The hiking and backpacking meetup group I help co-organize – DC UL Backpacking —has been seeing steady growth, doubling in size over the past year. I could credit a number of factors that contributed to that growth: a full calendar last year thanks to our organizer, Michael Martin, working on a book (AMC’s Best Backpacking in the Mid-Atlantic) about the best backpacking trips in the area; more low-mileage trips to make our events more accessible to newcomers; and a generally active and enthusiastic membership.
The question arose, however, about how to manage all these newcomers? Historically, people who joined DC UL had some backpacking experience. Many of our new members, though, were avid hikers who wanted to get into backpacking but didn’t have much or any actual backpacking experience. And many of them were women who wanted to get outside and backpack but weren’t sure about how to take that first step.
Taking that first step can be hard. It was for me. I had backpacked before with friends, but had a sense I wanted do more — to go lighter and do longer days. DC UL intrigued me, but pulling together a pack and heading off into the woods for a weekend with strangers was a bit daunting. I was lucky to have met one of the organizers in a GPS class, which made me feel more comfortable about signing up for a trip. (It was the Triple Crown in Virginia, which involved my first twenty-mile day, but that’s an entirely different story about my introduction to DC UL!)
Other women are far more confident in getting started with our group. We’ve had members sign up and ask to do one of our big trips right away. But still, we were seeing a good number of people — both male and female — join and not take the next step by getting out with the group. This large influx of new people made us wonder if there was more we could be doing to cultivate new members, and particularly if there was more we could be doing to get our new female members on the trail.
And so we thought: Why not try to organize some women’s only trips? We would do some geared towards women new to backpacking to get them started with our group, and then some longer trips for women seeking to advance their skills and try bigger miles. Such a trip might feel less intimidating for women who wanted to get started with our group. (Let’s face it, guys. There’s a bit of a stereotype around men, athletic endeavors, and competitiveness.)
To be honest, I wasn’t sure if starting up series of women’s only trips would work. If you asked some of our female members, you got a wide variety of reactions — from “great idea” to “I don’t know why you need to do that.” Still, we could just talk about the idea or we could post it and see what happens.
I posted the first DC UL Women’s Only Trip in September 2013. Eight women and two dogs — Sally and Moo, both female, fortunately — headed out to Otter Creek Wilderness in West Virginia. The goal was to have an easy trip that also contained some challenges: literally getting their feet wet with four creek crossings (and a decent climb on the second day.
Our second trip was over Martin Luther King Day this year (2014), and was a slightly more challenging trip along a horseshoe route we’ve strung together along the Appalachian and Catoctin Trails in Maryland. The miles are easy ones, but long – we were looking at splits of 16-20-14 for the weekend. The goal for this trip was to help members test out longer back-to-back days in preparation for some of our bigger and more advanced trips. Six women and one dog — female again! – signed up for this trip. Four of the women who did this trip are doing our big summer trips — three are signed up for the John Muir Trail and one is tackling Corsica.
We’ve gotten good feedback on these two trips, but they’ve been especially nice for me to organize and run. It’s hard to put a finger on what makes it different, but there is good vibe on the trips when it’s just women: more camaraderie, a good spirit of learning and sharing, and each of us pushing and supporting each other to take the next step in backpacking. And yes, there’s still plenty of talk about gear. We wondered if it would work. I would say yes, it does, and we’ll keep doing more.