Everyone deserves to feel safe, comfortable and respected in the outdoors. Unfortunately, women are constantly on guard for potential threats. We're often cautioned with tips about how to stay safe while travelling and adventuring—or actively discouraged from going at all.
Too long has the onus been placed solely on women to dress, act and exist in a certain way. We need men to learn how to help create an outdoor adventure environment where everyone feels included and equal.
Hiking and camping can be a scary experience or a motivating journey, depending in part on interactions with other adventurers. I spoke with five women about their experiences in the outdoors and how encounters with men impacted their trips, both positively and negatively.
Here are 10 suggestions for men looking to improve their behaviour and learn how they can help create a safer, more welcoming environment for women in the outdoors:
1. Make your presence known
Stephanie Amaral, a sunrise chaser and blogger based in Ontario asks men to make their presence known when walking up behind women on the trail, rather than sneaking up quietly. “Simply yelling, 'behind' or saying, 'hey, just behind you' works just fine. When coming from in front, you can offer a smile and say something simple, like 'hello, have a good hike.' It’s creepy being asked, 'where’s your boyfriend?' or 'are you here by yourself?' because we don’t think it matters if we have a partner or not. We just want to be outdoors.”
2. Be encouraging and resist society’s expectations
“I've lost count of the number of times I've been discouraged to adventure alone, or my intelligence was put into question as I chose to embark on such adventures,” says Amie Renaud, writer and blogger at Mon Amie. “Historically, men are praised, featured, sponsored and financially supported for being adventurous, while women are often discouraged, on the sidelines and left with fewer financial means to pursue adventurous lifestyles and careers. Very few male adventurers I know of face the same societal pressures to 'settle down' . . . I'm often left to feel as though I need to make people comfortable and reassure them that I still have ambitions of a “real adult job” and a pathway to a more secure, homely lifestyle, while also pursuing solo adventure. We have careers, we’re intelligent people and we’re choosing to go against the norm. That makes people uncomfortable."
“What’s the story we’re told growing up?” Amie asks. “What are the stories we’re still told? How do we change that harmful dialogue?”
“I’m happy to have found my footing and been able to share space in the outdoors and adventure,” says Erin Parisi, a big mountain climber and transgender athlete. “I feel lucky mostly. Historically men have been represented so much more in the outdoors, and it’s nice that with social media and a slowly evolving outdoor industry we are actually seeing women in outdoor narratives told directly by us.”
3. Be friendly—not flirty
Most women aren’t hoping to get hit on when they’re sweating up a summit or setting up camp. Read body language to know if someone doesn’t want to engage, and don’t get offended if someone doesn’t respond to you. “As a woman, my back goes tense when the conversation gets personal,” says Stephanie. “For instance, if we are sharing a moment watching the sunrise, don’t ask me where I live, how often I go there or if I have a boyfriend. Enjoy the moment—maybe at a distance and not just because of Covid.”
“I find myself in training or on expeditions with people I have never met often,” says Erin. “I was on a small expedition with a Russian guide who grouped all of the women together and assigned himself our leader and let the men climb alone. He then proceeded to flirt with us all… all the way to the top. He was poorly prepared for the climb, brought no snacks or water ever, and showed signs of AMS [acute mountain sickness] on the summit. Somehow, he treated us like we were inferior, and still he was the only one I doubted would make it back to the bottom without assistance. He was awful.”
4. Notice if others are bothering us and keep your friends in check
Don’t make crude jokes or say objectifying things behind a woman’s back when you pass her on the trail or see her at the campsite. If you hear one of your buddies say something about or to a woman that is inappropriate, call him out on it. Don’t let sexist behaviour slide. “You should never say [those things], but it’s even more scary out in the wilderness with no one around,” says Adele Ng, a photographer and filmmaker based in British Columbia. “I want to emphasize there are more stories about guys being normal and awesome than being disrespectful, but just one incident of someone saying something can ruin an entire trip, and it can also prevent you from wanting to go again.”
“Many men are affirming and supportive and love hearing about my training and travels,” says Erin. “Others just don’t get it. When you’ve fought for representation and shared space, only to be dismissed or gaslighted about the challenges when you share your story, it’s a pretty awful experience.”
5. Respect everyone’s boundaries and limitations
“I find that women are a lot more conservative—and we live longer, because we don’t take unnecessary risks—we’re not all about trying to hit that peak,” says Adele. “It’s important to respect everyone, not push or call derogatory names. It makes me feel good when guys don’t make me feel weak and egos aren’t in the mix.”
