I’ve always had a strong pull to the outdoors. I spent my entire childhood (minus school hours, of course) playing in the dirt, riding my bike around our neighborhoods and going on wild adventures which took me deep into the woods.
Not all women, however, were or are fortunate enough to experience the outdoors as a vital part of their existence.
According to a study by the Outdoor Foundation, only 42% of 6-12-year-old girls participate in outdoor activities. While that number rises (47%) for 13-17-year-old girls, that percentage is still far too low - incredibly so.
And though the numbers for women under the age of 18 are alarming, the percentage of women ages 18 and older who are getting outside and exploring the great outdoors only continue to rise. According to REI’s latest campaign, Force of Nature, 70% of women surveyed said: “being outdoors is liberating.”
These numbers may appear significant, and yet, the question is not whether women should spend more time outdoors but, rather, how more women can be encouraged to spend time outdoors. How do we make outdoor exploration for women more than just “liberating?" How do we raise the bar from 70% to 100?
As REI coined, “We level the playing field.”
Research shows that young women are taught to be “cute” while young men are taught to be “tough and brave." According to a 2015 study in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology, parents are four times more likely to tell girls than boys to be more careful.
In a world where our vast wilderness and natural areas continue to shrink, how can we reverse these stereotypes and encourage young women to explore and discover a passion for the outdoors that won't hinder them, but will instead push them to excel and reach new heights they never imagined possible? Especially when those heights include mountain ranges and tree tops?
Perhaps it's time to instil in young women more than just a love for the outdoors; we need to encourage women to break past their limitations by being everything their male counterparts are taught to be: brave.
Bravery is defined as the quality or state of having or showing mental or moral strength to face danger, fear, or difficulty. By not allowing young girls to be “brave,” to take risks and pursue passions they love, we are depriving them of the moral strength and ability to look at fear and yell, “screw you.”
Bravery sticks with you. If I wasn’t taught as a young woman that it's okay to be brave; to take chances and explore the world, it is unlikely that I would have ever traveled alone to countries thousands of miles from my one-bedroom apartment, or believed I could hike 19,000 feet in the air. Though society may be broadening its perspective on what women are capable of achieving when it comes to exploration, for the most part, we are still relegated to ads depicting cute boat shoes or gym performance wear. How many times have women heard the cautionary, "Don't go hiking alone," or "Exploring as a young woman is unsafe!" Had I not been taught that it's okay to be brave, I would have been scared to pursue many of the adventures I've had.
I would have decided that it was a man’s world out there in the wild, and what business do I have trespassing?
Far be it from trespassing, however, women belong in the great outdoors just as much as the rest of us do. The outdoors is for everyone, and every creature, something recent studies have shown. Women now represent 51% of outdoor consumers. While that number is far from extraordinary, it’s still over half.
Evidently, brands are taking note of these numbers, actively taking a stand and doing something about the once lacking awareness of women in the outdoor exploration sphere. For the first time, Outside Magazine made a whole issue for women, about women. Every single contributor in the issue was female. Fierce, accomplished, brave women graced the cover; even the editor was a woman. And though that may seem unordinary to some, given that many of the world's largest fashion magazines are run by #girlbosses, the fact that the outdoors industry is only now catching up speaks volumes.
When I received that Outside Magazine Issue in the mail, I felt so empowered and inspired...but I also felt a little cheated. I was so excited to see the tides turn yet couldn’t help but think, would this continue? Would the push for women to grace covers, edit content and be represented fully in the outdoors industry spur change? Or was this nothing more than a one-time shout-out to women adventurers?
Considering the boom in female explorers and adventurers (nearly 160 million adventure travelers in 2016 were female), I believe this push for women to take center stage is catching on.
By highlighting women role models (Abby Wambach, Mira Rai and Margo Hayes, to name a few), women of all ages have people to look up to. Role models to follow, goals to set their eyes upon and examples to prove to them that the outdoors is for everyone - even women like you and I.
The strides made by REI and Outside Magazine are key in encouraging the push for women in the outdoors sphere, but that doesn’t mean mission accomplished. The number of female CEOs of outdoor brands is still less than 15%, and only 37% of National Park Service employees are women, according to a study by the women’s advocacy group, Camber Outdoors.
There’s surely a long way to go, but showing women - especially young women - that the outdoors is healthy, inviting, fulfilling, and a place of refuge, will continue to increase the numbers of female adventurers in the outdoor realm.
So, ladies, go climb that mountain, jump in that lake, hike that hill. Get some mud underneath those fingernails and forget the fears and expectations set upon you.
Just don’t forget to grab a female friend; the force becomes stronger that way.