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Facing Your Fears

Posted by Loren D at Jul 06, 2017 02:58 PM |

How to stop the things that scare you from keeping you inside.

What seems scarier: meeting a bear on trail or driving to the trailhead?

Bears and other wildlife rank among the most common fears for hikers. Cars? Not so much. And yet vehicle accidents were the second-highest cause of death in national parks in the last six years. Wildlife attacks were among the rarest.

Study after study has shown that when it comes to fears, we humans often get it wrong. The way that fear works in the brain is different than other cognitive processes—fear can be triggered without our ever being conscious of it. I avoid sleeping near streams because their “babble,” which sounds like people talking, freaks out my brain, despite the unlikelihood of a casual midnight dinner party happening in a remote alpine basin.

Bears rank as one of the biggest hiking fears among Washingtonians. Photo by Thomas Bancroft.

Putting fears in perspective: Reflect, Research, Learn, Practice

So how do we, as new or experienced hikers, put risks and our fears in their
proper perspective?

A good first step is to figure out what you’re afraid of—and why. Figuring out exactly what you’re afraid of will help you assess whether your fear is well-founded. If you’re afraid of the darkness, ask why—are you worried about animals attacking you or about getting lost? It took me years (and some zip lining) to discover that I did not, in fact, have a fear of heights but rather a fear of falling from very exposed trails and ledges. Understanding that has helped me work on the fear.

The next step is to not accept your fears at face value. Do your research and find out if your fear makes sense for your outdoor activities and skill level.

Once you know exactly what you’re afraid of and if those fears are well-founded or not, there’s nothing left to do but face them. Make a plan of action and shore up any skill gaps you identify. If you’re afraid of getting lost in the woods, take a navigation course. If you’re worried about tripping and falling, work on improving your balance and pick up a pair of hiking poles.

Grand Pass by Drew B.jpeg
Fear of heights can hold many hikers back from exploring the peaks in Washington. Photo by Drew B.

Research pays off as you design your action plan too: Hiking with dogs makes some people feel safer from wildlife encounters, but having a dog with you actually increases the risk of animal conflicts.

Then, begin to test your fears in low-risk scenarios. Worried about getting lost? Plan your hike along a trail that follows a river or lake, so you can practice navigating without much danger of getting disoriented. Spooked by camping in the darkness? Pick a full-moon night. You can also go with an experienced friend or a group of peers, one that you know will put your safety first.

What are you afraid of? Take our online poll. Have you conquered a fear? Tell us about it.

This article originally appeared in the July+August 2017 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.