After suffering a hypoglycemic episode, my new friend Donna reaches a gushing river where the once clear path of rocks has now been submerged. “I don’t see it. I don’t see it,” she says, shaking her head, as our guide Mariana helps her across with an outstretched hiking pole. Donna forges on through the pouring rain, talking about how beautiful the turquoise lake looks on the horizon.
I’m with 12 women hiking the legendary W Trek in Patagonia’s Torres del Paine National Park. We’re at the start of a 10-day off-the-grid Wild Women Expeditions trip. In more than a decade as a travel journalist, I never gave much thought to women’s-only adventures. And yet, as we march deeper into the vast UNESCO biosphere reserve, listening to a soundtrack of laughter, whipping winds, and Eso! Eso! cheers, I realize it’s the women making this journey at the end of the world so incredible.
Before being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes seven years ago, at the age of 50, Donna was one of those how-does-she-do-it-all types: racing bikes, raising two kids, conquering the Teton Grand Traverse, and running a successful business. “Then I lost who I was,” says Donna, whose mother also passed away suddenly a month ago. “I wanted to do a trip with women because I knew they’d be nurturing and caring. I knew you’d all be there for me.”
That first night on the trail, thawing in our long underwear on the cabin floor of Refugio Los Cuernos with a couple bottles of wine and a container of Pringles, we toasted to Donna’s fierce strength—and the strength of us all. It was one of those stripped-down travel moments when you feel part of something bigger than yourself.
No two stories were alike. One woman was considering divorce, another was preparing for life without her cancer-stricken husband, and one simply wanted to visit Patagonia with adventurous gals. What Donna said rang true; we were there for each other long before we ever met. Plus, the connective thread—a wild spark, the desire to be totally absorbed by nature and discover a new side of ourselves—easily created a sisterhood you could call las gauchas salvajes.
All-women’s adventure travel isn’t new.
Wild Women Expeditions was founded in 1998 and Gutsy Women Travel in 2001, but social media, growing financial independence, and a progressive female empowerment movement have accelerated this already steadfast community of women. Many of these travelers are in their 40s, 50s and 60s, looking to connect with one another through outdoor experiences beyond vineyard hopping or a cruise.
The female-focused travel industry is booming. According to the Adventure Travel Trade Association’s 2018 industry survey, 53 percent of adventure travel customers are female compared with 51 percent in 2017. Marybeth Bond, one of the modern pioneers of female travel, cites a 230 percent increase in the number of women-only travel companies in the past six years, and women spend a whopping $50 billion annually on gear.
“We still have a long way to go, of course, and decades of sexism in the outdoor industry to fight against. But I think companies have gotten better at marketing to women, which is a good thing because it means that women are a larger part of the conversation,” says Abigail Wise, online managing editor at Outside magazine.
“We should really applaud the people who are helping give women the skills and the venue they need to pursue outdoor activities,” adds Wise, who helps run Dawn Patrol, a newly launched subscription-based channel dedicated to coverage of women’s gear, and authors a rousing Sticks & Stones newsletter about the female trailblazers cultivating safe, sustainable spaces. She describes the women she showcases, “For example, Sasha Cox, who founded Trail Mavens to help teach interested women wilderness survival skills, or Shelma Jun, who founded the Women's Climbing Fest in an effort to connect female climbers of all levels with other women who climb and give them the skills and stoke they need to make it happen.”
In a haze of happiness and postpartum depression, I started to plan my maiden voyage into this female-only adventure world. My husband encouraged me to find camaraderie in the great outdoors, and I was surprised to learn there was a high-quality all-women’s adventure for just about every budget, sport, locale, and ethos.
