Being Female In The Outdoors


With Nat Geo picking a woman as part of the 2018 Adventurer Of The Year list (Mirna Valerio), it is a changing world (and she’s not the only female this year to be on the list). Is the world changing? Are females finally being recognized, that they can be something more than to peddle pink, purple and baby blue backpacks and yoga clothing to?

When I started hiking in college, I’ll admit freely that I did it to get noticed by a guy I was interested in. Oddly enough, I ended up loving hiking and backpacking, and blew past him in that way. I don’t remember his name. I suppose I owe him a thanks on that. For getting me involved in the outdoors as an adult.

In my early 20’s I found my love of hiking. Right up to my Dad lecturing on my poor ideas (in his mind). Finding hiking partners wasn’t easy. What I found over and over was that other women were interested, but had never had a chance to get out. Unless they had a man direct them (be it a boyfriend, husband, father or similar) they had never gone into the wilds. And if they did meet another woman to go with, those same men down talked it, attempting to scare them off (wether or not they realized they were doing this). In many cases the men did mean well, it was paternalism at work. On a backpacking trip once, a friend brought another lady friend who had only hiked with her husband. He had packed her backpack with no input from her. He had packed her a bath towel and pj’s. He packed it as if he was there, carrying most of the gear. She was missing a lot of necessary gear, thankfully she was able to borrow it from the rest of us.

Leading a ladies only hiking class, in the Olympic Mountains (I am in the center, knee up)

The internet and hiking forums brought me a life line in the early 2000’s, and I finally met other women in person who loved hiking as much (or more) than me. Those first backpacking trips of just women were a life changing event. We had it drilled into us that we were not safe, somehow not capable of being in the wilds without a male guardian. But, we did just fine. Amazingly we could read maps, use a compass and even light a fire if needed.

On this trip, a group of ladies did a hike into the Olympic Mountains. Even then, I saw how men treated unaccompanied women. The backcountry ranger at the lakes handed out sites as you came into camp (it was a popular area in the National Park). If it was women, he gave sites near his campsite. Men? They got sent to the end of the lake. He would walk around the lake at night and tuck the women in. Asking how our day was, did we feel safe? Slightly patronizing, but in his mind I suppose he was trying to be solid to us. At least he was nice.

I noticed this over the years. If we car camped as females only, the male rangers would check on us multiple times in a trip. If we backpacked, and had to get a permit, we were asked a lot of questions. But if it was a mixed group, with even just a token male along, they left us alone. Always. Even if the token male was 5’5″ and weighed barely 120 pounds.

Finding A Mentor:

I was heart-broken when my mentor passed away. Long before I met Karen in person, she was my life-line. I lived on an island then, and she gave me the courage to go outside, especially by my self. Her weekly column I’d steal out of the daily paper we left for our coffee shop patrons to read. I was a foamer when I met her in person years later, but as I got to know her, she’d talk of her own frustrations in the outdoor industry. She was my Mom’s age, and she taught me a lot. About life, hiking, being an author, and that in general she was an unrepentant smart ass.

If you can be a mentor to another woman, do it. It is a positive thing, that will fill your soul with happiness. And ask if others want join you hiking – you might get a new partner out of it.

Fear In The Wilds:

Men fill our heads with tales of fear. I realized that my Dad was only trying to protect me from predators when he tried to persuade me to not go alone. Most women I have known or hiked with have at least one tale to share of a creepy man, or having been a victim of some form of assault, be it physical, sexual or mental in their lives. Most women backpackers know to never tell anyone they are alone. I have never put my real name on a self-filled out permit in wilderness for this reason. Those boxes are easily broken into.

Over the years I have had a few encounters with men who were not safe, while hiking. I listen to my inner sense very carefully. You cannot and must not ignore it! If a person makes you feel scared internally, figure out why, and work your way out of the situation. Don’t ignore it. You don’t owe anyone to be polite.

