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Women and Hiking

In his autobiography, mountaineer Conrad Kain (who did first ascents of most of the peaks in the Canadian Rockies), talks about taking young ladies mountain climbing there and in the Alps. 

In his younger days, it seems the Victorian tradition permitted women to indulge in that kind of activity, on the basis that it involved 'nature walks' rather than physical activity (as long as they brought back sketches of the flowers). In fact, as now, many women became good climbers and tackled some rather strenuous routes.

In consequence, the mountains during his time were a place where athletic women could get away from the constraints of society, and sometimes from the bonds of family or their marriages. He mentions spending afternoons 'napping' with female clients on top of mountains, and of occasionally leading lesbian clients on some of the more challenging routes. 

In Canada's Rocky Mountain Parks, some of the early trailblazers included people like Mary Schaffer, a Quaker widow from Pennsylvania, who was first to explore the Maligne river drainage in 1907, and did extensive hikes at Yoho and in the Kootenays. Caroline Hinman, from 1915 to 1960, made it her purpose in life to guide groups of young ladies in the Rockies. 

When challenged about her exploratory trips as not being appropriate for a 40 year old 'lady', Mary Schaffer answered,

"Can the free air sully, can the birds teach us words we should not hear, can it be possible to see, in such a summer's outing, one sight as painful as the daily ones of poverty, degradation, and depravity of a great city?"

But comments have been made on another thread about the changing face of outdoor activities such as camping, hiking and climbing. Go to any rock-climbing gym and you'll see that women are both good climbers and actively involved in the sport, and this site has a number of female members who are active hikers and campers. It still seems, however, that the predominant group that is involved in outdoor activities (especially in leadership roles) consists of men. I fall into that group, as a male leader guiding groups that are mostly women.

The stereotype is that woman only go camping or hiking to make their mates happy, and that without that motivation they wouldn't go at all. I'm sure some of our TS members would disagree! My hiking groups are about 80% female, though, so I wonder if it's a question more of HOW women choose to get outdoors (such as in a social group rather than as solo campers) rather than that their desire to do so has changed.

Views, opinions? 


A good post.  In the outdoors women have been equal to men for centuries, okay thouosands of years.  I believe you are correct to point out that women have been accepeted first in those type of settings.  The first state to give women the right to vote was Wyoming for the same reasons.

My grandmothers and great aunts were all very seriouis about the outdoors.  My great aunt Helen used to go hunting with the boys and cooked for them.  There is a long history of women in the outdoors since the American Frontier starting in 1849.  Thanks for pointing it out. My own experience is that women are mentally much tougher than they are given credit for and tougher than a lot of men.

We had a thread on women and men on the trails a while back, if anybody remembers, which I hesitated to join. So I'll put my bit in here.

That thread started, and remained, on the topic of what happens to and among men when they meet women on the trail, the show-off tendency and the competitiveness. In the end, that thread was not really about women at all, but about men in the presence of women.

On Whiteblaze, where I only lurk and read, there was a thread in the women's forum about the same thing, but it was very, very different. There, the women took turns venting and trying to come to terms with the nature of gender interaction on the trail.

Many of them had issues with what they perceived as chauvinistic and patronizing behaviour. Others pointed out that the men should be forgiven, they really were just trying to be helpful, just showing concern. But almost all of them had similar experiences: Are you sure you can manage that big pack, little lady? Here, let me get that fire started for you. I'll give you a hand with that tent, it's hard to get those stakes in. You aren't really going out there by yourself, are you? Aren't you scared?

So there's that.

I suspect, also, that the current gear-geekiness of outdoor recreation is a bit of a turnoff for some women. Men can debate catenary-cut tarps and 0.31 cuben fibre and 2.5 layer paclite all day long, and the forums are dominated by technical lingo and gear analysis. It would be very easy to get the idea that if you don't know this stuff, you don't know what you're doing, and if you're not into it, you must not really be into hiking.

Which of course is not true at all, and not what outdoors is actually about. But men really seem to like this aspect, and these voices dominate the online communities. This, I think, skews people's impressions of how involved women are.

Now, I can't pretend to speak for Women In General. I'm well aware that I'm a bit of an outlier, geographically and culturally. Where I live, women have always been active outdoors. They walk miles of untracked country to pick berries, they go trouting. When a community is sited for best ocean fishing, their vegetable gardens might be a half-day's walk back in the hills. Women go hunting with their men, and most everybody has a winter camp where they cut firewood. My aunt went to hers for thirty years after her husband died, until she was in her late eighties. Drove her own snowmobile, cut her own wood, loved icefishing.

