Strong Women in the Backcountry - What it REALLY Means

This month Backpacker Magazine had a "women-centric" issue of their publication.  While some great articles came from this, like a story about how a woman was able to tackle Iceland by doing a "pump and dump" for her nursing baby, there has been a lot more buzz about the fluff pieces.  By fluff pieces I mean videos about backcountry beauty tips and ridiculous infographics about how to not pee on your shoes (the horror, amirite ladies?!).  While I've seen several of the bloggers who have contributed to Backpacker submit their backlash (and rightfully so), I wanted to take the time to write a piece about real backcountry women and why I think we need more of them. 

 Starting at Springer alone - and knowing I'd be okay for the next five months. 

Starting at Springer alone - and knowing I'd be okay for the next five months. 

While I grew up the shadow to the Great Smoky Mountains and took a few trips up to the park with my family as a child, I didn't go on my first hike until the age of 19.  I hiked the Ramsey Cascade Trail with a guy I was dating, as he was really into the Smokies and I wanted to appear like I could do it too.  I wore cotton and tennis shoes.  I carried no pack.  We ate Little Debbie Cakes at the falls.  I couldn't walk for two days afterward.  While I enjoyed the waterfall, I can truly say the experience didn't exactly leave me clamoring for more trips to hike.  Over Labor Day in 2009 I took my first backpacking trip, again for the same reason - the man I was dating really liked the mountains.  I remember saying to him, "I'll go, but I hate the mountains. It's just touristy and ugly up there."  I owned no backpacking gear.  We hiked 2 miles up the Kephart Prong Trail to a backcountry shelter.  I had a borrowed day pack with a sleeping bag liner (with no sleeping pad), a water bottle, and some overpriced prepackaged backpacking food.  We shared the rest of our gear.  I didn't sleep the entire night.  I shivered in my bag liner.  I was sore from the hike and sore from sleeping on the hard shelter floor.  When I woke in the morning I was in love with backpacking and everything it meant to be a backpacker.

I slowly began buying my own backpacking gear.  I started by going to an outfitter and getting fitted for a pack.  I borrowed and shared gear with girlfriends.  I joined a local hiking club and made more backcountry friends who would help me learn.  I slowly was able to go from hiking four miles in a weekend to hiking more substantial trips.  In early 2010 things came to a halt when a knee injury left me unable to stand for more than a few minutes or even able to pedal a bike without weeks of physical therapy.  I gained 50 pounds.  I was depressed.  Despite all of this, when I was slowly learning to walk again without pain, hiking helped me tremendously.  The soft ground of the backcountry trails and greenways provided much less impact than the pavement did.  After nearly 4 months of being depressed, overweight, and miserable I was able to take a backpacking trip with some friends - a female only trip.  This trip really helped me see things clearly.  

 My first women-only backpacking trip.  I'm the one on the far left if you can believe it!  

My first women-only backpacking trip.  I'm the one on the far left if you can believe it!  

On that trip we were able to not worry about being shown up by the men in our group or feel like we were in competition to keep up.  I actually had dropped out of two trips prior to this because my injury and weight slowed me down and I felt self conscious.  With this group of women, all of whom had good careers and some of them had kids, I felt like we were strong, beautiful, and powerful.  I felt like we were in control of our trip.  I felt confident that night as I had successfully built and kept a campfire going despite the humid conditions next to the Piney River.  This trip changed how I felt in the backcountry. 

 I'm excited to be on this trip!  Despite carrying too much gear for a short overnight, I was really excited to be on a trip where I felt like I was doing everything on my own. 

I'm excited to be on this trip!  Despite carrying too much gear for a short overnight, I was really excited to be on a trip where I felt like I was doing everything on my own. 

After this trip I started hiking with more women, not on purpose but it just kind of happened this way.  Because of the stronger female presence around me, I learned of a woman named Jennifer Pharr Davis who was doing a speaking tour.  She was visiting a local outfitter in Knoxville about her FKT (fastest known time) on the Appalachian Trail.  At the time, she was the holder of the women's FKT, but announced at the reading of her book she was going for the overall FKT - and she did so successfully less than 3 months later!  While at this reading, she took time to answer questions from the women in the group about footwear, apparel, hygiene - any question we had.  Blissfully absent from this conversation were questions like "aren't you scared out there?" or "shouldn't you carry a gun to protect yourself?" or "don't you think your husband should go with you?"  - all questions many of us female backpackers get in every day conversation.  After meeting her a second time in Asheville and being inspired by her strength, Jennifer Pharr Davis is the reason I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail solo in 2012.   It was because of this antifear Q&A session I finally took my first solo backpacking trip in 2011 - again I didn't sleep all night as I was totally alone at my campsite, but I felt empowered!

 A nervous me before my very first solo backpacking trip.  I had no idea what to expect, but I was thrilled to be trying. 

A nervous me before my very first solo backpacking trip.  I had no idea what to expect, but I was thrilled to be trying. 

I think it is so important to get past the whole "woman in the woods alone" fear mongering we so often project on women trying to start backpacking.  Having a strong woman to follow and learn from was incredibly helpful for me as a beginner and I hope to be able to give that impression to anyone out there who would like to learn more about what it means to be strong in the wilderness.  I welcome any questions anyone would have and would love to hear about your experiences in the woods - be it scary or empowering.  Who are your favorite backcountry ladies to follow on social media?  Please leave me a comment on the blog or on Facebook to get the discussion started!