Two weeks ago I went on a solo 11-mile loop hike in Colorado’s alpine. To get there, I drove a long, bumpy dirt road miles away from civilization. Upon reaching the trailhead, there were only a handful of cars, all empty, and no cell phone reception. I was completely alone.
This isn’t the start of a horror story, it was awesome. There’s little I enjoy more than getting off-grid and wandering among the rivers, mountains and trees. It’s absolutely beautiful.
But Colorado’s wilderness can also be dangerous. From wildlife attacks to unpredictable weather, there are many safety risks lurking around the bend. Unfortunately for women, there’s also a safety risk beyond the usual bears and moose: Men.
Human predators are rarely if ever listed among the potential threats on trailhead signs. Yet a string of recent incidents involving male sexual predators across multiple trails in the state is a stark reminder that for women, the relaxing promise of nature doesn’t mean we get to leave all of our worries behind.
Male predators in the backcountry are the exception, not the rule. That doesn’t make it any less scary. Especially to have so many attacks in a handful of weeks, the fear can really hit home.
Having these men caught does help us to feel safer. The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office recently arrested Glenn Braden. He is accused masturbating naked in front of multiple female hikers, slapping female hikers on the butt, asking female hikers for sex and attempting to rip off the clothing of at least one female hiker who stated her bra was ripped during the attack.
A second man, William Tidwell, has also been arrested by Boulder County sheriff’s deputies and is accused of impersonating search and rescue staff and sexually assaulting a female hiker. Other reports of predators toward women have followed in local hiking and backpacking groups, including discussions of predators on trails near Silverthorne and Leadville. At least one woman stated in the group she filed a police report, but others have said they didn’t feel comfortable.
Personally, I know exactly how terrifying these kinds of events are. My own encounter with an unknown sexual predator was years ago, but the memory remains vivid. It was the middle of the afternoon and I was attempting to park my car in a city lot. As I turned off the engine I noticed a man approaching my driver’s side window.
Within seconds the stranger was violently knocking on my window and grasping at the car door with one hand while he was undoing his belt buckle and dropping his pants with his other to pleasure himself. To this day I have never flung my car into reverse so fast in my life. I didn’t stop driving until I was miles away from where I needed to be.
All things considered, I know I was lucky. I had a locked car and could quickly escape. This likely wouldn’t be the case if I were attacked in the woods.
This prompted me to look up the latest statistics on national violence against women, specifically in the outdoors, as I knew sexual violence had spiked during the pandemic. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 81% of women now report some form of sexual harassment and/or assault during their lifetime, and one in five women has experienced rape or an attempted rape. In other words, being a victim of sexual abuse for most women is not a matter of if but when.
Yet finding accurate statistics on the rate of sexual violence against women in the outdoors has proved difficult. As one 2015 article in Backpacker magazine explicitly states, there is no data on crimes against solo female hikers because databases are not kept to reflect this information and many sexual assaults go unreported. And while the brief data the author provided on murder, rape and aggravated assault did suggest a lower likelihood of the most severe attacks on women in national parks as compared to the U.S. overall, those statistics don’t appear to include public lands beyond national parks or the non-rape sexual violence experienced more often, thus making the conclusion “it’s safe” feel a bit underwhelming.
Another 2016 survey among runners might be more helpful in understanding general trends beyond violent rape for female outdoor athletes. Asked about sexual harassment, 43% of female runners reported negative experiences during running compared to only 4% of men. Then again, it’s one survey seven years ago. That’s not exactly robust proof.
In reality, the rate of sexual violence is likely somewhere in between the two, meaning that at least for now most women can’t be sure about the level of safety on the trail.
Still, as an avid female hiker, I also feel strongly that these incidents should not deter women from hiking or otherwise getting outside. Exercise is vital to a healthy lifestyle as is time spent in fresh mountain air. Besides, women face similar or increased risks in all areas of our society, so giving up the freedom to access and use trails is not the answer.
The recent incidents should, however, remind all women to be prepared for backcountry predators beyond bears and mountain lions. Just as we learn how to carry our keys between our fingers on a threatening city street or scope out our exits, we need to better prepare for the threat human males might present us at trailheads and in the wild.
The buddy system is always a great option, but hiking solo can be made safer. By carrying a whistle, readying bear spray as pepper spray, staying vigilant of solo male hikers, employing satellite tracking and knowing how to use regular outdoor equipment to our advantage, women can better manage personal safety.
For me, I will continue to recreate solo in Colorado’s wilderness, albeit with a bit more awareness and preparation for sexual attacks by fellow humans. I refuse to let violent men dictate what I can and can’t do. I won’t go down without a fight.
But mostly, moving forward, I hope that society can also better address the factors that are leading to increased violence toward women. After all, it shouldn’t be society asking women to learn to defend themselves from men. It should be society teaching men not to hurt women in the first place.
The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggested writers and more to email@example.com. (Learn more about how to submit a column.)