Camp Like a Girl

What does it mean to camp like a girl? It means getting outside in spite of sexism and traditional gender norms. Two Manitoban organizations are getting women into the wilderness and celebrating how being outside helps women tap into their innate power — and have fun while doing it.

A collage of a woman jumping into a lake, maps of campgrounds, and wilderness scenery, with a "Canadian Online Publishing Awards Gold/Or 2023" logo.
Canadian Online Publishing Awards Gold/Or 2023 medallion logo.

Listen to the article:

I feel like I’m flying when I jump off a cliff into a deep blue lake during the summer of 2016. I’m only in the air for a second or two, but it feels like minutes before my feet hit the surface and I’m under water.

This is my favourite spot to swim in Manitoba’s Nopiming Provincial Park, an expanse of wilderness northeast of Winnipeg spanning more than 1,400 square kilometres. My family and I have given the spot a name — the Jumping Cliff. I won’t tell you exactly where it is (I don’t want to give away our secret spot), but it’s along the Seagrim Lake Canoe Route, a route I’ve been paddling since I was little.

My love for backcountry camping started when I was about five years old. The second my dad sat me down in his green Nova Craft Canoe, I was hooked. I fell in love with the clear water (so clean I drink straight from the lake), the Precambrian rock, and the Jack pines cracking in the wind.

When I was younger, Nopiming was a giant playground. My brothers and I were free there. We climbed hills, caught fish, and swam to the middle of the lake.

As I grew up, Nopiming was a place to escape to. The city felt loud and always changing, but the park was quiet and constant. Every summer I would come back and sit next to the same tree and jump off the same cliff, finally home.

At 16 years old, I had jumped off the cliff hundreds of times already, but this time another camper came up to me and said something I haven’t forgotten.

“I’m surprised you jumped,” they said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because you’re a girl.”

A photo collage of women in Nopiming Provincial Park.
I fell in love with Nopiming Provincial Park when I was five years old. (Rachel Ferstl)

I feel a small twinge of anger when I remember the exchange. Why wouldn’t bravery or adventurousness belong in my body? What did being a girl have to do with it? I had been minding my own business, seeking a thrill, and appreciating a place I’d loved since I can remember.

That comment stung and has stuck with me. Mostly, though, it got me thinking about how one off-hand comment can perpetuate troublesome ideas about a woman’s place in the outdoors — and the world.

Scholars show that Euro-centric cultures have historically viewed the outdoors as a space dominated by men — a space where women ought not feel comfortable or safe. While it’s traditionally been acceptable for men to explore the wilderness, women have been taught to stay in the confines of the household and not venture out of it. And while women’s involvement in the outdoors has been slightly increasing over the past two decades, this way of thinking can still creep its way into the wilderness, and a gap between men’s and women’s participation persists.

Women face many barriers when it comes to spending time in the wilderness. Factors like sexism, gender norms, fear, expectations in motherhood, and lack of confidence and skill all play a role in how women experience — or do not experience — the outdoors. 

But there are women challenging this viewpoint by doing their thing in the wilderness. Two Manitoban organizations are defying assumptions about women in the outdoors and building women’s confidence and skills at the same time. By creating outdoor programming specifically for women, these organizations are empowering women in the outdoors — one camping trip, hike, or paddle at a time.

Who belongs in the outdoors?

Known for her work in ecofeminism, scholar Karen Warren had decades of experience studying how the domination of women intersects with the domination of nature. In her chapter “Gender in Outdoor Studies,” from the Routledge International Handbook of Outdoor Studies, she explains that entrenched gender norms can prevent women from being fully engaged in the outdoors.

Warren, who died in 2020, explains how men’s and boys’ roles in nature have focused on “rugged individualism and a conquering mentality,” while women’s and girls’ roles have focused on femininity and being followers instead of leaders. 

Jennifer Wigglesworth, assistant professor at the University of Northern British Columbia, has noticed similar ways that women navigate and are perceived in the outdoors.

When looking at women’s experiences in rock climbing, she found that gender norms can influence the way men and women climb up a rockface: while smooth and delicate movements were associated with women and femininity, more strong and powerful movements were associated with men and masculinity.

“There’s kind of discourses or world perspectives that construct femininity as weak, and then at odds with…outdoor recreation,” she said.

Wigglesworth’s research also found that women can feel “crowded out” by men, and they can be subject to “mansplaining.”

“It happened to me numerous times as I was collecting, doing the research on gender in climbing,” Wigglesworth said.

