Trail Chat: The Dos and Dont's of Talking to Strangers

I’m hiking up the trail with my 65 liter pack on, relishing the tart huckleberries and fact that I’ll have my tent set up and a glass of wine poured just as alpenglow hits. In a state of sweaty bliss, I round a corner and bump into a group of men. “Hey guys!” I say. “Hey,” they respond. “You know the sun is going down soon, right?”

 Nearing the summit of Mount Olympius. Feeling fine, thanks for asking. Photo:  Daniel Fineman

Nearing the summit of Mount Olympius. Feeling fine, thanks for asking. Photo: Daniel Fineman

Seconds later, my male partner bumps into them as well. “Hey guys,” he says. “What’s up, man? Great day!” they say.

Insert facepalm here.

REALLY CHAD, TIM, and [INSERT OTHER BRO NAME HERE]*? REALLY?

I wish I could say this was the only time I have had similar such encounters, but it’s not. Sadly, I’m not alone in this. Despite no evidence of injury**, despair, objective risk, or the zombie apocalypse, my presence and ability/preparedness on the trail is questioned virtually every time I go out.

This is problematic. Before you chime in with a chorus of “but it’s not because you’re a woman,” let me stop you. Deep down, we all know why this happens. Therefore, I would like to offer some scenarios with appropriate responses for future reference. That way, we all win.

Scenario 1:

You encounter a person on the trail. There is no evidence of injury or imminent harm. They seem reasonably prepared, with a backpack and other gear as needed to support their adventure.

What should you say? Try this: “Hello!”

Things to avoid: “Are you out here alone?” “Are you okay?” “That’s a mighty heavy pack for a girl.” “I love seeing women hit the trail.” ANY COMMENTS ON PHYSICAL APPEARANCE.

Scenario 2:

You encounter a person on the trail. There is no evidence of injury or imminent harm. You notice they don’t have the gear you deem necessary for the adventure, but you don’t know them, their experience level, their objective for the day, or anything else about them because THEY ARE A STRANGER.

What should you say? Try this: “Hello!”

Things to avoid: Pretty much anything but a neutral greeting, unless they strike up a conversation.

Scenario 3:

You encounter a person on the trail. There is no evidence of injury or imminent harm. They seem reasonably prepared, with a backpack and other gear as needed to support their adventure. You notice they are heading deeper into the backcountry and that daylight will soon end.

What should you say? Try this: “Hello!”

Things to avoid: Any comments about the impending sunset BECAUSE ANYONE WHO ISN’T AN INFANT KNOWS THAT THE SUN SETS EVERY DAY BUT THANKS FOR YOUR CONCERN.

Scenario 4:

You encounter a person on the trail. They are displaying evidence of distress or injury.

What should you say? Try this: “Hello!” Perhaps your perception of distress is merely the result of them pushing themselves to get that cardio in or hit a new PR. Perhaps they are recovering from an injury. Perhaps they tumbled and are a little sore, but otherwise fine. Perhaps they need help. Either way, the conversation should begin neutrally, then develop from there. If they ask for help, give it.

Things to avoid: “Are you okay?” right off the bat. Lectures. Condescension. Body shaming.

Scenario 5:

You encounter a person on the trail who is obviously injured or so ill-prepared that they are posing a serious objective risk to themselves and others (think shorts and tank top in a blizzard).

What should you say? How about this: “Hello!” Even in emergency situations, it’s important to keep your cool and communicate clearly and effectively with the folks who may need your help. Check in, introduce yourself, assess the situation, and call for help if needed.

Things to avoid: Elitist or ableist comments. Lectures. Someone in dire need of assistance is probably very aware that they made a mistake. There’s a time to teach, and there’s a time to STFU and take care of business.

There you have it, folks. My handy dandy guide to not being a presumptuous jerk in the outdoors. Happy trails!

*My apologies to the very sweet, feminist Chads and Tims of the world who would never dream of doing this. Sorry ‘bout your name!

**Actually, the one time I was visibly bleeding on a hike (on the summit of Mount Saint Helens in a sports bra and bare feet no less), the dudes who approached me proposed instead of offering me a bandaid. Shoutout to the woman on the trail who lent me some extras!

 Yes, I am on the summit of this volcano in a sports bra and bare feet. No, I don't need any assistance but I will accept Nutella donations.  Photo:  Ryuhei Yokokawa

Yes, I am on the summit of this volcano in a sports bra and bare feet. No, I don't need any assistance but I will accept Nutella donations.  Photo: Ryuhei Yokokawa