to become savvy, cunning, hunters and rise to the top of the natural world's food chain. 

Union of Awareness & Preparation

Staying safe is accomplished by a union of 1.) PREPARATION - developing an inventory of personal safety skills...mental, physical, verbal, and technological tools [i.e., pepper spray, TASER's, etc.] and, 2.) by increasing AWARENESS of developing situations and then taking ACTION [and not being lulled into INACTION] on perceived threats, by obeying instincts and practicing the "OODA Loop" - OBSERVE [spot the threat], ORIENT [what are my options, what avenues can I take to evade harm], DECIDE [select course of action], and ACT [put plan into motion].

For example:

OBSERVE - You are hiking a trail section and, being aware of your back trail, notice a strange man that you think is following you.

ORIENT - You spot a group of hikers resting and taking hydration up ahead of you.

DECIDE - You make a decision to stop and chat with the hikers and take hydration.

ACT - You stop and engage with the hiking group.

By using the OODA process, you disrupt the man's plan and force him to change up his plans. He can either pass, fall back, or stall nearby, at which time you begin the OODA process again, essentially keeping him off balance and unable to enact his plan, because he is forced to respond to your change-ups.

Developing an Inventory of Skills

In many communities, personal safety courses are offered through private vendors, public organizations, and local colleges and universities. It is important to start learning skills for dealing with potential situations and developing a set of personal skills.

Each situation is different and all are dynamic [evolving moment to moment, sometimes rapidly] and training should cover all levels from avoidance strategies, to include communication skills, personal weapons/physical combatives, and possibly tools such as pepper spray's or TASER devices. Lethal weapons such as knives and guns require great skill and extensive training to deploy safely, use effectively, and retain. Losing retention of a knife or gun can result in the lethal tool being turned upon you, so I strongly caution against them for defense.

Often personal safety training is done through role-playing, and in this way the student can develop experience and thus have a "Mental Schematic" of sorts for coping with that situation were they presented with it again. Role-playing also acts as a form of "Stress Inoculation" by exposing the student to a stressful situation in advance, so it is less disabling if they encounter the situation in real life.

Finally, I would like to stress that it is equally important not to live in a perpetual state of paranoia or unwarranted fear. Constant, self-created fear [worry] is extremely injurious to your natural warning erodes and decays it to such degree that there is no signal left when a perceived threat is real.

In conclusion, I would like to state that here in the local San Luis Obispo County area, we live in a very safe community, and you are much more likely to suffer a fall or injury on a trail, or spend a cold night disoriented, than you are to experience and attack by a cougar or aggressive human. Enjoy our trails and outdoors by planning your outings, communicating with friends, carrying survival basics in your pack, and being aware of your environment. Develop personal skills, tactics, and strategies for dealing with aggressive animals...both 2 and 4-legged!

Stay aware, stay safe, and happy hiking!



  1. Excellent advice my friend... especially the OODA approach... and of course being at least minimally prepared with needful things in case a 'night-out' is in the offing. The hiking 'staff' is also an excellent idea - and they should actually be at least as tall as the person toting it.. they are especially helpful for downhill stability, whacking bushes and or logs before you through or over them, respectively (helps avoid an encounter with a basking - no-legged snake - they are out and active as it warms up)... again ALL the VERY BEST! ~Indy

    1. Really good point Indy...thanks for contributing that. yes, a staff is great for negotiating hazardous trail sections, and probing trail obstacles as you've mentioned for slumbering snakes. Also useful for recovering dropped objects from brush, rather than sticking one's hand in and getting bit or stung by nettle. Heavy leather gloves are also very useful as they'll protect you from nettle injuries or an avulsion should you trip and fall.

  2. This is great information, I really believe in becoming more aware of being orient, observing of groups and snakes