Many women experience similar problems in the outdoors. A 2021 survey by the U.K.-based women adventure company Love Her Wild found that 62 per cent of the more than 450 respondents reported being treated differently because of their gender. Several of those women cited feelings of social exclusion and said they’ve been questioned about why they were in the outdoors to begin with.

There’s an “assumption that [women] can’t chop wood, carry heavy things, read a map!” one woman said. Others said, “Being told that I am not capable of doing something I am doing, because I am a woman,” and “it’s as though I’m invisible.”

“There’s kind of discourses or world perspectives that construct femininity as weak, and then at odds with … outdoor recreation,” Jennifer Wigglesworth said. (Rachel Ferstl)

Some women also said they’ve been sexually harassed in the outdoors. One respondent said she had been the recipient of “inappropriate comments of a sexual nature,” and another respondent said she had received “catcalling and wolf-whistles.”

A 2017 survey by another outdoor media company, U.S.-based Outside Magazine, also shows how many women can’t escape sexual harassment, even in the outdoors.

More than half of the 2,100 women surveyed reported being sexually harassed in the outdoors, and 93 per cent of those women said they’ve been catcalled, 56 per cent said they have been followed, and 18 per cent said they’ve been flashed.

But even if women don’t experience sexual harassment, the fear of it alone can still influence their outdoor activity, Wigglesworth’s research found.

“In climbing, you have your back to everyone while you’re going up the wall and you’re worried about … people watching your body,” she said. “You can’t stare back at the ogler, so you can’t match them and, like, look at them and try to ward it off.”

Because of this, Wigglesworth said some women would change their style of rock climbing to avoid the possibility of being watched.

“That influences how people move through space, take up space, maybe when they climb, what types of climbs they do,” she said. “I think it’s an example of the outdoor culture more broadly.”

An article by Gill Valentine dating back to 1989 describes this idea well. She explains how “the association of male violence with certain environmental contexts has a profound effect on many women’s use of space.” Valentine explains that women are more fearful in places where men’s behaviour is unregulated — like the wilderness.

Where are the women? 

Lori Neufeld is one woman pushing past barriers in the wilderness. Her roughly 20 years of kayaking adventures have brought her to backcountry waters all over Manitoba.

“Canada has so much. Manitoba has so much that I’m never dissatisfied with just being in this province,” Neufeld said.

In 2021, Neufeld went kayaking for 152 days of the year, mostly on the Red River in Winnipeg. Her record is 200.

“[Kayaking] just kind of took me outside. It had to take me outside,” Neufeld said.

Neufeld does two types of kayaking: flatwater, like on the waveless Red River, or whitewater, like on the rapids of Bird River in Nopiming. While Neufeld tends to whitewater kayak with men, she flatwater kayaks with women.

Neufeld said she loves being on the water, but she wishes she had the chance to paddle with more women. But that’s rare, especially when whitewater kayaking.

“It would be fun to be part of that community,” she said. “We just don’t have that here.”

Canadian men outnumber Canadian women when participating in several outdoor activities, according to data released in 2018 from Statistics Canada. Activities like fishing, hunting, camping, paddling, and hiking or backpacking are dominated by men, while women (barely) make up the majority of two other activities listed — foraging for food and wildlife viewing. 

A U.S. outdoor participation report also showed a gap between men’s and women’s outdoor activity — while about 95 million men participated in the outdoors in 2021, about 81 million women did.

A photo collage of a woman kayaking.
“How many people have ever like had to breastfeed under a waterproof suit in a life jacket with a helmet on,” Lori Neufeld said. (Rachel Ferstl)

Neufeld admitted she loves the group of guys she paddles with — and she doesn’t mind not paddling with women. But Neufeld said she sometimes feels like she’s missing out.

“There’s a difference, though,” Neufeld said. “I like girls’ weekends, they like boys’ weekends… you do feel left out.”

“It’s always fun when there’s like someone else, you know? Another girl that shows up,” she added.

Neufeld said motherhood is part of the reason why it’s difficult to find other women to kayak with.

“How do you find women when a lot of women are parenting?” said Neufeld, who is a mother herself.

Many women find themselves doing most of the childcare work in their home, a 2021 Statistics Canada study found. While more than one-third of different-sex couples reported that women primarily performed childcare tasks, a “much smaller proportion” said men primarily performed those tasks.

And when it comes to spending time outdoors, mothers often put others’ needs over their own need for leisure, a study about Taiwanese mothers who breastfeed found.

Neufeld, however, was able to find a balance.

“How many people have ever like had to breastfeed under a waterproof suit in a life jacket with a helmet on? Like the kid had to eat, and I had to play. I have to play in order for me to stay sane and to be the best parent that I can be,” she said.

