Someone out there just saw this page and is thinking, “Hiking is pretty gender-neutral. Why do we need a resource just for women?”
I can guarantee you that this person has never been a woman who has to pee while in a climbing harness on a four-person rope team 13,000 feet up a glacier.
And it’s true, compared to some other sports or activities or hobbies, it’s a level playing field. Women hikers don’t get teased the way male figure skaters used to, and it’s not like we’re trying to jump into a boxing ring with folks three times our size—ultimately hiking is just walking, but outside, and mostly up, then down. There are no rules or regulations or size or strength requirements. No uniforms to indicate gender. And yet here’s a whole website dedicated to the various challenges, advantages, and experiences unique to being a woman that hikes. So let’s take a look at what some of those are:
- Hiking Alone
- Sexism/Gender Bias On The Trail
- Self-Defense And Safety Concerns
- Finding Hiking Partners
- Peeing While Roped And Other Gender Specific Issues
- Where We Excel: Backpacking Hips And Female Intuition
Women Hiking Solo
Hiking solo as a woman is different than hiking solo for a man—change my mind.
Can you hike solo? Should you hike solo? The answer is yes! Of course you can. And you should.
Sexism in the hiking community is usually pretty subtle, but this is one of the issues over which I see it rear its ugly and somewhat thoughtless head, and it’s been shocking to see how many people—men and women alike—don’t think it’s safe or smart or okay for a woman to hike alone. Some things to ask yourself, not that you haven’t already:
- Do men get asked if they’re alone, while they’re hiking alone? (I always say no, just to be a smartass) (like do you see anyone with me? Are they tiny and in my pack?)
- Do men worry other men are going to try to small talk them?
- Does his family clutch their pearls and gasp “alone?!” when a man says he’s going hiking?
- Do men worry about being followed?
- When they arrive at a trailhead and the only other car contains a lone man, do men feel uneasy?
- When men bring protection on a hike, are they thinking animal or human predator?
- Are men encouraged to use the buddy system as often as women? Why or why not?
- What is it that we need to worry about so much more than they do?
That last one is interesting, because there is so much that one can worry about while hiking that has zero to do with gender: avalanches, cougars, unexpected weather, rockfall, heatstroke, injury, hypothermia, running out of food or water, bee stings, navigation, crevasses, water crossings, snakes, fire, lightning…you could go on ad infinitum with things to worry about, but the only fear that would be gender specific would be men? Is that right to say? Is it fair? Is it true? Because I notice I hear the warnings and the condescending concern way more than I say them, and I notice I hear them from men much more than women. Are they trying to warn us about their own species?
Do men worry about or dread being approached on the trail like we do? The peaceful reverie that comes from walking through the forests and hills alone is so easily shattered by seeing a man approaching and hoping he’s not creepy. Even if he passes with a mutual “howdy” and keeps going, that moment where you’re hoping it doesn’t get weird: do men have those moments?
The bottom line is there is no reason a woman can’t hike alone. It’s no different than a man hiking alone.
Hiking alone can be a sacred and profound method to get to know yourself and your world in the most intimate ways imaginable. Sixteen hour days with no music, no other people, no distractions, all you have are your own thoughts and the sound of your steps and the glorious scenery around you—you’ll get to think about and see a lot of things. Please don’t let anyone try to take that from you. Be as safe as any other hiker would, obviously, but don’t think for a minute that you don’t have the freedom to experience the joy of hiking alone just because you happen to be a woman.
So now that you’re out there on your own, what safety precautions should you take?
- Carry some form of self-defense
- Let people know where you’re going and when you’ll be back
- Be aware of your surroundings
- Listen to your intuition
- Don’t initiate a conversation with a stranger
- Have a way to call out (phone, satellite communicator)
Feeling safe is a huge part of being able to let go and enjoy yourself, regardless of gender. But if we go off the premise that women have to be “more careful” as some folks infer, then what is the one thing that’s different? Sorry to say it, fellas, but it makes it sound like we have to be more careful of you. The only other implication is that women aren’t as competent as men in the mountains, but that’s not the case. If you keep up with trail news, you’ll notice that the number of men and women who die or go missing in the mountains every year is about the same proportion as the ratio of men to women hikers (it’s roughly a 60/40 split).
Self-defense can come in the form of anything from a rock to a Colt .45, this is your call. Bear spray is popular. Stun guns are great for cougars since you usually don’t know they’re on you till they’re on you but terrible for bears because of their thick flesh and fur. Guns are a controversial topic but one you might want to explore, making sure you really contemplate your own comfort level, belief system, reflexes, and skill level. Tasers require steady aim like guns; avoid those if your hand-eye coordination isn’t great. Knives are a decent option and have so many other uses you should probably be carrying one anyway. Speaking of carrying them anyway, axes and poles can make good makeshift deterrents if need be. But have something, just in case.
Letting someone know where you are and when you’ll be back is smart, as is carrying something like an InReach that can send an emergency satellite SOS with the touch of a button.
