8 ways to stay safe while exercising outdoors
Personal safety is more than just carrying pepper spray.
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‘Tis the season for running, biking, and hiking in the sunshine. With summer quickly approaching, fair-weather fitness aficionados are eagerly returning to their favorite outdoor activities (which you're now allowed to do sans masks if you're fully vaccinated). But whether that’s going for a long jog or a solo hike, you may be nervous about working out alone, especially if you’re in an unfamiliar or sparsely populated place.
If you’re like me, you blame your fear of running or walking alone outside on watching one too many episodes of Law and Order. But it's understandable if outdoor jogging feels like a risk, especially if you identify and/or present as a woman—43% of women have experienced some form of harassment while running outside, compared to 4% of men, according to a Runner's World survey—even if it isn't as dangerous as it’s sometimes portrayed on TV. And that doesn't mean anyone can't be safer by taking some precautions. We spoke with self-defense expert Jenn Cassetta to get some tips on how to stay safe and confident while exercising outside on your own.
Stay alert and aware
Keeping alert and aware of your surroundings is one of the most important things you can do while exercising outdoors, especially if you are in an unfamiliar area. The Road Runners Club of America recommends not wearing headphones while running to ensure you can hear things your eyes may miss, but Cassetta says just wearing one headphone or keeping the volume low is usually sufficient. You can also try wearing headphones that allow ambient noise, like Aftershokz Titaniums, which rest in front of your ears and make it easier to hear sounds around you while listening to music.
Cassetta says it’s important to keep your “eyes and ears open” and to “watch your six” (a military term that basically means “watch your back,” in which “six” refers to the number on the clock). She says you don't need to feel “paranoid” or “fearful” to do this—instead, simply stay alert to what’s going on around you and take note if anything feels strange. If you feel unsafe in a certain area, leave. If you get a funny feeling about someone approaching you, prepare to run to the nearest public place for help.
Cassetta says listening to your gut instinct is vital when it comes to self-defense. We have intuition for a reason, and trusting it can help keep us safe. “Be confident and alert, keep your eyes and ears open, and most importantly, be able to tap into your intuition,” she says. “It’s the biggest gift that we have and it’s there for us to give us signals and messages to keep us safe, ignoring it is probably the worst thing we can do.”
Share your location
Sharing your location can let others know when you might be in trouble. If you live with others, let them know when they can expect you back. And apps like Find My (formally known as Find My Friends) or Run Buddy can let your friends know exactly where you are and if there’s a change in your route.
Find My is an app included on all Apple phones and lets you share your location with contacts who also have iPhones or Macs on a temporary or ongoing basis. RunBuddy is a specialized running safety app (though it can also be used for walking and biking) that sends alerts to your “buddies,” or people you add as your emergency contacts, if your activity sees a sudden change. This may include seriously slowing down or stopping (which RunBuddy says can indicate a medical emergency) or moving much faster than it’s possible to run (which may indicate that you’re in a moving car).
Cassetta recommends RunBuddy because these features can let your friends and family know if you’re in potential danger. In the event of an emergency, sending your buddies an alert the moment you are in trouble can get you the help you need more quickly. Reviewers enjoy RunBuddy’s thorough safety features because it makes them feel safer, and one reviewer even says RunBuddy has “the most comprehensive safety features on the market!” While you can see other users’ locations with the free version of the app, you must sign up for a paid subscription (which costs $9.99 per year) to share your location and access other features like RunBuddy’s panic button.
Use the safety features on your fitness tracker
If you use a fitness tracker or running watch, you may already have access to safety features designed for outdoor workouts. Apple Watches can be connected to GPS and cellular (though you have to opt into this costlier option), which means you can share your location with others directly from your wrist, no phones needed. All Apple Watches also have a “fall detection” feature for medical emergencies. If your Apple Watch senses a hard fall, it will buzz you on the wrist, sound an alarm, and give you an alert, which you can dismiss or use to call emergency services. If you remain immobile for a minute after the alert, your Apple Watch will call emergency services for you and alert your emergency contacts that a hard fall was detected and send them your location.
Garmin, the maker of the best running watch we've tested, has a LiveTrack feature that lets you share your location with chosen contacts while exercising. With LiveTrack enabled, contacts receive an email with information on your location, pace, distance, and when the run, bike ride, or walk ends, which Reviewed’s lifestyle managing editor, Amy Roberts, uses on her Garmin 245 whenever she hits the road. A few Garmin models have their own cellular service (for a fee), but otherwise so you need to bring your phone with you and stay in an area with cell service so LiveTrack can use your phone’s location.
Take a self-defense class
If you’re nervous about exercising outside by yourself, Cassetta says one of the best places to start is with a self-defense class. These can teach you how to stay mentally alert and aware of your surroundings and practice some basic moves to defend yourself. These classes aim to prepare you for worst-case scenarios, which may help you avoid such situations in the first place and feel more confident going about your daily life.
You can take a self-defense course in person or online. Some examples of popular self-defense courses include Krav Maga, Muay Thai, and kickboxing. A quick internet search for “self-defense class near me” can lead you to studios in your area, but you can also find online self-defense classes if you don’t feel comfortable attending in person. Some well-reviewed options include Gracie University’s women empowered program and Situation Effective Protection System’s Women’s Self Defense program.
