Female voices are underrepresented in the typically male-dominated outdoor adventure world. We want to change that narrative.
Hiking, camping and canoeing are some of my favourite activities; however, I rarely do them alone. When trekking through the forest, I’m more afraid of encountering an unsavoury character along the trail than I am of being mauled by a wild animal.
Seriously. I fear humans more than bears.
As a female, my worries aren't unwarranted. Still, I’ve travelled solo through Europe, India and North America. I know I can be a strong, independent explorer, but I feel safer surrounded by crowds in a city centre or strangers in a hostel dorm room than I do on an exposed mountaintop alone.
Alison Karlene Hodgins backpacking through Switzerland at 20 years old
I started searching for adventurous female role models and found lists of historical figures and extreme athletes. But what about regular women who are getting out there, being badass and exploring the wilderness without a man?
In this article, seven female explorers from Ontario, Alaska, Saskatchewan and British Columbia share their experiences. I want to celebrate these everyday outdoor explorers without shaming anyone who chooses to adventure differently.
I hope their stories will inspire and empower you.
1. Ashlyn George from The Lost Girl’s Guide
Ashlyn George is a passionate solo outdoor traveller who has visited all seven continents, but always loves returning to her own backyard in Saskatchewan.
My happy place is in the forest. I used to think it was the mountains, but it’s the trees. There are so many incredible things to do in this province, from the most northerly sand dunes in the world to some of the best white-water canoeing, and not a lot of people know about it.
I first discovered how passionate I was about adventure through international travel. In New Zealand, I went sky diving, bungee jumping, zorbing, abseiling, black water rafting and caving. I realized that outdoor adventure makes me feel alive. It challenges me, it pushes my limits and, sometimes, it scares me.
For me, fear is a good thing. Everything on the other side of fear has always been amazing. First, attack fear from a place of education. Learn about what scares you. Recognize your fear, and then work past it. Choose safety first and know your limits.
It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve been on a trip; I’m always scared before my next one. You don’t know what’s coming; you’re going to be uncomfortable and make mistakes. It’s okay to feel scared. Afterwards, when you look back, you’ll have learned so much.
As a female, having a man with you changes the way strangers look at you and interact with you. For example, in Colombia, I would get cat-called all the time when I walked on my own. When there was a male friend with me, it wouldn’t happen as much. Men don’t always see what it can be like for women.
Back in January, I built a quinzee and asked two male friends to join me. With windchill, it was -52 degrees Celsius. I was in an educator/leader position, which can be rare for women. The guys were very open and receptive.
There’s safety in numbers, regardless of gender. Some of the coolest experiences I’ve had have been with my girlfriends. We’ve done the West Coast Trail, the Grand Canyon and Gros Morne. It’s just us, our maps, our skills and the remote wilderness. We all learn from each other. It’s empowering.
I also love adventuring alone. I started exploring solo because I didn’t want to wait for others. It’s nice to challenge myself and know what I’m capable of. I don’t need someone else to chop wood or carry my canoe. I can do all of that.
I know there are a lot of women who want to get outdoors, and to that I say: go do it! Find the resources you need, seek out a community, start small and see how it feels.
2. Stephanie Amaral from Wandering Outside
Stephanie Amaral is an explorer based in Ontario who documents her adventures—like her first time camping last year—on her website to encourage others to get out into nature.
It was always distilled upon me that women need to be a little bit more cautious. I come from a traditional Portuguese family—I wasn’t allowed to go outside unless I was accompanied.
When I purchased my vehicle, I found my independence. At 25 years old, I started hitting the trails and building relationships. Then I had an epiphany. I’d accomplished what was expected of me before I was 30: a house, a husband, next was kids. Then I realized it wasn't what I wanted. Now that I don't have those things, I'm somehow happier.
I use nature to escape and ''reset.'' When I go outside, I might feel crummy to begin with, but I always feel better after hiking.
Lately, I’ve been getting up early to see the sunrise. To fight that buzzer, get out of bed and hike a trail has taught me discipline. I also feel less trapped in my head. The sun waits for no one and will rise with or without you. Once I'm on that trail, everything else is erased.
If I want to go somewhere and I can’t find a buddy, I’m going to go anyways. I think women need to have more of this mentality. All our lives, we’ve been told we need a man. But we really don’t! I want us to take that power back. To be able to scale down to the bottom of a waterfall or make a fire by yourself is very empowering.
I have more female friends than males in my circle that like going outdoors. Having that feminine energy feeds the adventure.
My upbringing has made me rebellious, but I still don’t go out alone at night. I always tell people where I’m going and check-in with them throughout the adventure. As women, we do need to be a little more aware of our surroundings. But I’d rather not think about the worst-case scenario.
I’ve learned that challenges make us stronger, and the best way to get through fear is to practice being uncomfortable.
