A recent report into pilgrimage revealed that men in younger age groups are more likely to make these journeys alone, with women preferring groups of two to three. Often this is due to concerns about how safe women really are in rural isolation. Here, BPT’s Dawn Champion challenges some of the common perceptions about the safety of solo walking for both men and women, with some personal advice about how to use personal safety to enjoy the peacefulness of pilgrimage on your own.
In March, 2021, the body of Sarah Everard was found a couple of miles from my house. The awful events surrounding her murder sparked the all too familiar debate about women’s safety and their right to walk alone. Now, with the disappearance of Nicola Bulley the same questions are being asked.
Safer than you think
A large part of my role is out walking, on my own, in isolated areas. I get asked about the safety of solo walking a lot, almost entirely by women. Happily, it’s safer than you might think. I grew up in the countryside, at a time when it wasn’t unusual to let your under 11’s go out exploring with no parental supervision. As a teenager I’d often go off on a long walk on my own, without a mobile, a route plan or exit strategy. No tracking apps, just a bottle of orange squash.
In adulthood, I learned the hard way that assaults can happen to anyone (in my case, in a city centre during daylight hours). I came to understand that there were risks, but despite my experiences I have never felt vulnerable. A lot of women share my passion for solo walking, feeling comfortable in nature, away from the crowds, cars, and the head-down anonymity of city pavements. Others tend to feel much safer in urban areas. Our ideas of safe spaces and vulnerability tend to be affected by what we are used to.
Men at greater risk
Some years ago I became a Personal Safety Trainer. This wasn’t about teaching self-defense, but the choices you can make to ensure you never need self defense. The reality check given by my trainers, the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, was eye-opening. I learned that it is men that are far more at risk of assault by a stranger than women. In fact, when we are out walking, we are all far more at risk from hazards such as road traffic, falls, and the elements, than strangers. We don’t let cars stop us from going to the shops. We don’t let dogs stop us from going to the park. The sense of control, of choice, and familiarity is what affects our perception of safety.
One of the pleasures of pilgrimage is that it brings you through a variety of landscapes. You will usually encounter remote rural places and busy towns and cities as part of the same journey. The approach to ensure your own safety, whether in the quiet woods or busy town, is the same. Men are not immune to the rural or urban hazards, and the safety toolkit is the same for everyone. The things women are used to having for protection, like rape alarms or taxis aren’t viable options for a solo journey on foot. That doesn’t mean we are vulnerable.
Preparation and confidence
At first glance there seems to be a conflict between the need to be mindful of one’s safety and the desire to let go of everyday things, to truly engage with the pilgrim’s mindset. However, by being properly prepared, you can step out with confidence. You can have a much more fulfilling experience without worrying about your safety.
There are lots of blogs and kit lists to help you stay safe in the physical environment, and your personal safety is just another element in that toolkit. Thinking about these things in advance and knowing what you would do is not paranoia, it’s safe practice, just like learning to cross the road properly.
Dawn’s Personal Safety Tips
Prepare for your pilgrimage.
- Think about the kit you need to keep you safe in your physical environment, but also how far you want to travel that day, how long it will take, your onward travel plans or accommodation. Check your mobile network coverage along the route before you set out. Your network provider will have a map showing signal strength, and whilst these aren’t 100% reliable it is good to know how far you may need to travel to find a signal should you need to ask for help.
- Know where you are going, and where you are. Even if you are a great navigator, we can all get disoriented every now and then. Many people prefer to use paper maps or rely on waymarks and that’s fine – but it is beneficial to have the route downloaded on your phone to help you check your position and find a new shortcut should you need to.
- Tracing your movements. There are a lot of different tracking and safety apps available, so find one that works for you. You can leave details of your journey with someone, but if your plans change or they forget to check in with you it may not work as desired. I personally recommend Hollie Guard. It keeps you in control of your plans, rather than relying on someone remembering to follow up. It tracks your location and raises alerts. It’s free and there are additional upgrades for live monitoring too.
Belong on the path.
- Looking confident in your environment is an often underestimated way of discouraging unwanted contact with strangers. Hopefully by being fully prepared you will feel confident anyway, but if not just act confident. In rural areas, when you do encounter people make eye contact, say or nod hello, and walk with purpose.
- Remain calm. If the solitude or environment makes you uncomfortable (some people describe feeling this in the woods or around livestock) take a moment to ground yourself and stay calm. You always have choices on how to proceed. It’s ok to turn around and go back if you need to. Read up on how to behave safely around grazing animals and be aware of important local information like tide times.