Years ago, when my oldest was pre-school age, he and I had gone to do a river walk, at an area in a National Forest that had opened the day before for the season. It was a midweek day. When we got there, I turned in off the highway. My vehicle was not visible from the highway. Ford and I hiked down the ridge to the river below. We followed the river and enjoyed the quiet early spring. It didn’t feel right and I looked through the open forest to see a lone man approaching me. All he had was a cigarette and a can of pop. He came up to us, and stuck to me like glue. I wandered around the trails, working our way back to the hillside. I leaned down as if to fix something on Ford’s jacket and whispered to him “How fast can you run to the top?” And bam, he took off. I turned, and ran after him. We hit the top, I threw Ford in the truck and got in, locking the doors. As I took off, peeling out, I saw the man come over the top and he looked very pissed. I stopped on the highway, and got Ford into his car seat and got the hell out of there. He was my one time encounter in hiking where the man was not safe – and was a predator. I never told my Dad. I have often thought that the man was driving by, drove in, and saw a vehicle in an isolated area and went looking to see what was there. He was looking for opportunity. And I won’t disagree that I am glad I didn’t become a foot note in an Ann Rule novel.

As an adult I have had a CPL in my state for many years. I don’t think every woman needs one, but she should have the legal right to have one. If she wants one. I’ve never felt fear of a wild animal, but I have of humans.

Sexism and Shoddiness In Gear Shops:

Go into an outdoors store, such as REI. Wait for help. See what is said to you as a female, then do it with a man along. Over the years you get vastly different answers. If they see a man is there, they often assume he is carrying the majority of the gear for you, but also that he is paying for the items, so you find the store associate is talking to the man more than you – often literally over your head. The other one is to have a man go into the store, and ask the same questions by himself, and the clerk starts talking about weight, fabric details, and detailed answers. Instead of how “soft the fabric is” and how warm it will keep you.

Men’s gear is made to be burly, and it lasts. We sometimes get good fitting backpacks (Deuter does well) but often, most gear and companies fail. Women’s clothing doesn’t last, and often has to be babied in caring for it. Pants without adequate pockets, how this is still an issue in 2018 is beyond me, but men’s pants have many pockets, all deep. Women’s, if they even have real pockets (and not just sewn on flaps) are often tiny, and useless. You can’t carry a pocket knife, much less a smart phone. Another issue is women’s pants cut for females without thighs or butts. Or shirts/jackets that expect a female to be a small B cup and under. Yes, there are plenty of athletic/boy body women, but many have hips, breasts and curves.

No Children:

But if you do become a breeder, you best not talk about them. I learned that quickly when I had my second son. Pregnancy is a huge life changing event. When I started hiking after Walker was born, my life was different from it had been 9 months before. I picked back up writing on the blog, but my days of 20 mile days was on hold for a while. Sure, some women can do it. But I didn’t want to. I was enjoying the months and years of sniffing baby heads as they napped on my chest, while I walked slowly. At the time my readership was primarily men, and the backlash was so negative I nearly quit writing. I wrote a personal blog for those years, and ignored Trail Cooking to where I nearly shut it down. I had men tell me directly they didn’t want to read about my children, nor the lame-ass hikes I went on (and that was their words, not mine). That I was deep into Post-Partum Depression didn’t help either. The Sarah that came out of it years later was stronger and now has zero ***** to give to anyone who is offended that I have children, hike with children, and write about children.

Find local ladies with kids, and hike with them. It will fill your heart, and you will get outside, in the hard years, when life is nothing but a blur of helplessness.

And if you want to have 1 or even 10 kids, it’s no one else’s business. Quit making it a point to tell women they have too many children. Unless you were present when the child was made, you don’t have a say. Even with only 3 children, I have gotten some comments on trails over the years about my tribe. A high five to mom, and telling the kids they are awesome hikers is the correct thing to say to women hiking with their kids.

You only get this for a very, very short time.