Aside from the judgy feeling inside when I see someone hiking with earbuds (I love forest sounds, I can’t imagine wanting to drown them out), my first thought is how startled they’re going to be when whatever it is happens. A mountain bike, another hiker, a coyote, someone yelling for help, a falling tree, a loose dog, a runner—something is going to catch them off-guard. Being aware of your surroundings is key to staying safe.
And listen to your gut. Our intuition is rarely wrong. If the hair on the back of your neck stands up, or you start getting that uneasy feeling that you’re being watched or that something is off, don’t be embarrassed to turn back. That feeling has preceded many strange events.
Peeing While Roped and Other Gender-Specific Issues
That scenario right there is one of the things that inspired me to create this website.
One of the things I like about hiking is how gender-neutral it is. With some exceptions in regard to free solo rock climbers and ultrafast speed hikers, one could hold coed competitions and it would be more evenly matched than, say, weightlifting. Though historically most mountain-related records are held by men, I know plenty of women who move faster than their male partners. The gender gap feels smaller in hiking than in most other physical activities, and I like that, and I like how we are just people out there, humans, one type. I like that there aren’t separate uniforms or kinds of equipment, and that we all tend to look alike from not-even-that-far away.
There are some minor design differences, and peeing is one of the most blatant. First of all, men don’t need to do anything other than unzip their fly and possibly turn their back, and sometimes they don’t even do that much. They could practically pee while walking. They don’t really even need to step off the trail. But here’s us, pants all the way down, butt freezing, stuck in one spot, and if you don’t duck a ways off trail, anyone approaching is bound to see some of your parts from either the front or back. Then either you’ve brought TP or a Kula Cloth, or you’re just going to walk around with a little wet spot because face it, drip-dry is ineffective.
There are devices, funnels, spouts, that make it possible—albeit potentially messy until you’ve gotten the hang of it—to keep your pants on and remain standing while you go. And maybe you only use yours in the coldest months, on large group hikes, when you’re out with only male partners, or if you’re part of a rope team, because it’s certainly not the norm and squatting is always acceptable. But if you do decide to go the standing route, the P-Style, SheWee, and Freshette are the leading brands, and with a little practice (the shower is great for this), you would be able to remain roped to your team, keep your climbing harness on, and not expose your entire normally-pants-covered area to the elements—all of which is going to contribute to the overall safety of your team because you’ll be paused for a shorter amount of time and won’t have to unclip. You’ll stay warm and not have to worry about being embarrassed (while plenty of us have given up on modesty, some folks have a strong aversion to partial nudity on the trail).
Other gender-specific concerns range from the obvious (feminine hygiene products) to the whimsical (finding a good waterproof mascara). I know women who hike in their signature red lipstick, others who look glam off trail and au natural on trail, and others who don’t use any beauty products ever. It’s your call how fancy you want to look out there. If you know you’re only going for the selfies, go ahead and wear all the makeup and hair things. If you’re going to sweat and work and get dirty, I guarantee you no one is going to judge you for not giving one iota of concern to your appearance. Which is another reason to love being a mountain woman: the total lack of importance of looks vs. everything else. In nature it’s about your effort, attitude, safety, kindness, ethics, experience, enthusiasm, accomplishments, selflessness. In many ways nature is the exact opposite of the world we’ve become accustomed to. In nature it’s what’s inside that matters, no one cares what you look like or how much money you make, no one cares how much bling you have or what kind of car you drive (well, as long as it’s high-clearance).
Finding Hiking Partners
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 you 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.
There are many ways to find partners, which can be found in specific detail in the Finding Hiking Partners section.
Areas in Which We Excel
Where men might always have an advantage with things like speed and upper body strength, there are a few areas in which we excel:
- Carrying a heavy pack
- Long distances
As with any generalization, there are exceptions. However, these three things seem to be common enough that I wanted to mention them as food for thought.
The first isn’t surprising as we were built to carry babies on our hips. Whether we shake our fist at how antiquated it sounds or revel in the power is up to us but the truth is, our bones are laid out differently. It’s not just our ability to suffer that has us still going miles past the point where our male counterparts have started to complain about sore shoulders, it’s the fact that our packs rest on our much more accommodating iliac crest, distributing the weight lower and more evenly.
Our ability to endure longer distances is due in part to our higher body fat percentage, as fat provides energy storage. We also require fewer calories; estrogen helps convert glycogen into energy. And our smaller frames require less water, so there’s less stopping to filter, to drink, to pee, and less water weight to carry. Men may be stronger and faster over short distances, but we are able to endure for longer, we have that same long-haul temperament that ultra-marathoners use to get in the zone and stay there. Over a long enough distance the gender gap closes completely.
It sounds a little cliché but women’s intuition is a real thing, and it comes in super handy in the wilderness. While there are gadgets to help us stay on route, know what time it is, or where the next water source is, we often check these things only to find that our gut knew anyway. I’ve seen and experienced this with detecting animals nearby, staying away from unsavory folks, or even feeling unexpected weather approaching. I’m not saying we are psychic or can do without the usual essentials for travel in the wild, just that if you spend enough time out there you may notice those spidey senses sharpening and becoming a useful part of your cache.
So, there we are: not better or worse, just different. Different in ways that we need to pay attention to now and then but not in ways that ever need to hold us back.
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.