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Confidence, connection, ease: these are the main barriers preventing females from being more involved in outdoor adventure. A growing number of organisations have sprung up to address this, from female-centred community groups to guiding companies and film tours.

Like-minded souls

There’s a cluster of women milling around in the sun at Cowan Train Station, wearing daypacks, hats and sensible footwear. We’re not catching the train to Brooklyn but walking there, crossing the tracks and heading down towards the stunning Jerusalem Bay. 

This Saturday stroll is a trip run by Women Want Adventure (WWA), a Sydney-based company that aims to impact women’s lives by taking them on incredible adventures. Alice is guiding our group of ten – half are solo, with nine WWA first-timers – ranging from 30+ to 60-odd. The initial nerves disperse as we settle into a rhythm of walking and talking, made easier (and possibly more annoying) by my endless questions. The reasons for coming are variations on the same themes: an easy way to get out and explore new areas; fitness; confidence; outdoor mates. 

All the reasons why

This 13-kilometre jaunt answers all of these. The walking is lovely, following Cowan Creek down past sandstone overhangs until Jerusalem Bay appears suddenly, a narrow finger of water contained by sandstone cliffs and steep slopes lined with gum trees, a lone palm tree in the perfect frame. It’s easy, too: we were told where to meet and what to bring, and the rest of the logistics – food, route, car shuttles, companions – was arranged for us. It’s perfect walking for developing both fitness and confidence: there are steep sections up and down ridges and little rock steps, and the last section is on a wide access track. It’s challenging enough for a great day trip, but very doable.

Fitness, confidence, and general wellbeing are all covered when joining a women-only group for your adventure fix. WWA

Being in a women-only group feels good: safe and supportive, encouraging rather than competitive. Despite the diversity in age and ability, there isn’t any posturing for position, mansplaining or hierarchy. The day feels tantalisingly like the start of something bigger, for some of the women at least. Because the other thing linking these women is that they’re all yearning to get out more, but missing a piece that makes it makes it feel easy and possible. The reasons are varied: some people have just moved to Sydney and lack a network; others have lost their crew as they navigate motherhood, careers and life; age has made their companions too frail (or cranky!) to walk with. I don’t know whether lasting connections were made that day, but I’m sure it sparked other adventures. (The average WWA walker goes on four trips, with the record being 22!)

A connection that counts

Women Want Adventure is part of the growing market for women-only experiences in the outdoors: female surf schools, sailing trips around the Whitsundays, climbing groups, trekking companies and way more. So, what’s driving this explosion?

For Monique Farmer, starting WWA was a way to connect with others and herself, feel ‘a sense of belonging to community, and then to help other women find that too’. Adventure was always part of her lifestyle – she grew up canoeing to school, was very active in the outdoors, then studied outdoor education at university. After moving to the country, she felt lonely and disconnected. In 2016, she founded WWA and led her first trip.

Whether it is trekking the mountains of Nepal, or kayaking the West Australian coastline, tackling these types of adventures with a group of likeminded individuals makes for optimum outdoor fun. WWA

Farmer uses the word ‘connection’ a lot, because she believes that’s what we’re missing: connection to nature, to ourselves and what we want, to a like-minded community, and to physical challenges. Her company arranges everything from social nights – a fun, non-scary way to get people to jump in – to kayaking trips to WA’s Ningaloo Reef, to ten-day trekking trips in Nepal. Each trip is designed to be comfortable and accessible: the food is good, there’s time for tea, lots of effort is spent ensuring people feel safe and supported. And the goal? To build confidence, empower women with information, insight and self-belief. She wants women to have a lightning bolt moment – ‘I forgot how much I love this’ – so that they take the next step to getting more adventure in their lives.

Lost, then found

Farmer isn’t working alone. In 2018 Nell Gow finally went climbing again, five years after she had her first child. That night at the climbing wall she felt amazing – it was her ‘lightning bolt moment’. Six months later she started Mum’s Gone Climbing (MGC), which has evolved into ‘a community that supports and inspires mothers to find balance in parenthood through climbing, and outdoor adventure’. It’s a varied thing: there are articles and a documentary, a fabulous podcast, and it’s the springboard for meetups around the country, and the world.

Gow has the zeal of someone who’s lost their thing and found it again and wants to help others do the same. (Or better yet, stop them from losing it in the first place.) So, what exactly is it that climbing gives, and why do mums need it? Gow’s answer to the first question can be summarised in a list: community, connection and support; physical fitness; confidence in your body and yourself; a break from the minutia of parenting; permission to prioritise your own needs.

Lots of smiling faces on an overnight trekking adventure are proof that, for a lot of active women looking to return to – or continue exploring – the outdoors, group-based adventures are the ideal solution. WWA

Mums need a like-minded climbing community for the same reason we all need adventure groups, but more specific and concentrated: to gain skills, knowledge and competence; to find companions and support that fit around life (in this case, naps, school, mothering; pregnancy, babies, bored kids), and allow adventure to be part of their life. And, Gow emphasises, for what it teaches our kids: ‘That we still make time for ourselves to do the things that fill our cup. It’s teaching them the importance of these outdoor spaces, and how wonderful they are for our mental health and wellbeing.’

It’s a girl thing, and an inspirational one at that

You will find it’s not just on the tracks, cliffs, waves and mountains where women are becoming more visible, but also on our screens. In 2016, after years producing the iconic Banff Mountain Film Festival, Jemima Robinson decided there were enough women adventurers – and filmmakers – to launch the Gutsy Girls Adventure Film Tour. As well as entertainment, the tour’s main aim is to build a community of supportive adventurous women, to bridge the gap between the people in the audience and those in the films. The 2023 program showcased everything from hard-climbing young Australian Angie Scarth-Johnson to a horde of nude skiers, and ultrarunner Erika Lori doing the fastest known time on WA’s 1000km Bibbulmun Track. As Robinson says, ‘the films normalise and showcase a woman’s experience, women’s bodies, and the female experience of being outdoors’.

Once you’ve taken that first step, it is nothing but fun times ahead with a bunch of new friends. WWA

According to Robinson, the biggest barrier preventing women getting into the outdoors is taking that first step. The explosion in female-centred experiences, and communities, films and organisations, is making it easier for women to gain companions and confidence, inspiration and skills so they don’t miss out on the joy, connections and perspective that outdoor adventures bring.