As a 30-year-old nurse who works with terminally ill patients, Julia (who prefers to remain anonymous) asked herself one day what she would be proud of doing if she too were given a diagnosis of only six months to live. Shortly after, she left Pittsburgh to start hiking the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail—a highly coveted peacock feather in the cap of outdoor adventurers. But this epic odyssey from Georgia to Maine proved to be far more challenging for Julia and over a dozen women interviewed for this piece because of one factor.
Their being female.
It’s no surprise women experience annoyances like casual or even outright sexism in the outdoor adventure world, but on the Appalachian Trail some are facing more traumatizing problems like stalking, sexual harassment, and even assault. Last May, the unthinkable happened—a brutal murder.
People had been warning local officials for six weeks about James Jordan, a violent “fight angel” who is currently being tried for murder in Virginia. In April numerous hikers reported disturbing behavior, including being verbally assaulted by Jordan and even threatened with a machete. He was later arrested on multiple charges, including possession of weed, and was ordered to stay off the trail. In May he returned anyway and allegedly threatened to pour gasoline on four campers and burn them alive in their tents.
He later chased two of them down the trail before finally giving up. When he returned, he allegedly stabbed Richard S. Sanchez Jr. to death, then chased Sanchez’s female hiking partner down the trail and stabbed her. She only survived because she played dead, then ran down the trail for help once he left. Jordan was found and taken into custody early the next morning. This tragedy became a traumatizing reminder that even in a majestic wilderness sanctuary like the Appalachian Trail, America is a violent, scary country, especially for women.
As a frequent solo traveler and former professional wilderness guide, I’m a huge advocate of women exploring the world, especially alone. It’s empowering as hell. I’ve never let fear (or too many episodes of Law and Order SVU) deter me from solo adventures. The point of telling the following stories isn’t to scare anyone off the trail but rather to educate women on how to protect themselves and to ask should-be male allies to stop turning a blind eye. Until the outdoor industry, which prides itself on being quite woke-ish, is ready for its own #MeToo reckoning, women won’t feel safe.
The Appalachian Trail is a microcosm of American culture but with far higher stakes. Statistically, women are way safer on the trail than on college campuses or in even their own homes. There’s only one rape reported (....reported) every few years on the trail and the chance of getting murdered there is 1,000 times less than in America as a whole. And yet, the absence of deadbolts to lock oneself behind or of multiple witnesses around to deter violent men from attacking us means the occasional trail creeper can be a million times scarier and more dangerous. The only thing protecting a woman alone in a tent from that sketchy stranger she previously encountered on the trail or the seemingly cool one she’s been hiking with for weeks is a thin piece of nylon. “I physically ran into a bear,” says Julia, “and I’d take that over running into a crazy drunk dude any day.”
Despite having overwhelmingly great experiences with trail men, all of the women I spoke with encountered men, especially older white ones, who either made sexist, condescending comments or made them feel unsafe. “I even got ‘smile more,’” Julia says. “It’s exhausting.”
Surprisingly, even woke-ish/feminist-type men creeped many of these women out. Julia said one of her first hiking partners, who seemed progressive, asked to rub her legs. Later, another one repeatedly hit on her and made her feel unsafe. The other guys in her group eventually sided with her and ditched him, but only after she showed enough evidence, like his unnerving texts. The men just didn’t see it, she says. “I’m thinking, how the fuck do you not see this guy is a creep?” Later, while hiking alone, a random guy aggressively probed her about where she was going and who she was with, then found her 200 miles down the trail and threatened to come into the women’s tents while they slept.
Hilary York, a 30-year-old piano technician from Denver, felt a bit gaslit by should-be allies. There were only three men who made her really uncomfortable during her 2,190 mile trek, two of them sketchy enough to scare even the men away. But the third was “your standard hippie type” who undressed her with his eyes and was clearly looking to hook up. When she told her guy friends he made her uncomfortable, they thought she was being dramatic and overly sensitive. Her female friends, on the contrary, unanimously agreed he was creepy. “I think the most frustrating thing is having your intuition downplayed,” says York. Which is why she turned to Facebook.
