women in the woods

Distance Hiking and Body Image

Body image always seems to be in my social media feed - it seems like we're obsessed with it.  A new ad campaign promoting something regarding celebrating your body seems to pop up every month.  As someone who grew up in the age of Title IX but before crazy photoshopping, body image never really played into how I viewed myself.  Granted, like every teen girl on the planet, I learned to point out my flaws for a good 15 years or so.  Recently though, especially after hitting my 30s, I've learned to let a lot of that go.  While I think part of that comes with age, I think another part of it comes with my experience as a distance hiker.  In fact, distance hiking has helped me come to terms with my body more than any body-positive ad campaign ever could. 

When I first set out to thru hike the Appalachian Trail in 2012 I knew I had a few pounds to lose.  Not many, but a few.  When those few pounds came off in the first nine days I knew I still wasn't happy with my body.  In fact, there are still some photos from the trail that make me cringe when I see them.  Sure, I was (and still do) wearing Spandex.  Sure, I had a waist belt cinched tightly to carry the weight of my pack.  Sure, I had just finished camelling up (drinking a ton of water) at a water source so I wouldn't get more dehydrated.  To me though, these photos don't show me at my best.  In a highly curated world, these photos are sort of embarrassing to me even now.  I recently came across a photo like that, seen here:

My least favorite photo from the entire AT. 

My least favorite photo from the entire AT. 

I could nit-pick at this photo all day.  The way my waistband sits, the way my stomach sticks out, the way my hair is in that weird in-between growth stage.  When we took that photo it was just after we ate a ton of food (read - sugary snacks), drank even a ton more of water, and had hiked about 15 miles that day.  When I saw that tree, all I wanted to do was hop on and take a photo.  We camped that night and had an amazing time with our other fellow thru hikers.  It wasn't until months later, when I saw this photo on my Facebook feed (as I often uploaded without editing) that I was horrified at my appearance.  Weren't female thru hikers supposed to look strong?  All the other girls I hiked with looked so thin and confident.  They were all stronger than me, weren't they?  It really put a dark cloud over what I was actually out there accomplishing.  

The same day the photo above was taken, the photo below was taken... yes, the SAME DAY:

There's nothing wrong with this photo (in my eyes) and I remember feeling so great that day.  So, why do I feel so bad about the first one?  

In a world where our images are perfect, photoshopped, and manipulated and curated to fit a certain image, it's important to see our photos for what they are: a memory of a time we wanted to document.  I think people are truly never happy with their bodies, but the truth of the matter is our bodies can do amazing things.  For me, my body has carried me more than 7500 miles - through physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging terrain - and given me a career.  My body has carried me through an ultramarathon and a distance hike.  My body has been grimy, slimy, and scabby from months outdoors.  I've been covered in bruises and DEET.  I've been energized and exhausted all in the same day.  I've walked 30 miles and I've barely moved.  The fact of the matter is that none of this matters because my body is strong.  My body is beautiful.  My body can get out and climb that goddamn mountain.  

With this post, I'm issuing a challenge to all those outdoorsy folks - go ahead and post that photo.  Share the moments you're proud of.  Don't be distracted and disheartened by all those pretty white 20-somethings with colorful tattoos and John Muir quotes on Instagram.  Your experience outdoors is just as important.  Be proud of who you are and what your body has done for you.  I know I'm proud of mine. 

Women in the Woods - Why More Ladies Should Quit Being Afraid and Get Outdoors

Recently on my trip up and over Mt. LeConte I saw something that incited rage. I saw the one thing I hate more than anything else when I'm hiking.  Trash? Toilet paper strewn about? People hiking in flip flops?  Not even close.  I saw college-aged girls acting like walking up a hill was the hardest, most soul sucking, worst thing they've ever done in their lives. For more than 4.5 miles this group of three men and three women leap-frogged us on trail.  Each and every time we got in ear shot one of the women would be complaining, whining, or generally wishing death upon her boyfriend for "making me do this hike!"  As a woman who discovered hiking later in her 20s, nothing makes me angrier than to see women act like they're damsels in distress when in fact they are perfectly capable of doing anything they set their mind to!  Here's why I advocate for women to stop acting like they're delicate ladies and start acting like the badasses they always knew they could be. 

