A Safe Space For Women? | We Need To Talk About Bothies - Outdoors Magic

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A Safe Space For Women? | We Need To Talk About Bothies

As the Sarah Everard case highlights women’s experiences of feeling unsafe, we asked avid solo wild camper and author of Book of the Bothy Phoebe Smith to consider if there’s anything men can do to make women feel safe in bothies.

The wind is blowing fast – at least 40 kilometres per hour – nearing gale force levels. Hail falls hard, tapping on my hood as though I’m being pelted with a relentless shower of tiny ball bearings. And the river I must cross to reach a bothy, my sanctuary from the elements, is in spate.

As an outdoor lover there are a great many hazards I willingly take on when headed into the wilderness. From battling torrential storms, to negotiating boulder fields, fording rivers, tackling a crux on a scramble, or mastering a tricky navigational challenge.

Yet as I stand and look at the mountain shelter I’m headed to, a small part of me – one that until now I’ve tried not to admit to myself – knows that no matter what I overcome to make it there, once inside the four walls, not all the potential hazards will be left at the door. And the reason? Because I am a woman.

Photo: Phoebe Smith / Book of the Bothy

I know what some of you are thinking. “Please – can we keep gender politics away from the outdoors?”. I know you are thinking it, because I’ve thought exactly the same. For years I’ve said the outdoors is the ultimate leveller. That it is a completely neutral playing field. That the rocks don’t judge us, that rain – and indeed hail – falls the same on all of us. That’s why when I was asked to write this, at first I hesitated.

Then I thought hard about my experience as a woman who spends a lot of time, solo, outside. Over the years I’ve consistently said that I don’t think of myself as a woman who loves adventure, just an adventurous person who happens to be a woman. And this is true. Never do I summit a mountain and congratulate myself for doing something for ‘womankind’ or believe that what I’ve done is any more of an achievement than it is for my male counterparts.

“There have been plenty of times where I’ve endured casual remarks about how I must have been lucky to find the place…”

When home in the city where I live I do all the things women are taught from a young age when walking about at night – keep my phone to hand to call for help, constantly check my surroundings in case I’m being followed, even clutch my keys between my fingers should I need to protect myself. I had believed that when I head to the hills, and more specifically to spend the night in a bothy, I left this learned behaviour behind. But it turns out I don’t.

When I arrive at a bothy in a storm (or rarer yet, in sunshine) I can’t simply switch off, safe in the knowledge that all potential dangers have been overcome. I have to consider who will be inside already and how many of them? Who might arrive later? Will I be safe sleeping in their company? I scope the building out automatically, without thinking, for escape routes and, on entering, I work out where to place my sleeping bag, usually a spot from where I can see the entire room and where I won’t be boxed in by late arrivals. I place items of kit between me and others as a buffer, I think about what kit I would need to grab if I need to make a sudden exit or defend myself.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not entering these buildings with excessive paranoia, convinced there are men lurking in the shadows out to get me. In fact this whole thought process happens in less than a few seconds – I don’t even register I’m doing it.

In all the time I’ve slept in bothies there has only been one occasion where instinct told me to leave. A man in there was slinging about chauvinistic language and getting way too close to me for comfort. I stayed calm, didn’t react, and casually slipped away by saying I needed to get water. But there are plenty of other times when I’ve endured casual remarks about how I must have been lucky to find the place (did you know that we women can’t navigate?), I’ve been warned that I should be careful about partaking in the age-old tradition of sharing whisky with fellow bothy users (apparently if I was to raped I would ‘only have myself to blame’) and I’ve even endured a man who thought it appropriate to walk up to me and squeeze my bicep to see ‘how strong you are, for a girl’.

Photo: Phoebe Smith / Book of the Bothy
Photo: Phoebe Smith / Book of the Bothy

I want to make clear that I love bothying and recommend it to anyone who asks. I have met some of the kindest people in the world in bothies, and maintain that the mountains and hills are – especially when compared to the city – a safe space. I arrive eager to share tales and floor space with strangers as hill-goers have been doing for decades. But – and it is a small but – there is always a part of me that has to be on alert for signs that it may not be wise to stay.

So it seems, no matter how much I have protested in the past, the truth is that as a woman I have – pardon the pun – had other hills to climb. I have to be acutely aware that in any given situation – especially in the confines of a bothy – if something were to happen to me, all my actions, clothing and very fact I’d chosen to go ‘by myself’ would be scrutinised. The onus is always on me to be mindful and reduce my chance of attack – not on men to be held to account.

Photo: Phoebe Smith / Book of the Bothy

The good news is that any storm is capable of being weathered as long as we have the right kit. So how can you make women feel safe?

The first step is to treat them how you want to be treated. This means being respectful and keeping ‘banter’ of the gender variety to yourself. What may be a ‘bit of fun’ to you can be, at best, casual sexism and, at worse, quietly intimidating.

The second is to keep your friends in check. If your hillwalking companion starts ‘joking around’ saying something inappropriate you need to be the one to shut it down, because if you don’t then you are part of the problem, condoning this behaviour through your silence.

Thirdly, be an ally, if you notice a woman in a bothy is looking uncomfortable because of someone else’s behaviour then intervene, whether that be speaking up, offering to swap seats or sleeping platforms, challenging the perpetrator or simply (and quietly) asking if she is ok.

Fourthly, be aware of space – I once had a group of lads (without asking) clear their kit out of one room so I could have my own space to change and sleep. But such a dramatic gesture is not always necessary – simple things such as not invading someone’s personal space, giving room (if possible) between sleeping mats or topping and tailing if space is tight and offering to leave the room when it’s time to undress for bed, will not only be appreciated but also show you are not a threat.

And finally, the fact that you’ve read this far shows that you are already part of the solution. So share these tips with friends, be willing to talk about this issue (rather than groan) and be part of the discussion. To make a difference it’s vital that we all work together, that way we can be sure that the only risk we face are the ones we choose to, for which we can greet with our waterproofs zipped up and a smile on our face.

Phoebe Smith is an award-winning writer, photographer and broadcaster, host of the Wander Woman Podcast, and author of 10 books.


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