- Carry a staff or stick. It is traditional for pilgrims, and it reduces your chance of having a fall, helps with overgrown paths, and delays fatigue. I find it also gives me a bit of a confidence boost, and unlike walking poles having only one means I can keep a hand free.
Act to avoid harm
- Make conscious choices. Pilgrimage is a physical practice, an action to reach a destination or transformation. As each step is a physical act to move onwards, so should we make clear decisions to avoid coming to harm.
- Act upon your instinct. If something or someone makes you feel uncomfortable, take action. It may be better to move on before a problem arises. Walking away quickly and confidently is a simple but effective way to prevent an incident.
- Your personal safety is always more important than your kit. Don’t overload yourself and carry only what is essential, to maintain your balance and avoid tiredness which can result in a fall. If someone tries to steal your possessions it is safer to give them up.
Vigilance is a virtue
- Never assume that something won’t happen to you, male or female, in town or country. Where we feel safe and familiar, that is when events can overtake us. When we feel vulnerable, we tend to be more alert, more open to taking action if needed, but we can signal that vulnerability to others. Pilgrimage can be a balance between deep contemplation and being open to the world around us. Choose your places of contemplation well; feeling safe will help you explore more deeply. By being observant, not only will you be able to detect any potential problems earlier, but you will also be rewarded with sights and sounds that could be easily missed which may help you find meaning in your journey.
Great advice Dawn, and sound reassurance!
Great advice, it’s important to separate out the factual risks from the media hype.
I got out of an uncomfortable situation once by waving and shouting ‘Hey, Jack!’ to a person in the distance as if I knew them and then running towards them.
I’ve also walked into the nearest business and simply said I felt uncomfortable and could I stay a while until I felt safe.
Great idea Lisa about waving and shouting at someone in the distance as if you knew them. I must remember this!
Some great advice here. I often travel alone, in the UK and abroad, in cities as well as walking in the countryside. Sept. 2020 I spent 2 wewks walking the Cornish Celtic Way alone, with a small tent, I never felt unsafe. I think the benefits far outweigh the slight extra risk. As an older, married woman (62, married 42 years) I think it is important to remind myself I am still capable of being independent. Travelling alone, you are much more likely to get into conversation with others, and you can set your own pace and agenda.
Be aware of your surroundings, whether in rural or urban areas. Use all of your senses, don’t plug your ears up with music etc.
I walked Lands End to John O’Groats alone, with full kit, tent etc. There were a very small number of occasions when I felt uncomfortable in the whole trip. Two were physical safety due to adverse conditions, Three were when people triggered my ‘spidey-sense’. At those times I changed my plans to remain safe – one was a minor route change, another I spoke to the next person I met. The third time I put on my best super-confident face and smiled and greeted the people that I saw as threatening, with no bad outcomes.
I think it’s important to assess the genuine risks at the time and not allow fear or recklessness to drive our behaviour. Almost exclusively my experience was positive, and the people I met were delightful.
1. Keep a small amount of money in a purse for daily use with the larger amount hidden away. Don’t flash large amounts of cash about.
2. Walk around a while before going to an ATM to see who might be watching.
3. Don’t go flashing your expensive mobile phone around in cafes or public places as you tend to stand out from a crowd.
4. If you think you might be being followed in an urban area, use windows as mirrors to see who might be behind you.
5. Only drink alcohol once you have a place to stay for the night.
6. Try not to keep to routines. Set off at different times in the morning.
Theses are just a few suggestions.
Awareness is all
If carrying a cell phone install the app ,
Alert Cops <3
Thanks for the suggestion Maureen. As we understand it Alert Cops only works in Spain, so for pilgrimage in Britain you’d need to pick a different app, but there are a few options out there.
It’s interesting that this is raised as I followed a BPT route last year and went through a big area of woodland where there was no mobile phone coverage for much of the time, and I didn’t see anyone for miles. I did feel quite scared, even though I walk alone all the time and don’t normally experience this. It made me wonder if the BPT could be alert to this in some of the walk guides ( eg areas which might not have phone coverage) although I’m aware this could be ever changing and probably difficult to keep up to date. Good to see some advice, however, and to have the issue recognised.
