Where My Girls At? A Look Into the Absence of Females in the Backpacking World

Over the last couple of months I have been planning and going on shakedown hikes to test gear and get some trail miles under my belt before heading out for my thru-hike next spring. One very big thing I’ve noticed is that women are very poorly represented.

The ugly truth.

This really hit home for me when I started looking for hiking partners. On every section that I’ve hiked, I ended up hiking with a male hiking partner. Once, a female friend joined me and the guy I was meeting up with for the section. I tend to post on various facebook groups about my plans (vaguely, for safety reasons) and lots of people respond with interest, and they are almost all men.

Now, I don’t mind hiking with men. I tend to enjoy it. My poor mother must have nerves of steel, being the one to bear the burden of hanging onto my GPS coordinates and knowing that I’m meeting a man, who is often a total stranger, at a trail-head. However, it would be cool to occasionally have female companionship, to share a passion and love for hiking with another girl. I decided to look into it a bit.

The facts of the matter.

In doing some research, I found a very interesting paper published by the NIH that studied long-distance backpacking in women, specifically women on the Appalachian Trail (man, would my master’s degree have been more interesting if this had been my research topic!)

The study claims that women are more likely to feel constrained by safety concerns, inadequate facilities, and fear of pests than men are. It also says that women are much less likely to hike alone than men, which could have something to do with the difference in numbers. The survey included men and women who hiked more than 7 consecutive days in one trip. I found it very interesting that the researchers found that only 57% of the women surveyed finished their intended hike, while 72% of men did, considering that the Appalachian Trail Conservancy reports that around 25% of completing thru-hikers are women, even though the number of women attempting a thru-hike compared to men is a smaller percentage (exact number unknown but most sources say somewhere between 15-20% of attempting thru-hikers are women.)

But girls are good at hiking…

Most articles on the matter quickly delve into reasons why women excel at long distance hikes. Women tend to carry more body fat and therefore do not become as emaciated as men during their hikes. While most women are shorter, with shorter legs, therefore hiking slower, women tend to have greater endurance and can go just as far, if not farther than most men. Liz Thomas (trail name Snorkel) thru-hiked in 2008 and in her article for American Hiker, she states that her biggest concerns, and what she felt like were the biggest concerns for most young women on the trail, were how men would treat her in such a male dominated climate, and especially in resupply towns. What she found was that she did not feel unsafe on the trial or in town, although she did compare thru-hiking with a bunch of men to working or going to school in male-dominated areas. She states that women on the trail do sometimes have to deal with sexist remarks and actions, but that for the most part the guys are completely harmless. The NIH article states that researchers found no significant difference in frequency of injury or illness between men and women long distance hikers, and, other than menstruation issues, found no reason why women should shy away from hiking or should be less likely to finish.

So, where my girls at?

LADIES! Where are you? And why aren’t you enjoying and taking advantage of outdoor recreation at the same rate as men? Now, I realize that Appalachian Trials has a lot of female hikers as bloggers, but I don’t feel like that is an accurate representation of the number of females that are actually out there on the trail. Just as some food for thought, THIS blog post by Katherine Imp (trail name: Ringleader) attempts to debunk some of the more frequent claims against hiking as a girl.

How can we promote and increase the number of girls that take to the trail? How do we make long distance backpacking more appealing to women? If I had an endless amount of time and money, I’d turn that into a PhD thesis…

Since I can't do a dissertation on long distance hiking, I'll just stick to long distance hiking and soaking up views from mountain tops. This photo was also taken this past weekend on Siler Bald.

Since I can’t do a dissertation on long distance hiking, I’ll just stick to long distance hiking and soaking up views from mountain tops. This photo was also taken this past weekend on Siler Bald.

 

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Comments 15

  • Avatar
    Fran : Jan 22nd

    Girl, you need new friends! I am the organizer of a women’s hiking and backpacking group based in Atlanta. You can search on facebook “Off the Grid Outdoor Adventures for Women”, or see our calendar at : https://www.meetup.com/Off-The-Grid-Outdoor-Adventure/ . I also lead for several other women’s hiking groups in Georgia, Tennessee, and South Carolina, and can assure you there are literally thousands of female hikers and backpackers out there. 🙂

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Hannah : Jan 22nd

    Great post! I had a lot of discussions about this on my 2013 SOBO. So many boy scout troops come hit the trail for multi-day hikes and a good bit of the guys I met along the trail remembered falling in love with it as kids, where are all the Girl Scout troops? Gotta get them when they’re young!!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Kelly : Jan 22nd

      They’d make a killing if they brought cookies with them.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Hanley : Jan 22nd

    I think the reasons women aren’t represented in hiking are similar to the reasons they aren’t represented in a lot of different arenas – less financial resources for gear and time off due to the wage gap (which is exponentially larger for women of color), more family responsibilities due to single motherhood, and of course, ye olde safety concerns which are ever present. I don’t think it has much to do with physical capabilities. My 2 cents.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    beckon4 : Feb 8th

    I was over 50 making my thru hike in 2002. I was happy to see more women on the trail compared to the years before when I hiked with my sons and also as a boy scout leader. Yes I went on countless 50 milers with my boys and others as a BSA leader to many sections along the AT. Back then I almost never saw another woman hiking. My experience on my thru hike was that there were very few women in the over 50 crowd hiking solo. Not even very many with partners. I had wanted to hike for 30 years and simply gave up on finding a partner. If you are a single woman of any age, just get out there and do it. I am contemplating doing it again but still not sure about a second time around.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Chris : May 21st

    I’m planning a nobo half-thru for 2016 (stating at Springer, stopping at Harper’s and going home to Pittsburgh). From my own experience, there’s 4 major reasons no other woman will join me, even for a section:

    1. They have babies. I’m 35 and childfree. Everyone else is far too wrapped up in mothering. I’m glad it makes them so happy, but they are not free to go anywhere for a long, long time.

