The Voices of GWH: On Woman-Centered Experiences in the Outdoors

By Melia Shumate, Girls Who Hike Orange County Ambassador

 Photo from Girls Who Hike Los Angeles Meet Up to Cucamonga Peak, Spring 2017

Photo from Girls Who Hike Los Angeles Meet Up to Cucamonga Peak, Spring 2017

Hi there! My name is Melia and I’m the Orange County Ambassador and Community Director for Girls Who Hike. I’ve been a member of Girls Who Hike from almost the very beginning and I’ve loved watching as the community grows. I've been fortunate enough to hit the trails with many members of Girls Who Hike and through this community I have found such empowerment and strength from my fellow outdoor women. I’ve made lifelong friends and found that there are literally thousands of women out there just like me- that would rather be covered in trail dirt, sweaty, and happy.

For me, one of the most important parts of the Girls Who Hike community is the spotlight it has given for the voices and experiences of real outdoor women. When I first started hiking three years ago, the outdoor world felt very male dominated. I hiked with only guys. I struggled to find blogs that talked about women’s issues and experiences. I didn’t know women centered outdoor groups existed. The truth is 3 years ago, many of them didn’t.

Over the last few years, a lot has changed for women in the outdoor world. Movements like REI’s #forceofnature campaign, group hiking organizations like Girls Who Hike, nonprofits like Outdoor Women’s Alliance- they’ve all made tremendous progress in how outdoor women are perceived.

But if I’ve learned anything from my time spent with strong women- it’s to never be complacent after your momentum.

In those moments, when people are listening and watching, you must use your voice with even more dignity. You mustn’t just say “look how far we’ve come”, but rather where else can we go? What other ways can we prove them wrong? What other depictions can we give? What other mountains can we move?

So with that in mind, each month, I wanted to showcase the voices of this community by asking different questions about their experience in the great outdoors.

I think you’ll find their words relatable and their stories empowering.

This month, I asked the Ambassadors:
How as the outdoors influenced you, specifically as a woman?

From Lanessa Pierce, Girls Who Hike OR Ambassador

22519120_10212212017310011_6786201878841874699_n.jpg

"Whenever I feel like I'm feeling overwhelmed by being a mom or expecting too much from myself professionally I start feeling antsy for some outdoor therapy. Just getting out for a hike or for a visit to the ocean things seem to balance themselves and mentally I feel like I can focus more and move forward. Getting out in nature is the ultimate problem solver. Whenever I feel like I'm feeling overwhelmed by being a mom or expecting too much from myself professionally I start feeling antsy for some outdoor therapy. The easiest way to gain balance and clear my head is to get on my hiking boots, jump in my car and get to the closest trail, close to a body of water is even better. Once I get on the trail the quiet and calm of being out in nature gives me time to gain clarity and get my thoughts back in alignment so that I don't feel like my mind is such a mess. When I get home I feel like I am back in balance and rejuvenated so that I can take on anything that comes my way."

From Stacy Bean, Girls Who Hike AL Ambassador

Screen Shot 2018-03-05 at 4.10.23 PM.png

"The outdoors is therapy! It allows me to step away from life's hussle and bussle. Nature and being in the outdoors lifts and restores my spirit. To me, being outdoors is an opportunity to experience my Creator and His masterpiece. It helps to rejuvenate my mind and body-reducing tension and stress. Besides the beautiful views, sounds, and fresh air, it is also great physical exercise! I've noticed marked improvements in my endurance and muscular strength since I've started hiking. When you get done with a hike that was difficult, that you weren't sure you would be able to accomplish--it gives me a sense of accomplishment as well as a drive to do MORE and see MORE."

From Naomy Ramirez, Girls Who Hike IE Ambassador

Screen Shot 2018-03-05 at 4.10.42 PM.png

"I have never felt more like a woman than I do in the outdoors. Because the world is stripped away into the simplest of things—Hike, eat, sleep, repeat— I have no choice but to ruminate about myself as a person and as a woman. Surrounded by crisp air and beautiful scenery, I am my closest companion, and there is nothing that distracts me from any of my needs. Whether they are emotional breakdowns, my monthly cycle, the fear of hiking along, or even the fear of coming across men while hiking alone, I am forced to reckon with myself and work through any or all my fears and my weaknesses. The nonsense of life then slowly slips away as I walk through the wilderness, and I am reminded of the strength that is my body and power it holds to overcome. The outdoors has taught me many things, but mostly, by exposing my raw vulnerability to the elements, it has taught me to love myself."

From Stacy Boyce, Girls Who Hike SC Ambassador

Screen Shot 2018-03-05 at 4.10.54 PM.png

"Being an outdoors-woman has given me a lot of confidence and credibility with my male co-workers and peers. Outdoor activities are still seen as masculine by most people. Men are always impressed that a young woman in high heels can take one the strenuous and dirty outdoors. Even if they have never done this type of activity, men understand the toughness it takes to go three days without a shower, walk up hill for 5 miles, or poop in the woods. Somehow that makes my male coworkers feel like they can trust my professional judgement more. Defying a stereotype in my personal life has helped my breakthrough gender bias in the workplace."

