Women in Backpacking, Part I: Lions and Tigers and Bears (and Men)!

*Note for male readers: Sure, this post is geared toward women, but you can definitely learn something, too! It’s a reality that most women have a least a little bit of fear of men while out backpacking. Simply being aware of these fears and understanding them can make you a more empathetic, female-friendly stranger out on the trails!  I encourage you not to skip these posts. And pay attention, because my final post in this series will be geared toward you!*

At the half-way point of the John Muir Trail is Muir Trail Ranch. It’s a very remote outpost accessible only by foot or on horseback.  It’s a haven for weary backpackers who can resupply there, as well as soak in their hot springs, sleep in a REAL bed, do laundry and have amazing meals cooked for them, but only if they are willing to shell out a pretty penny.  And shell out those pennies I did when I was there in 2015 (trust me, it’s worth it)!

Muir Trail Ranch on the John Muir Trail
Muir Trail Ranch: A needed respite for weary thru-hikers on the JMT

In the ranch’s library is a whole host of old books. In one of those old books I found a chart listing how much weight men, women and children should carry in their packs, respectively.  Women were instructed to carry less weight than an eleven-year-old child! I almost snorted when I first saw it.  But that was how we women were viewed back then.

1950's recommended pack wieghts for women.
A 1950’s book showing recommended pack weights for men, “wives” and children.

Women were not historically big backpackers. John Muir didn’t exactly have women shouting, “Pick me!  Pick me!” when he was putting together his exploration groups (though he frequently explored alone).  And even in the 1950’s, when women did go backpacking, they were often considered meek and weak. A double whammy!

Fast forward to today, and women are now dominating the entire outdoor arena!  Don’t believe me? Just check out the latest issue of Outside Magazine (May 2017 issue), with all those strong, independent female icons on the front cover. Women like Melissa Arnot Reid are not just killing it “for a woman” but killing it across genders!

May 2017 Outside Magazine Cover
What an inspirational group of women!

Women are now taking over backpacking. Well, maybe “taking over” isn’t the right term, but our numbers are growing at astronomical rates. We make up 51% of the outdoor industry consumers now.  More and more companies are making women-specific products. We still have a ways to go, but we’ve made huge strides since the 50’s.

But I still can’t believe how often I hear women say they could never backpack solo. Or that they constantly worry about men and/or animals attacking them if they are alone.  Every time I hear these statements, I practically shed a tear.

And you know what’s worse? When I tell non-backpackers that I’ll be heading out solo, I get WAY more statements of worry and concern from women I know than men I know. Seriously? Men are less concerned for my safety than women?  Oh, the irony.

Perhaps it’s because I was formerly a sexual assault detective and have a firm grasp of the realities of sexual assault, or perhaps it’s because my parents raised me to be entirely unafraid (or maybe it’s even genetic, who knows?). Regardless, I’m unafraid to backpack alone.  Of course I have fears that occasionally enter the picture, but they never get in my way.  I’m also not oblivious when I’m out there and I take precautions and work hard to stay safe.  I remain aware of my surroundings and I make a point of looking strong and confident when faced with an unknown man on a remote section of trail.  But isn’t that the picture of a backpacker anyway? Aware, strong, confident; that’s what we backpackers are!  So why do we let ourselves forget it so often?

Solo Selfie
Entertaining myself on a solo backpacking trip.

Here are the concerns I hear most often from women on the topic of backpacking solo:

  • I might get raped (they don’t always say it exactly this bluntly, but this is what they mean).
  • An animal might attack me in the middle of the night.
  • I’ll be too lonely.
  • I’ll get hurt (or lost) and no one will be there to help me.

To help combat these fears, I’m going to do a series of posts tackling each one of these concerns individually. None of them should prevent us from chasing our dreams, accomplishing our goals and enjoying the Great Outdoors on our own terms.  But we also don’t have to be complacent, and there are things we can do to boost our own confidence and make the chances of any of the above ever happening even more remote.

Next Up: Women in Backpacking, Part II: I Might Get Raped!

Marry an outdoors woman. Then if you throw her out into the yard on a cold night, she can still survive. -W. C. Fields

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