Most people go into the woods hoping to escape the traps of modern life, especially social media, yet women on the trail don’t always have that luxury. York says an Appalachian Trail group for women on Facebook has become a priceless space that helps women feel as comfortable, safe, and empowered as possible. The moderators are careful not to allow any man-bashing or vague accusations.
As a woman who’s worked almost exclusively in male-dominated industries, namely the outdoors, comedy, and film, I too have relied on whisper networks to feel safe, which is what this women’s FB group does. York says this group was quite critical in getting important information out about James Jordan when rangers couldn't. Oddly enough, the FBI is in charge of crimes committed on the AT because it’s administered by the National Park Service. Some hikers have criticized the FBI for failing to warn or protect everyone from a man they knew was dangerous.
There are a lot of men out there scaring the shit out of women in other ways, which is why we need men to be more thoughtful, pay attention, and be better allies. The stakes are too high in the woods. Women have no way of knowing who will be the next James Jordan versus who’s just an awkward dude or entitled asshole and relatively harmless. Women have to assume the worst.
Since York hiked with a man and has a solid poker face, she felt lucky compared to the “kinder-faced, solo female hikes.” Kristin Forster, a 28-year-old pastry chef living in Hamburg, Germany, had previous experiences with a stalker on the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail), so she knew how to handle sketchy dudes—be nice and calm but don’t answer their questions. But stranger danger wasn’t her problem in the end.
For eight weeks Forster hiked with a trail partner who seemed chill and supportive. Being on the trail, she says, means you get closer to people faster, especially during extreme weather situations. Like me and my coworkers when I guided on the trail, Forster and her hiking partner would have to snuggle to warm up on brutally cold, rainy days. During one of these times, she felt his dick in her back. “That’s when it got weird.” She doesn’t blame him for getting a boner at all. But when she casually reminded him that she had a boyfriend back home, he flipped a switch and started mocking her and being super mean. She eventually left him because he made the trail so intolerable for her.
Beth, a 39-year-old consultant who’d rather remain anonymous to protect her safety, hiked with a seemingly cool guy for 10 days before he started to attach himself to her “like glue,” hovering over her constantly, even when she needed alone time. She tried to hike ahead several times, but he’d always catch up. After Beth reminded him she was in a committed relationship with a guy back home, he started making comments on her appearance and how attractive she was.
One day he walked up on her changing clothes in one of the shelters, despite her warning him, saw her full frontal naked, then got defensive that she was upset. “I was completely humiliated yet I convinced myself it wasn’t a big deal,” she says. She eventually decided to ditch him for good. Afraid of his reaction to feeling rejected, Beth waited until they were at a hostel in town with the safety of people around to break the news. “His face literally blackened.”
She felt safe once the trail logs were showing him 2-3 days ahead of her. Then she ran into him. He admitted he’d seen her name registered at a hostel and had taken a “zero” day (zero miles) to wait for her. Panicked, she ran after another guy hiking by, told him she was being stalked, and asked if he’d let her hike with him for a bit. Her stalker passed them shortly thereafter and was never seen again. Beth and her new hiking partner, who became a dear friend, hiked all the way to Maine together.
“As women we are programmed to be nice and polite,” she says, “and I actually found it harder to advocate for myself because I had gotten to know this guy.” Other men have since tried to attach themselves to her on long-distance hikes, but she’s learned how to protect herself sooner. “A lot of men on the trail are desperately lonely and will prey on women who come across as sweet and compliant,” she says. Especially if you don’t set firm boundaries out of the gate.
Jessica Cowan, a 38-year-old freelancer from Ohio, set out on the AT alone, assuming she’d find a “tramily” (trail family) like everyone talks about. But she never quite fell in with a group hiking her pace. When she met her stalker, who we’ll call Doc, he seemed charming, generous, and cool. Although she made it clear she had a boyfriend and wasn’t looking for a trail fling or a relationship change, he eventually started to express interest and asked about her relationship. “I found his behaviors really, really creepy, but when I talk about it, nothing I say sounds incredibly creepy,” she says. “I don’t know if it's an overreaction on my part… or if I’m gaslighting myself.” She was even hesitant to use the word stalking when telling this horrific story.