Follow Stephanie’s adventures: wanderingoutside.com
3. Adele Ng from Red Bark Photography
Adele Ng is a filmmaker and photographer who is passionate about exploring around Squamish, B.C., with her dog Whiskey.
I grew up in the suburbs of Ontario, and I hated the thought of camping. I was a city girl studying fashion design. I moved to Vancouver for work in 2008, and on a date, I was invited on a hike. We climbed the Chief. I thought I was going to die.
Then, at the top, I felt amazing. I’d never seen a view like that. But I still couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of camping. I mean, there are indoor toilets for a reason!
During a two-year stint in Australia, my husband and I decided to road-trip for three months. I was terrified but loved it. We camped for weeks in the desert, and everything was structured around getting water. From then on, I was addicted to adventure.
When adventuring by myself, I don’t feel alone because I have my dog, Whiskey. It feels better sleeping in a tent with her. I worry about people more than animals, and it’s two extra ears that are listening. She also carries her own stuff and warms up the sleeping bag an extra ten degrees.
I prefer to go with other people—it’s more fun—but I camp solo at least once or twice every year. I like being able to pace myself and not worry about others. When I hike alone, I spend hours picking fresh blueberries or taking pictures. I would never do that in a big group. I like having the freedom to sleep in or rise early with no guilt. It’s a “reset” for my brain and body.
For those wanting to gain the confidence to adventure solo, start small. Hike a short trail you know, prepare with the proper gear and slowly venture further out. Treat hiking and camping as an experience, not a checkmark or photo-op. Go when you know there will be people around, but it won’t be overwhelmingly busy. Just in case anything happens, it can feel reassuring to have a few other groups within screaming distance. Cell reception or a GPS helps in the beginning. Bear spray and an air horn are good deterrents, too.
Women of colour are less represented in the outdoor adventure world. People typically assume I’m not the leader—even though I usually plan the expedition. In general, the outdoors community has been amazing. It’s easy to avoid the people who aren’t.
In the last couple of years, I set the intention to meet more people that explore outdoors. I know if I go with a group of women and for any reason don’t want to continue, it’s okay to turn back or let them go ahead. Women don’t have a need to conquer things like men do. Guys put pressure on to keep going. The women I adventure with look to community more—for example, if someone isn’t feeling well, we change the plan. It’s also important to consider a dog another person. Check in to see how they’re doing.
In Canada, we’re so lucky with our wilderness. I wish all women could experience the peace and beauty of surviving and thriving outdoors.
Follow Adele’s Adventures: redbarkphotography.com
4. Claudia Laroye from The Travelling Mom
Claudia Laroye is a Vancouver-based writer and editor who loves the mountains and sipping pineapple margaritas in her backyard garden.
I think I’ve always had an adventurous spirit. My year abroad in Sweden as a Rotary Exchange Student at the age of 17 gave me the self-confidence to be on my own and set the stage for a lifetime of exploring the world.
It’s important to stretch your boundaries and see what you’re capable of as a solo female adventurer. I find that my solo adventures are less about competition with others and much more about self-exploration. About proving to myself that I can mountain bike or ice climb or navigate my way along the pot-holed jungle roads of Costa Rica to bathe in a thermal hot spring.
The sense of freedom and self-assurance that comes from being on one’s own is a gift. I relish my solo time as a chance to see the world on my own terms and at my own speed. Whether it’s wandering Honolulu, Hawaii, alone as a young woman or discovering cenotes in Tulum, Mexico, with a group of like-minded ladies, travelling solo or with other women affords me the chance to be my own self, to shed the labels and identifications of wife, mother and daughter. At least for a time.
Building self-reliance and confidence is particularly important when you become a mother and society defines you by that role. Travelling with kids solo is an adventure in itself. (For those who don’t know, planning for a solo parent-led holiday almost matches the preparation required for a mountain ascent.)
The beauty of such trips is worth the work, however. They present a wonderful opportunity to enjoy alone time with your children, whether camping by a glacial lake or enjoying Mardi Gras with your adult child. Importantly, such adventures allow kids to see us in a new and different light. Not as perfect Madonna’s, but as imperfect humans who succeed, falter, and keep on carrying on.
My gender (and now my age) come into play when others judge my abilities based on those factors. It’s frustrating when guys (and even male family members) are surprised when I can, for example, manage to complete a 25-kilometre alpine hike, even though I may not be as physically strong or have trained as hard as they have. They tend not to realize that strength isn’t just about brute force or muscle size. I love when my ability to endure, overcome pain and “cross the finish line” surprises those who didn’t think I had it in me.
Adventuring while solo has made me resilient in the face of life’s challenges. During these difficult times, I’m particularly grateful for my capacity to cope and support my friends and family who need me.
Follow Claudia’s Adventures: thetravellingmom.ca
5. Stephanie Brown from Backpacking Blonde
Stephanie Brown is a freelance writer on Vancouver Island that hikes to find balance in her professional and personal life.
