by Sharon Brodin
There are some pretty alarming statistics about the rise of mental and emotional health problems among teens and young people today, especially young women, and especially since the 2020 pandemic and widespread social isolation.
We believe, and are supported by many others in the outdoor industry as well as by research, that one of the ways we can help these young women is to offer more positive influences in their lives—like outdoor adventure.
Cultural Pressures on Young Women
A Psychology Today article notes, “Girls are bombarded with the pressure of a perfect appearance everywhere they turn—from advertisements, television, movies, Internet, fashion magazines, books, music, and videos—the ideal is held out as the standard that girls should attain.” And “Girls learn to gain attention from behaving in edgy, outrageous, competitive, and often sexually provocative ways.”
This constant pressure creates “a ripe environment for…depression, eating disorders, self-injury and substance abuse, all of which are on the rise in today’s girls.”
Outside Online published the article “This Veteran Paddler Says Teenage Girls Need Adventure” and quoted author and adventurer Natalie Warren. Natalie was living the hectic urban high school life of the average American teen when she discovered canoe tripping. It changed her life.
Solid Rock Outdoor Ministries takes young people, mostly teens and twenty-somethings, on 7-40 day immersive wilderness trips. In their video "Women in the Outdoors" here’s what one SROM instructor says about the barriers for young women in the outdoors:
“I’m the youngest with three siblings. I’ve loved outdoor recreation—climbing, backpacking, all those things. But it was very much this thing that, in our gender-stereotyped world, for boys to invest themselves in, but I had to really fight for that.
"I think that’s a general sentiment for women in the world. In a lot of ways our culture has formulated for women to not be brave, and to focus on being perfect first. You have to be perfect as a woman in our culture, so then you can’t fail. And in a lot of these [outdoor] activities you need to fail and risk to get better. It’s exciting for the women on our courses because there’s a lot of growth for that.”
Ready for a kayak trip (photo courtesy of @kayakerhhi)
The Benefits of Outdoor Adventure for Girls
When teen girls and young women have the chance to participate in an immersive outdoor adventure experience—like a Boundary Waters canoe trip as Natalie did, or a 40-day backpacking trip like the SROM students do—they learn life can be different.
What Natalie describes in the Outside article is exactly what so many other girls experience: meaningful outdoor experiences boost their confidence like nothing else. They have to learn teamwork. They have to work hard with no conveniences. They’re susceptible to the weather and the environment—things out of their control. They’re in a situation they can’t escape from until they’ve gone through it.
Outdoor adventures like canoe trips, rock climbing and backpacking force young women to face fear and doubt, to live with risk, to trust others, to trust equipment, to work through various emotions, to be resilient, to solve problems.
Girls-only Boundary Waters trip (photo courtesy of Renee Scheil)
Outward Bound takes roughly 35,000 people every year on wilderness expeditionary courses with students as young as middle school and into adulthood—boys and girls, men and women.
What they and other groups like them have found is that outdoor adventure offers a unique environment to increase self-awareness and self-confidence. To develop understanding, teamwork and compassion with others. To develop leadership skills that’ll carry them through life. To learn to serve others, communicate effectively and resolve conflicts.
We wrote a story about (then) 15-year old Emma and her Quetico canoe trip adventure in 2018. Here’s a quote by Emma from that article:
“Almost 5 years ago I was in a car accident and it had ruined my body. I was unable to do anything for years. When this trip came, I knew this would be it—the trip that physical limitations would no longer hold me. Paddling 8-plus hours a day and doing mile-long portages with a 65-pound canoe or a 60-95 pound pack on my shoulders wouldn't have been even a thought in my mind before.
“One of the most powerful things that happened on my trip was when we did a 280-rod portage. I carried a canoe on my shoulders the whole way up and down hills, through mud and swamps. At the end of that portage, when I saw that lake, I took the canoe off my shoulders and a tear rolled down my face. This tear was not for pain or frustration but of joy and happiness that the physical problems no longer held me. I did it! I made it, and I conquered.”
That’s the power of outdoor adventure for these young girls and women.
How to Encourage More Young Women to Take On Adventure
Teen and young adult women should have plenty of exposure to women leaders in the outdoor world. Seeing them can open up doors of imagination and possibility they may not have thought of before.
Exposure to adventurous outdoor activities often starts in the home. Girls who grow up with parents who love outdoor adventure are more likely to experience it and love it themselves. But that shouldn’t stop others who aren’t fortunate enough to have grown up with it. Natalie Warren had never experienced an outdoor adventure before her first 2-week canoe trip in the Boundary Waters.
(photo courtesy of Renee Scheil)
In the US there are dozens, maybe hundreds of organizations that offer outdoor adventure programming for young people. If you’re looking for something for your own daughter, niece or granddaughter do an online search under “girls outdoor adventure program” and you’ll get a long list of options.
Even if a young woman doesn’t like the experience, I promise you she’ll never forget it! She’ll have memories and have learned valuable lessons that’ll follow her the rest of her life. It may even change the course of her life like it did for Natalie.
My friends Linnea and Renee are young women themselves, both in their twenties. The past two summers they’ve taken a group of teen girls into the Boundary Waters for 5-day trips (a few photos from their latest trip are included in this article). Renee said:
“It’s so fun to see these girls take on challenges outside of their comfort zone and discover new levels of endurance and adventure inside themselves. These trips allow the girls to not only push their own limits but also to encourage others to stay strong and keep going. Whether it’s paddling into the wind for hours, portaging long distances with 60-75 pound canoe, or just spraying each other down with bug spray to survive the mosquitoes, everything takes teamwork. It’s been rewarding to see girls grow in their own confidence and take on more responsibilities each trip as well.”
When asked how we can encourage more teen girls to get out there for adventure, she said, “It seems there’s always plenty of girls interested in going but there are not enough leaders heading up the trips. We need more leaders creating more trip opportunities!”
Boundary Waters campsite (photo courtesy of Renee Scheil)
Linnea also believes wilderness adventures are wonderfully beneficial for girls: “What I have been most impressed by is how much of a confidence booster it is. Many girls go into it wondering how they'll manage both their physical tasks and their attitudes. Every time I’ve been blown away with the positive attitudes and sheer strength they maintain. From the first step of the trail to the second-day sore, blistered reality check. From the mosquitoes coming for blood (literally) to strong headwinds while canoeing, they’ve proven to themselves that they not only can thrive in those situations but they can have a great time at it.
“Another benefit—which can pertain to anyone—is the healthy detox from normal conveniences, whether it's a microwave or a cellphone. On the trips I lead, we bring just one phone which is used only for emergencies (disposable cameras are welcome!). There is nothing immediate about the outdoors except for one's own thoughts, good conversation and breath-taking views. Nothing compares to a clear head in the middle of the wilderness.”
She continues, “The best way to get girls to go on these trips more is to ASK. Providing more chances for them to say yes is key. Emphasizing the adventure, challenge and strength of young women pulls on a part of themselves they never get to truly exercise in everyday life. And on a practical note, having leaders that the girls/young women know and trust helps immensely. It’s a vulnerable task for anyone, especially if they’re not familiar with such environments.”
(photo courtesy of Sharon Brodin)
It doesn’t always have to be a long trip to make a difference. And, in fact, the cost of some of these programs can reach into the thousands of dollars, making it inaccessible to many families.
But the benefits of these kinds of outdoor experiences for a new generation of girls is worth putting in the effort to do what we can.
What paddle questions can we help you with? Contact our friendly Customer Service team today: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]
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