Last month, social media users reported incidents of sexual harassment at Pico Camp, a shelter on the Long Trail System owned by Killington Resort and maintained by the Green Mountain Club (GMC). The Long Trail is intended for everyone’s safe usage, and GMC aims to minimize risks by extending education and awareness as well as by cultivating a safe trail community.
While we may consider the trails crime-free, realistically, the same offenses that occur in towns and cities also happen in the woods. We know this blog post strays from our typical hiking advice and scenic photos, but we at the Green Mountain Club are asking you to join us in talking about this uncomfortable and important topic to help reduce instances of sexual harassment and assault on the trail. As a hiking community, we are all responsible for building a safe and comfortable backcountry experience for ourselves and others.
The following information is compiled qualitative and quantitative data from Vermont-based experts; advocacy groups; GMC trail crews and staff; and the hiking community. Thank you to everyone willing to share their expertise and experience.
In this post, you will find:
- Definitions of sexual harassment and assault
- A list of creepy and unwelcoming behaviors to avoid
- Ways to help someone experiencing harassment or assault
- Tips to keep yourself and others safe on trail
- Resources and next steps to consider if an incident occurs
What is Sexual Harassment & Sexual Assault
We do not openly talk about what constitutes sexual misconduct, so many people do not know when they’ve crossed a line and many are unsure if they’ve been violated by legal standards, explains Keith Smith. Keith is a men’s counselor and advised peer-led, sexual assault prevention at the University of Vermont’s Center for Health and Wellbeing.
To highlight the lack of understanding around sexual misconduct, consider these figures: 84 percent of college men who commit rape say what they did was not rape; and only 27 percent of those whose assault met the legal definition of rape consider themselves rape victims.
So before we can do anything to prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault, it is important for us to understand definitions.
The state of Vermont defines sexual harassment as any harassment that is based on sex or based on someone’s conformance or non-conformance with sex-based stereotypes. Sexual harassment can be unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment occurs across all sexes, orientations, and identities; nationwide, 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men report experiencing some form of sexual harassment and/or assault in their lifetime.
Sexual assault is compelling a person to participate in a sexual act without the other person’s consent. Read more on what constitutes sexual assault locally and according to federal laws. Assault is too common: nationally, 20 percent of women experienced rape or an attempted rape in their lifetime; nearly 25 percent of men experienced some form of contact sexual violence.
What we know about sexual misconduct typically applies to men harassing or assaulting women. Twenty to 25 percent of men report engaging in sexually coercive behavior, ranging from rape to guilt-tripping a woman into having sex.
We also acknowledge that risks and experiences can vary for folks with different physical traits, expressions, cultures, and preferences. It is never the responsibility of victims to prevent offenses by changing or hiding their whereabouts, identities, and/or expressions.
To help create and maintain a safe trail community, we’re outlining uncomfortable things you might do; known unacceptable behaviors; and ways to safely intervene if you witness any of the above.
Men, Would you Recognize These Behaviors as Creepy?
Helping others to feel safe requires a certain level of both self-reflection and ability to put yourself in another’s shoes. “You don’t have to be an expert to stop perpetuating negative behaviors,” says Keith. “Know what’s going on in society, understand how it presents in our communities, and be open to learning.”
To guide you, we’ve pulled advice from experts, anecdotes from our trail crew, and our collective hiking experiences to call out a few welcoming and unwelcoming behaviors.
- Notice how folks respond to you: are they calm and engaged, or are they distant, hesitant, and fidgety? Respecting boundaries, greeting trail users, and offering encouragement are great ways to make people feel welcomed.
- Avoid putting folks on the spot. “Questions like ‘do you feel safe?’ or ‘where are you heading tonight?’ can put someone on edge, especially if they’re alone,” says GMC Field Coordinator Isaac Alexandre-Leach. “We acknowledge that this is standard trail conversation, but let’s change that.” If someone wants to offer that info as part of the conversation, they’ll bring it up themselves.
- Commentary, questions, gestures, or derogatory terms around sex, gender, or orientation are not appropriate for the trail (or anywhere). Choose appropriate language and conversations.
- “Make no assumptions. Get consent before you intrude someone’s personal space or say something of a sexual nature,” says Keith. “Yes, you’ll be uncomfortable while checking in on boundaries, but that’s normal and healthy. This isn’t about making you comfortable.” See Vermont’s definition of consent.
- Save the mansplaining. Mansplaining means overexplaining a concept, typically to women, under the conscious or unconscious assumption that they don’t know as much as a man does. We see this all the time with outdoor activities, especially toward feminine-presenting individuals. Don’t know if you’re mansplaining? Check this flow chart.
- Withhold unsolicited opinions and judgements. Remember: we all start learning somewhere, and it’s up to others to decide if and when they want help. Unless it’s a matter of safety (for example, you notice someone washing dishes in a stream or hanging their food from the shelter), let them learn and do at their own pace. If okay to ask, “would you like help?”, but be ready to accept a “no.”
How to Recognize a Bad Situation & Help
Across the globe, there is a phenomenon called the bystander effect. The idea is that the more witnesses there are to a bad situation, the less likely someone is to help because the responsibility seems diffused among all those people. Consequentially, the severity of the situation gets downplayed because no one is reacting, which can further traumatize the victim and witnesses. This, as you can imagine, can be especially problematic in the backcountry.
Paying attention to your surroundings and listening to your instincts when something seems “off” are the first steps to safely helping someone in need. Of course, you never want to put your own safety at risk. The following are acceptable options for bystander intervention; use your best judgement and help others however you can.
- If you witness an interaction that feels “off,” know how to intervene without compromising yours or someone else’s safety. Pay attention to body language, signals for help, and details that don’t quite make sense.
- Understand the risks others might face. Learn how to be a good ally to those different than you or who may face marginalization on the trail.
