Backpacking is becoming one of the most popular activities for people across the world. It’s cheaper than traditional hotel-based tourism, it gives you a deeper connection with nature than day hiking, and it’s statistically safer than many other activities, such as canoeing and even driving your car.
For the most part, backpacking is the same for everyone, no matter their gender. Load up your pack, study the trail, and hike until your heart’s content, snacking on jerky, nuts, and dehydrated meals all the way.
But, there are a few things that women need to be especially mindful of while backpacking. Feminine hygiene is what most people think of first, and safety soon thereafter.
It’s true that women do need to take a slightly different approach to packing and safety than men, but it needn’t change your experience. With proper preparation and awareness, you can minimize the amount of time you spend thinking about these things and maximize your “oohs and ahhs” moments in the wild.
If you’re considering backpacking as a woman, either solo or in a group, this guide is for you.
Here we’ll discuss:
Let’s dive in!
Having the right clothing more than anything else can often be the difference between enjoying your backpacking trip and slogging through it, cold, stiff, and soggy.
Here’s a rundown of the things you’ll need:
More than anything, you need a good backpack. Setting out with the same backpack you use to get around the city is a recipe for an exhausting trip that leaves your back impossibly tight.
Most backpacking packs have a rigid frame and waist belt that balance the weight on your back, making it feel much lighter than it actually is. In fact, 40 pounds of gear in a true backpacking pack feels lighter on your back than 15 pounds in a city backpack does; the hip strap on a backpacking pack transfers up to 80% of the weight of your pack off of your shoulders, making you less sore, less fatigued, and an all around happier hiker.
Nearly every company that produces backpacks has a lineup of packs designed to fit women’s bodies. You don’t have to get a women-specific pack, but they most likely will fit your shoulders and waist much more naturally than other packs.
One thing most female beginner hikers worry about before their first trip is peeing. If your camp doesn’t have a pit toilet, you know squatting is what you’ll have to do, and this can be difficult especially on different terrains—so be extra careful, especially if you’re not used to squatting.
If you hate the thought of squatting or just find it inconvenient, think about buying a female urinal. It is essentially just a funnel that allows you to pee while standing up. It may seem goofy but it will save you a lot of the hassle of having to squat in the middle of pointy sticks and poison ivy.
Also, remember to pack a pee rag so you don’t have to worry about properly disposing of the toilet paper (or carrying it around in your pack).
If you know you will be on your period during the trip, don’t worry. Just make sure you know your options and be prepared—it does not have to be something that’ll weigh you down and burden you on the trail.
Having a menstrual cup, tampons, or pads is a complete personal choice and they all can be handled well on the trail. Menstrual cups will take up less room overall in your pack and can be reused after cleaning, but you will need to find an efficient and sanitary way to rinse it, which may be difficult if you don’t have soap or lots of clean water.
If you do plan to use a menstrual cup, make sure you have a little experience with them before your trip. Trying to insert a menstrual cup for your first time in the wilderness is definitely not going to be as simple as it would back home.
Tampons and pads are definitely the way to go if it’s what you’re used to using already, but, of course, there are still some disadvantages—having to carry them takes up space and packing them out is a little inconvenient, but necessary.
Finally, packing feminine wipes is also an important step to feeling clean while on your period and just in general.
In a word: yes. Backpacking solo, while certainly more risky than traveling with a group, is safe for women.
That doesn’t mean you should head out on your own without a care in the world, though. One of the terrible realities of the world we live in is that women are never as safe by themselves as they are in a group.
If you’re planning on heading out solo, you should take all the same precautions you would take in a large city. There will be fewer people on the trail, which means fewer chances of an uncomfortable or unsafe run-in. That said, if something does happen, you will be much farther from anyone who may be able to help. On top of that, you likely won’t have any cell service.
If that’s too much risk for you, that’s understandable. But, many women do choose to backpack solo each year—sometimes completing 3+ month thru-hikes like the Appalachian trail, and very few incidents of any kind are reported. We can’t say that solo backpacking is completely safe for women, but it shouldn't be considered an impossible risk, either.
That said, while there isn’t a lot of data on the safety of women hikers, Backpacker did report that there have been only nine murders on the Appalachian Trail since the 1970’s (and more than 3 million people visit the trail each year). That’s an incredibly small number for a 2,000-mile trail.
On top of that, your chances of being the victim of a crime inside a national park are thousands of times smaller than your chances of being the victim of a crime outside of them. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be careful, but it is very unlikely that you’ll have a reason to feel unsafe.
Here are six ways to stay safe on the trail.
Bear spray is something you’d likely already be carrying, especially if you’re in bear country. It’s like everyday pepper spray joined the military: it packs a powerful punch and it’s strong enough to give even a 1,200-pound grizzly bear reason to never mess with you again.
