This is one of those areas where you’re going to need to summons that age-old women’s intuition thing. This isn’t the part where I go all man-hating feminist and talk about how we need to stick together and stay away from the dudes, but it is the part where I talk about how many smarmy guys lurk around online, joining hiking group pages to look for vulnerable, naïve newbies, and how women need to be really smart and really careful as you look for people to adventure with. Go with your gut. If you want a second opinion on nice vs. slimy, private message other women in the group and ask if they know the person. Follow the same sort of guidelines you’d follow for a craigslist exchange or tinder date: Pick a crowded trail on a good-weather weekend for your first outing. Bring a friend, bring some form of self-defense, don’t give away too much personal info, and do a little research first (people with something to hide call it stalking but there is nothing wrong with skimming someone’s social media for signs of douchebaggery).
I believe in my heart that most mountain people are good people with good souls and good intentions. It is rare that you come across someone ten thousand feet up who wouldn’t do anything to help another person; some of the most selfless acts of kindness I’ve ever seen have been on the trail and the bonds that are forged can be as real and unbreakable as family. For the most part, age, race, career, political affiliation, religion, gender: none of those things matter out there. So don’t limit yourself to those sorts of things when looking for your people, and know that you’re most likely going to wind up with the motliest crew there is, and you’re going to love each other deeply. On the majority of my biggest climbs I’ve been the only woman on an all-male team, and most of my climbing friends are significantly younger than me—except for the ones who are significantly older. We don’t match, and yet we jive, and that’s what you’re looking for.
A few ways to find hiking partners:
- The Internet
- On the trail
- Word of mouth
- At the gym/climbing gym
- At REI
- Volunteer to do trail work
The Internet: Pretty much any area that has nature has at least one hikers’ Facebook group, if not several. There might be some offshoot groups too, like one for alpine/ski mountaineering, one for climbing, one for thru-hikers, even pages for specific mountains. Some have groups for women and some have singles groups. Some organizations, such as the Mountaineers, the Mazamas, or the Sierra Club have online communities. Meetup is a website/app used to organize group hikes and backpacking trips.
On the trail: Many a friendship has began at a summit, caught in a storm together, or with two solo hikers taking pictures of each other for each other. It’s a good way to meet people you know are around your same level of skill and experience. If you have the chutzpah, asking to tag along with others on the same trail is an idea, but the situation has to feel right. I’ve definitely shared stretches of trail with strangers who became friends, especially when routefinding is an issue and we need second and third opinions on where we’re going and feel safer being in a group. Go with your gut on this one: you don’t want to be awkward and encroach on someone’s alone time or date or long-planned time with rarely-seen friends, but if it seems right to strike up a conversation on the trail, you could find yourself with some new partners.
Word of mouth: When people start seeing your pictures on social media or hearing about your adventures, they might ask if you want to pair up. Friends, friends of friends, coworkers, neighbors, are all great candidates for hiking partners, all with the added bonus of already being familiar to you.
Gyms: Whether indoor climbing, on the stairs machine, or on the treadmill, you might find the gym to be a great place to find like-minded folks to adventure with. Most gyms have a bulletin board if you want to go old school and post a flyer asking for partners or to plan a group hike.
REI (or similar outdoorsy superstore): Hang around the footwear or backpack sections long enough and you’re bound to strike up a conversation with someone, and who knows, that someone could be your next mountain friend! REI offers classes in-store as well as out in the field, from wilderness survival courses to guided snowshoe trips at national parks. With small class sizes and obvious shared interests, you have a good chance at connecting with folks at these events. You could even take a trip through REI Adventures and spend several days bonding with people in that special way you do while traveling with someone.
Volunteering to do trail work: Not only is this a great way to give back and feel even more connected to the land, but you can meet people who care about it as much as you do. Spending days with shovels and chainsaws, tidying up switchbacks and cutting through blowdowns is a great way to forge friendships.
Depending on where you live, there might be other unique ways to connect. My town is home to a couple of mountains that have a huge network of hiking, mountain biking, and equestrian trails, and we have a volunteer-run trail association that has a physical base adjacent to the community center as well as a robust online presence, and they host group hikes frequently. If you live within hitchhiking distance any of our country’s three most prominent long trails (PCT, CDT, AT), your area is bound to have similar local groups geared toward supporting the thru-hiker.
Whatever method you use, you always always want to go with your gut and approach this the way you would any other vetting of a stranger who has friend potential. I’ve definitely shied away from hiking with folks who seem too clingy or high-maintenance, or who have otherwise bad reputations. An example of someone who has a bad hiking reputation: some people can’t tolerate a slower pace and are known for ditching their partners, and recently a friend of mine went hiking with a person like that, and lo and behold was ditched, got lost, and wound up hospitalized with severe hypothermia. The hiking community may be large but it’s very small when it comes to word of mouth and there’s nothing like being perceived as careless to get you socially blacklisted from the hiking community. There’s lots of room for slow, weird, quirky, nervous, shy, or awkward, but there’s an unspoken zero tolerance policy for unsafe.
And while usually not “unsafe” per se, there are a few creepers out there, and this is another reputation-driven area where our gift of gossip comes in handy. Each hiking-related Facebook group, gym, or meetup group is going to have its resident perv who is mostly in this to see if he can get laid. Our intuition with this is usually spot-on, and most women go into new situations appropriately guarded, but I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the mountain creepers and how to avoid them. They will seem normal at first, friendly. Maybe a comment on that photo from a recent accomplishment of yours that seems innocent enough (like a “Nice work on Mt. Shuksan! It’s been on my list for a while, looks amazing” sort of thing). Then maybe you say thanks and they leap into “we should do something [meaning a mountain] together before the season ends” and you hesitantly comment back a thumbs up, and suddenly there they are in your DMs, sprinkling their conversation with the winky emoji. Feel free to stop responding or tell them you are kind of a loner that already has too many hiking partners. Or whatever. If they’re obvious about it and ask you out, that’s an easy one. It’s when they hover in the gray area between normal and sleazy and you don’t want to overreact and be rude, but you aren’t comfortable going anywhere with them that it gets tricky. Usually just not engaging will get them to move on, but if you feel okay doing so, you can let them know they give off a vibe that makes women feel uncomfortable, and set a boundary. Creepers hate boundaries. Part two is to tell other women in the group your experience and let word of mouth work its magic.
Not saying you’re limited to hiking only with other women; you want most of all to find good people. Safe people. People you groove with. People who have the same relative skill level, pace, and enjoy the same types and lengths of hikes as you. Chances are, you’ll also find people with the same sense of humor, the same love of adventure, and the same appreciation for being out there away from the stress and noise of day-to-day life. There’s something incredibly intimate about sharing the beauty and power of nature with someone, when you see each other at your cursing crying sweating worst and your most triumphant best, when you feel the connection and teamwork in that silent high-five which passes between you in the eye contact made as you stand on the summit together then turn to look out at the world below.
Wendy Harrington is a California native who has lived in a small town at the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Washington state since 2001. Her love of trail running and peakbagging has led her to summit all five Washington volcanoes, climb to the high points of three states, and put nearly a thousand miles a year on her boots. Her loves include ridgelines, saddles, granite, one-day pushes on big mountains, anything volcanic, long solo days, and objectives that push limits and test endurance.