When crashing in shelters, he’d try to scoot his mat next to hers to sleep, wouldn’t avert his eyes when she announced she was changing, and even got caught staring at her when she was using a privy one day. After seeing Doc go on some hostile rants over the smallest things, she knew he was truly unstable. It was another woman briefly hiking with them, a psychologist, who helped her realize he was obsessed with her and that she needed to get a lot of miles ahead of him.
After that, Cowan tried everything to keep distance from Doc. She “slack-packed” (paying someone to drive her gear up the road), pushed her body to the limit, day after day, and even bought a new tent with wildly different colors to camouflage herself. Whenever she thought she was far enough ahead of him, another hiker would say he was nearby. Doc eventually caught up to her at a hostel after paying someone to drive him up the road.
Cowan finally filed a police report so they’d at least have him on their radar. Hostel workers promised her not to welcome him, but in the end, only one kept his word. The rest gave him the benefit of the doubt. Cowan thinks it was just easier to take his money. Other hikers along the way also promised to back Cowan up and help her. But when it came to actually doing anything, none stepped up. Despite her having mostly pleasant encounters with men on the trail, their blind-eye approach was disappointing. “I think a lot of men are guilty of taking that path of least resistance.”
Cowan did keep her boyfriend, Cowboy Knueve, apprised of the situation the whole time. “You have no idea how much sleep I lost,” he says. “I was sitting home worrying about her and this asshat.” Right after Cowboy dropped her off at the beginning of her hike, James Jordan murdered one hiker and wounded another on the trail in Virginia. “I knew how important this whole thing was for her,” he says. “It just pissed me off that he ruined her trip.” Even though Cowan told him she had it handled, Knueve finally drove 700 miles to make sure.
Knueve stayed with Cowan at night and ran shuttles for fellow hikers during the day while she hiked. He says he met at least a half a dozen women who’d done a lot of night hiking and “busted their ass” to get away from this same guy. Cowan and Kneuve tried to warn everyone about Doc.
One day they actually saw him at a campsite, so Knueve decided to confront him. Having googled the guy, he knew he was a multiple felon and had been charged for unlawful imprisonment of a woman. “I wanted to spray the man and kick him until he’s tired…. but I didn’t want to go to jail.” Instead he told Doc he knew he was stalking women and harshly warned him to stay away.
Before leaving to go home, Kneuve drove Cowan 200 miles up the road to give her a safe distance from Doc. Shortly after, though, they picked up another hitchhiker and she was running away from Doc. That’s when Cowan realized this just wasn’t fun anymore. “I should only have to worry about where I’m getting water and where I’m gonna sleep,” she says. “Not if he’s gonna turn up.” She made it a few hundred miles farther, but finally gave up. Instead of enjoying any hard-earned sense of accomplishment or pride for hiking one thousand miles, Cowan couldn't feel excited about her milestones. It all seemed pointless. “I felt like I was running for my life every day.”
“I encountered a lot of promises of support that didn’t really hold up. Except for my boyfriend, I didn’t see anyone else confronting him or calling him on his bullshit. I think they all just wanted to stay away,” she says. “Especially after the murder.” She’s still amazed that one man could affect hundreds of miles of hiking for so many people. More than anything, Cowan hopes this story will lead to men stepping up. Or at the very least, believing women.
Having solo hiked the Appalachian Trail before, Missy Barger went into her 2019 hike already prepared to play by different rules than men have to. “We have to be hyper aware, but also not jump to any conclusions,” says the 49-year-old photographer from Boston. She watches men closely but plays it cool, never giving them hugs or smiling too much. “And men?” she laughs “Well, they... just get to hike!” Being older, more experienced on the AT and more confident than a lot of her twentysomething female peers, she knows she’s regarded as “one tough motherfucker.” That usually “keeps guys off” her. And yet, despite all this, even Barger ended up with a stalker.
