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Photograph by Ning Mosberger-Tang

Women’s Wilderness Empowers Girls to Love the Outdoors

For 20 years, the Boulder-based nonprofit has helped girls learn outdoor skills through backpacking excursions, rock climbing camps, and day hiking trips. Now, they're expanding their focus to reach even more communities.

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In the late 90s, Laura Tyson noticed a major issue in the outdoor industry—it was decidedly male-centric. After doing some research, she realized that while there were plenty of programs that offered courses in outdoor education, none catered directly to women and girls. So in 1998, she founded Women’s Wilderness, an organization that provides girls—and now women, as well—with instruction in wilderness living, outdoor skills, and backcountry safety.

“If you look at the history of Outward Bound and the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS)—two of the premier outdoor education nationwide programs—they are both founded by men,” says Emily Isaacs, executive director of Women’s Wilderness. “I really love Outward Bound and NOLS, and a lot of the values are super progressive and things that I personally buy into. But NOLS was created to teach and educate Outward Bound instructors, with a focus on building boys’ character.” According to Isaacs, when girls are lead and surrounded by other girls and women, rather than being the minority in a male-dominate group, the learning environment is inherently different.

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Women’s Wilderness fills the void by focusing on technical skills and personal growth through six- to nine-day backpacking excursions, rock climbing camps, and day hiking trips. This summer, the Boulder-based nonprofit will host more than a dozen courses in Wyoming and Colorado in an effort to cultivate self-confidence, self-efficacy, and empowerment among participants.

One of the most popular courses, “Adventure Camp” is a seven-day backpacking trip for middle school girls in Vedauwoo and Snowy Range, Wyoming, where they’ll learn to backpack, rock climb, and camp. (Spots are still available for the course, which takes place throughout late June and July.) The nonprofit also features “Adventure Days” in Jefferson County and Boulder, during which girls entering third through fifth grade spend the day on the Foothills hiking, rock climbing, and participating in art projects while exploring and learning to appreciate nature.

The girls’ programs are founded on three pillars, in the hopes that attendees will want to venture outdoors again. The first is emotional literacy (being able to name and express what you’re feeling); The second is growth mindset (the idea that talents and skills aren’t fixed; it’s something you can develop); The third is identity (helping girls figure out from within who they are). “The pillars are based on research of what girls ages 8 through 18 need to help them grow up into resilient strong women,” Isaac says.

Photograph by Henna Taylor

While initially created to serve girls between the ages of 8 and 18, Women’s Wilderness expanded its offerings over the last three years to include courses for adult women, including specific programs for LGBTQ women and women of color. These offerings include courses for an advanced progression of rock climbing, as well as programs for fly fishing, canoeing, and backpacking basics. Their most notable program, Summit Sisters, is a three-day annual retreat where women can participate in workshops focused on forming a deep connection to nature and one’s body, in addition to establishing a competence in outdoor skills, such as packing a comfortable backpack, building a first-aid kit, and using a map and compass. The retreat will take place June 22–24 in Allenspark.

All programs offered by Women’s Wilderness are designed to foster a safe space and promote inclusiveness. “The Queer Wilderness Project has been going on for three years and we’re immensely proud of it. It is one of the only programs like it in the nation,” Isaacss says. “It focuses on nature awareness, connection, and building a community outdoors for the LGBTQ-plus community.”

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New this year, Women’s Wilderness is piloting Trailblazers, an outdoor program dedicated to helping BIWOC (Black, Indigenous, Women of Color) develop a greater sense of comfort and confidence in the outdoors.”We’re really interested in cultivating access and community for groups of people who have been underserved and have’t experienced a safe space outdoors,” Isaacs says.

Women’s Wilderness provides financial support for their girls’ programs, so that all girls, no matter their financial background, can attend. “This year, about two-thirds of the girls will be receiving need-based financial aid,” Isaacs says. Funding is provided through private grants, donations, and fundraising. “We receive grants from private family foundations such as the Clif Bar Family Foundation, in addition to a great community of individual donors, some of whom have been donating to us for 18 years,” Isaacs says. Each year, Women’s Wilderness also hosts a yearly gala to raise money for programming. This year’s gala will take place on October 18 at REI in Denver and will feature live music, food, drink, an auction, and outdoor-themed games.

“The heart of our mission is based around equity and inclusion. For over 20 years we have never turned away a girl with financial need,” Isaacs says.

Interested? There are numerous courses coming up. Check out Women’s Wilderness website for details.

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