A lot of this is not considered 'outdoor recreation', it's just life out here. But every tiny cove and hamlet has locally made 'paths', many of them extending for miles and miles, that rival any hiking trails anywhere. Because these people love the land and, it seems, will go anywhere through anything for the sake of a Good View. (Really, if you're ever in Newfoundland, pick any village and ask people where the path to the lookoff is. You will be rewarded.) Women walk these paths all the time. It's not called 'hiking', it's just 'going for a walk up the woods'.

So, as a solo female hiker, I am not all that weird here. Plenty of women lost their men to the sea at a young age and did everything themselves. The only thing weird about me is all that newfangled fancy stuff I have for camping out. :) Beats carrying half my body weight, which is what I used to do. Literally, half.

But if I pass through a city wearing that pack, I will meet people apparently astounded by it. "You've either got a lot of nerve, or no sense," one fellow said to me in an airport last year, while his buddy stood there shaking his head.

If men and women would just be more open and honest with each other we could eliminate a lot of the nonsense that goes on when we interact with each other.

For example, when I was younger and went out to social events looking for a mate, instead of trying to attract the attention of a woman with some inane behavior, I'd just walk up and ask her "Are we having sex tonight or do I owe you an apology?"

OK, so that didn't really happen.  But it would have eliminate a lot of the nonsense.

That's a great analysis, Islandess. Having hiked with many women over the years, I've learned to respect their abilities and their strengths. 

Anthropologically, life for women in rural areas everywhere has usually been in the 'gatherer' role, where they walk longer distances carrying heavy loads, as well as a kid or two. That means better lower body strength and better stamina, both traits well-suited to hiking. And, as ppine points out, women are a lot tougher than the stereotypes of our culture would suggest.  

I thought I was tough until the day I was slogging the the last few hundred meters to the summit of Whistlers Mountain. Because of the elevation (and the slope), I was  having to stop every so often for a breather. Then a young mother carrying a pack on her back and her 4-year old on her hip went sailing by. "Just a little bit further", she said.

The most common complaint I've heard from women is that they won't hike alone, even on urban trails, because of the risks of harassment or assault. One friend tells about being hit on by strangers at campsites just because she was camping by herself - "Hey, little lady! Do you need somebody to keep you warm tonight?". As distasteful as that is, it has nothing to do with women's desire to go hiking, but rather with the attitudes of men.

Many men are obnoxious in the outdoors because they are obnoxious indoors.  Others are insecure and fearful that they are inadequate in some way.  All sorts of weird stuff comes from that.

I always look for outdoor partners with confidence.  People that are comfortable in their experience and skills.  Rarely I meet someone that is so confident that they are cocky and competitive about it.  To paraphrase a popular little ditty-

"Spending time in the outdoors doesn't build character, it reveals it."

Women should be appreciated more for what they can do.  A lot of stereotypes of the outdoors come from watching dated old movies.  The city slicker, the dude, the school marm, women from "Back East", the ranch wife, etc.  These are stylized and anachronistic and need to be erased from the collective memory.


Islandess, I couldn't agree with you more.

It seems apparent to me that city and country women have generally different sentiments, regarding outdoor activities.  Thus far most of the comments of outdoor women seem descriptive of women from rural settings.  I am gratified they take to the outdoors with the enthusiasm described, in the numbers claimed.  Makes me think I should have left the city in my youth.  But I digress.  I don't think the vast majority of big city women take to the outdoors as readily.  Sure I have gotten a few to join me.  I have no pretensions regarding their participation; they can carry their full share, or I’ll carry everything, or something in between.  The same goes with all other aspects of the trip, from wood collection to KP.  But most of these women at best found back packing to be a novel experience, one they unlikely ever did after we parted ways.  A few more took to car camping more readily.  And sure, one or two discovered a new past time.  But even more women refused to even try camping in any form.  Too many bugs and snakes, too cold, too hot, too dirty, too sweaty, too far from a flush toilet and shower, scared of the dark – all the standard stereotypical aversions.  That said I found women were more receptive to wine and cheese day hikes.  I don’t jump on them for these rationales; we all have our preferences and issues.  But I do think the way we are raised is principal in these matters.

I know some of you will disagree the above statements, but all one has to do is visit the backcountry and take a survey.  There are way more men than women campers in the backcountry, just as there are way more women in sewing clubs.  That said very few men hike and very few women sew, so this is all relative.  It sounds sexist, but it's the reality, regardless what I may think.