Thanks for the suggestion regarding mobile phone coverage. Coverage varies a lot depending on your service provider, and is generally improving all the time. With hundreds of routes to monitor it is a bit tricky for the BPT to achieve an accurate picture of this. As the article recommends, your provider will have a tool on their website showing their current signal coverage, and we’d always recommend checking the route against this before setting out to identify any dead spots. If it is going to be a particular issue for you on a route, you may consider purchasing a pay-as-you-go sim with better coverage if possible, as most phones can take more than one sim now. On routes with a lot of poor signal in very remote areas GPS messengers/trackers are always an option. You can pick these up second hand for around £150 so it may be overkill for the odd patch of woodland, but if it helps you feel confident then it’s worth it.
Man 72, walked 2-3k miles / year against diabetes 2, 15-19 years ago. Towns are the danger and proportionately more for men. Have slept in bivvi on several occasions in the wild. Danger mainly from dogs sniffing you out and raising the fourth leg. I now walk Spain, Portugal and have a strong heavy spiked coppice chestnut staff against scree slips, uneven steps (partially sighted) wild boar and snakes. Always carry good whistle, map (or group led,none) compass, medical kit, water, good hat. Seldom rely on mobile phone. Foreign dogs a problem, but let them see you pick up a rock, aim it, and they will run off. Never throw it. They take note of strong sticks, again, never need to use it on them. Biggest risk from cows, especially if you have a dog – usually easy to use adjoining field. Countryside walking in wild places usually has biggest risk of exposure, always take bait and have heavy plastic orange protection sack. Best wishes, Phil
I find your whole narrative to be sexist , woman are once again stereotyped as victims and weak , which saddens me
Sorry you feel that way Sarah. The article does state quite clearly that women are not as vulnerable as many assume and it is men at greater risk of assault by a stranger. The safety tips are recommended for everyone. We’ve shared this information to specifically to challenge that stereotyping and address concerns raised with us by women. Which specific parts of the article do you feel are sexist? Your feedback will help us with future guidance.
I am afraid I can’t understand how you deduce that, but I’m sorry if you do. At the start I introduced myself as man, ancient, and diabetic… that’s why I walked a lot. Both genders get diabetes, and walking is a benefit.. When I was in training to work voluntarily for the Charity Victim Support I was told this by my female boss, and shown the statistics. Evidently then (end of last century) men were more ready to be violent, and therefore victims of male violence. Apart from that, the way I travel is for a single person alone, where the population density is 20 per sq km, therefore with a higher wildlife element, which can have it’s dangers. I would advocate this for anyone, regardless of gender.. Reliance on phones in high places for rescue, I believe to be a danger, so map and compass are important for anyone/ everyone.
I walked the Cornish Celtic path and camped alone in 2022. . I had no problems and found everyone I met to be really helpful.
I have walked alone since being 8 years old., regularly go on solo road trips and go on holiday alone. I’m now 60 and the only “bother” I had was in Greece with a man rubbing himself against me on a crowded train. I told him in no uncertain terms to get his genitals off my body. It worked.
On a coastal path, when giving way to a jogger (or a walker) that is approaching, step inland as opposed to towards the cliff edge, as the path verge may be overhanging an eroded cliff.
1. Worn-in and comfortable footwear, both on pilgrimages and in everyday life, so your feet are always in good condition, and you can run if you need to!
2. Carry a whistle – the sudden loud noise is effective and buys you time in a bad situation.
3. Self defence training – you will probably never need to use it, but if you come across a villain, instead of freezing and not knowing what to do (women aren’t conditioned to fight!) your learned responses will hopefully kick in. Having done the training will also give you an aura of confidence, so the villain will not pick on you as an easy target. And should the villain approach or try to assail you, your effective and unexpected defensive response will act as a deterrent.
Great tips Frances. A note on self defence training – you are quite right that improving your confidence reduces the chances of you being targeted. We’re all for anything that improves confidence, but it is generally better to take action which avoids situations where you may need self defence. It should always be a last resort, not your first option.
This is a very good and informative article.; on all matters.
The part about safety around animals is a good guide by itself.
Don’t look people in the face and eye if you don’t feel safe.It is a kind of invitation it you do
Thanks Jonathan. The recommendation of Personal Safety trainers is that looking confident is key, so avoiding eye contact may give off the wrong signal. It’s all about how you do it. Most walkers in the countryside expect a minimal amount of acknowledgement when crossing paths and it is encouraging to find that almost every encounter with strangers in this way is positive, or at least neutral. Not everyone feels comfortable with eye contact though, and appearing confident is the most important thing.