I’ve subscribed to Backpacker Magazine for years. It’s generally got one or two articles I find interesting, and the annual gear reviews can be helpful. But it’s got a lot of fluff (how to use your cellphone as a survival tool by ripping out the wires? Seriously?), and so I take it with a grain of salt.
Recently, the magazine ran a series of articles on women in the backcountry. I’m pretty interested in that…the more women we can get on the trails, the better. So to say I was disappointed in their take on things is an understatement.
I could echo the words of several bloggers and hikers I know…all of whom were disgusted by the whole thing. “How Not to Pee on Your Shoes?” Really? But I hate reinventing the wheel, and I love sharing what’s right about the women-in-hiking blogosphere. So let me introduce you to Allison Driscoll, author of the very popular Trail to Summit blog. She did a survey of Actual Women who Actually Hike, and came up with some great data to hand back to the powers that be at Rodale…er…Backpacker Magazine.
Through a chance encounter on Facebook, I met Valerie Ross, of the San Diego Girl Scouts Council. SDGS has an incredible backpacking program, and Val is one of eight adult volunteers. This is the first time I’ve heard of a GS Council with this sort of program (please, somebody, prove me wrong). So I wanted to find out more about it. I’ll let Val take it from here.
“I started backpacking as a shy, gangly, fly-me-under-the-radar 16-year-old in 1976. My big brother led me into the Golden Trout Wilderness for my first-ever trip, and I walked out of the forest a week later standing 10 feet tall and confident that I could do anything. I never stopped backpacking, and never lost that feeling of exhilaration one gets from walking into the Sierras and feeling its power and grace. My two daughters grew up backpacking with me and their aunties, and as the years passed I noticed that I saw countless Boy Scouts in the wilderness but absolutely no Girl Scouts. (In fact, over the last 39 years, I’ve only come across one Girl Scout backpacking group that wasn’t associated with my Council). I wanted to change that.
“Eighteen years ago I took my Council’s (San Diego Girl Scouts) backpack training to meet the training requirement for taking my own troop backpacking. Some years after that, I became a Council trainer and helped develop the program we have today. SDGS currently trains 300-400 girls and adults each year in wilderness hiking and backpacking. We now have 8 trainers and every year we lead an average of 4 advanced trips (Sierras, CA central coast, AT, hut-to-huts, etc.).”
In 2013, a group of high school and college age girls from across the Council hiked the High Sierra Trail. They made a short video on top of Mt. Whitney. The best part of the video? “I can do anything!”
Again from Val: “This SDGS backpacking program actually goes back to the 1950s & 60s. It’s not new, but is a legacy that just keeps developing.
“One aspect of our program that I feel most responsible for (and proud of, to be honest) is our Youth Leadership program. After girls finish basic backpacking, we invite them to return to help train and lead our classes/trips. These girls are stunning – they train girls and adults right alongside the lead trainer, mentoring girls and demonstrating such confidence in public speaking, all outdoor skills & knowledge, and our wilderness ethic – that is, the way we have each other’s backs and look after our fellow hikers.
“As for the backpack trainings & trips – my goal is that by time a girl leaves for college, I want to know that she’s capable of any backcountry adventure she dreams up. And we’ve had any number of girls go on to become JMT thru-hikers, a PCT thru-hiker (this year’s class), Peace Corps members, leaders in their university’s outdoor adventure programs…. Each of these girls has a story to tell, too. We’re teaching these awesome young women down here in SD, and it’s such a joy to help them develop the skills and knowledge they need to realize their dreams. And, they go on to inspire the current corps of Youth Leaders, which is pretty cool.”
This year, the girls hiked 34 miles, along the John Muir Trail, from Mammoth to Yosemite. They too put together a short video. Notice the ranger station section at the beginning; the girls were working with the rangers, and the adults pulled back. As with any successful outdoor program, the youth need to take charge.
“So I know you just asked for a blurb, not a book. I don’t know which great tale to tell (years & years of them – scary helicopter rescues, poignant moments, hilarious ‘you know you’re backpacking when you’re cleaning your bowl with your underpants’ moments). But I can tell you this — the moments I live for, when I’m most rewarded, go something like this one: I was descending Forester Pass with a group of my girls in August, 2011 – a huge snow year. After hours of carefully navigating the sun cups and snowfields over the top, we stopped to rest at a promontory with views extending north – snow-covered mountains as far as the eye could see, truly a purple mountain’s majesty. ‘I never knew this existed!’ one of them whispered into the silence, and that’s it, in one sentence: the reason, the purpose and the joy of helping a girl discover something she will treasure for the rest of her life.
“And for those who are ready to try backpacking, my advice is to get out and do it. You can’t learn to backpack by reading about it. You have to get your feet dirty, be humble enough to make mistakes, and have the confidence to laugh when you’re learning. It’s important to be humble: realize that you’ll never know it all, and that there’s no room for arrogance in the backcountry. Be Safe is the other half of the motto Be Prepared, and both are essential. By accruing experience, and being patient with the process, you’ll gain an acumen that can never be achieved by just reading others’ accounts. So yes – absolutely – read articles, books, blogs and posts. But there’s no substitute for experience. Go with a buddy/group that you trust to teach you properly (or at least, give you a start); someone who will have your back (and you’ll have theirs). Then keep building – the more time you spend outside the more familiar you’ll be with nature’s rhythms and your own rhythms and needs, as well. Never stop observing, and never stop learning.”
