Young Seattle Scouts BSA participant enjoying canoeing; courtesy: Seattle Scouts BSA
How often do school-age girls today associate outdoor adventure with, “I can do that!”? Not enough, according to Ruby McConnell, author of the just released “A Girl’s Guide to the Wild.” McConnell and others in the Northwest outdoor community are actively working to change young girls’ perception of outdoor adventure.
“Boys in the U.S are given outdoor skills as a part of coming of age,” says McConnell. “Why not girls?”
In the Puget Sound region, with water and mountains at our proverbial doorstep, many of us might take for granted our many opportunities for hiking, sailing, backpacking, skiing and other outdoor pursuits. Time outdoors is restorative and confidence-building to a child and instills stewardship for open spaces. But such easy access is not always available, nor comfortable, to all, starting with school-age girls.
The barriers to getting started are many. There are the basics: “Girls might not want to look sweaty or messy, or appear weak,” says McConnell. “They’re hyper-aware of their periods, even more so when they are young and inexperienced.”
There may be no context for outdoor recreation in some communities, says Sully Moreno, a youth crew leader for Latino Outdoors Seattle. “I grew up (in Panama) where there was no infrastructure to enjoy the outdoors,” she says. “There was no tradition of sending kids to camp.”
A lack of tradition is further challenged when a girl does not see herself represented in the outdoors. “Identity-based trips [like the outings and events organized by Latino Outdoors] are easier for trying something new,” says Moreno. “People feel safe with a community who looks like them.”
Even when a child is interested, transportation and cost of equipment and programs can still be a hardship. Then add to all of this a history of chauvenism in the outdoors, even as women and girls make headway in all areas of outdoor recreation.
How can we help our self-identified girls learn the joys of outdoor adventure, in the face of so many challenges to simply putting on a pair of hiking boots?
The following western-Washington-based organizations feature programs ranging from several hours to a week; single session to months-long; summer-only to extra-curricular; free to big-ticket; and identity-based for a girl looking to explore the outdoors.
And most organizations offer single-gender sessions, which from speaking to all sources, is the single biggest influencer in determining a girl’s lifelong association with outdoor adventure from the start. All focus on building community for girls in the outdoors. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but one to give a girl some options.
As Girl Scouts says on its website, “We’re 2.5 million strong — more than 1.7 million girls and 750,000 adults who believe in the power of every G.I.R.L. (Go-getter, Innovator, Risk-taker, Leader)™ to change the world.” Girls Scouts is the oldest and most recognized of youth organizations for girls in the United States and promotes leadership and social and environmental stewardship among its members, grades K–12. Girls can participate at multiple levels and commitments, from joining a troop to attending a camp.
Girl Scouts has been progressive on the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) front, publicly welcoming gender-non-conforming members for years. Girl Scouts also stepped back from its earlier religious origins, stating no religious association for today’s organization.
“We want to increase participation of women and girls in the outdoors in free and low-cost outdoor education,” says Christy Pelland, the Wild Skills director for She Jumps in the Northwest region. She Jumps is a national organization with regional programming, and Wild Skills is its youth arm. Wild Skills offers outdoor skills-building initiatives and recreational gatherings for girls ages 6–18.
“We place strong women in front of these girls,” says Pelland. “These women are all volunteers and have high levels of skills.” With that volunteer power, and through partnering with big outdoor brands, She Jumps programs have a low barrier to entry, being free or donation-based. Events and programs throughout the year include rock climbing, mountain biking, mountaineering, overnight camping and downhill skiing. She Jumps provides equipment and instruction to any interested girl.
Another — locally grown — organization for women and girls is Washington Outdoor Women, started in 1998. Also volunteer-run, and with its first ever (paid) executive director, Jen Syrowitz, at the helm, WOW is expanding its programming to offer more than its traditional once-a-year Pre-WOW weekend event for girls ages 8–13 and their caregivers (other programs are for women 18 and older). A Pre-WOW weekend event might include fly fishing, rifle shooting, gear mending or horseback riding, all in one place (a regional camp, like Sealth on Vashon), with skilled all-women instructors, for an accessible cost.
