Recent Posts

Leveling the Playing Field

Henry Coe State Park

We may not look glamorous, but my sister and I are bad ass!

Backpacking, hiking, kayaking, mountain biking, rock climbing and pretty much all other outdoor pursuits in this country are statistically and historically dominated by white people (white men, to be more precise). While there have long been programs designed to expose minority and inner-city youth to the wilderness, it's only been in recent years that a significant surge in access and interest has occurred.

Women, in particular, have really been taking over the outdoor industry. Women now account for more than 50 percent of the market. Female endurance athletes are starting to kick their male counterparts' butts in endurance races. Women are increasingly starting or running small and large businesses that cater to adventurers. Large gear companies are finally taking notice and focusing on designing gear made for women's bodies.

Social media and popular culture have been the driving forces in the increased interest in outdoors activities, which then drive the market and the major players. Instagram handles like @UnlikelyHikers, @BlackGirlsWhoHike and @FatGirlsHiking have generated large followings and have become more than just a receptacle of inspirational photos; the entrepreneurs who started these campaigns are putting pressure on the big-name companies, major publications and advertising firms to take note of what REAL outdoors people look like.

Red's Meadow Resort

Hadn't showered in eight days, but I had my priorities straight!

REI is the latest, and largest, influencer to jump on the bandwagon. REI has dubbed the outdoors "The World's Largest Level Playing Field" and has dedicated 2017 to women with campaigns like #ForceofNature, launches of female-specific gear, and blog posts highlighting adventurous and influential women of all shapes, sizes and colors. Although there is controversy over REI's efforts and the way they are handling the campaign, I commend them for finally doing something and entering the conversation. Others will follow suit. Let's not forget, REI was co-founded by a woman.

I immerse myself in a lot of the impactful social media campaigns driven by women and I read a lot articles and blog posts on the subject. Many women in the industry feel the playing field is decidedly NOT level. They feel traditional media and social media are NOT helping the situation. They feel contempt towards major companies like REI, as well as major brands. As a female backpacker and hiker and intense modern feminist, I see where they are coming from and I agree with them on more than a few fronts.

But much like Facebook's COO, Sheryl Sandberg, I believe we women are commonly part of the problem. If you aren't familiar with Sheryl Sandberg's book and movement, Lean In, her premise is that women are oftentimes their own biggest hindrance in business and in life.

There are complicated reasons why we women might inadvertently hold ourselves back from being the most successful version of ourselves that we can be. The way we were raised by our parents, the schools we attended, the mentors we had, the friends we kept (and keep), the men in our lives, the country (or even state) we grew up in ... all these factors have a profound influence on how we behave and succeed (or don't succeed) in the workplace and in life.

But, if we want to break glass ceilings, branch out, excel and exceed expectations, as well as redefine what success looks like in this country, we need to take a hard look at our own actions and mannerisms and understand how they might be contributing to the problem and then take purposeful steps to effect change in ourselves, and in others.

I believe this is true in the outdoor industry as well. We are, sometimes, are own worst enemies.

In order to truly level the playing field, we need to show up and play hard, but oftentimes, we don't.

Here's what I see sometimes (of course, not all the time) among female hikers and backpackers and outdoorsy women in general, all of whom want that level playing field: self-perpetuated, gender-based stereotypes.

I see women who insist that their male counterparts carry a disproportionate amount of weight in their packs. While I'm all for making my husband carry more weight than me because he is taller and stronger, it's just a few pounds. I would adopt the same philosophy if I was backpacking with a very petite female (I would carry more). Why should men have to carry more than their fair share? The playing field will never become level if we continue to do things this way. It's no wonder that some men (and some women) think women can't hack it "out there".

I see women who "make" their male counterparts set up their tent, collect wood and start campfires because that's "men's work" - and what's worse - they'll brag about it! In other words, we perpetuate stereotypes and gender-bias ourselves. Yet these same women want to be seen as equals in the wilderness. To level the playing field, we need to be self-sufficient. We need to know how to build our own campfires and set up our own tents. Most importantly, we need to teach our sons and daughters that there is no "women's work" or "men's work" in the great outdoors. We need to set the example for the next generation and be cognizant of our own stereotypical behaviors.

