The outdoors define many of us. It dictates the way we spend our time, money and daydreams. It can change our politics, philosophies and perspectives. However, sometimes our social norms and physical differences can lead us to perceive and, it turn, treat others differently, even on the trail.
In this edition of Therm-a-Rest Explore, contributor Bethany Hughes draws from her experiences on the PCT and in South America as she conducts gender studies on the trail.
“You are hiking alone?” the Chilean campesino asks, incredulous as he pulls down the bag of harina tostada (toasted wheat, a typical staple food item in Patagonia) I had requested. We are squeezed into a 4×4 room of provisions, which is the only shop in the ten building (stables included) mountain hamlet of Carrizales.
“No, I am hiking with her,” I gesture at my hiking partner, Lauren, who is standing beside me. He looks at us for a moment and reiterates, “Yes, the two of you are traveling alone? There is no man with you?” The question immediately puts me on alert. This risk analysis is almost reflexive after a year of hiking abroad. I evaluate his body language, note the surroundings, that his whole family is around. As usual I deem his question to arise from curiosity rather than ill intent.
“Aren’t you afraid being out here?” he insists, “the mountains are dangerous, especially for women. There are pumas!” Rather than get offended I decide to take this as an opportunity to address ingrained social messaging and reply, “I feel safer being stalked by a puma in the mountains than being followed by a stranger in the city.” This takes him by surprise and he stops to think it over.
“Tienes razon,” [you’re right] he concludes and hands me the bag of flour. They decide, as a family, we should camp nearby as it is getting late and then bring out some fresh baked bread. The man explains, “I have daughters and granddaughters and when I saw you walking down from the mountain I thought of them and felt a desire to protect you. You must be careful out there,” he urges, “not everyone is nice.”
We have had dozens of encounters in our first year of walking the length of the Andes and have heard that last sentiment echoed by everyone from huasos and gauchos (southern cowboys) to police officers. As women, we are perceived as less threatening and therefore readily welcomed, but then have to demonstrate and defend our abilities.
So, what are the differences between males and females in the backcountry? Some anatomical differences do affect a long-distance backpacking trip. For one, guys have an easier time peeing . Be it backpacking across an open stretch or on a multi-pitch climb, all things being equal, they have an easier time taking a wizz. This process On the flip side, women more easily carry weight on our wider hips.
Another interesting difference is our ability to pack on fat. There is a spectacular and tragic instance of this in the story of the Donner party. According to a 1990 article in the Journal of Anthropological Research, “the differential fate of the members of the Donner party lends strong support to the argument that females are better able than males to withstand conditions marked by famine and extreme cold.”
As I began to think more about these physical differences, I began thinking of the men and women I would see at the completion of thru-hikes, where once fit men end as skin and bone, women tend to finish looking strong and sleek. While thru-hiking the PCT, I watched a couple in my trail family, Trouble & The Dude. He began to lose weight at an alarming rate and she immediately abdicated part of her dinner to him each night. No matter what the differences, we are better off working together.
Nature is indifferent and physical traits vary, leaving defining the experience up to us. We choose whether to emphasize differences and fear or focus on how our strengths help us safely complete the endeavors ahead. Celebrate everyone who is brave enough to step out his or her door into the great unknown. The outdoors is a great equalizer and as an adventure community, we would be wise to follow that lead.