Staying Safe on the Trail: Safety Gear and Tips for Hiking, Biking, and Running

I love to hike or walk along my city’s bike path and other hiking trails and I’m usually alone so self-defense is something that is always on my mind. Much of the time, I’m also testing products, setting up camera shots, recording videos, and otherwise distracted but I try to remain aware of my surroundings.

Here in Central Illinois, I don’t have to worry about bears or poisonous snakes; there are some poisonous snakes but it’s not too likely I’ll come across them unless I’m in or along a river, but I do have to worry about stray dogs, possibly a cougar since they’re beginning to once again take up residence in the state, coyotes (though they rarely attack people) and even deer. You never know how wildlife is going to behave.

Case in point, last year I was walking on the bike path I came across a doe that apparently didn’t like me being there. She hopped up onto the paved trail from the woods, stared me down without an ounce of fear, and began walking towards me, tossing her shoulders back like a diva and wearing a very angry look on her face. I backed up, keeping my eye on her and let her know that she could have the trail to herself and she bounced back happily into the woods.

Still, mostly I’m concerned with other humans. A woman was attacked a couple of years ago along that same bike path, and if another passerby hadn’t come across the scene of the man on top of her, she likely would have been raped and possibly killed.

As a woman, you have to be aware of your surroundings. Yeah, men can get attacked too but women are usually the target.

The most important thing that I do to be safe on the trail is always be aware of my surroundings and if someone looks sketchy or I just get that gut feeling that something isn’t right, I heed the warning and find somewhere else to go.

And if I’m on the trail and come across someone else I maintain eye contact with them. Don’t make yourself look like you’re not willing or able to fight back. Also, if you’re keeping your eye on them you’ll know sooner if they’re up to no good and have more time to prepare to defend yourself.

Personal Safety Gear

One important self-defense item I always carry is pepper spray. I have a small canister that I can keep in my hand while I’m walking. It’s a practical option especially for runners. You’re probably not going to have enough time to dig out pepper spray from your pocket or a bag. I personally have the Sabre 3-In-1 Pepper Spray which is available on Amazon.

But many times I’m handling camera equipment and I can’t carry the pepper spray in my hand. So, I have a pepper spray gun that I keep in a holster and have attached to my front right-side backpack strap so I can quickly reach it. Yeah, I look like I’m packing heat but that’s the point. I don’t really want to use it but I want people to notice it, at least the bad guys.

The pepper spray gun I have which I also purchased on Amazon (where else!) sprays a distance of up to 20 feet, so I wouldn’t have to wait until the attacker is within just a few feet to spray. Also, since it’s such a powerful sprayer, I don’t have to worry as much about spray coming back at me on a windy day. That’s an important thing to think about and a drawback to using pepper spray.

Other things I always carry with me are a whistle and an electronic alarm. I have them mainly in case I get injured, sick, or lost. A whistle with a compass is an essential item for any hiker but if you happen to get seriously injured or suffer from some medical episode, you may not be able to yell for help or even blow a whistle. So, I also have an electronic alarm that I can sound and boy is it loud!

Some states have a ban on stun guns but Illinois allows them and just the sound of a stun gun should be enough to dissuade would-be attackers but if they’re still foolish enough to attack, they’ll pay for it. Just make sure you don’t let them wrestle it away from you.

Other possible cons with stun guns is that you have to remember to keep them charged and hope that they’ll work when you need them to. Also, your attacker also has to be within arms reach before you can use it on them. I’d rather an attacker never make it that close to me, so I personally prefer the pepper spray gun but learn as much as you can about self-defense and what is best for you.

Of course, I do have a 38 special revolver at home but I don’t have a conceal carry permit and I wouldn’t be able to carry it most places I go anyway since I’m usually going to parks and public lands which prohibit firearms. There, only the bad people get to carry guns!

Another essential item, that many people don’t consider safety gear, but is probably the most important thing is a cell phone. I always have mine with me and make sure it’s fully charged before I leave.

If I think I’m going to be out for several hours, I’ll take along a portable powerpack to recharge it. Most are slow at fully recharging a smartphone but they’ll usually charge them up enough within a short period of time to allow you to make an emergency phone call or send a text in the case of an injury or illness.

Tip: If you’re not able to make a phone call due to being out of range, sometimes text messages will still go through. They don’t require as strong of a signal.  In the county I live in I can text emergency messages to 911.  Check with your local authorities.  

