Outdoor club for women promotes safety in numbers and wilderness skills

Women Outdoor Lead fosters group hikes in Downeast Maine this summer
Fri, 07/09/2021 - 5:15pm

Women in Maine who have an interest in backcountry hiking, but never had the nerve to go alone, now have a new group to join.  Outdoor Women Lead—OWL for short—teaches outdoor and naturalist skills to girls and women. Born out of a collaboration between Women for Rural Healthy Living and Maine Outdoor School, OWL helps women and girls gain more confidence when spending time outdoors.

This summer, more than ever, state park officials anticipate record attendance in state parks, hiking trails, camping, and outdoor activities. But, women who have never grown up spending time in the wilderness face several barriers that OWL hopes to overcome.

“There’s definitely a need for people to find ways to spend time outside safely,” said OWL co-founder Hazel Stark, who started the program along with Zabet NeuCollins.  “Pre-pandemic, when we were planning OWL, women, in particular, were looking to get outside and they felt safer when they were among groups of women. But, they were finding it hard to join up with others to go on an adventure and find new trails. So, we wanted to create a network where moms and their girls, or women without kids would get outside and explore new places.”

Stark, a registered Maine Guide, will be the leader of these outings to encourage more female hikers and campers.

“Women will not only learn new hiking skills, but we’ll be focusing on nature and some stewardship projects, and learning about the ecology while hiking and helping out,” Stark said.

Safety in Remote Settings

Stark said the degree to which women feel about the outdoors depends on where they live and how much they’ve been exposed to the outdoors growing up.

“For me, I grew up in Maine and camped and hiked all around the state, so I feel really safe in the outdoors in Maine, but  I know there are many women who haven’t had that experience or have just moved here to Maine and haven’t had that exposure to the wilderness where they came from,” she said. “I think for women, the greatest fear is being alone around men. I definitely hear from women who feel nervous about hiking by themselves. That was the biggest barrier for women—not having other people to go with them. And that’s how we’re going to break that barrier, by doing all of these outings together.”

Confidence in Outdoor Skills

“The other barrier for many women is not feeling that they have the skills to navigate a trail, set up a tent, or cook food without modern conveniences,” said Stark. “It can really help to build that confidence when a group of women they’re with can teach them. We will teach them how to prepare for a day hike and how to adapt when things get tricky.”

Hygiene and Leave No Trace

Women have more challenges in the wilderness than men when it comes to staying clean and comfortable, not just on a daily basis, but also during menstruation.

“It’s important that women tend to their personal needs but adhere to the Leave No Trace principles,” said Stark. “For instance, seeing toilet paper on the trails was one of the biggest issues I saw this past summer; people who didn’t know how to pack in, and pack out waste. Perhaps they didn’t have the skills to even know that was littering, but before women head out, they need to know how to meet their needs while keeping Nature pristine.”

Women who are interested in joining OWL can find out their outing dates through https://whrl.org/programs/owl