Women on the Trail

Sometimes, while you're on the trail, you'll be the only woman in a group. It doesn't happen as often as it used to, but it still happens. Only 1 in 4 Appalachian Trail thru hikers is a female. There isn't a particuarly good reason for this. Women are not less suited to backpacking. There are some institutional reasons that women are likely less represented in the backcountry, but I certainly hope that won't stop you

The overall record holder for the fastest unsupported thru-hike is held by a woman, Heather "Anish" Anderson, who also happens to hold the unsupported record for the Pacific Crest Trail, as well as the Arizona Trail, making her the first person to hold "FKT" (fastest known time) records on three long trail simultaneously. An unsupported thru hike is where you do not have a team of people helping you to resupply more quickly. Anish sent her own maildrops, and hiked into town to pick them up. She was alone on the trail most of the time, no one else in the world can keep up with her grueling pace.

Jennifer Pharr Davis was the Appalachian Trail supported record holder until her record was beat by the ultra runner Scott Jurek. On a supported hike, you are allowed to have a team of people bringing you food and assistance at road crossings. You are not obligated to carry a tent, or many other supplies other than what you need to get to your next rendez-vous point.  who had commercial sponsors, and a sizable support team. Davis won her record with the support of her husband. Jennifer's record had stood for four years, and was beat by just over 3 hours, a photo finish when the race is nearly 2,200 miles long. 

Heather "Anish" Anderson at the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail after breaking unsupported record. 

Jennifer Pharr Davis at the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. 

If you're not already feeling inspired and badass, check out this post from TheTrek.co about seven women who made Appalachian Trail History. 

So what I'm saying is that if anyone doubts you, as a woman, and your ability to backpack, or be in the woods, laugh in their face. Even if that person is you.  Give a big, deep belly laugh and look at them like they are crazy. Because they are.

There is nothing stopping you, and nothing more inherently dangerous about being a female backpacker than being a female living in the city, or the suburbs, in fact, many women report feeling safer in the backcountry than walking through a city at night. Your first hike doesn't have to be a long one, or a hard one. You don't have to go alone, if you don't want to, all you have to do is go.

I think that there is a great freedom and self-discovery available to women who seize the opportunity to attempt backpacking, so why aren't more women on the trail? Youth clubs and programs that offer backpacking to young girls are fewer than those offering the same to young boys, meaning there is often a skills gap, which likely contributes to the gap in volume of female hikers when compared to male hikers. It is hard to feel confident heading into the "wild unknown" without these skills. Without a teacher or mentor who already loves backpacking many women may feel stuck, that they have not learned the skills, and they do not have the time to learn them, so they do not try at all.  There are clearly many other factors that can prevent women from becoming confident and capable backpackers, and I hope someone writes a dissertation on it. I would love to read it. Because clearly, women are no less capable of backpacking then men. 

 "Legs" watching the sunset from the top of a Fire Tower in North Carolina. Legs completed her thru-hike with her sister, "Verge" as her hiking partner.

"Legs" watching the sunset from the top of a Fire Tower in North Carolina. Legs completed her thru-hike with her sister, "Verge" as her hiking partner.

So there may bea skill gap for women who haven't been exposed to backpacking previously, which can lead to a lot of nervousness about attempting a "first" backpacking trip. The really wonderful thing about backpacking though, is that it really isn't that hard. It can be intimidating when you do not have the experience and the tools to tell you what kind of things to pack, or where to go, and of course, it can be physically challenging, and push you to your limits (though it doesn't have to be) but you can figure it out!

Visit your neighborhood outfitter. Don't feel pressured into buying women specific equipment. Do research, read reviews, visit the website for cottage gear manufacturers. Try to keep your weight low, not because you are a woman but because you are SMART, and it's EASIER and more FUN to hike with less weight.  Try your gear out in your backyard, if you have one, or find a shorter local hike to test everything out. These hikes are called "shakedowns" where you test your preparedness. Find a local meet up group of experienced backpackers, often they are willing to invite a newcomer and show them the ropes. Send me an e-mail. I'd love to backpack with you.

 Lucky (Me), Kalidascope, and Cheeks at God's Thumbprint in Virginia

Lucky (Me), Kalidascope, and Cheeks at God's Thumbprint in Virginia

There are aspects to being a female backpacker that will differ from the experiences that men have. Most of these have to do with menstruation and personal hygiene. I don't have any articles covering these topics for now, so reference these great articles:

From super-backpacker (and one of my inspirations!) Elizabeth Thomas. It was originally published in a Japanese language magazine, but this is the English version! 

Try listening to this episode of The Trail Show, one of my favorite podcasts. The "Red Tent Episode" focuses specifically on women's issues AND uses some really amazing and experienced women hikers as the sources of information. Here is their description of the episode: "Five women with more than 50,000 miles of backpacking experience throw open the red tent vestibule and tell you how it really is."

Andrew Skurka's website is a great place to check for backpacking tips, and tricks. I appreciate that he stepped aside and asked one of his female friends to write this article about female hygiene. I got a lot of information from this article before starting on the Appalachian Trail, since I had never been on a trail for months at a time before. It can also be applied to much much shorter trips, of course. He also states: "Even if you’re a guy, it’d be worth reading this article: If you ever want your girlfriend, fiancee, or wife to join you on a backpacking trip, your ignorance on this subject could be major roadblock."

 There's a trail out there for everybody! I hope to see you out there!

There's a trail out there for everybody! I hope to see you out there!