More and more women are signing up for hikes that take them around Australia and the world - a trend that's proving transformative.
In 2014, when Anna Dakin first hiked the formidable 223 kilometres of the Larapinta Trail in Central Australia, she wore - incredibly - a pair of Doc Martens, and slept in a borrowed tent and sleeping bag. She was 19. "My journey with hiking began then," she says. "I had a feeling of pride, of autonomy, of what my body could do. As a young woman I was told 'you're not strong enough', but I realised it wasn't true."
Dakin noticed a handful of other women on the trail then, some in pairs and even fewer hiking solo. Fast-forward eight years and she is now based in Alice Springs and leads women-only hikes for World Expeditions. Demand has skyrocketed. "We have women in their 50s, 60s and 70s who want to hike but don't want to worry about logistics and safety, which we take care of," she says.
She sees women gain valuable self-confidence during a multi-day hike. "Overcoming any kind of physical adversity is a powerful thing," says Dakin. "You go into your body, put one foot in front of the other and women surprise themselves, are blown away by their body's abilities."
The general manager of Australian Walking Holidays, Michael Buggy, says the company has more women-only departures scheduled for 2023 than ever before. "The number of trips has doubled in 2022 compared to last year, however, statistics are all over the place due to the COVID restrictions. Prior to 2020, we'd seen a consistent 8 per cent annual increase in bookings for women-only trips."
Despite the ever-changing travel restrictions in the past couple of years, COVID-19 has prompted greater numbers of women to take up hiking - and I am one of them. Apart from an eight-day hike in Nepal's Annapurna region in 2016, I dallied with hiking before the first lockdown. The pandemic shifted something in me and once we were able to get out and about again, I couldn't wait to escape the house. I craved being in nature and the sense of adventure that accompanied hiking.
Get your girl gang together even if they need a shove, and leap outside of your comfort zone
A couple of friends were also keen to hike more regularly and we scheduled trips every couple of weekends. I relished researching hiking destinations and pored over Facebook forums and the NSW National Parks and Wildlife website. We hiked in the Hunter and Central Coast regions, along banksia-fringed coastal trails and dense rainforest where we swam beneath waterfalls. There were a couple of close calls - as night fell we almost got bogged on a muddy road in Watagans National Park and there was an encounter with an army of leeches in Barrington Tops National Park - but as soon as we completed a hike we quickly planned the next one.
Once we booked a week on the Larapinta Trail, I knew I had to get serious. I wanted to build my skills, knowledge and strength so I turned to Women Want Adventure (WWA) and signed up for a three-day hike in Kosciuszko National Park with overnight in accommodation at Lake Crackenback. We may have spent hours in icy, blustery conditions but there was wine, homemade lasagne and heating waiting for us when we returned at the end of the day. Guide Tracy Garner showed me how to tie my boot laces so they held firm; two loops before the bow instead of one. On the second night I watched her effortlessly chop wood for the fire and thought, I want to be like her.
During the same trip, I met WWA founder Monique Farmer who was leading a second group of women. Growing up in NSW's Sutherland Shire surrounded by the Royal National Park, Farmer is a lifelong hiker. She started WWA six years ago to provide a safe and supportive platform for women interested in being outdoors. There are 12 guides employed by WWA and 4000 women have completed trips in the past six years. Numbers are steadily increasing. As well as hikes, there are kayaking, snowshoeing and canyoning trips with yoga also included in some offerings.
When I catch up with Farmer recently to chat about the increasing number of women taking up hiking, the qualified outdoor education teacher is still buzzing after a five-week exploratory trip to Nepal. "I've noticed the need among women to get outdoors and I think it has something to do with the increased anxiety that COVID has caused," she says. "Women don't often give themselves a break from work and family, and I think they're realising they need to give themselves permission to take time out. A mud mask and manicure aren't the answer. I think women are demanding long-lasting solutions; true self-care."
During another WWA hike closer to home on the NSW Central Coast in April 2021, I met Sydneysider Kate Ross. We struck up conversation as we walked - women slip very quickly into personal chat on the trail - and we shared travel stories. Ross, 52, is a seasoned solo hiker who rarely travels anywhere in the world where there isn't a trail nearby. Her favourite hiking destinations include Norway, New Zealand, Tibet and Tasmania. We're currently planning an overnight hike in the Blue Mountains.
Ross attributes the increased number of women taking up hiking to groups such as WWA and Wild Women on Top. "They're opening up hiking to a whole new group of people who may lack confidence and don't want to do it alone," she says. "There are offerings that did not exist five years ago and when given the opportunity of a potential adventure, women want to grab it with both hands."
Di Westaway is one of those women. In 2000, the founder of Wild Women on Top found herself facing her 40th birthday feeling overworked and unfit. An acquaintance invited her on a hiking expedition to remote South America to climb Mt Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the southern hemisphere, and the former athlete said yes.
Westaway didn't make it to the top, but she relished the experience and decided to skill up and start "trek training" for women in her local national park on Sydney's northern beaches. That led to her organising hiking adventures and the establishment of annual fundraising event Coastrek, which sees teams of women hiking between 30 and 60 kilometres to raise funds for mental health. Close to 60,000 women have raised almost $50 million for charities including the Fred Hollows Foundation and Beyond Blue. From 2023, Coastrek will hike for healthy hearts in support of the Heart Foundation.