Be White:

If you are a woman of color, you have yet another strike against you. If you are a woman in the outdoors, the gear industry has shown us that you must be thin, blonde and conventionally cute, bonus points if you look great in a crochet bra top, while doing yoga poses. It is rare to see photo shoots with anyone of color. In the Pacific Northwest it is becoming more common to see more on the trail, but the numbers are still low.

As females, we need to encourage all our friends to go outside! Invite them to go hiking, it may well never occur to them to simply go on their own. You could change a life by introducing them to a new hobby.

Your H-W-R:

No fat chicks allowed. The biggest entry barrier to the outdoors for women who are not thin, is clothing. While I review clothing and shoes on the blog, I don’t discuss companies that ignore a chunk of the potential market. I often get emails and PM’s from women asking where to find pants or shirts in larger sizes. Cutting off a clothing size at 10? I have seen gear companies claim a 12 is plus size. I’ve been thin, chubby, fat, thin and back and forth many times in my life. I’ve been able to wear the cute clothing in my small days and I miss it very much when I can’t. It is so discouraging to women, who want to live healthy lives, only able to find ugly clothing in black or gym gray polyester, in anything above a size 14.  At least there is online shopping these days, so women can find at least some outdoor clothing, and a bit of it that is flattering and or fashionable.

You Can Work In the Industry But……

Men run the show. While more women are working in the outdoor industry, and more are climbing higher, the presence of females is still limited. If you work in the cottage gear industry, it is even lower. You will often feel excluded, nor taken seriously. I have had men who wouldn’t do business with me, but would with my husband. Men that told my husband how awesome he was for creating a business to give me something to do. At outdoor events, conferences and trade shows you may be acknowledged, but getting invites into the core is rare. The men are often afraid their wives will take it as a wrong behavior if they include females without the wives along.

A few years ago I had random male hunt down my personal cell phone number, and called me from Northern Europe not once, but twice. He woke me up in the middle of the night so he could lecture me about the “company I kept” on a hiking forum. That isn’t acceptable under any reasoning. Yet, he thought it was beneficial to me. And worse, I had to use my husband as a threat to make him stop calling me. I have had men on public discussions tell me I didn’t know what I was talking about, and that I needed to show my research – my answer now is I post this as my references:

Mansplaining is a real thing. When women are told they don’t understand their craft, or line of work, even though they are an expert in it. Men who barely dabble in it are asked first. As a man, if you can give a female props for her work, you are being a good person. Be the change, and be a mentor when you can.

We can all be the change. Both women and men. 

2 thoughts on “Being Female In The Outdoors

  1. Yeah, (thoughtfully), what she said, all of it. I have not done any women only hikes, but I have been one of two women geologists for a gravity survey project in the early 80’s, out in the field alone, all day, weeks at a time. A room-mate did her field mapping alone, hiking up and down hills on her own and camping out. Not many believed her because she was blonde and svelte, but also brilliant. Certainly, there were some scary times, but we did it. When my kids were in boy scouts, quite often, I was one of the only three leaders willing to go camping with the boys (another was my husband). It was funny how some of the dads would boast about hunting trips but vanish when it came to a weekend backpack trip with 14 year old boys. Another friend had similar stories with her daughters and girl scouts, even though her husband had regularly taken his daughters on overnight hunting trips, and expected them to do the same work as any boy. Now, I will confess I don’t like rock scrambling or climbing cliff faces, but I am a respectable camper. The knees are starting to go with age, but they are still going!
    Also second the pocket comments vehemently – who are these people who design outdoor gear for women with no pockets! I stuff my snot rag up their noses.

  2. Thank you!! I have spent thousands of hours in the forest thru work and play… When I was a size 12, I bought some of Columbia’s first convertible pants for work. After having 2 kids, finding pants that fit my hips and muscular thighs is nearly impossible. (Eddie Bauer has some 18 and 20 outdoor pants that are ok, but lack the pockets.) My backpacking has been mostly with my sister and my son. I am signed up for a trail work weekend and a leader training weekend, both with WTA, this summer. I’m curious to see how they go.

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