Frails on Trails

I was two years old the first time my dad took me camping. I have very clear memories of that day. There was a duck pond, and I was so gobsmacked by all the geese and ducks and coots and other birds that I lost my tenuous hold on reality and… peed my pants. We wound up having to go home early because, although my dad had packed me four changes of clothes for one night, I managed to, um, forget myself in all of them. Fortunately, he didn’t give up on me; my brothers and I went on to spend many weekends in the woods with him, and my nephews and niece have continued the tradition. I’m comfortable in the wilderness in a way that many women are not. Grateful as I am for this gift, I can say that all-female expeditions are very different than mixed groups.

This year, I went on two backpacking trips. The first was in a group of three women and two men. The second was in a group of three women. I’ve also been on various trips with my husband, family, and other friends. Men have a tendency toward chivalry that often leads them to insist on doing ALL THE FUN STUFF: reading maps, pitching tents, lighting the stove, carrying all the heavy things. You probably wouldn’t guess it by looking at me, because I weigh 122 pounds, but I can merrily carry a 45-pound pack uphill for hours without a break. That’s equivalent to a 74-pound pack on a 200-pound man. (When the choice is between carrying a heavy pack or wearing the same shirt on more than one day, that choice is obvious, my friend). I don’t need a man to be my Sherpa. I spent three weeks in a tent in Iceland with my husband, and he refused to let me cook a single meal. He says it’s so I would have time to write, but secretly I think he just wanted to have all the propane-oriented fun to himself. I had to resort to a weekend with a girlfriend so I could have a chance to learn to operate the stove confidently.

The nice thing about male chivalry is that it’s quite reliable in the backwoods. Every time I have ever encountered a man on the trail while I was alone and wearing my pack, he has regarded me with obvious delight. Not because I’m such a vision of loveliness, but simply because the immense size of my pack indicates I’m there for business. Many men go to the woods alone because… they need to be alone. They love nature, they starve without it, and they recognize that feeling in others. Others go alone because they love nature, and their wives don’t. The sport being what it is, a large proportion of the men I meet are around my father’s age, so there is also that element of paternal pride in a (not so) young lady’s independence. A friend of mine reported two men asking to take her picture, because seeing her camping with just her preschooler might be enough to convince their wives to venture onto the trail with them. Outdoorsy men are welcoming of female participation in a way that isn’t necessarily true for all sports.

I grew up in a time when boys taunted girls for being stupid and incompetent on a daily basis. This was before Title IX, and I remember being deliberately hounded out of after-school intramural sports because the boys didn’t want to play with girls. (Teachers, thanks so much for doing zero about this). I lasted two sessions longer than the other two girls who wanted to play. Anyone would have agreed that girls just don’t belong when it comes to activities like using tools, getting muddy, or driving a 4WD vehicle. There are few things that get my Irish up quite so much as this. I have a hidden chamber of molten lava ready to erupt on anyone who tries to interfere with my learning a new skill. Get out of my way, I’m a Questioner on the loose and I am on a quest for KNOWLEDGE!

I can pitch my tent in the dark in minutes. I can dehydrate my own chow. I can assemble, use, and clean my water filter. I’m fully capable of balancing the load in my pack and putting it on without help. As of this weekend, I can tie a rock to a rope, toss it over a tree limb, hoist food bags, and secure the rope around a tree trunk, and everything will still be hanging there the next morning. I’m good at troubleshooting and repairing things like a dripping tent vent or a leaky water bag. I can do 15 miles a day and I can gain 4000 feet of altitude without even getting all that tired. I can cross a thigh-deep stream of glacier runoff with my pack still on. I can climb a 20-foot rope. I’ve crawled under barbed wire, waded waist-deep through mud, and jumped over three-foot open flames. What is really interesting here is that these abilities do not necessarily qualify me to hang out with my toughest girlfriends.

Alpha women tend to organize differently than alpha males. We seem to adapt better to making consensus decisions, and we’re more patient when not everyone in the adventure party is at the same level. An activity like backpacking weeds out anyone who does not have a minimum amount of intestinal fortitude. Everyone on the trip is united by a common purpose; otherwise, we could just stay home, eat brownie batter, and watch costume dramas. By the time we’ve put our boots and packs on and reached the trailhead, we’ve already passed an unwritten certification, which is the desire to get from here to there while carrying heavy stuff. Almost all of the decisions that need to be made in real time could (and should) have already been anticipated in advance. Experienced people will have encountered most issues on some earlier trip, or known someone who did. Winning is getting everyone home with morale intact. Even when it’s 11 PM, you’re looking for a campsite that turns out to have been mapped on the wrong side of a not insignificant body of water, and you’ve been stepping over bear scat all night.

One darkless night in Iceland, my husband and I were getting ready to cross a stream. We were about 10 miles in and had climbed and begun to descend a 3700-foot peak. “Give me your pack,” he said. I looked at him. “I came to Iceland to kick ass. I did not come to Iceland for you to carry my pack.” I crossed the stream under my own power, carrying my own pack, and there were no incidents. The next day, he told me, “I take back everything I ever said about your physical courage.” Okay, the reason I do what I do (marathon, backpacking expeditions, adventure races, etc.) is because I know for a fact that I am a physical coward. My first inclination, under the least amount of scariness, is to stand there screaming and flapping my hands. I have a low pain threshold. I also don’t have much in the way of natural physical stamina. What I do have is the maximum legal quantity of stubbornness, persistence, determination, and grit. I have worked a hip flexor to failure, meaning my leg would no longer move when I ordered it to, and my response was to sort of drag it a few more miles until I got to the finish line. I have tripped and hit my face on a rock, and then gotten back up and walked home a mile and a half with a bloody, swollen knee. What do you do, lie there crying until Magnum PI shows up? “Get there without anyone calling emergency responders” is Plan A through G. Every morning that I’ve gotten up knowing I had a serious athletic challenge to undergo, I have started out terrified and finished feeling ready to tackle the next level. It’s true what they say, that today’s impossible challenge is next year’s warm-up.

From what I’ve been told, women have the innate constitutional ability to handle labor pains and to risk our lives to protect our children. We’re built to handle off-the-charts physical stress. Endurance is baked into our bones. We’re statistically more likely to be physically fit than men our age. We’re generally also trained to organize provisions and carry supplies for various worst-case scenarios, such as frizzy hair or torn pantyhose. Most of us would never dream of leaving the house without a rather large bag of necessities, including snacks. There is really no reason why more women can’t venture into the wilderness if we feel so inclined. It’s just a matter of deciding to do it, learning how, and of course accessorizing.

Originally published at

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