You can Surf with Amigas in Nicaragua or train with an Olympic skier in the Chilean Andes with Keely’s Camp. How about trekking to Everest Base Camp with Sharon Wood or taking an alpine climbing Chicks with Picks clinic in Colorado? In between aquatic pursuits in Playa del Carmen with newly launched Vaera Journeys, you can workshop a bold career move with a business coach and entrepreneurial-minded travelers. Consider Nepal & the Mystical Himalayas or Untamed Iceland with Gutsy Women Travel, which plans to launch Gutsy Girlfriends in 2019 to service a younger demographic of millennials. Since debuting Damesly two years ago, co-founder Kelly Lewis has broadened the all-women’s playing field with refreshingly offbeat curations like an “Islands + Identity” surf adventure in Hawaii and a “Canyons + Camera” weekend retreat in Arizona.
“Turns out, combining adventure travel with professional and creative growth was a model we hadn't really seen in the travel industry before,” says Lewis, who also founded Go! Girl Guides and the Women's Travel Fest. “The fact that it's for women just makes it that much more rewarding for me, because I want to see women grow, succeed, and conquer.”
It’s not only the boutique tour operators trying to change the adventure travel landscape for women. The world’s largest adventure travel company, Intrepid Travel, is introducing its first women-only expeditions this year in Morocco, Jordan and Iran. While heightening its focus on female travel and empowerment, Intrepid Travel says the trips will “offer a socially responsible and culturally sensitive way for travelers to access female-only establishments, experiences, and customs in these traditionally conservative countries.”
Launched in 2017, REI Women’s Adventures operates 19 different women-led trips worldwide, from an eight-day trek on Macchu Picchu’s Lares Trail to a three-day weekend in the San Juan Islands. Last year, 59 percent of all REI Adventure travelers were women and 25% of participation came from solo females. “In 2018, we’re seeing even more women interested in getting into the outdoors,” says REI Adventures’ manager Cynthia Dunbar, who also credits REI programs like the Force of Nature Fund and Outessa retreats with fostering a more ethnically and racially diverse group of women in the outdoors. “With REI Women’s Adventures, we’re making it easy for busy women, be it moms or professionals, to take time out of their lives and feel comfortable learning a new skill like backpacking with a group of like-minded females.”
Staring into outer space on a flight over snowcapped mountains and Chilean fjords, I felt hollow without my 20-month-old son. I didn’t yet know the remarkable tribe of mommas that awaited me in Patagonia.
A conversation I’d had with Jennifer Haddow, director of Wild Women Expeditions, came to mind. “I’m a crazy woman. You need to have a little crazy to be visionary and you need to be driven by something bigger than your fear. That’s what adventure is about,” she said. “It’s about feeling this call and it doesn’t always make sense about why you’re pulled to a place. There may be big challenges to get there but you feel the need to get there.”
WWE has become the largest women’s travel company in the world by number of departures. When Hadddow bought WWE eight years ago, it was just operating 20 trips in Canada. Today, there are 60 unique women-led trips and 180 different departures from 25 countries. Experiences range from a Women on Water weekend in Ontario to an eight-day Galapagos Islands Eco-Yacht Adventure.
“I want women to fall in love with the wild,” Haddow told me. “I want them to feel a sense of awe.”
It snowed during our final push to Torres del Paine—the three iconic granite towers from which the surrounding national park gets its name. The peaks were hidden. We’d traveled thousands of miles for this moment, carried the towers in our pockets on Chilean mil pesos, and saw them looming in the distance from our geodesic domes at EcoCamp, but still, we’d made it. “Eso! Eso!” we yelled, our voices echoing across the emerald lake at the base of the shrouded formations.
We ate lunch and were 10 minutes into the long rocky descent when our guide Catalina shouted, “Vamos! Vamos!” The fog had lifted, the snow stopped, and the mountains were most definitely calling. Even after a challenging day trekking 11 miles and knowing that five adventure-packed days still lay ahead, we took one glance at each other and ran towards the sunlit Torres del Paine.
As the last few clouds disappeared, the perfectly visible towers pierced the bright blue sky like a Gaudí masterpiece. I settled on a boulder by the lake with Sarah, a prison guard from Northumberland, England. “I’d never done any kind of adventure before this,” she said.
“I think the only real thing that was holding me back was me. The women on this trip always pull together and never make me feel like someone is better at something. I’m more confident now and want to experience much more of the world. I know there’s no limit to what I can do.”