    2. Period problems. Again, I’ve lucked out. I have PCOD (Poly Cystic Ovarian Disease). I get perhaps one period a year, if that. I cannot Imagine trying to deal with that on the trail, every month, for months. If it happens once, fine. Twice, okay. If I start getting a monthly cycle, I’m ditching off the trail and coming home.

    3. Fears about random killers and rapists in the woods. Seriously. I can’t help but laugh, but they’re serious.

    4. Job woes. I’m a freelance writer and work when I want or need to. Everyone else i know is busting heavies at the office or is tied to a computer like it’s their spouse.

    I am fully expecting to be surrounded by nothing but recent grads and the retired on the trail. I’m a unicorn, by luck and circumstance.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Mel : May 26th

    We are at the Appalachian Mountain Club! (Specifically the Boston Chapter)

    – Female Hiker
    http://www.femalehiker.com

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Jill : May 28th

    I just did a survey on this, and the number one reason women said they don’t get outdoors is time. Others said not having any friends who would go with them was an issue. We have to give women permission to try something new, and give them everything they need (phsycially & mentally) to make that leap. Suprisingly, in my business (where I run all-women outdoor trips, but in a book club format) I’ve found my best customers are baby boomers — they have the time and the wisdom to move past preconceived notions. (Forget the middle aged moms — most aren’t interested in missing a soccer game to have an adventure for themselves.) Older women rock!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Taylor Ward : Jul 23rd

    As other people have mentioned if you go to “meetups.com” and type in your zip code you might actually be able to find meetup groups of other hikers, possibly even just for women. You could also join a regular hiking meetup group, get to know people and then start your own meetup group for women if you believe there will be enough interest.

    I think more and more women are getting into long distance backpacking and it is only going to continue to increase. I think the reasons there are less women in general than men are similar to the reasons women get underrepresented in a host of areas. And I do believe that both women and men encouraging other women to get out there and hike is a great way to improve womens representation. Men especially could work on being more inclusive, less macho and sexist, and open minded. Girl scouts of America could start empowering girls to explore their world, navigate with a compass, push their bodies farther than they’ve been pushed, build their own shelter etc. Moms and dads can make sure that they don’t treat their children differently based on their gender. I.E. fishing trips not being dad-son bonding but whole family bonding. A lot of outdoor activities have in the past been associated with masculinity which definitely needs to stop. There is nothing inherently masculine (or not feminine) about the outdoors.

    I

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Kim : Aug 9th

    I’m glad to have found this blog!
    I’m guilty. I’m a single woman, no children, in my late 40’s. Not only am I concerned about rapists and serial killers out in the woods, but it would really worry and upset my mother and family if I were to go out hiking for months at a time.
    Someone asked why aren’t more minorities out on the trail. As a minority myself (African-American), I’d say the biggest reason is lack of exposure to hiking and the second biggest reason is FEAR of the unknown. Most of us grew up in urban areas and was not exposed to camping, hiking and spending quality time in natural environments as children.
    I’ve hiked in Alaska and NY state as an adult but completed my first solo hike last week in Shenandoah National Park in VA. It was 1.8 mile loop is which is nothing for a real hiker but for me on a SOLO hike, it was a huge deal. 🙂 I emerged from the forest with much more confidence. I hope to do more hikes, specially 2-3 overnight hikes but want at least one hiking partner with me. Although, I enjoyed the solo hike I would have enjoyed having someone to share it with even more.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Katina Daanen : Oct 13th

    Fantastic article! Likewise there are far fewer female paddlers in places like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. I’ve been traveling up there for 25 years (often as a mother/daughter team) and rarely cross paths with any other all female groups. Wilderness teaches girls (and women) so many transferrable lifeskills including self-sufficiency, problem-solving and feeling strong and powerful. There are no good reasons why women shouldn’t be outside playing in dirt (with our without kids.)

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Shalla : Mar 14th

    Aint that the truth! And every time I have made hiking plans on social media with a stranger that is a girl they bail at the last minute. So I don’t mind hiking with guys and have made some great guy friends and hiking partners along the way! And I have gotten very comfortable hiking solo (this took many trips to get to this point!). As a new hiker, I am trying to get as many friends out there to see what I fuss about all of the time. Most are scared, some just think they don’t have the stamina and others don’t have a full day to give to themselves (how sad!). I just keep asking and hoping to get more out there….because I think once you experience nature in the mountains it changes your life in so many ways. It gives you perspective and peace…and a day to yourself is something everyone needs!
    http://www.seekinghorizens.com

    Reply

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