Gracie University is a well-known self-defense school that teaches Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and offers a “Women Empowered” self-defense class that teaches students how to defend themselves against common types of attacks. Gracie University offers both in-person and online courses, and has four free “Gracie Combatives” classes and four free “Women Empowered” classes so you can try a few lessons before signing up for a $150 program. Situation Effective Protection System, or SEPS, offers a free online self-defense course that reviewers like for its all-encompassing approach to safety. Not only does SEPS teach you self-defense moves to fight off an attacker, it teaches students how to predict and de-escalate violent situations.
Consider getting some safety devices in disguise
If accessing your phone is difficult while you’re out, you can also try invisaWear or Flare, which are both safety devices disguised as jewelry. InvisaWear makes necklaces, bracelets, scrunchies, and athletic bands that hold a removable button powered by ADT Security that allows you to send your location and an emergency text to preselected contacts. It also lets you opt to have ADT call 911 for you and provide emergency services with your location, unless you confirm you are safe by providing a PIN.
Flare sells different styles of metal bracelets that hide a small panic button that allows you send an alert to emergency contacts or 911 or send a pre-recorded call to your phone so it looks like you're on the line with someone. InvisaWear and Flare can both be used without any subscriptions or additional fees, but invisaWear also offers a premium subscription for $19.99 per month that lets you contact an ADT agent at any time and will have an agent call you if you use invisaWear to contact emergency services.
Cassetta loves hidden safety jewelry, especially invisaWear, as a bonus measure of protection. “If you're in a situation and not feeling safe you can discreetly call for help,” Cassetta says. “I would get these for any college students out on their own for the first time and women who live alone in general.” She cautions that it may not come between you and an attacker should the worst happen “but just the reminder of why you have it in the first place, or the motion of clipping it on is a cue for your brain to be aware and alert. Awareness is the key to safety.”
Make a ruckus with a personal alarm
Personal alarms make loud noises when triggered and are designed to draw attention to you, let others know you feel unsafe, and scare off potential attackers. These devices are preventative and are most effective in a crowded, public place where people would be able to hear the alarm and take notice. Cassetta likes personal safety devices, like alarms, which help you feel more confident about your ability to call for help. “If you can’t use your voice, if you can’t feel strong in your voice and yell, then use the alarm as your voice,” Cassetta says.
The She’s Birdie alarm is a personal alarm that sounds off when you pull it apart and doesn’t stop until you click your alarm back together. It recently went viral on TikTok, where users raved about its loud sound—130 decibels, according to the brand, which is comparable to a jet plane flying 100 feet above you—bright color palette, and compact, easy-to-use design.
If you get a “pull-the-pin” alarm like She’s Birdie, a personal safety expert who goes by his TikTok handle, @dutchintheusa, recommends putting your personal information like your name and phone number on the inside of your alarm. This way, if the sound doesn’t deter your attacker, or if they are able to dispose of the alarm, whoever finds it will know who it belongs to.
Carry pepper spray (if you feel comfortable)
If you exercise in places that aren’t particularly crowded, carrying pepper spray is the next step you can consider. When an alarm doesn’t scare off an attacker, or if the attacker reaches you before you can trigger your alarm, pepper sprays can help you fight off an attacker.
But you need to be really, really careful when you use it. Pepper spray can spurt 10 feet away on average, and is best to fight someone off who is approaching you but still at somewhat of a distance. You should also only use it if the attacker is downwind from you—if not, the spray could go into your eyes. If you live in a windy area, you may want to consider pepper gel, which has a heftier stream that allows it to deliver a straight shot in the wind. Cassetta recommends both pepper spray and pepper gel to ward off attackers, but urges users to be extremely careful when using it. Even if your attacker is downwind, you may still feel the effects of pepper spray.
Pepper spray is legal in all 50 states, as long as you are at least 18 and have not been convicted of a felony or an assault. But some states have restrictions on the size canister you are allowed to carry, so double check your state and city rules before investing in a canister.
If you live in a rural area and go running in areas where wild animals are frequently spotted, you may want to carry some bear spray. (This is also a good idea if stray dogs may be on your route.) Bear spray can protect you from bears up to 60 feet away, but the National Park Service recommends only buying EPA-approved bear spray—such as Counter Assault—as other brands may not be effective.
- Get the Mace Pocket Pepper Spray on Amazon for $9.99
- Get the SABRE Pepper Gel Keychain on Amazon for $8.99
- Get the Counter Assault Bear Deterrent Spray from REI for $44.95
Practice, practice, practice
Practice is one of the most important parts of self-defense training—the more comfortable and confident you feel about defending yourself, the more naturally it will come in an emergency situation. You can ask a trusted friend to try out some self-defense maneuvers with you and if you carry pepper spray, you can practice spraying at a target.
“Personal safety is a mindset and just like building any other muscle we have to practice,” Cassetta says. “Even if you just take one class, follow it up with practice... the more the better.”
This also helps with gaining confidence—perhaps the most important factor in an emergency. Cassetta says it’s a natural response to freeze, and if you believe you would freeze up in an emergency, then you likely will. But preparing for an emergency and knowing what to do if things go awry is key to staying safe, according to Cassetta.
“Believing in yourself, and believing that you are strong, and that you have this primal instinct to protect yourself if you need to, that’s what I try to instill in women,” she says. “I want to remind people that they have the power, especially women, because we’ve been talked out of it for so long that it’s like ‘enough already.’ ”
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