Guide, Veteran, Mother, Cancer Survivor: Rebecca Walsh on How To Hike Like a Woman

When outdoor guide and army veteran Rebecca Walsh was in treatment for breast cancer two years ago, there was a moment when she was so weak, she couldn’t walk around the block without help. 

“I was really sick during chemo,” Walsh tells me. “I couldn’t work. I couldn’t get outside. It felt so alone and isolating.”

And it wasn’t just physical symptoms that brought her down. The drugs brought on a host of negative emotions like sadness, anger and discouragement – plus this nagging feeling that she would never be her strong and athletic self again. 

She got through this dark time by refusing to close down and hide from the things she could no longer do; instead, she immersed herself fully in the world of outdoor recreation, in whatever capacity she could. She began reading and listening to other women’s adventures.

And something magical happened: rather than resenting that she couldn’t get out there herself, that content helped her to once again see herself (eventually) in those stories. 

“It gave me hope and a feeling like, ‘I can’t wait to get back out there.’ ”

The idea for a virtual summit of outdoor women came to Rebecca Walsh while she was receiving chemotherapy for breast cancer.

The idea for a virtual summit of outdoor women came to Rebecca Walsh while she was receiving chemotherapy for breast cancer.

“Everybody Has a Story.”

Walsh is the founder of Hike Like A Woman, a decade-old guiding and education organization that helps women access the outdoors with with confidence. Walsh tells me that, like the adventure stories she was following while she was battling cancer, Hike Like a Women is all about empowering, encouraging, and supporting women in their outdoor adventures.

The organization got its start long before Walsh’s diagnosis, back when she and her family moved to Laramie, Wyoming and she opened an outdoor retail store and ski shop. As a newcomer and a mother of young children, she thought it might be a nice idea to set up a “mommy blog” and lead a local hike each week as a way to connect with local women.

“Things just blew up” from there, Walsh recalls. Soon she was guiding overnight trips in the nearby mountains, then eventually in half a dozen overseas locations including Iceland, Tanzania, and Peru. Through it all, her intention was always to support women who oftentimes were on the first outdoor trips of their lives.

As a former Public Affairs Officer for the US Army who escorted embedded reporters all over northern Iraq, Walsh is well suited to guiding.

“They had to have a place to stay, be well fed, be prepared with appropriate equipment and gear, know where they were going and have access to speak to any soldier,” she says of the journalists she stewarded. “This made a difference in how they viewed what we were doing in Iraq.”

Guiding is similar in many ways. It’s a special skill that requires an extroverted personality, as well as a knack for organization and what Walsh describes as “herding cats.” But maybe the most important quality a guide needs is an earnest desire to get to know people on a deeper level. 

“… Everybody has a story,” says Walsh, “and I find that when you get outdoors, it kind of breaks everyone down and it’s faster to form a friendship.”

Walsh also has a gift of knowing how to motivate them to keep going when the chips are down. “If someone’s having a rough time, sit with them in that space and help them through whatever emotions are coming up, “Walsh advises. “It’s difficult for a lot of women the first time having the opportunity to do something difficult and challenging.”

“This Summit Is What I Needed and Didn’t Have.”

The Hike Like A Woman Virtual Summit will feature 41 speakers: all women, all experts in the outdoors.

It was that compassion and curiosity about people that sparked the idea for the first Hike Like A Woman Virtual Summit. Walsh writes of the summit on the Hike Like a Woman website: “During (chemotheraphy) treatment, I made a promise. That when I was healthy and strong again, I’d do everything I could to amplify women’s voices in the outdoor and wellness space … This summit is what I needed and didn’t have when I was at the lowest point of my life.”

Through the event, Walsh hopes to showcase the stories of the women who have inspired her.

The Hike Like A Woman Virtual Summit is a five-day gathering this May featuring forty-one women from seven countries who are experts in the outdoors. The goal is to inspire other women to feel brave and pursue adventures. 

Walsh tells me she has never met most of these women. In fact, many of them found her once she put the word out that she would be hosting a virtual summit. 

