From Casual Hikes to Mount Kilamanjaro: Why Women Are Hitting the Trails

From Day Hikes to Kilamanjaro: Why Women Are Hitting the Trails
Photo: Kara Brodgesell

If your idea of a vacation with friends involves a giant margarita, poolside massages or slot machines, you might be surprised by the latest travel trend. Grab your hiking boots and backpacks — more and more people are planning vacations that feature tents instead of hotel rooms, and Nalgenes instead of tropical cocktails.

Since the release of the book Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed, and the subsequent movie staring Reese Witherspoon, more people have been motivated to hit the great outdoors. Google searches for “hiking the PCT,” have increased six-fold — and those aspiring hikers aren’t all burly outdoorsmen, either. According to data compiled by The Outdoor Foundation, while only 48 percent of adults pitching tents in 2011 were women, that number rose to 60 percent in 2014.

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Here’s how two women changed their lives by hiking — and how they’re now empowering others to hit the trails as well.

From Day Hikes to Kilamanjaro: Why Women Are Hitting the Trails
Photo: Seal Press

From Casual Hikes to Mount Kilamanjaro

Kara Richardson Whitely grew up in Vermont and Canada, where she spent plenty of time outdoors — until she began to struggle with her weight. “When I was approaching 30, I was [nearly] 360 pounds and I wasn’t very active at all. I decided I’d just start hiking,” Whitely says. While her first climbs were difficult, she persevered. “Doing so led me up mountains in Vermont; it led me to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back up. And then it led me to Kilimanjaro the first time.”

Whitley, who authored the book Gorge: My Journey Up Kilamanjaro at 300 Pounds, which hit shelves on April 7, 2015, has also noticed a post-Wild phenomenon. “I did all three of my hikes [up Kilamanjaro] before Wild came out, but [Cheryl Strayed] really opened the door to the idea that going outdoors is attainable for women and doing things that are a little more than a day hike is something that other people can do, too,” Whitely says.

“I felt there was a dearth of opportunities for women to actually be the experts and leaders in the outdoors.”

Whitely’s first hike up Kilamanjaro was a celebration of her 120-pound weight loss. The second hike was an attempt to get back on track after re-gaining almost half of that weight during and after pregnancy. And the last time was a journey towards self-acceptance.

“The third one, while it wasn’t as glorious and easy as the first one, it was the most moving and life changing because of the fact that I used the hike to understand why over the years I was so unkind to myself with weight,” Whitely says. “It was about self acceptance; it was about knowing what I’ve been through and my past.”

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Now, Whitely is an ambassador with the American Hiking Society, where she’ll participate in events such as National Trails Day (June 6, 2015) and Great Outdoors Month in June. Her book tour will take her through REI stores nationwide, where she hopes people will pick up more than just Gorge. “Maybe they’ll buy my book, but also leave with a little something to get them on their way to their own adventure,” Whitely says. “Maybe it’s a water bottle, which is where I started my first journey, with a Naglene, or a trail book. The side effect will be that more people are actually get out and feeling comfortable being part of this club, this group.”

From Day Hikes to Kilamanjaro: Why Women Are Hitting the Trails
Photo: Kara Brodgesell

Empowering Women in the Great Outdoors

Ready to enter the wilderness, but no clue where to start? Trail Mavens, founded in 2013, bills itself as a “skills-based outdoor adventure group for extraordinary women.”

“I personally had my own Wild story,” says Sasha Cox, founder of Trail Mavens. “My mom died of cancer and I had read Wild and decided to leave and travel around the world. It was in doing that that I got the guts to start my own business.” Despite the fact that she was an avid camper and hiker, Cox realized she’d never shared those experiences with her group of girlfriends. “I felt there was a dearth of opportunities for women to actually be the experts and leaders in the outdoors,” Cox says.

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Now, Trail Mavens offers guided overnight trips that empower women to try everything from camping in Big Sur and Yosemite to kayaking in California’s Tomales Bay. On each of the journeys, women learn crucial outdoors skills, such as how to set up a tent, build a campfire and follow a trail map. The goal is that they can take those skills back home, and then lead their friends on similar adventures.

“At this particular moment in time, there’s so much interest in it both because of [Wild], but…there are now a number of really awesome websites dedicated to getting women in the outdoors, like,” Cox says. “All these women are creating these sort of grassroots networks and communities around them and I think people’s interest is only peaking.”

While women come on these trips for a variety of reasons, Cox says most leave with a greater sense of confidence and empowerment. “The way that people find fulfillment in life in general is presenting themselves with a series of challenges and overcoming them…” Cox says. “I think that going into the wilderness provides such a delightfully ripe opportunity for this because there are challenges that are inherent to it, you have to do things in a different way than in the comfort of your own home.”

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