Love Her Wild has caused me all sorts of unforeseen stresses and annoyances….I never imagined men being one of them!

For those of you that haven’t heard of Love Her Wild, it is a community I set up with a friend to encourage and celebrate more women into adventure. We have an informative website, a thriving private Facebook group and have even started organising our own women-only expeditions and meetups.

Since day 1 of launching, I have received criticism for setting up a women’s only group. Not often, but forceful and almost always, from middle-aged white men. I get comments on social media telling me that what I’m doing is sexist and unfair. That if this was a male only group I’d be outraged and ‘What next? Women only days on the mountains’.

One guy even sent me a ranty email telling me I’m a “Hypocritical sexist” who has “no right to talk about [Love Her Wild] on hiking groups as if I own the outdoors”.

He didn’t get a reply.

I don’t belong here

My stubborn side was determined not to be put off, which is why I decided to go for my Mountain Leader assessment last year. It was one of the scariest things I have ever done. It stretched me out of comfort zone and forced me to learn a whole new set of skills, none of which came naturally. In the process, I was thrown into an exciting and adventurous world…one that I wanted so much to be a part of.

sexism in the outdoors

My best is not good enough

My assessment was a horrible experience. I was the only female in a group of men, something that would not normally bother me in any aspect of life, except in an outdoor environment where everything suddenly becomes so competitive and aggressive. The group spent the entire time showing off about the great things they had done. They’d spent their entire lives hiking, climbing, biking, kayaking and this was all so easy for them. They whittled out extreme stories and endless names of mountains they had conquered, while I trailed quietly behind staying focused on doing my best and not getting lost.

That would have been fine if it had been kept about them and not about me. On the few times I attempted to join in a conversation and share my experience, it was knocked down. I was even told I hadn’t hiked a mountain “properly” because I’d used my hands on a difficult section. And received regular advice that I “should” do this and I “have to” do that.

I noticed I was the only one getting these comments and in truth, I wasn’t the weakest link in the group by far. It was because I was female.

Each time I got a comment it chipped away at my fleeting confidence just a little.

As did the way they blatantly ignored my instructions when it was my time to lead.

Or when they kept running up hills, because they were all trail runners, leaving me behind.

Or saying “come on lads”….don’t mind me!

The worst of all

What upset me most though was when the male assessor made a dig about my fitness and eating habits. It was pushing 2pm and we hadn’t stopped for lunch. I was starving, not just because we had walked 10 miles in exam conditions over tough terrain and hadn’t stopped since breakfast, but also because I was on my period. I needed to stop to eat something other than a snack which I knew would help my stomach cramps. So I asked if we could stop to eat….3 times….until at last he reluctantly agreed.

The assessor then spent the next 10 minutes preaching to me (albeit in a subtle way) about how I “don’t really need to eat as much as I think” and then asked me if I work out at home. Serioulsy?!

I was overweight by the way. Not by much, but I really was out of shape. After a difficult year just about surviving teacher training and a whole other lot of stress, my health had taken a beating. It happens.

I was keeping up with the group, at least when they weren’t running, and (although I didn’t know it yet) doing really well at all the tests. Yet here I was in an environment where it was ok to tell me I wasn’t good enough.

It also should be noted that the assessor pointed out to me that he was aware of the sexism going on and that the men ‘clearly had issues taking instructions from a woman’. Which baffled me. Why wouldn’t you stop it if you saw it? Surely this was an example of how NOT to be good mountain leaders?

In this situation where I was so out of my comfort zone and so nervous, I sat back and let it happen, not defending myself once.

Mountain Leader assessment - Silva Compass

Do I look like I need directions?

The guys I talk about above are actually all really decent people. I don’t think they acted in this way intentionally, in fact, I’m confident they didn’t. On a personal level and back at the pub afterwards, I got on with them all fine. This is a product of the outdoor and adventure industry. It’s competitive. You have to prove yourself. And it’s getting worse. You’ve got to go faster, further and for longer otherwise, no one is interested. It’s not enough to climb Everest anymore, you’ve got to run it…..twice….in one week!!

With that competitiveness comes subtle sexism where advising and ‘saving’ us damsels in distress has become a way to prove masculinity. I’ve noticed it time and time again with my experiences when I’m out doing adventurous things. Like when I was on the Everest Adventure recently. Despite having a map and compass to hand, the men I passed were constantly giving me directions I hadn’t asked for. About 5 people showed me where Scafel Pike was, for goodness sake!! I’m well aware where that giant world famous mountain is, thanks. Would they have done that if I was a man? Probably not.

We overheard someone making a comment about the size of our bags. For a 5 day expedition, they were actually very reasonable but they probably assumed we were ridiculously overpacked for a day hike.

At one peak, a man asked “are you the WI”?! Because of course, why else would a group of women be out of the kitchen….no comment!

It’s not friendly. It’s presumptuous and judgmental and I don’t like it.

Until things improve

Like it or not, right or wrong, I like adventuring with other women. When I was going through my Mountain Leader assessment, I longed to have another girl in the group. With women, I feel less judged. I don’t worry about if I can keep up physically. I can say if I have stomach cramps and can speak freely about things that I don’t feel like talking about with men in a setting with so much criticism.

I’m not stupid. I know that it is not as black and white as this. Plenty of women are competitive and judgmental, and plenty of men are accepting and encouraging. But for me, personally, the supportive and caring environment I crave and need can be found from being around women.

Kayak Bristol to London

So I did something about it

Love Her Wild was put together just as much for me as for all the other women out there who feel the same way. I’ve seen the power of being with like-minded people in a challenging environment and it’s a great thing. We should be celebrating and encouraging this, not knocking it.

My outdoor experiences have thrived and grown. My confidence in my abilities has doubled…at least! It’s been incredible. And for every bad experience I’ve had in the last couple of years stemming from sexism, I now have may full of laughter and fun.

For the first time, I feel like the outdoor world is mine and I belong.

How can that be a bad thing?

Love Her Wild walk

Do they maybe have a point though?

I do take on board the points that people have raised about Love Her Wild being exclusive by default, but I’ve come to the conclusion I don’t agree with them. Until the outdoor and adventure industry changes, this space is needed. There are still too many barriers to break down. Representation of women needs to both increase and improve. Opportunities need to be made equal and, maybe most important of all, general attitudes have to change.

So am I a hypocritical sexist? Maybe. But if that is what it takes to allow me and others like me to enjoy and feel relaxed in an environment which is rightfully ours….well then, I’m totally ok with that.

I’d love to hear your take on this topic. Do you agree? Let me know in the comment box below. If you’d like to follow my expeditions and adventures, like my Facebook page or follow me on Twitter.

EDIT: Following (expected) comments regarding this piece, I wanted to make something clear. Love Her Wild is NOT about man-hating. Comments made in the group that generalise, degrade or could be seen as sexist towards men are deleted and repeat offenders removed from the group. The private Facebook group is there as a supportive space for women to discuss and share and celebrate. Not to criticise others. I am an avid fighter for equality, both for men and women.