Fear and the Outdoor Experience

 Avalanche Danger

Fear Outdoors

I was reading Colin Fletcher's The Man Who Walked through Time this evening and I came across a passage where he describes the unsettling feeling of being in a dark canyon when the sun goes down. Even though he couldn't see the walls around him in the pitch black night, he felt their overpowering presence, shutting out all light and sound.

I experienced a similar foreboding feeling this past weekend, driving late at night through Franconia Notch in New Hampshire's White Mountains where the highway passes between the high peaks of the Kinsman and Franconia mountain ranges. I've driven through that mountain pass many times and knew that there were huge mountains on either side of me, but I couldn't see them in the darkness. I felt their presence like a change in air pressure and the road ahead of me became frightfully dark despite my high beams. It felt like the mountains were a malicious conscious force and I was glad when I got to the northbound end of the notch.

This experience reminded me that fear is an inherent part of the outdoor experience, but not something that hikers and backpackers talk much about. I experience fear regularly on many trips ranging from absolute terror to caution and doubt.

Let me give you some examples:

  • Last summer I was caught in a ferocious thunderstorm on the top of Breadloaf Mountain on the Long Trail in Vermont. I was drenched by torrential rain, there were lightning strikes all around me, and then it started to hail. I was afraid, big time. I threw my metal hiking poles as far away as I could and crawled under a dead tree to try to avoid getting hit by lightning.
  • This winter when I was climbing Mt. Washington, I got to a point about 500 ft. beneath the summit where I couldn't catch my breath. It was scary. Attempting to summit this peak in winter was very intimidating for me and I was truly frightened. I'm still not exactly sure what I was frightened of, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't death. It felt like the mountain had a soul and was challenging me. I guess I'm still pondering that one.
  • Two years ago I was climbing Mt. Sunapee in New Hampshire in the early spring. There was a crusty snow on the ground and I was a few hours into my hike when I realized that the entire area I was standing on had water running underneath it. It was a warm day and the entire mountain was melting off. The sound of running water under your feet on a snow shelf in the spring is one of the scariest things you'll ever hear.
  • A few years ago I was camping in the Catskills in an area with recent bear activity. I thought I felt something come through camp at night and trip on my tent guy lines. As I lay in my tent, I tried to make some noise by shouting but I was so scared I couldn't make a sound and was literally paralyzed with fear. To this day, I don't know if I was awake during this experience or if it was a nightmare.

I think the important thing to understand about fear in the outdoors is that it is part of your experience and nothing to be ashamed of. The path to fearlessness, to paraphrase Buddhist doctrine, is to face your fears and not become paralyzed by them. Despite my fears and memories, I remain active outdoors and keep seeking the solace of the backcountry.

How do you cope with fear in the outdoors?


  1. Fear is a fascinating subject for backpackers. Fear of harm coming to them solo walking. Fear of their first wildcamp and the harm that could come to them. I think about my own concerns or fear I had on my early trips compared to now. Going into the wilderness is the perfect tonic and cure for fear. Good post Philip

  2. Having gotten trapped on a mountain by a thunderstorm myself, I can also say that fear is a great lesson-enhancer — now I never fail to check the weather before going and to take the meteorologist's "chance of thunderstorms" more to heart than the ranger's "don't worry, it doesn't look like it'll be raining". :)

  3. I was lost in the Sycamore Wilderness Canyon last year. I was warned not to go in there alone but I went anyway. I had to camp in a creek bed, with no idea of where the trail system (or lack thereof) was. Fear can be a real issue. We talk about gear so much, but our best piece of gear we bring may be the ability not to panic, and common sense. Good post.

  4. I'm glad to read this post. Lately I've had a problem with fear, and attempting to control it. I've done adventure sports for awhile, not very dangerous stuff but climbing, rappelling & things and haven't experience much fear. Over a year ago I totalled my car, was totally fine not even a scratch but it changed my fear level by ten-fold. And trying to real that in is a lot harder than I imagined. Just a few weeks ago me and my dad were trying to cross a creek. I didn't admit it but I felt so unsure (we ended up concluding we didn't need to cross, so that was good) and nervous. Fear & respect might be two sides of the same feeling with nature. But there is a point where fear begins to take control, and its a struggle to work through it.

  5. Cassi – I think you raise a good point that sometimes our fear levels and sensitivity are not just the result of the activity, but the emotional state we bring to it as well from the outside world, like with your auto accident and how it's changed your awareness of fear.

  6. The first time I did any overnighting on the West Coast was 15 miles up the Hoh River valey on the Olympic Peninsula. We'd seen bear and cougar spoor on the way in, and park rangers had "Bear Activity High!" signs everywhere. We camped a little too close to the river – I spent most of the night balancing my need to pee with the fear that the sound outside wasn't a rushing river but was in fact a snarling cougar..

