2021 State of Outdoor Women

At the end of the year, everyone hits this deep period of reflection. Media counts down the best songs and movies and recaps the major events of the past year. So I thought it would be a good time to do the same for the outdoor woman. At the end of 2021, how is she feeling about her time outside, her gear, and the way she’s treated by brands and people in positions of power. How can companies connect with her and provide solutions to her problems?

Overall, women are feeling a little burned, jaded, disillusioned, and a tad salty with traditional outdoor culture. But they’re also building a close-knit counterculture that is completely unrecognized by the industry at large.

Their beef stems back to the mid-2010s. That was the Girl Boss decade. Was a lot of it problematic White Feminism? Yes. But overall, it was important for industry and society to look at gender-based discrimination. We read Lean In. We followed Marissa Mayer’s transition to the Yahoo c-suite and made her a fashion icon. We watched women entrepreneurs like Tyler Haney (Outdoor Voices), Sophia Amoruso (Nasty Gal), and Elizabeth Holmes (Theranos) secure tons of investments. Brock Turner’s case and the MeToo movement made the treatment of women a pivotal topic in societal discourse.

The outdoor industry joined in. Many companies started women’s marketing initiatives. Others worked to address the biggest product gaps, like equally technical gear for women and plus size extensions so that the female outdoor community could more fully participate in recreation. Here’s a quick glimpse back:

  • 2014 – Coalition Snow launched.
  • 2014 – Armada creates a specific Instagram account for Armada Women.
  • 2015 – Blizzard Tecnica launched the Women2Women initiative.
  • 2015 – Plus Snow launches to address gaps in plus size snow gear for people of all genders.
  • 2016 – Elan creates more marketing messaging about their “W Studio,” or R&D process for women’s skis.
  • 2016 – REI launches Outessa women’s outdoor events.
  • 2017 – Outdoor Research’s “Where the Wild Things Play” video goes viral.
  • 2017 – REI launches the Force of Nature campaign.
  • 2018 – Salomon releases their Salomon WMN initiative.
  • 2018ish – Mountain Hardwear releases plus sizes.
  • 2018 – MSP releases All In, a ski film with even numbers of men and women athletes.
  • 2019 – K2 re-launches their K2 Alliance marketing.
  • 2019 – Rossignol launches the “We Rise” initiative.
  • 2019 – Marmot announces a plus size capsule for spring 2020 and a full line that fall.

Years have passed, and what do we have to show for this? Very little. Coalition Snow and Plus Snow still on the same mission it chartered on day 1. Blizzard Tecnica and Salomon continue to make women an important subset of their business, and either continue or increase the individual campaigns they have within their initiatives (like events and scholarships).

The rest are languishing on stale web pages. Armada’s women’s handle stopped posting after a year and a half. Outessa held its last summit in 2018 and abandoned the handle the next year. Force of Nature posted its last update in February 2020. The Rossignol We Rise has a few events listed and a link to the @rossignolwomen handle, which no longer exists. The K2 Alliance site still has the original year of Mindbender skis merchandised for sale. The plus size lines have either been discontinued or haven’t grown past a few tech tees and a pair of hiking pants. The year after that ski movie, MSP released a film that strictly featured men. It was sponsored by many of the same brands that were spending tons of money to court us as customers, but none of them seemed to have the budget to stand up for us.

We never got size runs that cover the majority of women. We never got women’s sizes for specialty safety gear for the most extreme adventures, like high altitude jackets, boots, mountaineering suits, avy packs, mountaineering packs, multi-day ski packs, glacier harnesses – I could go on for days. We never got expanded rosters of female athletes. We never got female leadership in positions of power. We never got retail employees that could speak to our gear options from personal experience, much less ones that didn’t mansplain to us. We never got feelings of safety or respect in male dominated spaces: in the field, in the shop, or in online communities. We never got to experience the cool gear first, instead waiting for a season for brands to follow design changes from their men’s line or lower DIN versions of the hottest touring bindings. We never got proportional media coverage. We never got proportional gear review coverage.

The only tangible sign of progress I’ve seen out of this era is that brands and publications stopped sexualizing female athletes after Lynsey Dyer ripped into Freeskier in 2013.