When we speak, the 62-year-old is rock climbing on the Greek island of Telendos. "Hiking fills me with joy, lets me leap outside my comfort zone, connects me with wild women, immerses me in nature and brings on exhilaration on a grand scale," she says.
Women also benefit from being outdoors together. "Well, as Kathy Lette says, 'Husbands come and go but girlfriends are forever.' Hiking girlfriends enrich and energise your life. As you're walking in the wild, conversation flows from the superficial to the intimate. It's like a wonder drug."
Westaway has three tips for first timers: "Make every workout an adventure in the wild, get your girl gang together even if they need a shove, and leap outside of your comfort zone. Start small with little local trails and build your skills in all weather."
In early September, I completed Tasmania's Three Capes Track with its spectacular ancient dolerite columns and abundant flora and fauna. There were 40 of us all up, but only three solo hikers, including me. I wasn't envious of the group of six women friends, even though they were able to distribute four days of wine and other treats between them.
Each morning just before dawn, I headed off alone; everyone else was still in their bunks or preoccupied with breakfast. Birds flitted about, chirping, and the damp morning air dismissed any sleepiness. A sense of happy calm and anticipation replaced vanity, to-do lists and the demands of others. As with any new hike I didn't know what would unfold as I walked along the path, sometimes with sweaty difficulty. But there were moments when I felt as though I was gliding through time and space, fuelled by wonder.
Five women-only hikes to experience in 2023.
Nepal Women Want Adventure has added Nepal to its line-up for the first time this year. I've been twice and am planning a third trip. The overwhelming scale and beauty of the Himalayas is addictive. Bookings open at 10am on January 24 for two hikes: Langtang Valley Trek and Everest Foothills. Register before bookings open. Grade: Moderate to challenging; womenwantadventure.com.au
France Europe is home to satisfying hiking trails with overnight accommodation in mountain hostels. Utracks is offering a women-only hike in the Mont Blanc region for the first time this year and while there are some challenging days, you only carry a day pack. $1790; grade: moderate to challenging; departing September 4; utracks.com
Morocco Combining remote trails with cultural experiences and encounters with locals is my idea of an enriching hike. Intrepid has an adventure to the less-travelled reaches of Morocco, which includes four days of hiking. From $1550; grade: moderate; departures from late March to November; intrepidtravel.com
NSW One of Women Want Adventure's most popular hiking trips is a four-day adventure in the Snowy Mountains region. You complete three day hikes, including to the top of Mount Kosciuszko. $1790; grade: challenging; womenwantadventure.com.au
Tasmania Wild Women on Top has partnered with World Expeditions to offer a hiking adventure amid the pristine beaches and windswept terrain of Flinders Island. You'll complete six day hikes and return to a camp base each day where you sleep in safari-style tents. $3575; grade: introductory to moderate; departing April 23; wildwomenontop.com
A GUIDE TO GEAR
Visit any large outdoor store and you'll overwhelmed by choice. You could spend a few thousand dollars on hiking gear - you will likely become more discerning the more dedicated you become - but it's unnecessary when you are starting out. It is also worth remembering that hiking gear is about quality not quantity. Here is my list of essentials.
Grab a bargain
Outdoor stores such as Anaconda, Paddy Pallin, Kathmandu, Macpac and Snowys have memberships or email alerts. Sign up and wait for a sale. If you can, visit a store and try things on, especially shoes and backpacks, so you can be confident if you buy online.
Shoes are the foundation of comfort and there are two types of hikers - those who swear by lightweight trail runners and those who prefer the added support of boots. Go up at least half a size, preferably a full size, because your feet swell when you're on them all day - especially in hot conditions. I prefer low-rise boots, but others opt for mid to high-rise. You may end up buying a couple of different pairs until you find the shoes that work for you, which is where sales come in handy.
You are what you wear
Light-weight, quick-dry clothing is ideal. It's all about layering. Avoid cotton, which is heavy and slow to dry when sweaty. Merino or merino blend helps with odour, especially if you're hiking for a few days. And I swear by light-weight purpose-made underpants that are wicking, odour resistant and breathable.
A backpack is essential and I prefer a women-specific design because the structure and strap placement accommodate busts and hips. Visit a store and ask the staff to help you fit the backpack before buying. Load it up in the shop with a sleeping bag or other items so you can get a sense of how it feels with some weight in it. Check that the pack has an opening for a water tube so you can sip as you walk.
Hikers are divided about poles. I wouldn't go without mine, even for day hikes. I've lost count of the number of times they've prevented me from stumbling. On multi-day hikes, they've kept me upright when fatigue set in. They help me find my rhythm and I appreciate the upper-body workout. But there are people equally as passionate about not using poles. I pity them.
When starting out, you want a jacket that offers more protection than a raincoat but doesn't cost the earth. Hike a few times before investing in a high-quality rain/weather jacket. It will be an expensive outlay so plan ahead and buy on sale. Long pants are worth it, too.