When I tell people I’m walking around the coast of Britain on my own, I get one of two reactions.
Men ask me “Are you going the whole way?” and then follow up with practical questions like, “How far is it in total?” “How many miles do you walk a day?” “Do you camp?”
Women have a totally different response. First they check if they’ve heard me right. “What? On your own?” And, when I confirm that, yes, I walk alone, they usually respond by saying, “Oh, you’re so brave.” Often followed by, “I couldn’t do that.”
Despite meeting hundreds of walkers on my travels round the coast, I rarely come across solo women hikers. Solo men, women in pairs or in groups, plenty of couples, but very few women on their own.
Why Don’t Women Walk Alone?
Fear, they tell me. “I’m too afraid.”
When I ask them to explain exactly what they are frightened of, they hesitate. Sometimes they confess they worry they might be attacked, either mugged or even raped.
Sometimes they worry about their own capabilities: “I’ve got no sense of direction”, “What if I hurt myself?” or “I can’t walk very far.” More often than not, they can’t describe exactly what they are fearful about. It’s just a vague anxiety.
Sadly, sometimes a woman will describe how she was attacked once and is now wary of being on her own in strange places. That is something I totally understand, and have great sympathy with. It’s rare.
In fact, despite walking over 3,000 miles around the coast on my own, and many other hundreds of miles across the British countryside, also on my own, I’ve never had a bad experience or felt endangered by a stranger. (I’ve had plenty of trouble with cows, with dogs, with bad weather, and with losing my way – but I’ve never felt threatened by another human being.)
I’ve come to realise that many women just feel they shouldn’t be on their own. It’s not the right thing to do. This applies not just to walking, but also to everyday activities, such as sightseeing, going shopping, even going to the toilet in a restaurant. Women often accompany each other to the “ladies”, have you noticed? Men, on the other hand, wouldn’t dream of going to the “gents” in a group.
In my opinion, this reluctance of women to spend time on their own is a cultural inhibition. A hangover from the days when “nice” young ladies always had a chaperone.
In fact, the real risk of being attacked while out walking in the countryside is tiny. (Think about it. Why would any mugger or rapist hang around in a lonely and isolated spot where the chances of coming across a possible victim is astonishingly unlikely?)
And you can minimise the risk of injury, and of getting lost in the wild, by taking a few simple precautions. It’s never been easier to stay in touch, with a range of GPS devices from a Garmin to smart phone apps. You can use tracking devices too, if you wish. And, of course, your first serious solo-hike doesn’t have to be a marathon trip in the remote Scottish highlands. If you stick to popular trails in southern Britain, you’re never really out of sight of a house or a road, or some other sign of civilisation. Not for very long, anyway.
Why Women Should Walk Alone
One of my missions is to convert women to the idea of walking alone. You miss so much when walking in a large group. Here are the three main benefits I can think of.
1. “Me” Time
We all benefit from spending some time free from worry about the hundreds of jobs that need doing, because there is always something that must be tidied up, finished off, or cleared away. But, when walking, you can’t do any of those chores. You can only concentrate on yourself, your route, putting one foot in front of the other, and making progress through the natural environment. So solo-walking is an excellent time for reflection, for thinking, and for working out problems.
In fact, some of my best ideas come to me while walking by myself, either on a coastal path, or in the local park. (The idea for this blog post, for example!) And walking is a great way to burn off your frustrations too.
Once I enrolled in a course of guided meditations. After a while, I found the leader really irritating. Her instructions were delivered at a pace very different from what I felt I needed. I suddenly realised I could achieve the same meditative state far more easily simply by going out for a good walk. And, better still, walking is free of charge and can be done at a time to suit you.
My habit of solo-walking has reduced my stress levels and has kept me sane in difficult times.
2. Observing Nature
On a path in Devon, crowded with weekend visitors on a lovely summer’s day, I was walking behind a group. They were talking loudly and laughing, oblivious to the birds singing in the bushes. Suddenly, I spotted a movement on the path. It was a tiny adder. A baby. No thicker than a boot lace. Slithering along.
The group in front must have stepped over the same baby adder, but never noticed it. In fact, the tiny thing was lucky not to have been squashed.
Similarly, I was walking alone across some high cliffs in Pembrokeshire, when I heard a faint splash. Looking down, I saw a trio of dolphins, curving and arching through the water. I’d been keeping a watch for dolphins for several days, but would never have seen this pod if I hadn’t heard that tiny noise.
Another time, I was sitting eating a picnic on a wall, with nobody in sight, when a small stoat leapt up beside me carrying a baby rabbit in its mouth. I don’t know which of us was more startled. Me or the stoat.
Likewise, I’ve seen foxes, hares, seals, deer, grass snakes, slow worms, newts and toads, and countless butterflies. In the silence of my own company, I’ve heard woodpeckers hammering among the trees, and the beautiful noise of larks above my head while walking through sunny meadows.
You could see and hear all these things with a companion too, of course, but you are less likely to do so. When walking with other people you don’t give your full attention to the environment you’re walking through.
Walk alone and you’ll get to see the world!
3. Pleasing Yourself
As women, we spend a lot of our time pleasing other people. This is even more true as you grow older, and particularly if you have children as well as a demanding job. We spend a whole bunch of time worrying about what everybody else is thinking and feeling. Are they comfortable? Are they happy? Are they bored?
Everything that involves other people, even in a loving relationship with a partner, becomes a negotiation. Where shall we go on today? What should we take with us? Shall we eat out tonight? That’s just the nature of relationships and living in a group.
When you walk with friends, you are subject to a similar set of negotiations. How long will the walk be? Which route should we take? What time should we start? Do we go at the speed of the quickest, or at the speed of the slowest? When can we stop for a snack or a rest?
Walking alone frees you from many of those constraints. This is both liberating and also anxiety provoking. It’s great you can choose your own distance and speed, making judgements based on your own capabilities. But, if you take a wrong turn, it’s your responsibility – and yours alone – to get back on track.
And so you learn to respect yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, and also to take responsibility for yourself and for the consequence of the decisions you make. Yes, walking alone teaches us important lessons. We must be more self-aware and honest about our capabilities. And, of course, each challenge we overcome – each hill we climb, each route we negotiate – becomes a personal victory.
What I’ve Learnt From Solo-walking…
As a driven and ambitious person, walking has helped me to slow down, to relax, to live in-the-moment. Each walk becomes a meditation and a time for reflection. It’s the time I work out my problems, get rid of my frustrations, and I always return home with renewed energy and a lighter spirit.
I’ve also learnt I can achieve a great deal. I may never be the fastest sprinter in the world, nor will I ever climb Mount Everest, wrestle with tigers, or land on the moon, but I can set myself lesser goals and, surely and slowly, one step at a time, achieve some incredible things. I’ve learnt to enjoy the emptiness and solitude of great landscapes, to have confidence in my ability to overcome obstacles, and to be happy in my own skin. Those are lessons worth learning.
Solo-walking is the best way to travel. Are you up for it?
Ruth Livingstone is a retired GP and was a confirmed couch potato, until she took up long-distance walking in her 50s. Since then she has hiked over 3,000 miles around the coastline of Britain and aims to complete her circuit of the island before she becomes too senile! Last year she published a book: “Walking the English Coast: A Beginner’s Guide” and is currently working on a novel. Follow her progress around the coast on www.coastalwalker.co.uk.