Even stereotypes surrounding motherhood pose a problem.

Wigglesworth brought up a study by Susan Frohlick that explains how being a mom and being an outdoor adventurer, like a mountaineer, can be two difficult roles to reconcile.

Frohlick explains the story of mountaineer Alison Hargreaves who died in 1995 while climbing K2 in Pakistan — the world’s second-highest mountain. She left behind two children and was therefore deemed a ‘bad mother’ in the media.

 “It is generally acceptable for men to travel freely on mountaineering expeditions to distant ranges in Pakistan, Nepal, and elsewhere largely without culpability as fathers, while women are expected to remain at home with their children,” Frohlick writes.

Backcountry Women

It’s a cold November evening. Ashley Moore greets women warmly as they enter the dimly lit Half Pints Brewing Company for a navigational skills workshop. There’s a projector screen set up in the corner of the room and stacks of maps at each table. As the clock nears seven, women decked out in outdoor brand jackets and winter boots take their seats.

“We’re gonna learn a lot tonight,” Moore says.

Navigation skills is just one of several workshops she organizes through her company, Backcountry Women, a women-led outdoor community based in Winnipeg. She’s joined by outdoor educator Kate Rudge, who will be guiding the women through the class.

“It’s important to us that we build our confidence,” Rudge tells the seven women.

Moore founded Backcountry Women in 2017. She, along with about 10 volunteers, offer various kinds of outdoor programming for women: fire-building, wilderness first-aid, meal-planning and navigation workshops, group hikes, and more.

Moore has been going on backcountry trips for over 12 years now, but she said when she started, she had a hard time finding other women to go with.

“I realized that other women were similar to me… they didn’t have other female friends that wanted to do the outdoor activities that they did,” Moore said.

Moore also realized that when she went on wilderness trips, she relied on her husband more than she would’ve liked.

“There’s no reason why I don’t have these skills myself,” she said.

For Rudge, building these skills and confidence is key to being safe in the outdoors.

“It’s important for women to have confidence in their own skills and know that they can be self-sufficient in the outdoors, even when things are hard and times are tough,” Rudge said.

But even when women have the skills, Rudge said women are not always viewed as capable.

“Outdoor recreation is generally seen as like a man’s world,” she said. “Men are the tough guys … no one thinks women can like put 50 pounds on their back and hike 100 miles. It’s just not seen that way. But we can.”

“I realized that other women were similar to me … they didn’t have other female friends that wanted to do the outdoor activities that they did,” Ashley Moore said. (Rachel Ferstl)

These attitudes are why Backcountry Women was born.

“I wanted to create a community that was kind of missing…and also create an environment where people can learn from each other and actually build those skills to feel confident,” Moore said.

And for Liza Richter, one of the participants of Moore’s navigational skills workshop, some of these benefits are why she joined Backcountry Women.

“I want to be able to do this on my own,” said Richter, 48. “Where I can go out on my own and feel comfortable or at least have a sense of comfortable.”

Lydia Michaelis, 64, has participated in Backcountry Women’s programming, too. For her, there’s something special about these women-only programs.

“It’s a sisterhood,” she said. “Just the commonality of how women do things and how we think and how we relate to each other. That’s what I like about it.”

Women-only outdoor programming offers a laundry list of benefits, Warren explains, such as “connections to nature and wilderness, relational bonding, physical confidence and strength, competence, disengagement from traditional gender roles, overcoming fear, and gaining autonomy.”

Sometimes, Michaelis said, it’s simply nice to not be around men.

 “There’s no need to be embarrassed or put on a front,” she said.

RiverSong Wilderness Outfitters

What happens on a women’s trip, stays on a women’s trip.

That’s the philosophy that Rosa May, who went on a women-only canoe trip in September 2021, lives by.

May’s trip was organized by RiverSong Wilderness Outfitters, a company that guides people on canoe trips in northern Manitoba and northwestern Ontario. 

Pauline Nadlersmith, who owns and operates the business, offers one or two of these women-only trips each year. 

“I love empowering people in the wilderness,” Nadlersmith said. “There are moments that are uncomfortable, and then there’s also a lot of moments of triumph, and it’s a really beautiful experience.”

While Nadlersmith also hosts co-ed trips, she said she started organizing women’s trips after noticing a need for them.

“There needed to be a place where women could get together and learn skills and be empowered,” she said. “People were asking for it.”

Nadlersmith said she notices that women are often intimidated and lack confidence in their ability to do things by themselves. She also said campers will fall into prescribed gender roles on co-ed trips, which is why it’s important to challenge women to not just do some, but all the tasks required on the trip.

