The Plus Factor: Why a New Generation of Backpack-Toting, Badass Women Are Hitting the Trails

Photo: REI

This week on The Plus Factor, we’re talking about the great outdoors—and the young, cool squads of women who have turned it into their happy place.

If you’re overhearing conversations sprinkled with references to “boulders” and “free soloing” at coffee shops and dinner parties, you’re not alone.

Young women are embracing the outdoors like never before, from hiking to climbing, backpacking, and even fishing—and these aren't your mother’s (or, more likely, your father’s) camping trips. They don’t even have that much to do with glamping, which has gotten a ton of attention for its Insta-ready luxe yurts and oasis-in-the-desert glamour.

These female outdoor crews are more into skinned knees, self-development, and hard-won endorphin rushes—call it the Cheryl Strayed effect. And new research shows it’s all about one thing: feeling free.

These female outdoor crews are more into skinned knees, self-development, and hard-won endorphin rushes—call it the Cheryl Strayed effect.

“Nearly three-quarters of women feel they are under more pressure to conform to social norms than men. They feel this pressure coming from all directions,” according to a study of women 18-35 commissioned by outdoors giant REI. “Our research also showed that women see the outdoors as a way to escape these pressures.”

The other thing the survey found? More than 6 in 10 women say that men’s interest in the outdoors is taken more seriously than their own—and, strikingly, the same number could not name a mountain-climbing female role model (particularly disappointing when you consider that one of the fiercest climbers on the planet is American teen Ashima Shiraishi).

But the fledgling wild women who are walking an empowering path in hiking boots are building a community that could change that—fast.

The new badass generation of outdoorswomen
Photo: Instagram/@alexiskrauss

"Getting outside is a really powerful way for modern women to de-stress," says Alexis Krauss, who worked with Discover Outdoors this past April to launch Women in the Outdoors Week, a brand-new gathering in New York City where the vibe was more empowered cool-girl than straight-up sporty—with a decidedly holistic bent. The 200-plus climbers who attended aren't just about racking up the next mountain conquest; they're just as likely to be foraging to make flower essences (as you can do once a year in California with the wild-crafted perfumers at Juniper Ridge) and getting in a quick high-altitude yoga flow.

Krauss herself perfectly encapsulates this shift: By night she's the leather jacket-wearing frontwoman of indie band Sleigh Bells, by day she's a makeup-obsessed clean-beauty activist who co-founded the blog Beauty Lies Truth, and in her free time she's out climbing whatever she can get a (chalk-covered) grip on. (After logging hours volunteering with the Discover Outdoors Foundation, she eventually made the leap to full-on mountain-climbing maven, as a licensed New York state hiking and camping guide.)

"Nothing promotes self-confidence like climbing a mountain."

"The first time I finished a climb outside, I burst into tears of joy," remembers Krauss. "It was such an empowering experience. To put it simply, being outdoors makes you feel like a total badass!" But it's more than just an adrenaline rush for her and many others like her; according to the musician (who has performed in front of tens of thousands of people at major music festivals), it's seriously empowering: "Nothing promotes self-confidence like climbing a mountain."

Photo: Instagram/@wyldergoods

There’s an undeniable feminist thread running through this new generation of self-actualizing outdoorswomen, which gives it a come-as-you-are feel that's welcoming to those who might not feel super-sporty—yet.

“I’m a homebody who loves to bake, I’m a caregiver, I can be super sensitive to pretty much everything," says Kathy Karlo, a filmmaker and panelist at Women in the Outdoors Week who runs the outdoors blog For the Love of Climbing. "But I’m also feminine in the sense that I’m fucking strong. Physically strong, emotionally strong, strong-willed. I like to bake and I like to climb things and get my hands dirty—it’s not one or the other."

"I like to bake and I like to climb things and get my hands dirty—it’s not one or the other."

To support this wave of nature-loving young women, there's a growing DIY-oriented community. In addition to Krauss' Women in the Outdoors Week in NYC, the organization Flash Foxy held the first Women's Climbing Festival last year in the Eastern Sierras town of Bishop, CA, and followed it up with a second gathering this spring.

And if you want to assemble your own crew, the Outdoor Women’s Alliance's Grassroots Program is geared to do just that. Originally a West Coast thing, it will soon go worldwide, thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign (which netted 127 percent of its goal). And countless grassroots groups like Brown Girls Climb and Girls Who Hike are popping up online, to make finding your tent-toting tribe easier than ever.

And for community building with a dash of serious inspo, there are a number of super-stylish magazines for cool-girl nature lovers, including Range and Misadventures.

Photo: Instagram/@thisisrange

Range's founder, Jeanine Pesce—who has a decade of forecasting experience for Nike, Adidas, Patagonia, and more—has seen a marked shift in how the women are viewed by the outdoor industry.

"In 2005, it was very much a members-only, male-dominated, performance-obsessed market," Pesce says. After the 2008 recession, as consumers began to value experiences over possessions (and ostentatious luxury became a faux pas), she says, a lot of new faces started showing up on trails and hikes. "Simultaneously, both the menswear and streetwear sector went full-on urban lumberjack. From there, music festivals, glamping, and Instagram played a key role in introducing the outdoor trend to newbies. That's really when we saw the traditional definition of 'outdoor' shift to 'outdoorsy.'"

"We are irreverent and unapologetic—and after years of standing on our soapboxes, brands and retailers are listening."

Even the outdoors OGs at REI are all about young, female squads these days—the brand made a very public pivot with its "Force of Nature" campaign to focus on products that are designed specifically for women's bodies, like the new Flash 45 Pack. And newer, super-chic (but functional!) retailers like Westerlind (which cool-girl founder Andrea Westerlind has opened in three different locations, including NYC's ultra-stylish SoHo neighborhood) and Wylder Goods (an entirely woman-run online boutique)—consciously cater to the “modern outdoorswoman.” And NYC's Women in the Outdoors Week drew yoga and fashion brands as sponsors (Lululemon and Folk Rebellion) as well as high-performance activewear brands Arc'teryx, and Salomon.

"I think we're just starting to see [our] power come into focus. There's still a lot of work to be done, but at least we have everyone's attention," Pesce says. "We're irreverent and unapologetic—and after years of standing on our soapboxes, brands and retailers are listening."

The new badass generation of outdoorswomen
Photo: Instagram/@womenoutdoorsweek

The trend is undeniable—but why is this happening now?

"So many of the women I've encountered climbing, hiking, or guiding are spending more time outdoors not only to be active and feel strong, but to clear their minds and take a break from multitasking and the demands of work and technology," Krauss says. "Being outdoors allows us to nourish ourselves without distraction. It's vital to our physical, mental, and emotional well-being."

"Being outdoors allows us to nourish ourselves without distraction. It's vital to our physical, mental, and emotional well-being."

Pesce agrees, noting that women have an emotional connection to the outdoors that's both spiritual and instinctual. "I think it's actually pretty simple: Women feel empowered by being outside, whether alone or with friends. There's something very liberating about escaping the daily grind and sleeping under the stars," she says. "Personally, I feel like I'm the best version of myself when I'm alone in the woods."

The hiking-and-camping world isn't the only one taking a "future is female" turn. (Two words: cannabis feminism.) Plus, this is the year of femtech, whose aim is to make everything from periods to sex better. 

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