“Bro Culture” and the Thru-Hiking Community

There’s been a lot of talk recently about “bro culture” on long trails and in the outdoor community in general. Last week, I experienced it firsthand on the Pacific Crest Trail—and the outcome wasn’t what you might expect.

In the trail town of Tehachapi, I stayed at a trail angel’s house with two other female hikers and seven male hikers. Late at night we were all packed into the hot tub, drinking beer, and telling jokes. One of the guys started telling a story in which he described someone as a “c*nt.” My stomach churned at the use of the word but I didn’t say anything. Ten minutes later, another male hiker used the word again, so I decided to speak up.

“I just want you guys to know that when you use the word c*nt derogatorily, it makes me squirm,” I said. “Could you please not use it around me?” The first guy who had used the word looked taken aback and didn’t respond. But the second guy, a hiker from England, immediately had a comeback. “We use the word d*ck to mean jerk, don’t we?” I thought about explaining to him that I didn’t think that was a fair comparison because of the power differential between the words, although I agree that both words are degrading. But since he was clearly drunk, I didn’t go there. “I hear you, and if you didn’t want me to use the word d*ck derogatorily, I wouldn’t,” I replied. “But that’s not what we’re talking about. I’m asking you to please not use the word c*nt. It really makes me uncomfortable.” He started to argue with me again and I began to lose my patience. “Look, we don’t need to have a discussion about this. Just please don’t use that word in my presence.” In response, he laughed and started chanting the word in a singsong voice.

He was probably trying to use humor to diffuse what he saw as an uncomfortable or awkward situation. But there was nothing I could do but get out of the hot tub. I couldn’t continue to have a conversation with the guy. He was clearly in no state to listen.

As I grabbed my towel and went into the house, I overheard another male hiker say, “That’s toxic masculinity, dude.” Later, I learned that the hikers who remained in the hot tub had a long conversation about what happened. The British guy apparently felt badly about upsetting someone but didn’t understand why it was such a big deal because, in his country, the word is a common slang word. Another hiker explained to him that if someone tells you that something you’re doing is making them uncomfortable, regardless of what’s considered acceptable where you’re from, the respectful thing to do is to stop doing it.

From left to right: Stargazer, Brenda (Tehachapi trail angel), Gazelle (me), and Blue Taco.

Over the course of the next hour, three men approached me separately to apologize for the drunk hiker’s behavior. I was touched by their solidarity. Then, the next morning, I was headed into town for food with two other hikers when both of the men simultaneously brought up the incident. “I just want to say that I’m sorry about what happened last night,” one of the hikers told me. The other guy said that witnessing that interaction between me and the drunk hiker was illuminating for him. “I think I might come off as offensive like that when I’m drunk,” he admitted. “I want to be more respectful and careful from now on.”

Finally, a few hours later, the British guy—now sober—approached me. “I know that I deeply offended you last night, and I regret being so insensitive,” he said sincerely, looking me in the eye. “I’m sorry.”

In the end, the interaction in the hot tub wasn’t good. But the responses of the other male hikers—and, eventually, that of the drunk man himself—were. Standing up for what is true for us isn’t always easy, and it’s unfortunate when we are met with dismissal or disrespect. But uncomfortable interactions are necessary for progress. They are a good indication of how far we have to go as a culture, but also, of how far we’ve come. I’m impressed and moved by what I perceive to be an increased openness to hearing and honoring women’s experiences, both in the outdoor community and in the wider culture.

👣

I’m hiking from Mexico to Canada as a fundraiser for girl empowerment nonprofits. To learn more and join my community of funders, visit my website or go to YouCaring.com/hikeforgirls.

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Comments 10

  • Ana : May 14th

    Glad you spoke out, and glad to hear about this outcome (if not the interaction itself). Happy hiking!
    -a-

    Reply
  • Gary Stell : May 15th

    So glad you spoke up in what was obviously a very uncomfortable situation. I hope girls everywhere see this and are empowered by your strength and your convictions to do what’s right. OneWay

    Reply
  • Dirk Jacobsz : May 15th

    You should have hit them upside the head. As a male, a brother and a husband it is not acceptable.I spent 3 years in the Rhodesian Army and we would have smacked any male that swore in front of girls/ladies. It’s ok when you are shooting shit with other blokes… but boys have some respect for yourself and the people you are with. Well done for speaking up.

    Reply
    • Douche Packer : May 15th

      Dirk Jacobsz, can you tell us more about your time in the white supremacist Rhodesian Army???

      Reply
  • Nanook : May 16th

    Ok, long day of hiking, a few too many drinks and a nice relaxing hot tub is no reason to be a jerk!
    I almost decided not to do my SOBO hike of the AT starting in July because of people like you describe.But I figure everyone can do their own thing AKA “Hike you own hike” but just be considerate of those hikers around you.
    We “hiker trash” are a very small community indeed so let’s strive to respect and help one another as often as we can.
    Take care and happy trails!
    NANOOK

    Reply
  • Josh Johnson : May 17th

    Glad you ended up with some positive outcomes. Everyone has weaknesses and failures, but it sounds like the crew you were with recognized the need for change. Cheers to that.

    Reply
  • Holly : May 18th

    Just wanted to say that the British guy lied. The word c**t is not a commonly used slangword in the UK and the vast majority of British people wouldn’t use that word on a regular or even semi-regular basis. I would say it’s classed as one of the really unpleasant swear words used in the UK. I just don’t want people to think the British use that word as a common slang word.

    Reply
  • Tanya : May 18th

    I want to echo Holly’s comment and reiterate that that word is just as offensive here in the UK as it is on the PCT. I am glad the chap in question reflected on his behaviour and was willing to learn from being challenged on it.

    Reply
  • Ryan Unger : May 18th

    Props to you for saying something. Thank you. To the guys involved…I am proud of you saying sorry and owning up to being inappropriate. It is small decisions like this that change entire cultures. HIKE ON!

    Reply
  • Eric Blair : May 21st

    The word only has power because you don’t use it and keep it taboo. Start using it and it will lose all it’s potency. Never the less there are many nations of the World where the word c*nt is used affectionately as a term of endearment such as “here’s me mate Mick, he’s a good c*nt”. Russell Means, the Oglala Lakota activist for the rights of American Indian people, once said “I don’t care what you call me, it’s how you treat me that counts”. Hear Hear!

    Looks like it’s not just USA where you can’t say Jeremy Hunt. Perhaps the best medicine for the sick who believe more in words than actions is some lighthearted wisdom from Kevin B Wilson’s magnus opus: https://youtu.be/iwBR0qwHZBA

    🙂

    Reply

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