“WOW’s been unique from the beginning in that nearly all of our volunteer instructors are former participants,” says Syrowitz. “We feel like a family, a community.” And it’s a community that is growing and welcomes more participants. Syrowitz hopes to build on youth programming in the coming years, so watch this space.
Latino Outdoors Washington is a local chapter of the national organization and fosters meetups and information-sharing about outdoor recreation among the Latinx community. Many outings are family-friendly, and some are exclusively for youth.
Washington’s chapter benefits from the good fortune of having a very active group of core volunteers, including people already working in the outdoor industry, such as Michelle Piñon. Piñon, a former staffer at Washington Trails Association, organized a week-long summer youth trail crew at Mount Rainier for Latinas ages 14–18, at no cost to participants. The program has been going since 2017. “An identity-based program like this will engage these girls more,” says Moreno, the youth crew leader this summer.
Through partnering with organizations like Washington Trails Association, Latino Outdoors Washington is able to offer fully covered outdoor experiences such as the trail crew, hikes, rock climbing and more (including transportation) to its community.
Founded by Elyse Rylander of Seattle, OUT There Adventures (OTA) designs trips and outdoor experience for queer youth. Though now a national organization, OTA has hosted events in the Puget Sound area, from kayaking to rock climbing. OTA partners with outdoor leadership organizations like Outward Bound and Northwest Youth Corps for immersive, week-long service and skills-building trips. While these offerings are not low-cost, OTA offers scholarships and financial aid for interested youth.
“The GOLD stands for Girls Outdoor Leadership Development,” says Chris Hagen, program director of the Seattle YMCA summer outdoor program now available to youth ages 11–18. Originally started as Passages Northwest in 1996, the then-girls-only program merged with the YMCA in 2012 to begin offering the same outdoor leadership training for boys (the BOLD in the name). But the majority of the sessions remain single-gender, are a week long and overnight, and offer experiences with backpacking, rock climbing, kayaking and more.
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) is serious business for the BOLD & GOLD program. “Forty percent of our instructors identify as people of color,” says Hagen, an admirable match to the program’s roughly 50 percent of youth participants who identify as a POC. Tuition is on a sliding scale, all trips depart from an easily reachable location in South Lake Union, and gear is a non-issue should that be a constraint: “YMCA can provide any gear to any student on any trip at any time,” says Hagen.
The 100-year-old Scouts organization has gone through huge changes in recent years, and since 2018 welcomes all eligible youth, including girls, regardless of race, ethnic background or orientation, to every rank of membership. Scouting packs are traditionally chartered through a church, and depending on the volunteer leadership, may or may not emphasize this association.
That said, many families choose Scouts because the BSA “offers life-changing experiences you can’t get anywhere else.” Geneva Sementi, age 9, and her little sister Hailey, 6, joined Cub Scouts the first year it welcomed girls, after a classmate brought flyers to school. “Geneva came home, wanting to shoot rockets,” says dad Josh. “It was very much driven by my daughters.”
According to John Padgett, the senior Scouts BSA official for the Chief Seattle Council, nearly 1,000 girls have enrolled since February 2018 in Cub Scouts or Scouts BSA troops in just the Seattle area alone. The goal is for girls to have their own den with a female leader, once membership of a pack or troop reaches a critical mass.
Scouts are active during the school year, with summer programs offering additional connection with the larger scouting community.
She’s on a Mission
Ruby McConnell is on a mission to get more girls outdoors through her books and writing. She got her own start in outdoor skills-building at age 11, growing up with supportive parents and memorable female mentors at the outdoor camps she attended.
Her first book, “A Woman’s Guide to the Wild,” hit upon a vacuum among outdoor adventure handbooks — guide books written by women for women. “My books have menstruation in them!” she laughs. Plus, the tone of her instruction is distinct from a man’s. “Men can go to a primal place outside but women might go to a more inquisitive place,” she explains.
She wants to give girls confidence in finding a love for outdoor adventure on their terms with her new book, "A Girl's Guide to the Wild," designed for girls ages 9–12. Through crafts, how-tos, short biographies of ground-breaking outdoor women, detailed illustrations and a thorough summary of national organizations to check out, McConnell’s book is an instructive and welcoming starting point for the outdoors-curious girl.