Last year at a wilderness medicine course, I shared a quick story about an incident with a bee sting to the neck on the water. A woman just a little older than me approached me afterward, wanting to know who I was and where I was from.

“I’m a sea kayaker too,” she said. “I guided for two years in the San Juan Islands.”

There were only three other women in the class of more than 25. We were the only two who had taken the course before, and I could tell she did not like me. She had approached me with the intent of comparing her guiding and outdoor resume to mine—to correct me on something I had shared.

I’m a fifth-year coastal kayaking guide and people often ask if I experience sexism in the outdoors. Yes and no, I respond, and never from the direction I expect it.

The words we choose to cut each other down

Truth is, outdoorsy girls can be mean girls. We undercut each other in wilderness medicine courses, competing for who has more experience because we’ve convinced ourselves there are limited spaces for women in the outdoors. We make jokes about other guides: “Her form is shit” or “She takes her job way too seriously.”

I’m complicit myself.

Talking with a friend recently about hiking and how hard it is to find people to winter camp with, we paused to joke about another girl. “Well, I mean… she only hikes for the photo, you know?”

I laughed and didn’t think much of it until later.

People have said that about me, too—that I only go outside for the content. People have also said I am only outdoorsy because my boyfriend is. I know these things aren’t true, but they sting.

No one goes outside just for the photo, which is maybe why the phrase feels so cutting as an insult. Humans go outside because it feels incredible; it’s where our brains are happiest. Humans as a species evolved in the outdoors, and by heritage, we are all outdoorsmen. The insults imply someone is so vapid they can’t appreciate a fundamental part of being human.

When I first started guiding, I was unskilled and didn’t have a concept of to what degree. I was told by other women in the field I would have to work harder for the same respect as my male coworkers. So I worked first on my confidence and on seeming competent. In hindsight, the result as a first- and even second-year paddler was I often exaggerated my skills. There were occasions when my abilities were questioned and at the time I felt these doubts about me were unfair. Now I believe people were likely seeing through the cracks of false confidence.

This doesn’t happen anymore, because the confidence is not false, and my skills and experience speak for themselves. It’s been years since I’ve had a man whom I’m speaking with face to face truly question my place in the outdoors.

Today, almost all the insults, undermining and negativity I’ve experienced in the outdoors come from other women in the outdoor community.

Winter paddling on Lake Superior.
Winter paddling on Lake Superior. | Feature photo: Maddy Marquardt

The self-inflicted notion of limited space

My theory is that because we see so few women in leadership roles in the outdoors, we think there are only so many spaces available and we’re all competing with each other for them. It’s as if in order to validate my own skills and experience, I must belittle hers. I must demonstrate I know better than her. That I can do what she does and look less silly, with less makeup, be tougher but still feminine and palatable. However, competency in the outdoors is not a limited resource.

Recently, I published a winter paddling image of Lake Superior and received a comment that read, “Sorry but I hope someone less experienced doesn’t feel emboldened by this post. Too many things can go wrong.” The comment came from another woman, clearly someone also active in the outdoors.

I read the comment after spending the week mulling over the phrase, “She only hikes for the photos,” feeling guilty for using it but not being able to articulate why. It came after reading the thoughts of other women outdoor creators discussing how they, too, have observed judgments being made about who is and who isn’t legitimately outdoorsy. Judgments made without knowing a person in real life or likely even really examining their content.

When we comment, “I hope you (a person who has clearly stated their specialized skills) don’t embolden anyone to take similar risks,” what are we really saying if we say it most often to women?

It seems what is being implied is that people are less likely to take risk seriously when it is attached to a person who looks like me. If something is being done by a small, blonde female, then surely it’s something that can be done by anyone. And so, the tax for the safety of others is me experiencing less and sharing less with others. I’ve been told this explicitly and implicitly since I was six.

I believe the outdoors and access to it is a right, not a privilege. Humans as a species are meant to sleep with our heads on the ground, to see trees and not concrete, to swim in cold water, to feel waterfall mist and be in movement.

Retiring a tired phrase to make the outdoors a more welcoming place

When we make casually cruel statements against other women, we strip someone we don’t know of their relationship to the outdoors as if it proves something positive about ourselves.

I’ve joked with other girls about women who wear makeup camping as if I don’t full well understand how hard it is to feel comfortable in your own skin.