From Shelby DeCusati, Girls Who Hike GA Ambassador

Screen Shot 2018-03-05 at 4.11.06 PM.png

"The mountains may have really done a number on me. I’ve been hiking for years and while I am no expert, I have found so much passion in these adventures. The mountains are my soul space and where I find connection, creativity, empowerment, and spiritual balance. I always feel a sense of rejuvenation as I spend time among nature or along the trails. My adventures and experiences in these extraordinary places have made me aware of what is really worth my energy. One of the most powerful practices they’ve taught me is this: In order to find balance within a world of chaos, you must begin by finding harmony within yourself."

From Jenny Williams, Girls Who Hike TN Ambassador

Screen Shot 2018-03-05 at 4.11.17 PM.png

"It’s interesting how being in the outdoors has influenced me differently as I pass through the various stages of life. As a little girl, the woods allowed my imagination to run wild. I loved pretending I was on incredible adventures or building a fort in the trees for the “babysitters club” with my friends. As a young adult, going out for a hike to explore was empowering. I felt like I was always discovering something new, not just about nature but about myself and what I was capable of. When I had children, I felt this crazy satisfaction when I began to see my boys grow to love this earth and being in nature. Now, with three kids in tow and a life full of crazy, I am beginning to really appreciate the therapeutic value of being in God’s creation where I feel closer to Him."

From Kaitlyn Chermak, Girls Who Hike SD Ambassador

IMG_1589.jpg

"I have always been extremely self conscious and dealt with body image issues. I was never bullied, picked on or insulted, I just severely lacked confidence and could not get out of my own head. Combine that with a pretty life altering diagnosis of an incurable brain malformation at 19 and I was seriously in need of something positive to invest my time and energy in. Enter nature and hiking! Being outdoors has helped me develop the confidence I’ve been missing for so long and taught me to better use failure as motivation. It’s also helped me recognize my strengths while not being discouraged by my weaknesses. I may not be able to do everything, but I can work towards anything, and that’s a lesson I think was huge for me both as a woman and someone with a chronic condition. Lastly, and maybe most importantly for me, the outdoors has taught me to appreciate my body for what it is. It may not be “perfect” but it’s perfectly capable and for that invaluable lesson from nature, I am grateful!!"

From Crystal Lee, Girls Who Hike NM Ambassador

"Being outdoors and hiking has been my way of combating the stress of everyday life sometimes. Something about pushing myself to reach a summit of hike a new distance or elevation change completely relaxes me and makes the stress of the week melt away and makes any problems feel so small. Hiking has brought some amazing friends into my life with some amazing women they're like family to me."

From Melia Shumate, Girls Who Hike OC Ambassador

28058544_10213810737976977_3022916337431954402_n.jpg

There's something paradoxical about summiting mountains. Looking back on the trail you traversed, the elevation you gained, and the miles you traveled gives you a sense of undeniable power and accomplishment, because you earned it with your own little legs. But when you're at the top, it's astoundingly humbling. You see places that remind you how small and unimportant you truly are in the grand scheme of things. It's that paradoxical rush that keeps me going. It's that simultaneous humility and empowerment that's so healing about nature. And that healing is a big part of my story. Seven years ago, I was sexually assaulted. I spent years in therapy, was in and out of psych hospitals, and was ultimately diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and PTSD. One of the things that rarely gets talked about with sexual assault is the fact that your body becomes a trigger and a manifestation of the assault. It can cause significant body dismorphia and general hate for your own body. So, the last seven years have been about reinventing my own construction of my body. They have been about taking the pain and refocusing it- giving it new meaning. Being amongst the untouched earth and pushing my body physically reminds me that this body is made of the same star-stuff as the most beautiful creations in our universe. That this body, too, is beautiful, strong, and resilient. So the miles I've walked have really been a testament to that. Every mile is a love letter to every version of the woman I've been and the woman I'm becoming. It's been about reminding myself that every awful experience and moment of heart in your stomach kind of heartbreak is mirrored with beauty and mountains and lakes and grand landscapes. There is balance out there, and in life too. The bad always leads to the good, and the heartbreak always leads to the healing. The wilderness has made me feel whole again, has reminded me to constantly redefine what it means to be feminine, and has taught me to love the woman I am and walk confidently towards the woman I'm becoming.

So now, we ask: How has the wilderness affected YOU specifically as a woman? 

Leave us a comment with your answer!


Melia is the Ambassador for our Orange County, CA chapter. You can follow her adventures @meliainthemountains. You can join her local meet ups and discussions through the Orange County chapter by clicking here. To become a member of Girls Who Hike, click here.