Climbing Baker Peak on the Long Trail in 2015 (in a skirt, like a boss!)

Climbing Baker Peak on the Long Trail in 2015 (in a skirt, like a boss!)

Despite it being the year 2016, we still live in an era where women are seen as fragile.  When I meet people during a long-distance hike or even a short and simple backpacking trip the most common question I'm asked is if I'm scared when I'm hiking.  The second most common question people ask me is if I carry a gun.  The truth of the matter is I am rarely scared and I would NEVER advocate carrying a gun on a hiking trip.  Not only would it be added weight I'm not willing to add to my gear, a gun is not necessary out on the trails.  A handgun especially will do nothing in ways of protecting me from wild animals.  These answers always tend to shock people and I often get a head shake and a million reasons follow as to why I should be afraid (rape, murder, blood-thirsty bears) and how if I was their daughter I'd never be allowed to do what I do.  I always just smile and thank them and go about my hike.  I wasn't aware that as a woman in my early 30s I needed anyone's permission to do ANYTHING, let alone do something that brings me great joy!  As a hiking guide who does a multitude of trips ranging from hour-long nature walks to week-long customized backpacking trips I have this conversation often. 

Lets expand on the topic of being a woman out in the woods.  Since the publication of the book Wild and the subsequent movie of the same name, seeing women in the woods is more and more common.  While it was estimated only 10% of Appalachian Trail thru hikers were women in the early 2000s, that number is now closer to 25%.  My recent week out on the AT in Georgia is showing me the number will be even higher this year.  I am grateful for this in so many ways.  As a woman who loves backpacking and distance hiking, nothing makes me happier than seeing a duo or group of women out on the trail enjoying themselves and supporting each other.  As a woman who loves backpacking and distance hiking I can also tell you that nothing makes me feel stronger, sexier, or more beautiful than the challenge of completing a day on trail - covered in dirt, sweating, and maybe even with a few new scratches and bruises to show for it.  After spending several years growing up and into my identity on long-distance trails I've never felt more beautiful and confident in my abilities than I do right now.  

While I would have never considered myself an athlete in years past, recently I've come to terms with the fact that I am indeed an athlete, and a strong one at that.  Covering near-marathon distances nearly every day for weeks on end makes anyone an athlete.  Spending day after day after day in a cycle of cardio makes you an athlete.  Challenging your physical abilities for even a weekend at a time makes you an athlete.  Crying during your lunch break on a physically challenging day on trail?  You guessed it - you're an athlete.  I walked 2184.2 miles from the state of Georgia to the state of Maine and still didn't consider myself someone with any type of athletic ability.  Backpacking and spending time in the wilderness had me come to terms with the fact that my body is strong and capable of taking whatever I can throw at it.  I even recently decided to run a marathon and I'm even considering running an ultramarathon in early 2017.  I even have proof that hiking has physically changed my life.  

Getting back to that group of girls I mentioned earlier - I get why they acted the way they did.  Hiking up Mt. LeConte is hard.  It's really hard.  They're young and pretty.  I get it.  My first real hike was an 8-mile round trip to Ramsey's Cascades and I did it because I wanted to impress a boy. I probably acted obnoxious too.  We teach girls that it's okay to be whiny as long as you look adorable doing it.  We teach little girls that being pretty is a great goal in life.  Sure, looking your best is a great thing!  Who doesn't want to look and feel great about themselves?  But I'm here to advocate for change.  I'm here to tell you that we should be teaching girls to get down in the dirt and play rough.  I'm here to tell you that we should be teaching girls skills to be self-sufficient.  I'm here to advocate for teaching girls we don't have to be afraid and we don't need someone protecting us all the time.  If I had it to do all over again, I would have told those girls to quit their bitching, woman up, and climb that goddamn mountain (to paraphrase Jack Kerouac). While it would have been harsh, I can guarantee you that getting to the top and taking it all in would have made their misery disappear instantly.  

What do you think about hiking or running alone as a woman? Would you let your daughter take a backpacking trip?  I'd love to hear your opinion! Leave me a comment below or find me on Facebook or Twitter to get the conversation started!