Good points, Ed. I have a daughter-in-law who won't go anywhere she can't plug her curling iron in, and who whines if she has to walk more than 50 ft to get to the mall doors. The same stereotypes existed when Conrad Kain and Mary Schaffer were around. There's a reason that kind of typecasting exists!

But here's where I'm getting confused.

  • The active participation in my hiking groups is mostly female. About 70- 80% on any given day are women. The age range is from about 35-60 - the 20-25 year old 'princesses' don't seem to hang around very long.
  • 9 of 15 of my hike leaders are women, a couple of whom have bagged more mountains than I have. 
  • The upcoming annual 'Backpacking Prep' has 10 participants, 6 of whom are women, and none are going with a boyfriend or spouse.
  • An overnight backpacking trip to Glacier Lake has 8 attending; 4 are women.  
  • The same proportions (3 of 6) hold true for the people doing a week-long backpacking trip up the Chilkoot Gold Rush Trail in August. 
  • Since there are few couples in my groups, we can assume none of the woman are doing it just to make their partner happy. 

This suggests there are other factors at play. If girls today are modelling themselves on Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan, they are unlikely to want to leave the city, as you pointed out. And the urban lifestyle isn't compatible with spending weekends (or weeks) in the outdoors. 

But the same holds true for men. I've met a lot of 30-something men who prefer to think of themselves as cosmopolitan, 'metro-sexual' computer nerds, rather than rugged and outdoorsy. 

I would suspect men are more likely to try camping and hiking, because of that macho ideal, but that just as many ultimately find it too cold, or too wet, or too far from a toilet, as do women.  

At a campsite you might see more family groups, but when it comes to hiking and backpacking, my experience is different.

Your situation may be easily explained: WOM (word of mouth) is the primary manner new customers discover service oriented businesses.  Thus if most of your current clients are women, then it follows they will refer other women.  And while all guide services will note women represent an expanding share of their sales, men still outnumber women in most guide service customer lists.  In any case guided excursions represent a fraction of those you encounter outdoors; the majority of folks are self supported trips consisting mostly of men.

As for the younger generation of men, we both agree they are not as interested in the outdoors as prior generations, for many of the reasons cited in prior posts on this thread.  I suspect some of the metro male adults experimenting with hiking do so in a yearning to discover their inner machoness, the result of not having explored that path in their youth.  But face it, as long as there are guys like us spouting off like the outdoors are better than sex, well that certainly is going to peek a few guys curiosity.  In any case the outdoors may see mostly men, but only a small fraction of the population actually engage in backpacking and other adventure activities, thus most men are not outdoorsmen.

I also agree I rarely see complete complete family units out backpacking, though I do encounter father/son(s) and (occasionally) mother/daughter(s) groups, with both type of groups frequently accompanied by same sex relatives or friends.


While I don't think that can be the whole reason, word-of-mouth is certainly a factor. Many women seem to prefer, if the opportunity is available, to go hiking in groups rather than alone, and when they do, they usually seem to invite a friend. But everything else being equal, it may be mostly that guided hikes allow the opportunity for more women to go hiking in a way they feel comfortable with rather than striving to follow the male concept of what it's all about. 

And, as you say, those of us who go backpacking are certainly in a minority, whether male or female, so the more we can encourage everyone to participate, the better. 

I am one of the "minority" women on the trail...but I don't go alone, I go with my husband. we have yet to get out this year, and we may not ever husband had surgery on his knee to remove a ganglion cyst, and he is pretty gimpy. I have not decided what I am going to do, go solo or give it up. but I think that women going solo are in the minority, for good reasons mentioned previously here. it's good to see the Canadian ladies bucking the trend, although they don't appear to be going solo, at least they're going!  

Trailjester said:

I am one of the "minority" women on the trail...but I don't go alone, I go with my husband. we have yet to get out this year, and we may not ever husband had surgery on his knee to remove a ganglion cyst, and he is pretty gimpy...

Yea, women solo outdoors or anywhere take a risk coming across predators of the two legged kind.  In that vein the virtues of solo can be overrated.

Your husband is one lucky man to be able to share nature with the one he loves.  If the operation lames him, encourage him to get a prosthetic knee.  Recovery levels of these devices are usually real good, and should put him back on the trail with few issues.  Even in my advancing age my orthopedic surgeon has suggested I should soon give it a thought, as four operations and several sports injuries during my youth have caught up me and are making things more challenging.


Trailjester: I'm sorry to hear about your mister. Time will tell, there are plenty of folks on the trail with various hurts and troubles. Does he already own trekking poles? Hopefully there are trails near you that are short and low-intensity. And there's always car-camping to get the two of you out together. Or maybe you can find women in your area who would love to go if they only had someone to go with?