If you did have to use it on a human, it wouldn’t kill them, but it would incapacitate them for a long time—long enough to put a couple of miles, maybe more, between you and them. By the time that person is up and walking again, they won’t be moving very quickly and you should be long gone.
The majority of people who buy bear spray never use it. Bear attacks and dangerous encounters with humans on the trail are exceedingly rare. But, the people who do have to use bear spray while backpacking credit it with saving their lives.
If you don’t use it, it’ll feel like a security blanket—just something to help you feel safe. If you do use it, you’ll be forever glad you brought it.
No backpacker should set out on a trip in an area with no cell service without one of these devices. They’re expensive, but they can be rented instead of purchased, and they’ve saved more lives than many people realize.
The Garmin InReach series is the most popular of these. It lets you find your way anywhere in the world. You can also send pre-programmed text messages to people back home, letting them know about your progress and how the trip is going.
Finally, there is an SOS button that you can press if you’re injured, sick, lost, or otherwise in trouble. Pressing that button will alert the nearest authorities—whether park rangers, the local police, or both. You can communicate what’s wrong, and the Garmin will send authorities your exact location, quite literally saving your life when you’re in danger.
If you get lost, hurt, or find yourself in trouble, you’ll be glad you packed an ultralight safety whistle. The high-pitched sound of a whistle carries much further than other sounds and can help people locate you much faster.
Safety whistles are cheap, light, and can come in clutch when it counts - you may never use it, but you shouldn’t hit the trail without it.
A knife should be part of your backpacking gear list no matter what, but it can also keep you safe. In the off chance that someone does try to harm you, quick access to a knife can make a world of difference.
That said, bear spray is always better; it’s easier to use and requires less accuracy. Having a knife is important for safety, but it isn’t the best thing you can have on you—that would almost always be bear spray.
Side note: if you know how to use a gun and they are allowed where you’re backpacking, feel free to bring one, but understand the responsibility that entails. Many hikers still use them to protect against bear attacks. If you’re someone who knows how to use one, bring it. If not (and this describes more than 95 percent of all hikers), stick with the bear spray.
This one goes without saying: you’re always safer with a friend, or two, or three. This is especially true if you’re a beginner backpacker—going it alone is better left to those who’ve been out a few times in groups first.
Hiking with friends makes you less likely to have dangerous bear encounters or unsafe run-ins with other hikers and more likely to survive if injured or lost.
On top of that, sleeping in a thin tent can be pretty nerve-wracking compared to the security of our homes. Having friends with us can make it way easier to fall asleep and stay asleep without the anxiety and fear you might feel being in a tent for the first time.
If someone you encounter along the trail makes you feel uncomfortable, the best thing you can do is to separate yourself quickly. Say your goodbyes as fast as you can and continue hiking. Don’t be afraid to cut someone off mid-sentence; if they’re making you uncomfortable, you don’t owe them the niceties that manners dictate.
Also, if you are worried that you’ll run into someone who makes you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, keep your safety gear visible. A person with ill intent is far less likely to target someone when they can see that person has a knife, bear spray, and a GPS beacon in clear view.
Finally, remember that encounters like this are incredibly rare on the trail. You should always be prepared, but you shouldn’t feel scared.
If you’re a bit nervous about your first trip or if you lack hiking buddies and aren’t ready for a solo trip, look for a women’s hiking and backpacking group in your area. Groups like this one provide training and women’s-only trips to help women of all ages and walks of life enjoy the great outdoors. Check Facebook for groups and communities near you. You might like what you find.
Only you can answer this question. Gendered clothing works well for many people, but the importance of comfort far outweighs “getting the gender right.”
The same can be said for your gear, especially your backpack. Most women will feel more comfortable with women-specific packs, but there are plenty of women (and men) whose bodies fit packs that aren’t technically their gender.
The bottom line is this: gender doesn’t play as important a role in society anymore, and you shouldn’t feel like you need to make your backpacking gear decisions based on that alone.
Hiking by yourself can be very dangerous. Many hikers who die from accidents that were initially non-lethal are on the trail alone. We recommend that you take, at a minimum, 5-7 trips with others before setting off by yourself. And, when you hike alone, always make sure you have a way to call for help.
At first, this seems counterintuitive, but the best advice is to be as far from population centers as possible. The closer you are to residential areas and cities, the more likely you are to meet somebody who’s not there for the best of reasons. When you venture farther out, it’s almost a certainty that the only people you’ll see will be fellow backpackers with similar smiles, values, and interests—and that makes chatting with them all the better.
Backpacking for women is, in many ways, no different than backpacking for men. Of course, there are a few things to prepare for and deal with that men don’t have to think about—but when has that not been the case? And, when has that ever stopped you?
Get prepared, pick a trail, and get out there! The only thing waiting for you is adventure.
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