If I’m being completely transparent, sometimes I feel pangs of jealousy seeing BIPOC initiatives become the hot topic of the day. We have so much unfinished business, and a number of our issues around media coverage, representation, and comfort in outdoor spaces are the same. They could be addressed in inclusive and intersectional ways.

But I realized that they’re largely treating BIPOC communities the same way. (I know 50+ Black women already told me this in June 2020, but I’m just realizing the extent of the pattern.) We’re both being treated as trends. We are marketing stories. But anything more and we upset the power dynamic. Events will inevitably unfold where society decides to “have conversations” about ableism, fatphobia, ageism, transphobia, etc., and the majority of brands will seek out a few tokenized people to help wokewash their brand. The more committed organizations may create a multi-year plan to make their businesses more inclusive, but marginalized communities will largely be picked up and dropped off as dictated by business trends. If anything, the Black community is using their visibility to push intersectionality in a way that we White women never did.

Women are feeling disillusioned by the sudden halt in momentum. But a number are leading the charge and doing things their own way. In the grand scheme of things, I’m still a relative newcomer to the outdoor community. But I feel like we’re seeing more women say “fuck it, I’ll do it myself” than ever before:

  • 2014 – Coalition Snow is founded
  • 2014 – Machines for Freedom is founded
  • 2015 – Plus Snow is founded
  • 2016 – Jenny Bruso founds Unlikely Hikers
  • 2016 – Wild Rye is founded
  • 2017 – Alpine Curves is founded
  • 2017 – Krystin Norman kicks off SheJumps avalanche education scholarships
  • 2018 – Anastasia Allison founds Kula Cloth.
  • 2019 – Alpine Parrot is founded
  • 2019 – Sam Ortiz, Bennett Rahn, and Megan Banker found Climb Big.
  • 2020 – WombCork is founded to create community across female-identifying skiers
  • 2020 – Annette Diggs creates Edge Outdoors.
  • 2020 – Theresa Silveyra creates an alpine gear scholarship for Women of Color.
  • 2020 – Liselle Pires and Quena Batres found Trail Mixed.
  • 2020 – Melissa Utomo pitches Mountain Project & REI on software updates to flag and rename offensive rock routes.
  • 2021 – WombCork launches Big Stick Energy, a women’s focused snowsports podcast
  • 2022 – Liz Sahagun holds the first All In Ice Fest.

Somewhere in this timeline, I also started ranting and raving about gear, and educating others on gear construction. And this list is assuredly incomplete when you consider every women’s meme account or feature collective on Instagram. It also is likely missing women from other regions and in other sports where I don’t have full awareness.

Almost all of these women and femmes are working other full-time jobs. And the ones who aren’t have only a small percentage of financial backing compared to the traditional, mainstream brands. This list has disproportionate representation by women who are non-White, LGBTQ+, first and second-generation Americans, lower socioeconomic status, and plus size compared to the greater women’s outdoor community. Women overall are feeling jaded, but women from marginalized communities are putting in the most unpaid labor to create a safe and inclusive outdoor culture that all women benefit from. Should mainstream brands be worried? Fuck if I know. But I do believe they underestimate the level of collaboration between the women driving these outdoor initiatives and a strong sense of customer loyalty, and I think traditional brands are not seeing the movement as the sum of all its parts.

But those are the leaders in the women’s community – what about the everyday women just participating in outdoor sports? They’re equally exhausted. It’s less of a response to outdoor culture and more influenced by society at large. The past few years have been rough. We started the pandemic by losing the most jobs either due to employer shutdowns or lack of childcare. Of the jobs that were left, we’ve worked more of the frontline, public facing jobs, and then we caught COVID at higher rates. We’re reporting more stress over catching COVID, and been more consistent with mask-wearing and social distancing. Once vaccines were available, we were the ones who prioritized getting immunized. During the election, we were the ones showing up to vote.

After 2 years demonstrating a stronger commitment to community responsibility, what do we have to show for it? More violence. Losing access to bodily autonomy. Higher divorce rates. A higher increase than men in the number of unpaid hours of labor when families were staying home. Half of women have experienced health-related socioeconomic risks (like food insecurity, housing insecurity, or domestic violence), a large jump over pre-pandemic times. About a quarter of us are in therapy, and I can’t fathom how large that number would be if therapy was accessible to lower income and time-poor women.