I’ve watched while younger women and guides struggle like I did with forced confidence and exaggerated skill because we’ve been told we have to fight tooth and nail for respect.

I’ve looked at the pretty Pacific Northwest girls with their perfect hair and leggings and sports bras on the tops of mountains and thought, “She only hikes for the photo.” Because in their perfect photos, I see my own imperfections, how much I struggle with my own body image and how I could never look like that on top of a mountain. I’ve told myself the phrase because for some reason in order for me to be a competent outdoorsperson, she can’t be—as if there is not room for both of us.

But there is room, and it starts with the statements we make.

We can build our own outdoor spaces and communities. We can change the ways we teach about the wild and welcome people in instead of pushing them out.

Maddy Marquardt is a paddling guide and writer based in Northern Minnesota. This essay originally appeared in her newsletter Hello Stranger.


Winter paddling on Lake Superior. | Feature photo: Maddy Marquardt

 

5 COMMENTS

  1. Firstly, I’d like to say that I am sorry that you have had negative experiences. However, I fundamentally disagree with this article. I think you find mean girls in all walks of life, but in my experience, there are significantly fewer in the outdoors. I come from a whitewater kayaking world and I find that the women in this male-dominated world are incredibly welcoming and supportive, and lift each other up rather than undermine each other.

    Don’t get me wrong – I am not perfect. I often comment that people are “just in it for the photo”, but this is mostly when I see tourists drive to a lookout, jump out of their car, snap a picture on their phone and carry on. Instead, they could walk 5 minutes away from the crowds and truly immerse themselves in nature. I also say that people are “taking the race too seriously”, but 90% of the time I am talking about men or myself.

    I found it pretty upsetting and hurtful to see an article which stereotypes all outdoorsy girls as mean girls, especially only a few days after International Women’s Day. I think we all can strive to improve ourselves, and there are definitely unconscious biases that need to be addressed in the outdoors. Still, I think it is better to try not to let a few bad experiences taint the entire female outdoorsy population who, for the most part, are absolutely wonderful people.

  2. Like Beth (who I know and love), I am sorry that this is the author’s experience. I am glad, however, that my experience of women in the outdoors is completely different. From the club boating scene of the UK, to Norway and now in Australia I have overwhelmingly positive experiences with “the girls”. They are my sisters and my supporters, the keepers of my secrets and, often, the kick up the arse when I need it – both on the water and off.

    I am offended by the premise that all of these wonderful girls I know are “mean girls”. The ones who introduce me without hesitation into their friend groups, the ones who take care of me on the river, the ones who share their fears and successes with me. They are not – we are not – mean girls who try to exclude others, or drag them down.

    A perfect example of women in the outdoors is a camp organised by Marlene Devillez in Voss. Last year, Marlene organised nearly over 20 women and 8 coaches (also all women) who met for a weekend to paddle, chat and make connections. Marlene has been running this camp for many years and is just one example of someone who is sharing her knowledge and encouraging women of all levels and experience to get outside, have fun and build their community. Perhaps you could speak with her about the positives of getting women into the outdoors.

  3. Love my many female friends that I’ve met in various outdoor activities. I agree that “catty” remarks can be made in all walks of life. However, I appreciate this article bringing the behavior to attention and providing good food for thought/reflection – thank you, Maddy. The “Be Kind” statement is a little faddish at the moment, but, can there ever be too much?

  4. Like Louise and Beth, I disagree with this article. So sorry that you have had such negative experiences in various outdoor activities with mean girls. I got started in outdoor activities with a group here in Maryland, “Outdoor Womens Life”, through my cousin who was a Girl Scout growing up and now is both a kayak and a shotgun instructor for various outdoor groups.

    I have found the opposite to be true of the women I have friended in the outdoor community. I’ve participated in yearly events with OWL since 2010 and found them to be an amazing group of women that share their knowledge of the outdoors and encourage women of all levels and experience in Outdoor activities. It is because of them I started enjoying archery and kayaking. Even though I am more of a fair weather kayaker with my sit-on-top kayak I’ve found so much camaradie and encouragement from OWL and from a kayak group I joined in 2021 “Kayak Mamas” in the DC, MD & VA region. I love these groups and would encourage any women in this area to join them.

  5. Wonderful article and I appreciate the self reflection from the author. I think we can call benefit from the same reflection on how we treat each other and think about others.

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