Why do women worry about being outdoors?

Sweeping gender-based statements seem to be in so I don’t feel too bad suggesting that in general we women worry more than our men. The science agrees with me but (like me) doesn’t really understand why. Suggestions include hormones, cultural burden, and our tendency to look after ourselves better than the chaps.

Being outdoors helped my anxiety

Whatever the reasons, I do know that my levels of worry (already excitable) increased as I approached menopause. Despite loving the outdoor lifestyle, it took me a while to register the soothing effects of being outside. Whether it was outdoor swimming, walking, wild camping, or (a new addition) running, experiencing intimacy with the outdoors had the ability to calm my concerns.

This is ironic because we women worry about being outdoors.

I know women worry about being outdoors because, in various guises, I’ve spent a big chunk of my life helping them gain outdoor skills. I’d like to add at this point that I’ve done the same for men and that they have worries too. But not always the same ones.

What do women worry about outdoors?

If I started writing a list at this point, it would be long, and almost certainly incomplete. However, over the years, I’ve noticed three key female worry themes that continue to pop up . I’ve put them in order of popularity (if worries can be popular). You might be surprised by worry number one.

1. Will I be able to go to the toilet?

What if someone sees me?

Going to the loo is a big deal, and offers a bit of a cultural paradox. We all do it but we don’t like seeing other people doing it. It’s tricky enough wondering whether or not public toilets will be open but, when you know there aren’t going to be any, it’s really no surprise that it is a big worry for some women.

What do I do with the toilet paper?

In truth going to the loo in the wilder outdoors isn’t any more difficult than popping into a coffee shop toilet. You don’t usually need a trowel in Costa but the basic processes are the same. What seems to worry women most are the protocols. What if someone sees me? What do I do with the toilet paper? How do I manage if I can’t squat?

Will I wee on my walking boots?

For someone who has to remove her rucksack before squatting for fear of getting stuck, that last question is my favourite. I’ve been asked it more than once and on all occasions, have enjoyed giving ‘positions to try’ demonstrations. One question I never seem to get asked is, ‘Will I wee on my walking boots?’ The answer to this one is in the affirmative but, if anyone ever notices, they’ll be too polite to say.

2. Am I supposed to be here?

What are the rules?

We women have the potential to be apologetic about our presence in most situations. In my experience questions about rights of way, access land, and where to wild camp or swim often come from women but that’s not to say that men aren’t concerned about the ‘rules’ too.

Is the outdoors still a man’s world?

On a deeper level, some women’s anxiety about being outdoors may still be related to the perception of it being a male environment. This isn’t the same for all outdoor activities. Google ‘wild camping video’ and you’ll discover far more male enthusiasts than female. Swap the word ‘camping’ for ‘swimming’ and you’ll almost certainly see more ladies.

Can I find a female outdoor instructor?

Although the outdoor gender gap is closing, one only has to look at the outdoor industry to see there’s still a bias towards male instructors. That said, when I first trained as an outdoor leader I was definitely in the minority but it is relatively easy these days to find a female instructor if that is your preference.

Will I look the part?

Another ‘should I be here’ anxiety that might be more prevalent in women than men is the one about fitting in. Luckily campaigns like Sport England’s This Girl Can are doing a great job towards changing the image of women in sport. However social media’s bias towards beautiful imagery could still be accused of suggesting that outdoor women all have slim figures, style their hair on the hills, and wake up from wild camping with perfect complexions. We don’t!

How are women represented outdoors?

This 2018 study discusses the representation of women in the outdoors in Sweden (in 2020 ranked 1st in the EU on the Gender Equality Index). It makes for very interesting reading.

3. Are women safe outdoors?

You’re probably as surprised as me to find this question below toilets and permissions in the popularity list. I don’t think it’s down there because women don’t worry about their safety when they are outdoors, I just don’t think they feel as free to talk about it.

Do I have the skills to be outdoors?

Outdoor safety is a multifaceted concept. When it comes to worrying about getting lost, overnight hypothermia, or even drowning, I don’t suppose there is a gender divide but I do know that lots of women worry about personal safety enough to put themselves off undertaking some outdoor activities alone, particularly after dark.

Is it safe for women to wild camp alone?

There’s an activity divide here too. For example, plenty of women walk alone but relatively few would be happy to solo wild camp. I’ve done lots of backpack camping but even I’ve only been slept out on my own once. It was several years ago but still stands out in my memory as an important event. Interestingly, I am far less happy walking around town at night than I am across the hills.

This BMC article highlights some interesting divisions between outdoor activities women are and are not happy undertaking on their own. I do however struggle with the recent trend towards ‘behaviour lists’ for men (see below).

What if there are men outdoors?

In truth I’ve never been asked this question but I wanted to answer it anyway. I’ve never experienced anything but courtesy and support from the male outdoor community. I don’t get offended when a man asks me if I need help finding a location, I don’t expect men to step off the path to let me pass, and I don’t mind a few ‘women outdoors’ jokes. I feel confident in the skills I have, am always happy to learn more, and I offer help and banter back in equal proportion.

I understand my experiences aren’t everyone’s. And that in my fifty years plus on the planet, I perhaps have been lucky. But it would be a shame if the pressure of ‘do this, don’t do this’ expectation meant that men felt they could no longer offer help, or even be a friendly presence to women in the outdoors. After all, we women would pretty fed up if they all started to tell us what to do.

Observation affects reality. Even when we’re outdoors.

International Women’s Day 2019 – 5 reasons women make the best bloggers


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