For those of you who are youth leaders, whether in Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, or a similar group, SDGS has some terrific resources www.sdgirlscouts.org/backpacking . Check out their flyers for the three levels of classes offered to girls and leaders (Wilderness Hiking, Basic Backpacking & Advanced trips). This site also contains the training handbooks which go along with the courses; they have a wealth of information.
Programs like this for girls are shockingly rare. Please share this info, and this post. We need to grow a generation of strong, capable women. And if you know of similar programs, please let me know so that I can share your stories. Mighty Hiker Women, unite!
Long distance hiking is never a race. Hopefully, everyone is out on the trail to seek their own experiences. Some enjoy photography. Some are recharged by sharing the journey with other hikers. Some prefer to go it alone as much as possible. It’s called “Hike Your Own Hike,” and that diversity is one of the things that make trail life so awesome.
A handful of years ago, one woman discovered that her hike involves crushing long distances, with speeds that leave the rest of us in the dust. Her trail name is Anish, and in 2013, she set the Self-Supported Fastest Known Time for the PCT, at 60 days 17 hours 12 minutes. That’s for 2650 miles. If you’re doing the math at home, that’s an average of nearly 44 miles per day.
“Self-Supported” means just that. Nobody’s carrying your gear for you, so that all you need on your back is water and a few snacks. It’s all up to you…setting up camp, making your food, you name it. And “Fastest Known Time” is also just that. There’s no record book for the long trails. You don’t get a gold medal. Sure, people are impressed, and maybe you get an interview or two. But you do it for you. Hike your own hike.
Anish tackled the John Muir Trail (JMT) last year, hoping for a FKT. She didn’t meet her goal. And like many of us who deal with low self-esteem, it haunted her.
This year, on August 1st, Anish set out to test herself again. She headed for Mt. Katahdin, Maine, to attempt the Self Supported FKT for the Appalachian Trail, which runs from Katahdin to Springer Mountain, Georgia, a distance of 2185 miles.
This her post from today, on the “Anish Hikes” Facebook page.
The trail has a way of answering the questions you most need answered, even if you are afraid to ask.
Those that have followed me for a while know that I have struggled with self-esteem my entire life. You would think setting the PCT speed record would change that.
Yet it only gave the negative thoughts an even more insidious way to demoralize me, especially after I failed to set the JMT record last year.
“The PCT was a fluke. You were only the benefactor of lucky circumstances. You aren’t athletic. You aren’t able. You’re a charlatan.”
On and on the whispers go.
I had to come here, to the AT, where my quest to find myself began 12 years ago and face those voices once and for all, alone.
I was to afraid to ask, but the trail knew the question in my heart:
“Was the PCT a fluke?”
The AT answered with a resounding, “NO!”
I wrestled not against the trail or external forces, but with them. If it were easy the whispers of inadequacy would continue. Instead I was challenged every single minute.
In the dark hours when I was tired, lonely, and hungry, that is when the demons came, “Why didn’t you stop with the PCT record? It will be your greatest achievement in life. You won’t ever do anything else. Now you’re out here and you’re in over your head. You will fail. You can’t do this. And everyone is going to know that you are nothing.”
But, every footstep I took was a choice. A choice to face my own perceived inadequacies.
Every footstep was a commitment. A commitment to deny that there was any truth to the words of the internal foes.
As the miles dwindled into the double digits I became aware that I was crushing more than miles. I was crushing a lifetime of self defeating beliefs.
So now, I walk off of Springer Mountain, alone just as I came. My pack, my feet, and my heart are light, unburdened at last.
And, I am aware that the end of every journey is simply the beginning of the next and that, far from being behind me, the greatest achievements of my life lie ahead.
New Appalachian Trail self-supported speed record: 54:7:48
Congratulations, Anish. I am so very happy for you.
To follow Anish, check out her Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/AnishHikes, and her blog: http://runhikelivelove.blogspot.com/
As a female hiker, it gives me great joy to meet other women on the trail. I love talking with them all. I learn a lot from the experienced hikers, and I gain a fresh perspective from those who are brand new to the trail. But I refer to all of them as Mighty Hiker Women.
Many of our friends and family don’t understand why we go into the backcountry. They tend to be concerned for our safety. That’s fine, up to a point. But when the fear of the unknown keeps us from hitting the trail (or, frankly, going on any new adventure), we need to rethink that fear. When we’re not sure exactly how to hike, or what gear is helpful, we need to learn what works. And one of the best ways to understand what the trail is really like is to talk with the women who are out there on a regular basis.
I’ve met, and in some cases mentored, women of all ages, who were headed to the backcountry for the first time. I’ll be sharing some of these stories.
I’d also like to share the stories of women who have been at it for awhile. I’m not necessarily talking about elite athletes (although I’ll talk about them too); the focus will be Everywoman, hiking her own hike, and learning and growing along the way.
And I’ll post hiking resources, especially woman-centric.
The trail belongs to all of us. And that’s a beautiful thing.
Note: If you are a women or girl who loves to hike, or know someone with an interesting hiking story, let me know. My aim isn’t necessarily to re-tell stories, but rather to point people in the direction of new friends.