“I’m Amazed by Her Strength and Resilience.”

Mandi Lotze and Amy Beenfield

Like Mandi Lotze and Amy Beenfield. They own Utah-based Rooted and Wild Adventure Co, a subscription-based guiding company with monthly adventures for mothers with and without kids in tow. 

Walsh connected to them because she herself found it hard to take time for herself when her own kids were little. “Mandi and Amy are trying to figure out how to help other moms get outside, disconnect and and re-experience that adventurous side of themselves that sometimes gets lost when you have young children.”

The speaker list also includes British author, photographer and founder of the Introverts Adventure Club, Dee Crute. 

Crute lives with severe autism and ADHD as well as a complex neurological condition. On top of that, she is a survivor of sexual assault – and yet has not only the desire but the will to hike and climb. She now empowers others with serious challenges to reach for their dreams.  

“Dee should be someone who isn’t doing what she’s doing.  I’m amazed by her strength and resilience.”

One of Crute’s mantras that particularly struck me is “Things happen to me or things happen for me,” a perspective shift that can help people reframe their trauma or disability and use it as a source of strength. 

Also speaking at the summit are Pat McNally and Concito Espino,

Walsh describes McNally as a “spunky and fun grandma.” A 4-H Program Leader for four decade and professor at Kansas City State University, Pat heads up a group called the Trail Sisters, a group of outdoors women ranging in age from 28 to 72.

McNally is a farm girl who began her work in the outdoors at a time when there were very few female role models. She learned to dig deep to endure and found camaraderie with other women in the outdoors.

Meanwhile, Conchita Espino is the Executive Director of Asociacion Mar a Mar, which helped build El Camino de Costa Rica. It’s a 174-mile trail from the Atlantic to the Pacific modeled on the world-famous Camino de Santiago. Developed in 16 stages, it passes through coffee, cane, and banana fields, indigenous territory, forest preserves, and a series of canals. Espino will bring to the summit a panel discussion of hikers who have completed this trail.  

(Full disclosure, I am also one of the speakers for the summit.)

“I’m Excited for the Future of Women in the Outdoors Right Now. We’re Kicking Ass.”

Even after the darkest coldest nights, the sun still comes up. It was like a rebirth

Even after the darkest coldest nights, the sun still comes up. It was like a rebirth

Walsh emphasizes that this summit is, in her words, not “full of sleazy sales pitches and guilt trips.”

“We’re constantly sold and pitched new things over and over which ends up being just a sales funnel. This summit is not that. It’s just women sharing stories, expertise, knowledge.” Although there will be books and subscriptions on sale, as well as freebies like a chance to win a guided trip to the Grand Canyon.

Meeting people from all over the world showed Walsh that there is a lot more that connects us than divides us. “I’m excited for the future of women in the outdoors right now. We’re kicking ass, and it’s only getting better.”

This may be the first annual summit, but it’s likely to be repeated. Walsh says she’s gotten a far bigger response than she expected. “Eight women have already reached out to me to be a part of next year’s summit. This is going to be a thing!” 

“I’m Trying To Break Down Barriers.”

Cancer treatment left Walsh feeling, as she describes, “beaten up, bruised and attacked.” She also asked herself who she wanted to be after cancer and realized that owning a store and a ski shop went against her values of breaking down barriers to women’s entry in the outdoors. So she sold it to focus full time on Hike Like A Woman, guiding trips and leading the virtual summit.

“I don’t want to put barriers in the way of a woman being able to go outside, but with my ski shop, here I was trying to sell all this expensive gear because that’s how I was trying to feed my family. But with Hike Like A Woman, I’m trying to break down barriers.”

After surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, Walsh was buoyed by the women she read and listened to and is giving back that gift to the community through this summit. 

“Cancer is about finding the strength to just put one foot in front of the other. But like backpacking, after the storm, a rainbow appears. Even after the darkest, coldest nights, the sun still comes up. It was like a rebirth.”

All images, including featured image, courtesy of Hike Like a Woman.

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