The best piece of advise is to never hike alone and I never would for long hikes but since this is my job, I’m out quite a bit in semi-remote areas and I can’t drag someone else with me as my bodyguard everywhere I go. It would be impractical. Still, I stick close to civilization and other people.

For example, the local conservation area is usually busy with other walkers, runners, hikers, and bicyclists, especially on pleasant weekends.

When Meeting Wildlife on the Trail

Of course, all of this advice is dependent upon your region. Learn how to handle encounters with the type of wildlife in your area. For coyotes and dogs you never want to try to run away from them. For one, they’re faster and two, they’ll enjoy chasing you for the hunt!  For coyotes, you want to back up while keeping your eye on them and your voice. Make yourself appear larger by raising your arms. The same advise holds true if you come across a cougar. Don’t act like prey. Once they run off, then you can hightail it out of the region and let them be.

For deer, give them plenty of space. Don’t try to approach them and if you can, make a wide detour around them. Deer usually aren’t aggressive and run away when they see a human but not always, as I’ve found out more than once. If they charge you, yell aggressively, make yourself appear larger by holding up a backpack, waving a jacket, or whatever you have and don’t turn your back to it.

I guess there isn’t much difference in protecting yourself from wildlife or other people.  Mostly be aware.  Don’t look or act like easy prey and be prepared.  Learn as much as you can about the region your visiting and know what to do in an emergency. Don’t assume you can count on your phone or Google to save you!

Of course, for self-defense there are a number of classes that teach different ways to defend yourself, no matter your body size.

Like I’ve already said, learn as much as you can about how to defend yourself.  I’m not an expert in self-defense or wildlife encounters but these are tips that I’ve learned.

The best thing to do is to have a buddy along but a lot of people go for early morning or evening jogs, walks, or bike rides alone.  I would just recommend going to places where other runners, walkers, etc., go too instead of in some remote area.

Also, let others know where you’re going and when you plan to be back and if your plans change let them know, even for short walks.  This isn’t advice just for back country hiking.

GPS Watches

Several Garmin GPS watches and fitness trackers have what is called Live Track™ through Garmin Connect, their mobile app.  This is a feature you can enable for your family or whoever you designate to view exactly where you are by your GPS coordinates.  This is available in a number of Garmin products.

No, this doesn’t mean they can track your every move 24/7 but just when you have enabled this feature for your GPS activities.

I personally have the Fenix 5s for my hiking/biking watch and I highly recommend it though it is pricey.  You can check out our Garmin Forerunner guide if you want to compare more affordable options and Live Track is also available on the Vivoactive and less expensive models.

The Apple Watch has a SOS feature which will automatically call emergency services and include your location.  The watch will need to be either connected to your phone by Bluetooth or to Wifi if it’s the non-cellular model or if it’s the cellular model then it will use your cellular service.

The Samsung Gear Sport (view on Amazon) also has this feature, except it will contact those that you have designated by text message with your GPS location.  Like the Apple Watch, it’ll need to be connected to your phone through Bluetooth in order for the message to be sent.

Many cell phones also have this feature.  My Samsung Galaxy S7 can be set up to send SOS messages.  I did this by accident 3 or 4 times when I was in college.

It seemed like every time I went to the library to study or work on a big paper, I accidentally pressed the button enough times to send an SOS message to my husband and daughter. Hey, those college papers and exams were brutal.  Maybe subconsciously I was needing to send out an SOS message!

Those were the two that I had set up in my contact list to receive the messages.  With the phone, it not only sent my location but also took pictures with both the front and rear facing cameras.

They got to see the ceiling of the library or the inside of my backpack more than once.

Still, it’s a good feature to have.  I think it’s even better on a watch because in most situations I’m going to be able to get to my watch quickly and send the message quickly as well.  I think the Apple Watch does this better than the others since it will also automatically notify emergency services and not just your contacts.

This is good for not only self-defense situations you might find yourself in but even for possible medical episodes like a stroke or heart attack.

Conclusion

It’s a shame that we have to worry about defending ourselves when we’re out on the trail trying to be more healthy or just trying to enjoy nature but it’s a reality of life.  There’s bad people out there.  Self-defense is something that I always consider when I go out hiking, biking, or really during any of my outdoor adventures, especially when I’m alone.

It’s best to not go out alone but I see a lot of people on the trails by themselves, as I often am.  Knowing how to protect myself is important.  These are just some tips that I’ve learned over the years and if I learn something new, I’ll be sure to share it.  If you have great tips to share, I’d love to hear them.