I grew up on Vancouver Island off the west coast of Canada. I would call it a typical Canadian west coast life. We camped, we went on day hikes; I knew how to jump on a paddleboard and stay centred in a canoe intuitively.
I have always struggled to make close connections with other women, and I don't feel particularly trusting of most men. Consequently, I spend a lot of time on my own. Hiking has helped me to learn to love myself more and in turn, I feel more empowered to put myself out there and form bonds with others.
Through hiking, I've developed a stronger sense of self, some of the most beautiful and healthy friendships of my life, and a passion to help other women rediscover themselves on the trail.
My passion for helping other women get out there safely led me to become a Women Who Explore ambassador a few years ago. As well, I'm looking into starting a female empowerment hiking community called Backpack2basics on Vancouver Island—which will hopefully lead group hiking and retreats with therapists on the trail.
Follow Stephanie’s Adventures: stephaniebrown.ca
6. Kourtney Gunderson, Photographer
Kourtney Gundersen is an avid aurora chaser and nature photographer based in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Alaska is very diverse. I grew up in Anchorage, which is bordered by ocean and mountains. I live in Fairbanks, which is in the interior. It’s very isolated, so it’s easy to get out in the middle of nowhere.
I’ve always been someone to hang out with the guys, whether it’s snowmachining or fishing and adventuring. When we were out exploring, no one was taking photos. I got a DSLR and started northern lights photography after I realized how special the aurora is to the interior of Alaska.
I tend to hunt the aurora alone because most people don’t want to go at midnight on a weeknight in the freezing cold. Growing up, I’d hop in the car and go for a drive as my “getaway,” just listening to music and looking at the scenery.
When going alone, I’m always scared, because I respect nature and know it’s stronger than me. Nature is brutal. And yet, it’s so relaxing. Even in the cold, I get mesmerized and lost in it. It offers an escape—away from everything, you realize how small you are. All your problems seem a lot smaller when you’re out there.
For safety, I usually bring one of my dogs to protect against wild animals. I have bear mace in my car, and sometimes I take my gun. Luckily, I’ve never had to use either.
I experience everything differently than males. We both enjoy being outside, but in very different ways. I have a bit more of a connection with nature—I want to be among it, whereas they want to beat it. Their style is more about intensity and adrenalin. I just want to exist with it.
Men have also taught me so much. They treat me like one of them, so I don’t get to cop-out. They’ve helped me developed the skills to go out on my own, and now I’m pushing my female friends to come along. It’s fun to see more women starting to make a shift and realizing adventuring is something they can handle on their own.
Just because you haven't been an avid outdoors person all your life doesn’t mean you can’t start now! I didn’t start doing this until I was 19 or 20 years old. If you decide you want to do it, start now.
Follow Kourtney’s Adventures: kourtneygundersen.com
7. Niki Hurst, Endurance Athlete
Niki Hurst is an entrepreneur, mother and endurance athlete proudly living in beautiful Squamish, BC.
My running partner Christen and I got into the sport of ultrarunning in 2015 when we decided, on a whim, to attempt a single day run of the entire West Coast Trail.
Afterwards we were beaten up, but we were hooked. Christen suggested we run the North Coast Trail—an even more rugged, remote and challenging endeavor. The trail typically takes five to eight days to complete as a hike. Only two men had completed it in a single day run before.
As two petite blondes, we were cautioned against it. We worked and laughed our way along the trail, running it in 17 hours—and securing a new FKT.
There’s a natural ease, a team mentality, a humour and a rhythm that Christen and I have established. I can’t say for certain if gender plays into that, but I imagine it does. We can communicate with each other and read each other, especially when extreme fatigue hits.
Mountain endurance running demands that you be strong (mentally and physically), courageous and passionate, but it also demands vulnerability and humility. You must adapt to the pace of nature and respect it—you can have as much ego before and after as you want, but if you have ego out there, the mountains will crush you.
My gender is not really something I think too much about in the sport. I am aware that there is a stigma that women should rely on a male counterpart for an element of safety, but the mountains don’t care if you are male or female and the bears don’t care about your gender—what matters is that you’re prepared, trained and experienced for what you are attempting.
In ultrarunning, there’s a community of incredible women who set a high standard of self-actualization, inspire each other, lift each other up and celebrate the successes of others. The sport of ultrarunning is the first time I have found a community of women like this and I am honored to know them. With vast distance and extreme difficulty, it is no longer one runner against the other, but all of us against the distance. It breeds compassion and comradery. I am inspired to no ends by the women and men in this community.
Everyday I get to put on my running shoes and demonstrate to my daughters that with effort, commitment, joy and a dash of humour, the seemingly impossible is within our grasp.
Follow Niki on Instagram: @niki.grace.84