  7. I met a black bear face to face in the Smokey Mountains. My friend and I came over a rise and there he was about 20 feet away. He feigned a charge and then turned and disappeared. Even more frightening than the direct encounter was continuing down the trail not knowing when or where he might reappear.

  8. For me the only part of backpacking I don't like is when the night is at its darkest. Yet, as I sleep fitfully, when the first crack of dawn is visible hours before dawn I relax – I have survived, light is almost back and I fall asleep deeply.

    I have had moments where the adrenaline was going so fast and hard it felt like my heart would burst, having legs that you wonder – will they work. For me that is usually on bad snow or water crossings. After it, I sometimes have to just sit down and deep breathe till I relax.

  9. I can SO relate to this! I experience fear a LOT when I'm backpacking, particularly after the sun goes down and when the sky starts to flash and rumble. I'd bet I felt some measure of fear on 3 out of 4 days on the Appalachian Trail. Sometimes, I'd look around at other hikers, and it seemed they felt no fear at all, but I'm sure that isn't true; they just hid it better than I did. Still, the joy and exhileration of walking a trail or standing on a peak far outweighs the scary times. I do think, though, that fear can be used to our advantage, helping to keep up alert and safe.

  10. Deb has a point about fear being useful. It does sharpen one's attention, and is warranted in many situations, when danger or potential danger presents itself. It's a negative when it's so overwhelming that it prevents action. The flip side for me is anxiety – intense fear or dread without a definite cause or specific threat, like laying awake in the tent, wondering if that was a bear outside? Or just some random noise? The only way I've found to deal with the anxiety component is to face it, get out of the tent and have a look. At least that way I know if I've reason to be afraid, or if I'm just making myself miserable with imagination.

  11. Brian – you raise a good point about anxiety. I find that they are certain places that I hike or backpack in that I consider friendly like the Catskills, the Gunks, and the Long Trail and others like the White Mountains that are less friendly and will show no mercy. The same goes for certain rivers that I kayak. There's definitely no specific cause for these fears, but the anxiety is there.

  12. Great post.

    My son and I did a hut to hut hike last summer. We left Galehead in the morning and had a reservation at Zealand for that night.

    We hiked to the top of South Twin in a huge rainstorm [no lightening thankfully] and when we got to the summit the wind was very stiff.

    My son was not doing well with the wind and rain and I knew we had only covered a faction of the distance. We had the proper clothing and gear but I was truly scared and considered going back down to Galehead.

    Fortunately the trail went down into the woods bet S Twin and Guyot and then the weather turned.

  13. I searched out this article because I am still dealing with a frightening backpacking trip this Memorial Day weekend. Me, my husband, a friend, and our dog were caught in a thunderstorm, complete with lightning and hail, up in the Poconos. After run-hiking for over an hour through the storm, we got to the car at 5 pm. I just read in the newspaper that not 30 miles from where we were at that same time we made it to safety, four people got struck by lightning and were taken to the hospital. And while I am still processing the fact that we probably did everything wrong and could have been seriously injured(like hunkering down under a cliff overhang), I'm still not deterred from going back out there and facing new challenges. It's just that I'm the kind of person that jumps at the bumps in the night, so for me, the feeling of meeting the challenge of the outdoors and surviving to tell the tale is an amazing feeling. I do want to take a survival training course though – there's a big difference between just being brave and being brave and prepared.

  14. Thanks for your post Melissa. Lightning is still one of the most frightening things I've ever had to deal with on the trail. I agree that being prepared is the best path. Stay in touch.

  15. Maybe it's because of the fear and risk factor….real and imagined….that we return to the wilderness to get out adventure fix

  16. Living in Northern AZ, I deal with ALOT of lightning in the summer time, it doesn't scare me, but then again I grew up with it, know all the right things to do, etc. I do all my backpacking solo however and what does scare the bejesus out of me is that long night in a tent, civilization dozens of miles away, no cell signal. I'm not sure exactly what I'm afraid of, I'm usually not in bear territory, and cougars are so rare, I think it's just the fact that I'm all on my own, and nobody is coming to help. Each time I go out, it does get easier though!

  17. An ability to harness fear – to repurpose fear – is the most valuable tool in your kit.

    Assuming your gear is top notch and has been inspected (by you), and you have faith in your skills and experience applying those skills over a wide variety of terrain, then all fear should do is (as mentioned above) raise your awareness. Which should serve you well, hiking, packing, climbing, etc.

  18. Today I was riding my bicycle through the mountains west of Boulder. I was riding up a dirt road with the forest to my right and a meadow to my left, between the towns of Gold Hill and Ward. I had music on in my headphones, but as I was climbing I had this sudden and overpowering feeling that a mountain lion was close by, just in the woods beside me. I took out my head phones and rode as quickly as I could to the top of the climb. I’m sure something was in the woods there watching me, but I never saw what it was. For some reason, I’m also quite sure it was a mountain lion. Has anyone experienced anything like this? It was like I had an internal compass for danger.

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