The outdoors gender gap needs to be closed

Women often wonder whether it is safe for them to hike solo. For long distance athlete Liz Thomas, the answer clearly is yes: She has hiked 8,000 miles by herself, pioneered routes in Utah and the Columbia River Gorge, and set an Appalachian Trail speed record. But others argue that in the eyes of a good chunk of women – heck, in the eyes of many people in this country – what she does is an exception. Which makes her wonder: Since no one questions female pilots, police officers or professional athletes these days, why should hikers be any different?

The truth is, as the daughter of two conservative, middle-class parents, she grew up internalizing the idea, rooted in historic and cultural sexism, that walking solo is unsafe for women, whether in nature or in urban settings. For centuries, unaccompanied women frequently were attacked because women, for religious or cultural reasons, aren’t “supposed” to be out.

Liz Thomas urges all women – especially younger women – to get outdoors during Hike Like a Girl Weekend, May 14-15, 2016. Whether you hike solo or with other women, the weekend is not only supposed to be fun, it also is meant as an act of defiance against norms that seem 100 years old yet persist today.

It’s standing against every stereotype or micro-aggression ever foisted your way – from the women who are told “be safe” instead of “have fun,” to every company that designs women’s gear by shrinking-and-pinking men’s models, to the ranger who asks the solo female hiker, “Are you doing this all by yourself?” Women’s tax dollars also go to fund public land – yet they still live in a world where that public asset isn’t perceived as safe for all people to enjoy. Trees, rivers and mountains should be spaces that feel welcoming to everyone.

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