Listen to your teammates and be willing to adjust pace, duration and activity so everyone feels comfortable and accomplished. “There’s one guy I went hiking with who was Olympic-level fit, but he didn’t make me feel slow. If he can do that, no one has any excuse,” says Adele.
6. Think twice before offering unsolicited advice
“When a woman is seen navigating the trails on her own, it is assumed that she is lost and needs directions,” says Bianca Bujan, a travel writer and book editor living in British Columbia. “There's nothing wrong with offering help, but think twice before offering unsolicited advice or making assumptions about an adventurer's capabilities based solely on their gender or size. Instead, be an ally, assume they are capable, and keep the interactions neutral and friendly."
“A little humility and ego check goes a long way,” says Erin. “I think starting on the assumption that women are as experienced and as capable as you are is the very minimum. If you’re explaining to a woman how to build a fire or telling her the proper way to use her well-worn camp gear, things have gone wrong… stop talking.”
“Be polite—don’t offer suggestions, help or critique if someone’s not asking for it,” says Adele. “Include everyone in decision-making, split up the duties (men don’t have to make the fire), don’t be intimidated by women who know what they’re doing and remember you are part of a team! Help out and be kind.”
7. Give everyone space
When you’re in a large campground with room to spread out, don’t set up your tent right next to a woman. “Give the campground space, especially if a single woman is camping,” Adele says. “Don’t approach a campsite quietly at night—it’s really creepy. You don’t need to come talk when it’s dark… especially if you haven’t been invited. If I see a single guy and I’m camping alone, I’m going to be as far away as possible.”
"Recognize when someone comes in by themselves," says Amie, "[campsite workers] can take the initiative to let solo women campers know that they're there if they need help."
8. Be aware of vulnerable situations
If you’re hiking with a woman or at a backcountry campsite and she needs to pee or get changed, actively give the signal that you are not looking, cautions Adele. Don't pee right next to her, either. Be aware of how your presence might make someone else uncomfortable. Actively try to give everyone their privacy.
For example, a group of women were settling in for the night in a shared backcountry cabin when a bachelor party arrived. One of the men immediately realized this could be an uncomfortable situation for the women, so they split up the party, with single men sleeping on the bottom level and married men sharing the upstairs with the women. This was a simple, effective way to show the women they had noticed their discomfort and were making arrangements so it could be as respectful and welcoming as possible.
9. Dispel old myths and assumptions
Dispelling old myths and assumptions includes thoroughly researching outdoors theories, like the (unproven) myth that bears are attracted to menstruation, so people should not camp when on their period. Many men have cautioned women about things like this with no first-hand experience or knowledge.
Amie encourages everyone to recognize gaps in knowledge around safety, etiquette and privilege in the outdoors. “A lot of us don't have the opportunity to grow up very outdoorsy. Everyone deserves to be there and have that opportunity. Gatekeeping bothers me . . . operating under the assumption that everyone somehow grows up with the privilege to learn about the outdoors. We need to be encouraging. It doesn't matter what age someone might be, what their bodies look like, what their gear looks like, how they got there, who they're with . . . it should be a celebration when you're in the outdoors. There's so much misunderstanding around what the outdoors is supposed to mean or look like."
“It’s important to have people that are reliable sources [of information] to feel comfortable asking questions to, and to maintain that curiosity,” she adds.
10. Treat us the same as you’d treat any human
Bianca shared a frustrating anecdote: "I once went BBQ shopping with my husband, and as the salesman reviewed the functions and features of the grill with us, he maintained eye contact with my husband the entire time, not looking in my direction even once. Little did he know, I was his target customer—the griller of my household. I see these gender assumptions happen in the outdoor space as well.”
Adele and Amie both mentioned that in the outdoors, their gender isn’t something they typically focus on—until someone else brings it up. “If I’m hiking with a huge backpack, both men and women will make a comment like, 'wow, good job'—but they wouldn’t say anything to a guy with a huge pack on. If you wouldn’t say it to a man, don’t say it to a woman,” says Adele.
“For me, it’s about being seen equally and uncritically from the start,” says Erin. “There’s a lot of times I feel like I need to prove myself to even earn the spot I’m occupying. Women are often better trained and more experienced—and the idea that we should need to start by proving ourselves is ridiculous.”
“It’s really quite simple in essence—it comes down to human decency, common courtesy and kindness,” Amie says. “We’re all human. A smile and a hello go a long way.”
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