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Photo: REI

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The Women’s Outdoor Market Is Just Starting to Catch Up

“Smaller and pink” isn’t the be-all, end-all of gear anymore.

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“Just you? All by yourself?”

I was paying for a camping spot in Indianapolis. The campground was mostly for RVs but had four tent sites. I was paying $10 for one of them.

The person asking me this was a woman, and she stood on the other side of the counter.

“Yup, just me.”

Her eyes popped wider.

“Whoa,” she said. “Really — wow.”

Photo: REI

Yup, just me, all by myself, driving around the country this summer and camping alone in my little green tent. I also ran the Indiana Sand Dunes alone and will be hiking the White Sands in New Mexico solo; checking out a volcano in Hawaii with me, myself and I; camping in Yellowstone as a party of one, and taking the three-hour boat ride to stay at one of the least-visited national parks — you guessed it: by myself too.

I’ve faced a battery of questions since before I started packing for this trip, most picking on the point that I’m a woman doing by herself. I doubt men are asked the same questions, because… I don’t know, their dicks swing magic that not only make them expert outdoorsmen but also protect them from brushes with poison ivy, falls down mountainsides, and rusty nails imparting tetanus?

This is annoying, but not surprising. For most of my life, women have been woefully underrepresented in the outdoors, in both gear and imagery. When I played paintball 10 years ago, I wore men’s army pants that fit my butt but not my waist, and I had to roll them up at the ankles so I wouldn’t trip. When I started running at about the same time, the free shirts given to participants in races were always available in men’s sizes only (and often still are). Unisex meant for one sex, really, and the other one — women — would just have to make do.

Images of outdoorsiness are usually male too. How many men have you seen, usually bearded, sipping coffee on a mountainside? When women pop up, they’re either skinny, braided blondes in lotus pose wearing a sports bra and capri-length tights or skinny, braided blondes surfing in a speck of a bikini.

I’m 36 years old, and for the first time I feel like that tide is turning — and the change is coming largely from retail. Women make up 51 percent of outdoor consumers in the $887 billion US outdoor recreation industry, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. Our slice of the pie is still smaller than men’s — women spend $334 annually on outdoor apparel, footwear, equipment and electronics while men spend $599 — but that doesn’t mean we aren’t getting out there. OIA found that 48 percent of women value experiences over acquiring products, and that 84 percent feel that engaging with nature is an important part of outdoor recreation.

REI did some similar research for a study they released earlier this year in advance of their #ForceOfNature campaign, which focuses on women already in the outdoor space and those who want to be. Almost 70 percent of respondents felt under more pressures than men to conform to social norms. The study also found that 74 percent of respondents said the outdoors are an escape from the stresses of everyday life, and more than 85 percent of respondents believe the outdoors positively affects mental health, physical health, happiness, and overall well-being.

Photo: REI

Retailers can play a role by pushing for equality within their companies — and also by simply listening to women. Sitka did just that over two years ago when they started development on a women’s line of high-end hunting gear, which they released in April.

They started with “a bunch of men sitting around a table start making a lot of assumptions that we shouldn’t have been making,” John Barklow, big-game product manager at Sitka, says. “We realized very quickly that we really needed to overlay a different process to create the women’s collection.”

They hired women consultants, designers, and fabric cutters to create clothes largely based on what accomplished female hunters wanted them to make. Jackets have different collars because women don’t have beards. Women’s kits are warmer, even if that means adding a few ounces to the gear. They have more protection on the shoulders, down the spine of the jacket, and down the back of the thighs of the pants because women hunters wanted more “comfort when they were sitting in a tree stand or leaning against a tree,” Barklow says.

And none of it’s pink.

Photo: REI

Women hunters are “a growing a demographic we don’t feel is serviced with great apparel,” says Barklow. “We saw an opportunity to not only make money but also provide something that really does not exist in the market.”

Of course, catering to outdoorsy women isn’t new — nothing really is when there’s money to be made. Juliette Gordon Lowe, founder of the Girl Scouts, started drawing designs for better calisthenic dresses as a teenager in the late 1800s. REI was co-founded in 1938 by a woman. Moving Comfort (now owned by Brooks) started selling sports bras and apparel for women in 1977. Ryka, which makes women’s athletic shoes, was founded in 1987. Title Nine sprang up two years later. In 1990, Kelty backpacks made a splash by creating packs designed to fit women’s bodies.