She’d been camping right down the road when the murder happened, so she was even more careful this year. “An odd person doesn’t strike me as different. We’re all odd… cuz we’re out here,” Barger says. But when a guy, who we’ll call Bear, started going on aggressive political rants and undressing in front of her, she knew it was time to bounce. The next day he popped up on her path and wouldn’t let her through. When he appeared a third time and started to verbally assault her, she and her “tramily” hiked four hours in the middle of the night in the pouring rain to get away. They later reported him to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC).
In the end, Barger had to skip the whole state of New Jersey and half of New York to get away from Bear, but she went back and completed that section later. This detour and return trip cost her nearly $600. Whether it’s the actual price of shuttles, extra nights in hostels, a new tent to camouflage yourself or the emotional burden of fearing for your life, the “female tax” is a hefty one, even in the woods.
Luckily, Barger found great male allies, like Eric Bellavance. This 51-year-old heavy equipment mechanic from Boston and trail vet waited to pursue a romantic relationship with Barger until after they completed the trail. One way he believes men can be supportive of women is to use more self-restraint than they might back home. “You want to be extra aware of being creepy. It’s that simple,” he says. “If they’re whipping off their clothes, just turn away and start doing stuff,” he says. Give them their privacy and space when they need it, keep your distance, and don’t touch them, he says. While Bellavance thinks most thru-hikers, by a certain point, become acclimated on how to interact with women and not freak them out, there are still those who do whatever they want because “it’s kinda lawless” on the trail. “They’re out here because society won’t tolerate their behavior back home,” he says. “We’re all out here because we don’t fit in society.” But this lack of social codes and rules is exactly why women need men to be more careful and step up.
Bellavance says some day-hikers and locals will hang out on the trail and wait for solo women to pass by, just to prey on them. Warning others or reporting them to authorities is one thing men can do. Sometimes he says hikers have to take trail justice into their own hands, though. Last year a section-hiker touched a woman in her sleep at one of the backpacker hostels, so Bellavance and his friend tracked him down and threatened to kick his ass if he did it again. When another male hiker exposed himself to a woman on the trail, Bellavance welcomed her to hike with them.
“I look at it this way—it’s already hard enough, women don’t need any shit from men.” Bellavance lets spooked women latch onto him when they need to since women are way less likely to be approached by a guy when they’re already with one. He never asks women for their phone numbers, real names (most go by a trail name), or social media handles because he knows men are harassing and stalking women online too. When Barger hikes solo, a lot of men ask to be snapchat friends. “Fuck, I just want to hike,” she says. “I have to have extra guardrails up when I post on social media.”
In general, Barger has run out of patience for men’s bullshit. “If anyone fucks with me on the trail this year, I’m gonna punch you in the fucking face and carry the fuck on.” She refuses to be scared off by men and encourages other women not to be either. To help protect current and future female hikers, Barger is very active on FB groups.
Unfortunately, those groups aren’t always safe either.
Shilletha Curtis, a writer from Newark, New Jersey, plans to hike the entire Appalachian in 2021. As a Black woman and a lesbian, though, she’s not sure who will have her back out there, as she’s already faced harassment on her trail day hikes. In a co-ed AT Facebook group, white men have already been harassing her about her recent publication, some posting “Hikers Lives Matter.” The male FB administrators have accused her of race baiting when she talks about racism on the trail. “We need to make these groups a safe space for everyone, not just white members, as Black people do hike.” Latria Graham’s powerful essay about being a Black woman just trying to hike goes even deeper into this huge problem.
Until white hikers, particularly white men, do more to make the trail safer for everyone, what do the rest of us do? Not hiking isn’t an option, nor should it be. Most women I spoke with agreed that the best way to stay safe is to trust your intuition and to avoid gaslighting yourself or being too “nice.” Always sign guest books as two people or use a male/ambiguous name, invent a “dude backstory” about a “friend” that’s nearby, and never post photos at recognizable spots on social media. Obviously it’s #notallATmen making women’s lives hard... but it only takes one.
We are asking men in the outdoor industry to listen, believe us, step up, and use your privilege to call out other men. That’s what will help us feel safe. We are tired. We need your help.
Because we belong here, too.