Three years ago, my backpacking companions and I embarked on our innaugural Bighorn Mountain excursion. We said goodbye to our driver, took a selfie by the trailhead sign, and set out single file down the narrow path. No sooner had we gotten in a comfortable rhythm, then we were stopped short. The trail seemed to end in the middle of a fenced, grassy area. An area that could easily be mistaken for the yard of the trailer that sat firmly at the edge of the trees we had just trekked through.
We looked at each other, scanned the proximal landscape for a reappearance of the trail, and, finding none, walked the 75 yards back to the trailhead. We started again, and the result was the same. Only the second time, as we stood in the apparent front yard, a rough looking man in well-worn ranching attire emerged from the trailer. “Well, there’s a gaggle of girls where they don’t belong,” he proclaimed in no uncertain terms.
His tone implied that we were in the wrong place altogether. Clearly we were on the wrong trail, but did that mean we were on a misguided path? Or worse yet, was the term girls the integral word in his statement?
I have spent the past 14 years as an outdoor industry merchant, outdoor educator or ambassador of outdoor recreation. I’m also an idealist at heart, so I generally turn a blind eye to the significant gender imbalance that plagues outdoor business and recreation crowds. However, a few weeks ago, as my friends and I covered 34 miles of Bighorn Mountain trail, the disparity was irrefutable.
Somewhere around 45 folks, we lost count of the number of people we saw. Yet, I couldn’t ignore the lack of women we came across. A group of nine men and boys at Lily Lake, a solitary male hiker shortly thereafter, a gang of five guys passing by as we ate our lunch, and that was just in the first four hours of our five-day trip. On day three, we met a National Outdoor Leadership School troop of 12. Of the 10 teenage students, only two were girls.
Why is it so unusual to see ladies recreating in the outdoors? In my experience, I have found that it has little to do with lack of interest or desire. Alternatively, it has nearly everything to do with lack of knowledge, skills and confidence, accompanied by deep seated assumptions about how to conform with social expectations.
Being uncomfortable in a situation doesn’t mean you’re in the wrong place, it simply means you are unexperienced.
I encourage you to get the daughters, moms, wives, aunts, nieces and girlfriends in your life outside. Help them move beyond their comfort zone and explore the wonders the great outdoors have to offer.
This weekend, six other moms and I are taking seven little girls on their first backpacking trip in the Bighorns, and I couldn’t be more excited. Not only will the 8-year-olds learn some new outdoor skills, they will emerge from the woods with a deep camaraderie and a mountain of self-confidence. I can write with certainty that, as you are reading this, the 14 of us are exactly where we belong.
Julie Greer is a member of the Wyoming State Parks and Cultural Resources Commission.