I see women who want to be outdoorsy and do adventurous activities but don't want to get dirty or break a nail. While I'm all for women being individuals and wearing whatever they want (including makeup) when they venture outside, we can't be equal players if we aren't willing to play! For certain, most adventurous activities are messy. You can't bring a hairdryer kayaking. Deodorant is useless on a four-day backpacking trip. The best part: you don't need these items in the Great Outdoors and no one has any expectation that you will look pristine and fresh when you summit a mountain after a grueling hike. If you smell good after a few days in the wilderness, there's something very wrong with you!

Dirty Leg

It only took one day of backpacking in Yosemite to make my calf look like this!

Of course, there is a flip side to this particular coin ... why do some women feel like they have to look "good" at all times, even when partaking in a great adventure? Many women who bring makeup, for example, on adventures will say it's for them, not for anyone else. They will say it makes them feel good and they simply like it.

But when I hear that, I want to dig further. WHY do some women feel "better" when they wear, say, mascara on a backpacking trip? WHY. Let's look at the why.

It comes back to culture, media, advertising, societal expectations, habits and more. It's complicated. But the bottom line is: many women don't feel confident or even themselves if they aren't wearing makeup. Although I do not judge women who bring makeup into the wilderness, I do wish they didn't feel compelled to. But I am also the pot calling the kettle black, because I shave my armpits and (sometimes) my legs. Why? Because society told me, from day one, that I needed to. And so I do. I recently tried to stop shaving to see how I would feel. Lord knows my husband could care less, so that made my experiment easier.

Ultimately, I failed. I felt like I got stinky much faster on the trail with hairy armpits. And despite being a pretty confident woman, I was self-conscious all weekend this past weekend with my super hairy legs (with black hair) showing in shorts and capris workout pants. I shaved them last night even though nobody seemed to notice. So I am also contributing the social norms and stereotypes. It's hard.

But still, I posit: WE need to be the change we want to see. Do we want our daughters to also feel compelled to wear makeup on the trail and be perfectly shaved at all times? Or do we want the cycle to stop? We women need to take a stand and say ENOUGH! I'm not wearing lipstick on the trail. I will not have mascara on when I climb cliffs. I will not wear perfectly trendy clothing when I embark on an adventure because it's not functional nor comfortable. I'm not shaving while spending a week in the Grand Canyon.

And if you aren't ready to take that step, no judgment here -- I'm going to continue shaving -- I just ask that we all think about where the desire to wear makeup, shave, etc in the wilderness comes from. Dig deeper than: "I just like it". Ask yourself WHY and then why, and then why again. Until you get at the core of it. And once you've come to the truth of the matter, think about what small changes you can make, if any.

I see women squeal and scream and freak out about the creepy crawlies that live in nature. This one drives me a tad nuts. I'm not referring to women who have an actual, diagnosed phobia. I'm talking about the women who act like their lives are in danger because an ant crawled across their shoe or a spider is resting comfortably in its web in a tree above their tent. This type of behavior is the antithesis of equality and it further reinforces stereotypes and does us no favors.

For the love of all that is good in this world, if you are reading this and saying, "That's me!" please stop! Recognize that your fears are overinflated and unrealistic. Think about it logically. Realize how silly your reactions are and how perfectly they make all women look pathetic and weak and out of control. Make a decision, here and now, to change. I know it's possible because I did it and I know others who have, too. Remember that your children and other people's children are watching. As are the men around you who would prefer the playing field stay male-dominated.


Nothing to be afraid of here, folks! It's just an ant. Photo cred: Andrea Ou

I see black bears who specifically prey on women because they have learned that women, not men, will give up their food and run rather than stand their ground (okay, maybe just one bear, but that's one too many). For more about this true story, please read my essay published recently in Whoa Mag. How insane is it that a wild animal learned to target females! That is true proof that we do not act as equals. Bears don't naturally discriminate. They don't have biases or preconceived notions. This bear developed female-specific predatory behaviors purely based on the actions of women, which differed greatly from the actions of our male counterparts.

We don't need to play the game like men. There are countless professional female adventurers who are feminine. They are not "manly". They don't forsake their desire to feel feminine. They don't suppress their innate female qualities and characteristics. But they pull their own weight. They know how to take care of themselves. And they set the standard for all of us and for the next generation.