As far as soloing goes -- well, I do it all the time. BUT I have the luxury of not being anywhere near people if I choose not to be. Honestly? If I thought I stood a good chance of running into a bunch of guys in a remote area, I might not. I don't fear anything else in the woods but I do fear drunken men. (Sorry, gentlemen, but it's true, and statistically speaking, they're a much greater danger to me than any four-legged creature.)

So I keep myself pretty camouflaged, and I wander off to make my camps as inaccessible as possible.

But there's so much in favour of going solo! The freedom to stop and go as you please, the peacefulness of it. And you wouldn't believe the interactions with wildlife that are possible for a female walking quietly alone. Hell, I don't even tell most of my stories anymore, they sound like fibs. :)

Best wishes for his healing.

Trailjester said:

 I have not decided what I am going to do, go solo or give it up. but I think that women going solo are in the minority, for good reasons mentioned previously here.

Just a suggestion, but if you really want to do it, you might be able to find local hiking clubs. If you and your husband are okay with it, you could go hiking with a group. It works for the women who come on mine. 

Working in outdoor retail in a big city I encounter women fairly often who need to be outfitter for a big trip. In my experience the women come in more informed about what they need and want. They have generally already researched their packs and boots. Women tend to be more attentive to the details and more receptive to feedback/criticism.  Overall I have seen women be more invested in preparation then men for hiking, camping, and backpacking even if they have less experience. In most cases however these girls are going on group trips or with a few close friends. I have had a number of girls go international backpacking solo, which in my opinion would be more dangerous than wilderness. The girls who are the most prepared are the college students spending their summers at the National Parks working temp jobs. I actually get more women for these positions than men.

The men I get in my store are often "bayou boys" or the "college international backpacker" type. Bayou boys are hunters and fisherman, they thrive in a place like Academy or Cabellas but lost at an REI type. Coming into my store they often have ideas about what they want to do from their previous experience outdoors, although it is mostly with heavy cotton camo suits. They already have their ideas about what they want and dont want to hear what I have to tell them about "why this is a better solution". I actually find that he college age men that are coming in for backpacking equipment are staying away from the wilderness. They are almost all going to South East Asia for a few months or Europe, the UK, Etc...

In the past year I can say I have successfully outfitted more women for wilderness related activities then men(not more by quantity but more by the response) . It seems that they are genuinely interested and excited about the experience. I am not sure if it is because of a lack of exposure to these activities in the past but the demand is there.

I have experienced the exact opposite on the trail though. As stated, women are rarely on the trail and rarely alone. I often see them in group camps or with a guide. Only on a few occasions have I encountered a solo female on the trail. It does kinda catch me off guard.  It is a bit of a challenge for me. As an outdoor enthusiast who eats sleeps and breathes this stuff, I get really excited to see a girl rocking the trail. I keep to myself though the best I can. I try to treat them like one of the dudes. I offer my normal trail chit chat, but with women I always leave out "what camp are you at tonight". I would assume the last thing a girl wants to know is that some guy who she just met in the middle of the woods knows where she will be sleeping. Lets face it, the wilds attract some pretty eccentric people. I am fairly cautious of anyone on the trail just for safety. Respect the ladies.


I asked Barb for comments on this thread. One of her comments (repeatable on a family-friendly site) was that when she was in New Zealand, she observed a lot of women hiking solo, while most men were hiking in groups. Kinda the mirror image of what this thread seems to be reporting about the US.

I will observe that the folks I associate with and encounter in the local parks, as well as the ones I grew up with, do seem rather different in attitude and practice than what is being described in this thread.

Hi, Bill; From what I've seen here about how involved your wife is in your hikes and trips, I suspected she might take issue with being told she's just going along to keep her spouse happy. 

It sounds like the two of you have shared some great adventures. I liked the dog-sledding trip. 

A huge part of this has to do with how people are raised.  My wife and I both camped as kids, and we took our kids camping as well.  We now backpack together five or six times every summer, and our kids continue to enjoy the outdoors. 


And it is pretty darned complicated to make many generalizations about any group of people..

ed - thanks for the suggestion, but a knee replacement wont work. the problem has to do with the ligaments and musculature, not the joint itself.

I have thought about joining the sierra club - they have guided hikes all the time, only problem is I'm out of shape. we have been out of commission a solid seven months. time flies when your not hiking...

bill s - your dog sled trip ROCKS! but I think the norcal crowd is somewhat different than the socal crowd. we are a lot more paranoid down here...

September 26, 2020
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