- Call out bad behaviors. “Observing your friends when they say something disrespectful or intimidating is condoning that bad behavior,” explains Keith. Speak up and address it in the moment if you can.
- If you think someone is being victimized, discretely ask if they’re okay or how you can help. “Research has shown this tends to be a safe intervention,” says Keith.
- Garner support from others around you to call out, stop, respond to, or document bad behavior instead of taking it on solo. “It’s not about trying to be a hero; it’s about keeping someone safe,” says Keith.
- Guard others’ privacy. It’s not your place to offer details about others’ plans or sleeping arrangements (even if they’re in your hiking group); doing so could compromise their sense of safety, says Isaac.
- Record an incident when appropriate. Photos, videos, and sound recordings can assist law enforcement.
Tips for Keeping Yourself & Others Safe
If you know you’ll be out on the trail, either solo or with a group, having a safety plan can ease anxieties, improve team dynamics, and troubleshoot problems more seamlessly. While no one is expected to predict or prevent harassment or an attack, having a plan can help you escape a bad scenario.
- Never put your own safety at risk. Use tools like distraction, delegation, documentation, delay, and direction to de-escalate a bad situation and help others.
- In a bad situation, stay calm and trust your gut. It’ll help you assess a situation, make decisions, and exit safely. If you need to communicate boundaries, be as clear, calm, and assertive as possible: “I need you to back up”; “do not touch me”; “let me pass.”
- Most trail users are kind, helpful, and welcoming. Strike up conversations to build camaraderie — either on the trail or online. Online hiking communities, like those on Guthook Guides and Facebook groups, can even help you find a hiking companion.
- Do what’s right for you. It’s okay to responsibly carry bear or pepper spray, especially if it makes you feel safer, says Isaac. Likewise, if you notice someone carrying it, trust they have good reasons for doing so, he adds. In Vermont, it is legal to carry pepper spray for self-defense.
- Don’t feel obligated to discuss your party or hike plans with strangers, adds Isaac. Questions like “how far are you going today?” are common in the outing community, but that doesn’t mean you have to answer them if they make you feel unsafe. Try “I have to check with the group,” or “I can never remember the names of the landmarks.”
- Share your travel plans – including your route, camps, timing, and emergency plan – with someone you trust. Explore RAINN’s Safety Tips for Traveling, but also consider unique circumstances presented by hiking and sleeping in the backcountry.
- Before overnighting, consider the relative popularity of the overnight site, distance from the main trail or road crossing, and cell phone coverage. Have a backup plan if you need to leave. This includes researching nearby shelters as well as tenting regulations on the particular land that you are crossing. The Long Trail Guide is a great resource for this information on the Long Trail.
- Carry the right gear to execute your back-up plan. “Have a tent packed in case you need to move on, or if there simply isn’t room in the shelter,” says Isaac.
- Discuss your risk threshold and exit plan with your hiking companions, if applicable. Sharing concerns ahead of time – and game planning solutions with the team – can help you recognize, intervene, or ask for help if anyone feels uncomfortable.
- Consider the bigger picture: maintain strict boundaries around your safety while being mindful of other factors at play, such as a state of shock or physical distress, power dynamics and bullying, or a mental health crisis.
- Before entering the backcountry, consider researching or taking courses that may help you navigate tricky situations: wilderness first aid, mental health first aid, and crisis response training can help you recognize and respond to unsafe situations. Remember though: never exceed your expertise.
We are all responsible for fostering a safe and comfortable backcountry experience for ourselves and others. We want all hikers to feel comfortable and prepared when heading into the woods. The outlined options are meant to empower you in helping us accomplish this. Remember:
- Understand how your words and actions could make someone uncomfortable.
- There is no one-size-fits-all response in an uncomfortable or dangerous situation. Use your best judgement to help others while maintaining your own safety.
- Victims never deserve or ask for harassment or assault. Instead of blaming victims, offer support and safety and help protect the dignity of those who have experienced harassment.
- When possible, report incidents to the appropriate law enforcement (see below). Emergency response is not always possible or reliable in the backcountry, and you may not be able to place a phone call or report an incident at the time it is occurring. An accurate record of incidents can help law enforcement prevent future interactions or help connect people with resources when necessary.
- We cannot prevent all incidents of harassment on trail. However, fostering a safe community for everyone can deter bad behavior and empower others to enjoy the trail.
Have you been Impacted by Sexual Harassment or Assault?
If you find yourself in need of medical services, please contact any of the following local agencies:
- For medical attention, STD testing, and forensics exams, please visit a local emergency room or your primary care physician.
- Planned Parenthood: see link for Vermont locations and contact info.
For counseling and resources, please contact any of the following local agencies:
- The Vermont Network Against Domestic & Sexual Violence: (802) 223-1302; [email protected]
- H.O.P.E. Works: (802) 863-1236
To report a crime or to alert local authorities, please contact:
- 9-1-1: In an emergency, always call 9-1-1 (when there’s cell coverage; note that in Vermont you can also text to 9-1-1, which sometimes will work when a voice call won’t). “Dispatchers are trained to direct your call to the appropriate responders, which can vary based on circumstances and schedules,” says Neil van Dyke, search & rescue coordinator at the Vermont Department of Public Safety.
- Vermont State Police: (802) 878-7111. Based on the nature of the incident and your location they can forward your call appropriately.
Thank you to the following authorities who helped inform and vet this piece: Keith Smith, men’s counselor at the University of Vermont; Catherine Ducasse, victim advocate & associate director at H.O.P.E. Works; Neil van Dyke, search & rescue coordinator at the Vermont Department of Public Safety; and Isaac Alexandre-Leach, GMC field coordinator.
This piece was authored by Alicia DiCocco, Angela Hilsman, and Chloe Miller.