Is it safe?

I feel that for anyone doing anything outdoors this question gets asked all of the time. It is not a bad question, and I ask myself it every time I go out but lately it has me thinking about it in a few different ways. Let me explain…

First, I use this question to make sure that in whatever I am doing I am adequately prepared. Cue the self-check safety list – Do I have the 10 essentials (ok, 9 because admittedly I don’t know how to use a compass..)? Do I have extra layers beyond what is recommended in the 10 essentials? Do people who will actually wonder where I am at a certain time know where I am going and do these people have adequate information to try to find me? Do I know where I am going or have a plan for turning around when my navigational abilities become questionable? Will I know and stay within my limits given what I am setting out to do (aka ego check)?

So those are probably the questions most of us ask ourselves, and if you don’t I certainly recommend you start. As outdoorsy people, and trail runners that is probably how most of us begin to answer the question of “is it safe?”.

However, over the past year I have started to do most of my trail running with other people and it opened my eyes to the idea that a large majority of people consider it unsafe to trail run alone. *To be clear, I don’t entirely disagree or think they are wrong, I think anyone who is uncomfortable, ill prepared, or in anyway uncertain with their route or navigation should absolutely run with other people, or anyone is who is heading out for extremely long adventures.

However, I struggle with the idea of not running alone because I do at times really enjoy it and sometimes can’t find others who’s training plans or schedules fit with mine. So then coming back to the question of ‘is it safe’ I start to think about the other way people ask this …

The way that I perceive to express fear or deep concern that going out into the forest is such a risky behaviour, and that it must almost be certain that something bad will come from it. Lions and tigers and bears, Oh my!

After hearing the above perspective and sometimes, yes, getting slightly irritated by it I finally figured out what it is that bothers me so much about the question.

There are associated risks with everything we do, but by being well prepared and knowledgable we can minimize risks to a certain degree. We can stay within reasonable limits and take all preventative measures, and then we can hope for the best and use good judgement along the way.

The more I start to think about ‘ is it safe’ the more I think about preventative approaches to safety and to health. ‘Is it safe’ seems to be a question I hear asked of people doing active things, and sure sometimes maybe those ‘extreme sport’ types, but why are we not asking this of others as well? What about the people who stay at home and live fairly sedentary lives? Or those who do not practice good self care for themselves and find time to do activities that foster their health? Or what about people who make the choice to fuel their bodies and minds with junk?

I think it is time to recognize that there is increased risk with adventures, but I can say that there is more certainty in the negative outcomes of not being active or getting outside than there is with taking off into the forest.

At least with outdoor adventures we have the opportunity to adequately prepare ourselves for what may happen. And this type of safety is not to be overlooked.

Last night I headed out on my first ever solo trail run (with my dog) that was going to include a descent in the dark. That was what got me thinking about all of this, as I wondered should I just stay home, am I being irresponsible and stubborn by going alone? Maybe.

But in the end I did it, and yes I was scared (big time) as I hit my turn around point and saw how dark (pitch black) the forest had become. I had moments of fear where I had to tell myself I was going to be fine, and if I couldn’t find the trail I would take it slow and find my way or stop if needed to because I had more then enough gear for the night. I told myself that bears and cougars weren’t magically all going to congregate on the trail now that I was running down in the dark, and I had to remind myself it was not going to get any darker (because it was already pitch black).

I learnt a few things on this endeavour that I consider highly worthwhile lessons. The main one being that although once I reached the car I was more proud of myself and more exhilarated than after finishing a 100km race, I am not very comfortable in the dark and that is ok. The other lesson, a more practical one, was that even though I had packed enough gear staying the night would not have been a good option given my planning as I had food without anyway of storing it safely, I had no reception or way of notifying anyone (I need an InReach device asap), and I had packed a back up headlamp that uses batteries which I had not recently replaced. So my back up light was extremely dim, but thankfully due to having a well charged headlamp I did not need my backup.

So, overall though I was well prepared there was still room for error. I was on an out and back route (10km with 1000m of elevation) so it was a steep descent but reasonably easy route and trail to follow. I felt the vertical kind of high at the end and a great sense of accomplishment, but was it safe? Maybe. Maybe not. I did it and I am exceptionally happy with the outcome (safety and success!) but I know where my comfort zone is and where it is not, so I might be out as it gets dark again but I will likely try to avoid heading out as the sunsets when I am alone.

I had moments where I was wishing my dog could talk, and I spent a lot of the dark descent talking to her. Now that my opinions and thoughts are out of the way here are a few of the funny things that we talked about on the way down and the main reasons I had to write this post before I forgot these precious moments, enjoy:

  • Ayra (my dog), we have to talk extra loud now because we are by the waterfall and the water will overpower our bear bell – this actually makes sense to me still.
  • Arya you are a little fluffy rave party in the forest (because she wears a light up harness- Nox gear, check them out!!)
  • I have my knife in my hand, but its not because I am scared, I am just prepared – hear that cougars?
  • Jingle bells jingle bells jingle all the way…… (said to the bear bell)
  • It’s dark, but thats fine, because the forest doesn’t change just because it is dark. If there are things around me I can’t even see them, that’s kind of nice.
  • Orange reflective markers on the tree are markers not eyes
  • People would think I am crazy for running out here in the dark, but I think Im most crazy for talking to my dog for 5km downhill and for the content of our conversations
  • Arya, running is very very fun, we like it. yay.
  • Ok now we are close to the car, but we must be most aware because there are probably still berries down here for animals to eat and most accidents happen closest to home says some ICBC report somewhere.
  • Ok now we are at the car (holy crap yay) lets check under it, in the backseat, and in the trunk – because there are monsters and I am not messing this safety first attitude up now

So overall, get outside – but go in a responsible way. If you don’t know what that includes, read up on it and assess your ability to handle your adventure. Sitting and poor unhealthy choices = death, forest = not so much. Be safe and don’t take on unnecessary risks, and if someone else questions what you do use that as a chance to double check if you have considered everything before you go.

Ok, now lastly I have to share this, because as a child this was me: