“But, aren’t you scared?”
These are the words that Dharma Frost often comes face to face with when she tells tales of her solo backpacking adventures.
“No, not really.”
Dharma has hiked and backpacked her way through miles upon miles of trail by herself, many of those miles belonging to the rugged Appalachian Trail. To date, she has never been mugged, kidnapped, attacked by a bear, or encountered any of the other perils that people are so quick to assume will happen to women venturing into the wild on their own. And while the absence of fear need not be a prerequisite to engaging in outdoor pursuits, Dharma’s casual confidence paves way to an idea that is finally gaining the momentum that it deserves.
It is okay for women to hike alone.
In fact, it’s more than okay. It’s normal.
As we continue along in our Breaking the Granite Ceiling series, we chatted with Dharma about her experiences in the outdoor industry from the gear shop to the trail.
When and how did you get into backpacking?
I first became aware of backpacking when I was a kid. My brother was in Boy Scouts and they went on a 50-mile, 5-day backpacking trip. I wanted to go so bad. My Girl Scout troop didn’t do anything of the sort–we did a lot of arts and crafts instead. I asked if we could do something like that, but I was denied.
Growing up, I always wanted to do this kind of thing but my parents weren’t into it and I didn’t know anybody who knew how to do it. I grew up in Washington, close to Olympic National Park, and we would go car camping and do half-mile hikes from a parking lot. I always wanted to know what else was out there, once you got to the end of those little half-mile trails.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I convinced one of my friends to go with me. I used my school backpack and we didn’t even have a tent. We just hiked and laid out our sleeping bags on the ground and that was the first backpacking experience I ever had.
Did you start to get more into backpacking from there and gradually build up your gear supply?
Honestly, I’ve never really been a “gear person.”
I was in the Peace Corps and during my time there, we were always thinking about what we’d do when we got back to the States. One of my friends and I started thinking about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) when we got back, and eventually decided on the Appalachian Trail (AT).
We had no idea what we were doing. We bought some of our stuff from Goodwill and borrowed some of it and it was all wrong and heavy, but it didn’t matter.
I have nice gear now but I don’t feel like I have any more fun now, my backpack is just lighter!
Tell me more about your time hiking the AT.
I did the AT in 4 sections. The first big section was the longest (around 1300 miles), the next was 400 miles, the one after that was 250 and the last was 300.
For the first section, I was with my best bud, her trail name was Raspberry, and mine was Raindancer. The two of us hiked together and we only met one other group of two women; every other group was either just men or a mix of genders. For most of the rest of the trail I set out on my own, and the last section I did with some friends and my husband.
What would you say to people who think women shouldn’t hike alone?
I always think about it in this way. In the book A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson talks about how your more likely to die in your bed than on the AT, statistically. When I was hiking the AT, I lived in Seattle and took the bus and rode alone at night all the time and I’m like, “It’s more likely that I’m going to get mugged or some other horrible thing walking home and no one says anything about that!”
Where do you think that common response to women hiking alone comes from?
It comes from this idea that women can’t protect themselves, and a general fear of the outdoors for some reason.
People worry about the kind of people that are out hiking on the trails. “Oh you don’t know who is going to be out there,” they say. I’ve hitchhiked a ton and when people hear that they always respond with, “What, are you crazy?!”
But I’ve always had positive experiences.
People will often go out of their way to help out and give a ride. I’ve never experienced anything bad, so I’ve never seen a rational reason to be scared.
What advice do you have for women who might have that fear ingrained in them?
When I was hiking with Raspberry she was uncomfortable with hitchhiking. It’s a really integral part of long-distance hiking and she never got over it. There were some things we would do to alleviate the fear. For instance, we’d never camp within a mile of a road. We would try to hitchhike from a parking lot and look for a family to ask for a ride into town, instead of standing out on the road and thumbing it. We took precautions.
Honestly though, I’m not exactly sure how you get over it. I know those fears are so strongly ingrained in people. I don’t know what to say other than, “I’ve done this. I know others who have. And I’ve only ever had positive experiences.”
Just getting that message out there is powerful and helps.
What would you like to see change about how women are represented and/or involved in the outdoors?
In terms of buying gear, I get frustrated when I walk into a store and the first thing I see is women’s casual wear. There’s not as much of a focus on technical stuff for women. It’s not that I don’t like casual wear, but I would love to see an equal amount of technical wear up front. I do understand that from a business standpoint, that’s probably what the majority of women coming in to browse are going to be drawn towards.
Then there’s the circulation of information. I get Backpacker Magazine and they review gear. There will be seven pages of men’s clothes and one page of women’s stuff, which is frustrating. I’m like, “Seriously, you can only review one sports bra??” I’ve been trying to find a good sports bra that won’t chafe and dries quickly forever!
I get frustrated with the lack of information that’s out there for women.
In terms of getting better gear selections and information, how do we make that happen?
It’s a chicken and egg situation. You know, what comes first?
For instance, in terms of the placement of casual wear in stores you have to think, why is all of the women’s casual wear up front? Well, probably because a lot of women who walk in the store aren’t actually going to be spending a lot of time outside. They see cute dresses and they’re going to buy them. A retailer isn’t going to push things unless they feel like people are going to purchase them.
So then I think, well, why aren’t more women getting outside?
I think about the women I know and many have children, so that’s a huge reason. There isn’t really an easy way to fit kids into a multi-day backpacking trip. Then you peel back the layers further to young women. Why aren’t they spending time on the trail? I feel as though a lot of young women have grown up with very little exposure–or desire—to go outdoors, because it’s something that is viewed as traditionally male-oriented. So you go back even further and think about little girls and what might be keeping them from getting outside. And so on.
We have to get young girls interested in the outdoors. I think about little me. When I was young, if I could have gone on that Boy Scout trip, or had some group that got me out there, I would have been so into it.
Somehow, we have to start back at the very beginning.
This interview is part of our Breaking the Granite Ceiling series. We’re taking a look at the state of gender diversity in the outdoors through the lens of some of the raddest athletes we know; women within our community who continue to break the granite ceiling one climb, hike, ride, and paddle at a time.