“Where’s your husband?”
I was taken aback. I don’t remember the year, or the exact hike I was doing, or many of the details of this encounter. But I do remember being asked this question by a total stranger while out hiking by myself. Maybe she thought it was an innocuous question. But I felt angry.
“I’m not married. I’m hiking alone.”
She reacted to my answer with as much shock as I reacted to her question. Alone! A young girl like you. Gasp!
I’ve had countless interactions like this since that day. Some are more obvious than others. Most are pretty subtle. But the message is the same: it’s not safe or appropriate for YOU to be out here by yourself. Your delicate, innocent, unskilled, incompetent, lady-self.
Undermining me, subtly
Do you know the look? The look that says:
- I don’t think you can keep up with me.
- You don’t belong out here.
- Do you even know what you’re getting into?
I get this look often. I only really see it when I’m out by myself. And I think I notice it less and less, mostly because I try to quickly hike past people when I’m out on my own, itching to get back into my solo groove instead of stopping and engaging with judgmental people. Sometimes the look progresses to a conversation, but it usually does not. It is very easy to establish that I know my shit once a conversation is started.
Whenever I walk away from such an encounter, my brain starts racing a mile a minute. Would they have treated me this way if I was a man? If I was older? If I looked tougher? If I had dressed differently? If I had a rifle slung across my back? Just what was it about me that made me look like I shouldn’t be here?
I know now that the way people treat others is more a reflection of how they feel about themselves than it is about the other person. But I’m still curious…just why people feel that a woman traveling alone in the woods is such an inconceivable notion?
Going it alone
That was it: alone. Solo hiking was the problem, not being female. Or was it? I very much doubt that solo male hikers get interrogated about why they’re hiking alone. Or lectured about how dangerous it is. I remember chatting with a lady at a bar in Eastern Oregon about the solo trip I was on, and how I was planning on camping that evening nearby. “Well that’s just stupid. What about the wolves? Do you have a gun? How will you protect yourself? You can’t camp alone.” She was furious with me. I bet if I had been linking arms with a cowboy on the next barstool that conversation would never had happened. If only I’d had a protector.
Wolves. In Eastern Oregon. Okay, lady…
There are certainly reasonable fears to ponder before venturing out alone. A twisted ankle 10 miles away from civilization can be much trickier to manage by yourself. But living in crippling fear of predators that don’t exist in an area and even if they did, aren’t interested in hunting you, are no reason to re-think your solo trip. But talking about irrational fears is a whole other topic for a different day!
Woman, or human?
When I started hiking back in 2005, I had a few friends who indulged me in my pursuit of outdoor adventures. But mostly I headed off by myself. I wasn’t making a statement or breaking barriers or being bold. I literally had no one to go with. If I didn’t hike alone, I wouldn’t hike at all. Out of necessity, I became pretty confident getting out hiking and camping by myself.
With the help of the Internet and local hiking organizations I eventually made my way onto some group hikes and learned from more experienced mentors. They were predominantly male, but a few women showed up now and again. Mostly, though, I preferred hiking alone. I could walk at my own pace, see what I wanted to see, set my own agenda. It was liberating and enjoyable. I liked the feeling of self-sufficiency. I felt like I learned new things with every trip. Group hikes could be fun but I found myself much less engaged in hiking when I was out with a group.
Flash forward to today. The Internet is millions of times bigger than it was before and, it would seem, there’s a website for everything. There are lots of women writing about hiking and sharing their experiences online. And yet, the articles about women and hiking feel very trite and superficial. I connect with almost none of them. I don’t need to read about how to manage my period while hiking (spoiler: it’s really not that difficult). Or about how to protect myself (carry pepper spray! always hike with a dog! stay SUPER close to home… bla… bla… bla). Quite honestly, I don’t know why hiking tips for women need to be any different than hiking tips for men. I feel like a human on the trail, until someone creates some awkward interaction with me that reminds me of my female-ness.
It’s not brave
On the other hand, there are stories, sagas, of women who are called out for being brave and exceptional. For going outside and doing things they love to do. This is not bravery. This is simply choosing to exist as you want to be despite the world that doesn’t understand you. I would hope that this is what everyone strives to do (whether or not they achieve it). I have no interest in being called brave. Walking outside is one of the simplest and most natural things a person could do. A person of any age, gender, size, color, background, ability, anything.
Hiking while female is normal. Safe. Enjoyable. Exciting. Calming. Physical. Natural.
It’s not brave.
But hearing that narrative over and over does something to your psyche. It can create some serious self-limiting inner monologue. “Should I be out here? Am I capable of what I think I am?”
None of this has stopped me from hiking. But that subsurface self-doubt has held me back in more technical pursuits, like climbing and mountaineering. I have almost always been the follower and not the leader. This year it changes.
In my travels I have met many competent, adventurous and strong women who are motivated to get out there and do their thing. I have missed many opportunities to go with them. Learn from them. Take the lead. Achieve my potential. While I am proud of the few chances I have taken I know that I’ve got more in me. A lot more.
This year I’m feeling way more confident in my abilities for a number of reasons. One: I am choosing to surround myself with other outdoor women. Two: I am taking classes to refresh my technical skills. And three: I am training hard, not only physically but mentally. As it turns out, those mental barriers are harder to break than the physical ones and the mental barriers are way more paralyzing.
So, what’s your experience of hiking while female? I do not claim to have the only female narrative. I know it’s different for each of us. But I haven’t quite heard my perspective told yet. It’s taken me a long time to put this out there. I hope that if anything these musings will cause you to take a moment and reflect on your own outdoor pursuits, acknowledge the real and perceived barriers in your way and allow you to make peace with the choices you make when you do what you love.