So how do outdoor brands connect with women who are angry, salty, or exhausted?

  • Create a plan for inclusivity that extends beyond marketing, is authentic to your brand, and a long-term relationship. We have seen 2 cycles of corporate social justice now, and we’re getting pretty decent at sniffing out the woke-washing. If you jump to the new social issue of the day every 3-4 years when a major protest breaks out, you won’t have enough time to accomplish anything substantial. I interviewed with Evo a few months ago, and I’m not sure how much of this is public information, but they’ve an intersectional program across DEI, philanthropy, and sustainability in the works, and while I would love to see their progress drastically accelerate, I think they’re going to be leaders in transforming outdoor industry and culture. I’m also obsessed with Outdoor Research’s 50 Hike Challenge sponsorship for women over 50. The intersection between sexism and ageism isn’t trendy, but OR still wanted to make room for visibility and representation. I also liked it since I think they already had a strong customer relationship with that demographic across sun protection, hats, and gloves. It doesn’t feel like they sought out strangers to immediately tokenize, which made the campaign seem much more authentic.
  • Tell us stories of rest, joy, and rejuvenation. Outdoor marketing has always hinged on themes of outdoor escapism, but now more than ever we feel the need to take breaks from everyday life. But these days, it feels less about the striving, challenge-minded pursuits than the ability to disconnect from cell service and social media and news coverage. Our time spent online has doubled since 2015, and new terms are popping up like “infoxication” and “infobesity” have popped up in recent years to capture the bombardment of information we feel and the stress and complication it adds to decision making processes. Women spend more time online and report more of those overwhelming feelings, so tell us how your products help us find release. Also, “rest” imagery doesn’t have to be laid back or inactive. It extends beyond hammocks and campfires. Capture us unwinding at high alpine camps or stopping for snack breaks on long gravel rides. Those are still images that convey our ability to hit a pause button in a way that still casts us as capable and dedicated outdoorists.   
  • Capture how our partnerships have changed. I am so bewildered by these brands that still advertise showing 4 couples having a picnic around a campfire. Who is doing this in 2021? Our circles have shrunk. This is partly due to COVID precautions and keeping groups small, but it’s also a consequence of emotional burnout. If I want a trip to leave me feeling refreshed, I’m calling on my old faithful partners, the ones I jive well with where we have a rhythm and clear lines of communication. On those days, I do not have the capacity to hang out with 3 different friends’ partners all at the same time. I’ve made very few new partners in the past two years. I’m spending less time with occasional partners. And for the people I get out with regularly, conversations have deepened to be about job security, close family disagreements around COVID protocols and safety, and burnout. No one starts off new friendships confessing to the things in their lives making them unhappy. So instead we’re turning to our trusted partnerships and finding new levels of vulnerability. Those stories are beautiful and should be celebrated.
  • Stand up for marginalized groups. During the social justice movement following George Floyd’s murder, every company felt the expectation to pause their business and call out unacceptable behavior, even though it wasn’t their community nor their realm of expertise. When the problems hit closer to home, brands are silent. Resort employees protested at Whitefish Mountain Resort last spring after a manager used a racist slur towards an employee and faced minimal consequences. After “Return to Send’er” was announced and I called out the lack of women in the cast, I had Scott Gaffney himself sliding into my DMs for a fight. Coalition Snow was the only brand willing to lend their voice and push for change. I even have male friends that work in the industry who were willing to send encouragement from privacy of a direct message. But outdoor brands refuse to be a part of these conversations. It gives “old boys club” energy. That resort General Manager is your friend. You want a brand contract or a job with that director in the future. It’s easier to keep your messaging positive and protect business relationships. But that means all of that marketing is just tokenization, not allyship. Younger customers are setting the expectation that brands promote justice and fairness within their fields, so it would behoove you to figure out how to navigate these messy conversations across brands.
  • Find ways to help out those of us who are financially strained or time-poor. I’m obsessed with the growth in outdoor recommerce – those sites like Patagonia Worn Wear or REI Used. Making used gear widely available and easy to shop for addresses so many challenges that many women have with accessibility of quality outdoor gear. I’m especially in love with the sites that let you set up notifications for when certain products become available, and I extra love REI Used for giving customers a 4-week window for them to test out items and return things that don’t work.  

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