Now, women’s focused gear feels like it’s snowballing. Coalition Snow, which makes skis, snowboards, and apparel for women, launched in 2013 (its April Fool’s post about a women’s brand making men’s products is a scream too. Spoiler alert: boobs). Wylder Goods, which sells what it calls “women’s adventure goods” started as a Kickstarter campaign and opened online last fall. The Outdoor Project, which is an adventure community, dubbed 2017 “The Year of the Outdoor Woman.”

Photo: REI

In 2015, REI issued a challenge to outdoor-retailer CEOs to accelerate women’s leadership in their companies, and pledged $1.5 million to Camber Outdoors, a coalition dedicated to achieving equal treatment of women in outdoor industries, to make it happen. The pledge started with 13 CEOs and now has 60.

A lot of what Camber does ensures that women and their ideas are represented within the industry. At REI, says Laura Swapp, the company’s director of public affairs and next-gen marketing, they want to go further and look outside their corporate structure.

“You can’t just leave out a huge portion of your market,” says Swapp. “It doesn’t respect the spirit of the outdoors, which is a huge place where everybody is welcome, where lands belong to everyone and everyone should have the same equal opportunity.”

That led to the #ForceOfNature campaign. For gear, REI has been developing more women-specific items, like the Flash 45 backpack, which is designed to fit traditionally female bodies, including in the shoulder straps and hip belt. The company is also working with its brand partners to create more tall, petite, and plus-size clothes. Some of that will begin appearing in stores this fall; more will reach shelves next spring. REI also instated more women’s classes and all-women retreats.

Photo: REI

REI is using women in all their branding imagery for the rest of the year too, because in its study, the company found that 63 percent of respondents couldn’t think of one female outdoor role model. About the same percentage thought men’s outdoor interests were taken more seriously than theirs.

The confidence gap is very real, says Haley Littleton, managing editor of the Outdoor Women’s Alliance (and also a ski instructor). That OIA study found that 46 percent of women say they will never participate in outdoor activities at extreme levels.

“There is an entrance barrier, a fear you don’t know how to do something and you don’t feel comfortable just showing up on your own,” says Littleton. Their group, which is volunteer-run, works to connect women in the outdoors with each other, especially more experienced women with those who want to try or might not have before. “We’re creating a very inclusive environment that says ‘yeah, you can come and be bad at this,’” Littleton says.

Photo: REI

The Outdoor Women’s Alliance isn’t associated with any retailer or brand, though Littleton says that companies like Coalition Snow and Wylder are pushing back against the “shrink it and pink it” mentality that gives us the same items but in men’s small and extra-small, all in a color that shrieks “THIS ONE’S A WOMAN!”

Two weeks into my trip, I hiked a 7.4-mile loop in the Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument in New Mexico wearing women’s hiking pants, a women’s sweat-wicking technical shirt I bought at Runner’s World Tulsa, women’s hiking boots, and a unisex Camelbak hydration pack. I don’t struggle to find this stuff anymore. Runner’s World Tulsa had so many women’s options that I enlisted a stranger to help me pick one. My hydration pack is unisex, but Camelbak makes women’s versions too. In this case, unisex just fit me better.

The loop included a 1,000-foot descent to see where the Rio Grande and Red rivers meet, but that also meant I had to get back out, which I did via the La Junta Trail. It ascends 800 feet over 1.2 miles, a climb that includes 14 switchbacks on loose rock; the terrain was so steep at some points I was crouched so low I might as well have been crawling.

Photo: REI

When I was almost to the top (and stopped crawling), I ran into the first people I saw that day: a group of women hikers being led by a female guide. Yes, she was blond and braided, but not in an “OMG look how cute I am and definitely don’t need to shade my face from the sun” way, but in a functional, one thick braid hanging down her back out of the back of her hat way. She wore a slim-cut button-down shirt and jeans, and the women behind her were in everything, including patterned tights, colorful shorts, and tank tops. They were coming down La Junta. I was relieved to see them, but I still had to pass them on a narrow trail with rock on one side and death (probably) on the other.

“Excuse me, ladies!” I said, and they moved over as far as they could. When I got to the end of the line of people, I saw one guy. “And you, sir,” I said.

He laughed. I did too, then hiked out of the canyon.


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