Women in the Woods

Women in the Woods

When I set out to write “Oregon’s Ancient Forests: A Hiking Guide” (with a release date of July 2019!), the idea of the research I’d have to do simply sounded fun - discovering and hiking trails in ancient forests across the state, camping out in new places, enjoying time away from the real world… fun stuff. 

I may have pictured experiencing these new places with friends, co-workers, or family - sharing our love of the outdoors, having each others’ backs on our adventures - all the good stuff that comes with many of the hikes I have taken or led over the years. Though I did have great company on several of my hike-scouting trips for the book (here's a picture of my mom at Cape Lookout), the reality was that I also spent many nights camping alone in far-off, unfamiliar places, and that I hiked hundreds of miles without the companionship of another person. My mom worried. I got lonely (there was usually no way to call and chat with my husband at night). And I was scared at times. I got scared of noises I heard in the night. I feared slipping on loose gravel and sliding off the trail into a fast-moving river. I got a bit anxious when I encountered fresh piles of bear scat. I freaked out a little when the road got rough or a little icy. And I definitely felt fear when I pulled up to a trailhead in the middle of nowhere only to find a single beat-up truck parked, and no one in sight. 

Many of you probably share some of these fears. And many of you would probably forge ahead anyway, like I did - using your knowledge, preparation, and caution to power through that fearful feeling and still enjoy your hike or get a good night of sleep. But for many others, these fears are barriers, not just speed bumps. And I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to say that women make up a big part of this group. 

I’ve led over a hundred public hikes for Oregon Wild over the past dozen years. I can say, without a doubt, that the vast majority of participants are women. I hear from many of them that they don’t feel safe or confident seeking out outdoor experiences by themselves (especially in new places), and that joining a group is essential to them overcoming some of their fear of the unknown, of encountering strangers or wildlife in the woods, or logistics of getting to a trailhead. This makes me feel pretty great, honestly - that I can get these women outside for a good experience, and hopefully have some of my own confidence and experience rub off. 

One of Oregon Wild’s, and my own, favorite partner groups is the Great Old Broads for Wilderness. One of the local group leaders in Eugene and I decided to host a “Broadchat” recently on the topic of “Women in the Woods: Building Confidence Alone and Together.” A hundred and twenty (mostly) women of all ages packed a room on a Sunday afternoon, and corroberated what I had felt myself and heard from so many other women - that there is a LOT holding them back from (or at least making them nervous about) getting outside. 

There are a lot of reasons for this. Some are based in the traditional/historical social roles of women in our society: women stayed home to raise the kids while the men went off to earn money, explore, and have adventures. Girls often weren’t taught outdoor skills, were chastised for getting dirty, and were expected to conform to different gender norms from the boys. Not that this held back some amazing pioneers in mountaineering, exploration, or long-distance hiking, but it did mean most women were held back in the outdoor arena, and that there wasn't a push for the development of outdoors role models, or outdoor clothing or gear made specifically for (or marketed to) women that might help encourage them until fairly recently. 

Today, we have major companies celebrating women in the outdoors (like last year’s “Force of Nature” campaign from REI), and the barriers for women are more logistical than societal. Still, women deal with some unique issues - we often have more responsibility for our families and children, we are more vulnerable to violence or harm, we are less likely to have the extra cash and time to spend on gear and outdoor trips, we are less likely to have role models for our outdoor adventures, and we are less likely to have been exposed at a young age to the skills we need to be successful outdoor adventurers. 

At the Great Old Broads program, I asked the group “what is the main thing that holds you back from doing something outdoors”? The responses included: strangers, getting lost, not having the right car, cougars, having kids, weather, bathroom logistics, hike difficulty, not having companions, getting hurt, water, maps, and gear.

Many of these barriers are logistics-based. For that, I recommended being adequately prepared, and I gave tips on what to think through and what is needed - from doing research on where you’re going, to learning what to do in the event of a wildlife encounter, to carrying the “10 essentials.” For me personally, this type of preparedness - mentally, physically, and with the right “stuff” - helps address many of my fears. 

Logistics, preparedness, and knowledge is one thing, but overcoming some of our deepest fears - the other part of the list of barriers - is another. I can’t pretend to know how to address those fears for everyone - I’ve only been able to break down my own fear-barriers with time and experience. But a good start could be connecting with other outdoors-loving people and taking one step at a time. 

Here at Oregon Wild, we’re having conversations about how we can best meet the needs of our female supporters who want to get outside to get to know, to enjoy, and to advocate for our public lands. This might take the form of more workshops and discussions, or a series of hikes. I'm excited to continue these discussions and build upon this important topic, and excited to have more of these offerings in the coming year. In the meantime, I invite you to check out the resources below, and to join Oregon Wild or another group local to you for a hike. (Winter hikes are coming soon!)

As we explore this issue and work to help break down barrier for women getting out in the woods, I think we can all agree that getting outside and spending time in nature is 100% worth the challenge. Outdoor adventures - for a short hike to a wilderness trek - are great for our minds, bodies, and souls. The more time women spend out there, either together or on our own, the more confident we will become, and the more likely we are to pass this on to the next generation.

A few resources for anyone reading this can be found here (developed for the Eugene Great Old Broads program). And I HIGHLY recommend you check out the book  “A Woman’s Guide to the Wild” by Ruby McConnell, a great friend to Oregon Wild and a woman who has thought through and addressed many of the barriers women face in this wonderful book.