How Does a Woman Feel in the Woods?

The image of a solo female backpacker is only recently starting to enter the public imagination thanks to the acting and forehead talents of Reese Witherspoon as the real-life human author and one-time section hiker Cheryl Strayed. It’s an image that hasn’t been talked about much, and maybe because it’s one that’s difficult for a lot of humans to conjur. There isn’t yet an established romantic ideal as there is for men in the woods — one long ago established by John the Baptist, John Muir, Bob Marshall, Everett Ruess, Chris McCandless and countless other be-penised humans. Our imagination of a female solo hiker is very much limited to Cheryl Strayed, who, despite all she accomplished doesn’t accurately represent the female hikers I know, and she doesn’t represent me as a female solo hiker.

Hiking is an activity with a very strong sex, socioeconomic, and racial connotation: upper middle class, straight, white men do it in droves. It does take a certain financial curve to appropriately outfit a hiker because a lot of cheap gear is cumbersome garbage, but other than that with the right equipment nearly any able-bodied individual with a weekend and little bit of incremental training can go out on a multi-day backpacking and hiking trip. So why is so much of this activity limited to one group of white males?

I recently took a few days in Tennessee to go on a 15 mile or so backpacking trip. I purchased a backcountry permit, left plans with both my parents and the ranger station, and loaded up my pack with 2 days worth of food and water (plus a filtering system), sleeping gear and rain gear and hiked 5 miles in to a backcountry site. At this backcountry site I encountered another solo backpacker: a man I’ll call Brent. He was youngish, maybe a little younger than me.

Brent and I wound up sharing a campfire (at an established site via LNT protocol) that night and talked about the things backpackers tend to talk a lot about: gear. He had just started doing some backpacking after years of car camping and day hiking, and since I’d worked in forestry for awhile I offered some tips on good stuff I’d seen in the field. He was an unflinchingly earnest man who talked about his girlfriend and his church group, and overall didn’t ask much about me, which was fine because I’m a borderline alcoholic with a certain fondness for light satanism. None of my faint sarcasm registered as humor to him.

One thing Brent said to me over the course of our evening stuck to me like a parasite. He went on a long outer monolog about how nice it is to simplify and live outdoors. He wished that more people would do this sort of thing for themselves, which is generally the kind of back-to-the-landism I idealistically can get behind, but know realistically doesn’t work. But then he started talking about taking his nephew out, to “show him how to be a man. Because when I’m in the woods, I just feel like a man.”

And that made me ask myself: How do I feel in the woods? I know a lot of men who would say they feel manly or some variation of a masculine adjective when they’re in the woods. And I certainly feel rugged and independent when I’m in the woods. But do I feel womanly? As I contemplated I was trekking through a rainstorm caked in several days of sweat, mud, and dead skin cells. I had bits of leaves stuck to my labia from using it as toilet paper. I hadn’t looked at my boobs or even thought about them in days. My hair was unwashed and beginning to mat a bit. Womanly was not what I felt as I contemplated.

But what the hell does it even mean to feel womanly!? I’m seldom society’s standard of femininity in my daily existence. I have a linebacker’s belch. I’m not afraid to fart. I could not tell you which of the 26 shades of light foundation best fits my complexion. I’m not afraid of my adult acne. But I am plenty woman in flattering dresses and colorful tights. I am proud of my hair when I coif it well and I look a little bit livelier when i wear mascara.

However, when I’m trekking along in my vibram soled boots and 3 days worn but unwashed sport leggings wearing a 50 lb pack on my back, I don’t feel womanly, and I don’t feel manly. I do feel like a feminist. I challenge gender norms and expectations as a woman who dares to walk alone in the wilderness. I can exist as cute but rugged with cat eyed sunglasses on my face and well-worn boots on my feet. When I hike alone I see myself as a human following John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Bob Marshall who all set out alone before me. In the woods I feel Feminist-y.