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Solo hiking: Meet the women who like to go it alone

Nature is for everyone, but it doesn’t always feel that way. Society has a way of imposing silent rules on who should be an outdoorsy person — or sometimes we impose them on ourselves. This three-part series examines the experiences of diverse hikers who might surprise you.

Part 1: Solo Hiking | Part 2: Hiking With Disabilities | Part 3: Diversity On The Trails

Women Who Hike Alone

A few years ago, when Caitlin Stewart announced she was going to hike the Appalachian Trail, all 2,200 miles of it, people had some questions.

“Probably four to 10 people said, ‘Are you going to bring a machete?’” she said.

That would be a no. She wasn’t going to take a gun, either. But the real shocker was that Stewart, now 33, was not bringing her fiancé.

“And it was, like, as soon as I said, ‘No,’ the whole idea became ridiculous,” she said, “whereas before that, it sounded adventurous.”

People thought this though she had camped and hiked a lot, both as a wildland firefighter and an archaeologist. Instead of buying into people’s fear, Stewart bought a plane ticket to Georgia. When she arrived at the trail, she had her childhood teddy bear strapped to her back, and little idea of what was ahead.

“And started walking,” she said. “And I walked for five months … five and a half months.”

For many women who hike alone, just getting to the trailhead means busting through a layer of resistance that isn’t there for men. Megan Asad feels the resistance was programmed into her.

Trekking past weathered saguaros at Usery Mountain Regional Park, she remembered what she said a few years back  when a friend suggested she hike alone.

“Well, we’re not allowed!” she said, doing an impersonation of her old self. “It’s not safe.”

Asad, 45, thinks that answer was all about fear she’d been fed as a girl, then as a college student who was told never to walk across campus alone at night. But something woke up in her the moment the friend said, “Just go.”

“Basically, she gave me permission,” she said.

Asad has never looked back. She now hikes about once a week, more when she can, and very often on her own.

“I think that it’s let me get more in touch with the strength that I had all along that I didn’t know that I had,” she said.

Abigail Joseph, 50, has also found that strength in recent years.

She described how from a trail at Arizona Snowbowl with Maggie, her Tibetan terrier puppy, named after her late mom. Even though she was raised by an adventurous woman, Joseph used to think of herself as crazy for wanting to explore the backcountry alone.

“Saw the movie ‘Wild,’ and decided, you know, maybe I’m not so crazy,” she said.

“Maybe other people do do this.”

So after watching Reese Witherspoon conquer the Pacific Crest Trail, Joseph decided to conquer one night alone in a tent in Southern California.

Instead of being afraid of the outdoors, she found herself tuning into it, especially when a few deer parked themselves near her campsite.

“And I just sat on this log and watched the deer for a couple of hours,” she said. “It was amazing.”

And something she wouldn’t have experienced if her girlfriends were there to chat. In the four years since, she’s done many solo hikes, including 19 days on California’s John Muir Trail.

Joseph said her family now trusts that she can take care of herself out there.

“But they hope that I got it out of my system, as well, so it’s kind of like ‘Now that you’ve done that, you can move on,’” she said. “But it’s kind of the opposite effect. You just want to go do it more.”

That’s probably why Caitlin Stewart, from the beginning of the story, now hopes to tackle the Continental Divide Trail, more than 3,000 often-unmarked miles, connecting Mexico to Canada.

She finished the Appalachian Trail, by the way, and for all the fear people expressed beforehand, found trail life safer than real life.  

“Most people wouldn’t just talk to a stranger and invite them home. But nobody on the trail really had qualms about doing that,” she said. “And I got a lot of free showers from very nice people.”

She also hitch-hiked into town all the time and ate food that had been sitting out for hours. She once walked in 18 straight days of rain.

But it also “the best decision I ever made,” she said. “Absolutely.”

It let her know what she was capable of, and that there’s a whole rugged world out there beyond an office.

“I would recommend anybody do it, she said. “Or anything like it.”

Whatever the Appalachian Trail is in your life.

Part 1: Solo Hiking | Part 2: Hiking With Disabilities | Part 3: Diversity On The Trails

Stina Sieg was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2013 to 2018.