A photo collage of women canoeing and posing for a picture at a campsite.
“Because there were no men around and because we were kind of master of the ship at that point, we just felt freer,” Rosa May said. “There’s kind of like this celebration that women can do when they get together.” (Rachel Ferstl)

Although she’s an avid outdoor adventurer, May said she definitely felt challenged on the trip. 

“I was happy with how my body could actually do more by the end than it could at the beginning, so that confidence did grow in me,” said May, 53.

But one of the most magical parts of the journey was spending time with the other women, May said.

“There’s kind of like this celebration that women can do when they get together,” said May. “Because there were no men around and because we were kind of master of the ship at that point, we just felt freer.”

Whether that means going skinny dipping or telling stories around the campfire, May said the trip was a safe space where women could share their struggles.

 “We had a young mom who talked about like just her frustrations with different parenting situations,” she said. “We had a space to, you know, talk about where we were at and maybe some of our frustrations.”

When she got back from the trip, May said she felt rejuvenated. 

“It just felt like you could celebrate who you were, but you could also celebrate all these other people and get to know them on a different level, and maybe find a voice for some of the fears that you had at home.”

This was May’s first time canoeing on a RiverSong Wilderness Outfitters trip — and she’s excited to go again one day.

What’s next for women in the outdoors?

I’m lucky my dad introduced me to the world of canoe tripping when I was young. If he didn’t, I don’t know if I would’ve started on my own.

Like me, May grew up with the outdoors as her playground. Her family spent several summers hiking in B.C.

May’s parents encouraged her to spend time outside, and as she grew up, she kept it up. She lives in Boissevain, Man., right next door to Turtle Mountain Provincial Park, where she often hikes and canoes.

“Nothing was ever, like, forbidden…[they] never said, ‘Oh, don’t do that, it’s not for girls, or ‘don’t do that, you’re gonna get hurt,” said May.

May is a prime example of how introducing people to the outdoors when they’re young makes them more likely to spend time outside when they’re older, a finding outlined in a 2018 report on outdoor participation in the U.S. 

But lots of young girls don’t get introduced to the outdoors. A 2012 study found that preschool-aged girls are 16 per cent less likely than boys to be taken outdoors by their parents. The 2018 report cited previously also found a gap: girls aged six to 12 are six per cent less likely to spend time outside than boys of the same age.

While these differences might seem small, it can be troubling when considering how important outdoor experiences are for girls’ confidence and self-image. Scholars like Warren have noted the benefits of outdoor programming for young girls, like gaining social skills, positive identity formation, confidence, and an increased ability to speak out.

There are organizations out there trying to help girls take advantage of these benefits, like GirlVentures, an outdoor adventure organization in the U.S. that hosts outdoor trips for young girls to improve their self-esteem, leadership skills, resilience, and more. A 2016 study about 13 girls who participated in the program found that it positively influenced the girls’ body image, leaving them feeling more comfortable in their own skin.

Backcountry Women and RiverSong Wilderness Outfitters are just two examples of the variety of programs empowering women or girls in the wilderness. With the work these organizations are doing in Manitoba, the future looks bright for women in the outdoors. By giving women the skills and confidence to get over barriers they face in the wilderness, these groups help empower women to spend more time outdoors and to pass on their love for nature to the next generation of adventurers.

And that’s exactly what Moore wants to see through her programming.

“I really want to see any of the skills that women learn and become confident in…them passing that on to their families,” she said.

It’s something I plan to do when I have children of my own one day.

A photo collage of women at a campsite in Nopiming Provincial Park.
I went on a canoe trip with three of my closest girl friends last summer. It was one of the first times I went portaging with other women. (Rachel Ferstl)

Growing up, it was rare that I went on a canoe trip with another girl — it was always me, my brothers, my dad, his friends, and their sons. So last summer, when I went on a canoe trip with three of my closest girl friends for the first time, it was a dream come true.

We paddled each other across the wavy lake and hauled our backpacks to the site. Our skin got scraped and scratched as we cut down trees and collected kindling for the fire. We set up our tent and cooked dinner for ourselves over the flames.

And later, we stayed up late talking about life around the campfire — what school was going to be like next week, where we saw ourselves in five years. Nothing was off limits. Our laughter echoed across the silent lake.

And when I stood at the top of the Jumping Cliff, my inner child smiled. I was not the only girl up there anymore.

I felt like I was flying as I jumped off the cliff into the deep blue lake.

Rachel Ferstl

Rachel likes short sentences, the Oxford comma, and lists of three. She hopes to write for a living.