Trail Safe: How to Avoid Danger in the Backcountry

Trail SafeIn this landmark book, the first of its kind in outdoor literature, author Michael Bane examines personal safety in the outdoors. He describes a relationship between awareness, intuition, and fear that, when fully understood, can both enhance our relationship with the wild and help keep us secure.


“Michael Bane’s Trail Safe: Averting Threatening Human Behavior In The Outdoors is the first title specifically designed to prepare the outdoorsman and vacationer to defend themselves against criminal behavior in our nation’s public parks as well as other rural and wilderness areas. Trail Safe presents the three-pronged self-defense mechanism centered around intuition, awareness, and fear; the nuts and bolts of risk assessment and planning; and a self-defense decision tree that will enable the reader to determine appropriate reactions to a violent encounter, should one occur. Trail Safe is essential, potentially life-saving reading for anyone spending any time in wilderness areas whether hiking, biking, camping, canoeing, hunting, fishing, snowmobiling, skiing, or any other recreational purpose. ”
— Midwest Book Review

From: CHAPTER 2-The Real World
Reality-based living incorporates our personal reality, which is defined as the way we perceive the world around us. Our personal reality is shaped by our preconceptions, by our experiences, by our paradigms shaped by those experiences, by input from our friends, spouses, and relatives, and by physical surroundings. An example might best illustrate this concept. I live up in the mountains where it snows a lot. Consequently, I spend a lot of time driving in the snow on steep, narrow mountain roads. When my father and his girlfriend visit, if they see one flake of snow at the airport, the thought of getting into a car terrifies them. For people who live in the South, where a couple of inches of snow nearly paralyzes a city, the idea of grinding through the mountains to my house on sheets of slippery white stuff is a very scary personal reality.
If we look at this situation objectively, the reality is that we perceive the snow to be slippery. It is dangerous to drive on. Driving on snow requires specialized skills, specialized equipment and a higher level of awareness than does cruising down a dry interstate in Kansas.
Reality-based living means stripping away personal preconceptions and analyzing a situation as objectively as possible, then adjusting your awareness, your skills, and your equipment accordingly. Reality-based living requires planning for contingencies so that you can do the things you want to do when you want to do them, like getting home on a snowy evening or collecting delicious honey from a beehive. Reality-based living provides the basis for removing unreasonable fears and accepting the risks associated with everything we do, from our day-to-day urban lives to a hike in the Rockies.

Prey Attracts Predators
Turning now to your preparedness for operating safely in the outdoors, let’s consider the perception and the reality of increasing crime in the backcountry. In a sense, those of you who have fears about human predators on the trail closely resemble those Texas farmhands who feared the killer bees. Our goal is to adopt a reality-based-living philosophy and become more like the Tanzanian beekeepers who have found a way to enjoy the treat, be it honey or a glorious spring hike, by developing strategies for obtaining that goal safely.
For many of us, the outdoors has been a refuge, a place to get away from the pressures of the city and the stress of work. Unfortunately, the operative word in this statement is “many.” In Colorado’s Front Range, where I live, ten years ago there were hiking trails that only the locals knew about. Ten years ago, the idea of traffic jams on many trails seemed ludicrous. Ten years ago, the idea that rangers would be ticketing mountain bikers for speeding would have made a great cartoon in a bike magazine. Ten years ago, the idea that we might be threatened by the same people we came into the backcountry to escape would get you guffaws at a Sierra Club gathering.
Unfortunately, there are too many of us, and we’d all like to get away from it all. The sheer number of people is attractive prey to some human predators. Click the remote back to one of those 24-hour animal channels, where prides of lions steadily circle huge herds of wildebeests or zebras. Like these herds, as flocks of humans have recently taken up hiking, mountain biking, fly fishing, trail running, kayaking, and other outdoor recreational activities, predators have naturally come along to circle the flocks. And the backcountry is prime hunting territory. Why do I say that? Well, it’s the reality of the situation.
For a start, we cannot access telephones on every street corner, where the police are only three digits away. We cannot summon aid quickly or easily; more often than not, we are on our own. It brings to mind the old movie line about space, where no one can hear you scream. The distance from civilization, perceived or actual, further adds to our vulnerability. Predators by their nature like to operate free of restraint. An urban environment puts some level of restraint on law-breakers, as constant crowds of people milling about increase the likelihood of deterring predators.
Also, we’ve made getting into the backcountry easier and easier. Television, movies, and the advertisement of trendy sports have made activities that were once seen as lifetime vocations more attractive to the average adventurer, and technology has made access easier. The people in charge of our wild places have responded by opening up the outdoors to a level that would have seemed unfathomable ten years ago.
That being said, the outdoors still calls. There are vistas we want to see, trails we want to hike, and rivers we want to run. There are quiet mornings by a mountain lake and incredible insights discovered leaning against a pinyon pine. We all need to experience this world. That’s reality. Unfortunately, a perception about crime in the outdoors has begun to develop among many people who no longer feel that they can travel in the backcountry safely. Many people are becoming worried about human predators. Whether or not this perception is valid, it is real. Fortunately, you can look at this situation objectively, adjust your skills and your equipment accordingly, and be prepared.

How Do We Keep Ourselves Safe?
So the question becomes simple—how do we keep ourselves safe? The answer is that it’s largely in your head. And a lot of it is based on your view of the world.
To create a personally accurate view of the world, you use your experience tempered with awareness. You become attuned to change. You listen to your intuition. You relax and enjoy the world around you while the most powerful tool for safety we all possess, our minds, maintains watch. You respect those feelings that we label fear. In short, you don’t go into the outdoors blind. Experience, intuition, and awareness are all necessary.
If you live in an urban area you may avoid certain places at night. Perhaps some people have been told that those areas are unsafe. True or false? Who knows? Granted, we usually protect ourselves by avoiding that which we don’t know rather than experiencing it and discovering exactly how much we don’t know. Once we have explored these areas, we may realize that they are not as dangerous as we perceived them to be. Or perhaps we do encounter a threat. Either way, we strip away the connotations and our preconceptions, step outside our own paradigms, and make our analysis—an action plan—if you will. That’s reality-based living.
Can we see the world through completely objective eyes? I doubt it. But each level of preconception we strip away, each paradigm that we’re able to step outside of, brings us closer to that ideal.