I recently read a statistic in Backpacker Magazine that stated the majority of women were taken on their first backpacking trip by a male – in many cases, their significant other. Upon reading this information, I couldn’t help but feel overcome by a couple of emotions: first, by frustration, over the fact that men still seem to hold the leadership position on wilderness trips, and then by deep amusement over my most recent life events that reflected exactly the opposite of that statistic.
Four years ago, I fell in love with a man who possessed a huge heart and a spirit for adventure, but a radically different background than mine. Jake had grown up in the concrete suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, spending much of his formative years playing video games, participating in team sports, or spending time with friends – inside. By contrast, my early years were spent in the mountains of Summit County, Colorado, doing what most every mountain kid does in her free time: mountain biking, rock climbing, hiking, skiing, backpacking, and kayaking, to name the general activities of choice. During our first two years of dating, I would be pleasantly surprised to find that I was actually pretty good at teaching a young male adult how to climb a 14,000+ foot mountain, rock a pair of snowshoes in two feet of powder, put on a harness, properly belay someone, cross-country ski, and ride a mountain bike on technical singletrack. I thought I had passed along my knowledge on just about every outdoor activity that I loved, until we decided to travel to Patagonia – to go backpacking.
Patagonia is known for its breathtaking yet inhospitable wilderness, and there have been many accounts of travelers who journeyed to the region for the awe-inspiring views, only to experience nothing but monsoon-worthy rains and heavy fogs that socked in the mountains for weeks on end. Still, I hoped that my extensive backpacking resume from the Colorado Rockies would be enough to get us through the journey, regardless of the weather. Either way, I knew it was all up to me to pull off planning and leading a strenuous six-day, five-night quest on the ‘W’ trek, an infamous route through the Chilean Torres del Paine National Park.
Prior to embarking on the actual hike, we first needed to outfit our packs with all the right goodies, including food, gear, and maps. A few valuable lessons were already being learned by Jake, including that, no, taking six days worth of trail mix isn’t exactly a substitute for dehydrated food and a backpacking stove, and that bringing an actual topo map is indeed quite preferable to just “memorizing the general route.” Making progress, one step at a time!
Once our packs were packed, park tickets purchased, and we arrived at the start of our trail, we were brimming with excitement. This was bound to be an adventure! …and an adventure it was. We lucked out on our first day with warm weather and stunning views of the park, but the true climate of the park kicked in on our very first night when fat snowflakes began to fall as we set up our tent. Jake’s facial expression quickly gave away his mounting apprehension, but as it was up to me to make his first big backpacking trip a positive experience, I put the thought of my numb hands in the back of my mind and focused my energy on cracking jokes to lighten to mood and making sure Jake had enough dry layers on. I knew that any distraction from the cold would be welcome, so I encouraged Jake to take his first stab at using a backpacking stove while I gave tips and applauded every minor success as we waited for our rice and lentils to cook.
The rest of the multi-day trek continued on in this way, with me simultaneously juggling the role of mama bear to make sure we were both hydrated, fed, as warm as possible, and blister-free, and the role of a teacher to ensure that Jake was learning as much as possible and taking on more of a leadership position. In such a harsh environment, I channeled my sheer joy of being in an incredibly beautiful place to make sure we both remained calm, even when our propane stove froze to the ground while cooking dinner, our tent continually flattened on top of us from the force of the non-stop wind in the middle of the night, our stomachs violently rebelled from eating the weird Chilean food, and all of our layers remained damp and freezing from the endless downpour.
On the last day of the trek, as we walked out of the national park and back to the site where the warm bus would carry us back to our hostel, I hesitantly asked Jake his honest reflection of the experience with bated breath. After a long beat, a grin cracked on his face and he laughed out a response: “My toes may never fully thaw out, but that was one of the best experiences of my life!” A wave of relief washed over me and I beamed with pride as he recounted how much he had learned amidst all of the discomfort. Without my initiative to plan the trek and my unwavering positive attitude, he explained, the trip would likely have never materialized, or if it had, it quickly would have nose-dived into a miserable life-or-death scenario without nearly enough food. Overwhelmingly content, I privately celebrated the fact that Jake had loved the experience as much as I had, and – thankfully – that there was no way we’d ever have to battle as much rain and wind as we had on this trek!
As women of the outdoors, it’s our responsibility (and typically our passion) to share our wilderness knowledge with others – including, occasionally, our male counterparts. From my own personal experience, I’ve discovered that passing on my skills to my significant other has been empowering for both of us, but not particularly different than sharing the same knowledge with my female peers – save a few important points:
Societal gender roles would state that I should do the cooking and Jake should take care of the gear, but the opposite was true for us: Jake loves to cook, so teaching him to use the backpacking stove while I set up the tent made for excellent teamwork. Find what strengths you and your partner each has, and figure out appropriate camp tasks accordingly!
As adventuring females, most of us are very comfortable carrying a heavy pack – partly because we’re strong, but mostly because we’re just used to it. Our male companions might have more muscle than we do, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be used to schlepping a cumbersome pack right away. Don’t make him carry too much weight right off the bat – even out the weight in your packs until he gets used to the feeling of hiking with a large load on his back.
Females are typically great organizers, and if you’re anything like me, you probably take on way too much of the planning process and forget to delegate tasks to others. Just because you’re confident in your trip-planning abilities, don’t burn yourself out! Involve your male companion so that you can both be a part of the process and so that you don’t end up feeling overwhelmed.
Most importantly, embrace the adventure! Genders aside, this is someone’s first backpacking experience, and you get to be a part of it! Take lots of photos, enjoy the journey, and celebrate every accomplishment.