In the years following the release of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, first as a novel and then as a star-studded Hollywood production about one woman’s journey on the Pacific Crest Trail, the number of PCT hikers quadrupled.
Publications from The Wall Street Journal to Mashable suggest Wild has served as an inspiration to women and hint that percentages of female thru-hikers are increasing. Many have pointed to the book as a shining example of the effect female role models can have in changing the gender ratio in male-dominated activities like backpacking.
But the data has yet to bear that out.
The Pacific Crest Trail Association does not ask or record the gender of anyone who walks the trail, but it does maintain a list of all self-reported thru-hikers since 1952 when the first hiker traversed the entirety of what existed of the PCT at that time.
An analysis of the gender probability of each first name reported provides a gender breakdown, which, assuming everyone named Mary is a woman and everyone named John is a man, reveals that the percentage of women who have successfully thru-hiked the PCT has not actually increased. Instead, it’s hovered between 25 and 28 percent for the last nine years.
The data more or less agrees with surveys conducted by popular PCT blog Halfway Anywhere in 2013, 2014, and 2015 which record 35 percent, 31 percent, and 37 percent female hikers in those years and show no significant change in percentage over time.
Outdoor Foundation suggests that the percentage of women participating in outdoor activities is increasing, but the percentage of female thru-hikers, or at least hikers who complete the trail, isn’t.
According to a survey conducted by Backpacker Magazine in 2015, women make up only a third of backpackers. Answers to the survey’s questions provide some insight as to why.
When asked what chore they never do, women were six times more likely than men to name navigation and map reading, and women were significantly less likely to say they took a leadership role on trips than men.
This implies a lack of confidence, which certainly contributes to a hiker’s unwillingness to begin a long trail or to continue when faced with discouragement. Confidence is something stories like Wild, which provide role models for women through strong female protagonists, could address. Women’s-specific outdoor groups like Trail Mavens and Women’s Wilderness provide another angle. They offer resources, courses, and expeditions to teach women the skills they need to build confidence and independence outdoors in a low-pressure environment.
But it looks like confidence isn’t the only issue at hand.
Women start backpacking later in life than men do. Backpacker’s survey reports that 73 percent of women start backpacking after the age of 18, whereas over half of all men surveyed went on their first trip before they reached adulthood. Studies by the Girl Scouts Research Institute show that girls who engage in outdoor activities and clubs like the Girl Scouts of America have higher rates of self-reported confidence, leadership, problem-solving skills, and environmental stewardship, suggesting that getting girls outside earlier could impact their likelihood to seek outdoor challenges later in life.
Another problem glares in the survey results: Over half of Backpacker’s female responders reported difficulty finding gear that fit, another experience that could dissuade potential backpackers.
“Men and women are built differently both physically and mentally,” says pro skier Alison Gannett, who runs KEEN-sponsored Rippin Chix camps for women skiers and mountain bikers and helps design women’s packs for Osprey.
Designing gear with that divide in mind could boost both comfort and confidence in the wilderness. The possible result? More female backpackers. And more life-changing experiences for women on the PCT.