A few years ago, while planning a winter camping trip to Marfa, TX, I spent hours online looking for gear and tips – for ways to feel a little more confident about sleeping outside in freezing temperatures. After hours of bag reviews, campfire techniques and leave-no-trace principles, I found myself asking where all the women were. Sure, there’s nothing particularly gendered about firestarters or wool socks. But after the millionth video of a forty-something man doing barrel rolls in his perfectly manicured backyard, McMansion peeking into frame between cuts, before he gives his full and unedited review of a tactical bag, I couldn’t take it anymore. I’d do my own research, maybe start my own YouTube channel, no barrel rolls allowed, and take the outdoors video content industry by storm.
Well I didn’t do that. But I did start to look for camping resources that were inclusive of, if not entirely run by, non-men. And then I found the She Explores podcast. FINALLY! Lady voices talking about camping, hiking, ultrarunning – some of them solo. It became a staple in my podcast routine and remains one of the few shows I don’t listen to while washing dishes or folding laundry. She Explores gets my full attention.
So when we decided on the theme for this issue, I knew I had to call Gale Straub, the founder and host of She Explores. I wanted to know how it all got started, and how she had built this online community that was focused on getting offline.
It all started out as a website in 2014, where Straub could share photos and stories about the outdoors.
“I used to work at a venture capital firm. I left that job after a year and a half of planning a roadtrip with my partner, and he and I travelled for about a year. Taking that roadtrip for me was the opportunity to pursue, basically, a fun side project, something that I was totally interested in and at that point in time, there wasn’t a lot of content on social media or otherwise that focused on women in the outdoors.”
Straub says that’s how the podcast was born, after seeing the need for women’s voices to be even louder in the outdoor space.
“I started highlighting women in written work and publishing their pieces through the website. And then, after a couple of years, I kind of hit a tipping point of wanting to connect a little more deeply with people and tell deeper stories, and I find audio to be a great medium to do that.”
One of the unique qualities of this show is how down-to-earth it is. So much of the outdoor content space is filled with motivational-speaker rhetoric. Finding yourself, taking time off, unplugging—and if you don’t come back a new person, you failed. The advertising and Instagram posts are all well-composed photos and books of poems by the campfire. But these activities are hard on us, not only physically but mentally. She Explores deftly handles this balancing act: you walk away inspired, but not without honesty.
“I spent a year travelling on the road, and I was younger….I was escaping and running from certain things by choosing to do that. And the lesson you learn over and over again is that you follow yourself everywhere. I’m not going to pretend that that’s not the case for other people, either.”
Straub takes listener feedback constantly and seriously. She polls her audience frequently through surveys and one-off questions within the She Explores Facebook group and Instagram, to find out what topics are and aren’t working for them, and what they want to engage with more. She says the trends within her listenership change along with the news cycle.
“Just like every other industry the outdoor industry has definitely mirrored politics, and the state of the nation as well, so I don’t want to fall behind and feel like I’m not reflecting or challenging people in the right way while they’re listening.”
Scroll through the Facebook group on any given day and you’ll see all sorts of posts. Some asking for recommendations on where to go hiking or backpacking while on their international trip. Others posting updates on their Pacific Crest Trail hike. Folks planning meetups at the next trade show, looking for gear recommendations, sharing triumphs and hardships. Straub initially started the group in order to interact with her audience without having to put on her host persona; the evolution of the space is just icing on the cake.
“It feels like a safe space.You know that most of the people who found their way there were through the podcast. Ultimately, the group has become a place where people feel motivated to share things that aren’t heavily curated and are just tidbits of trip that they’re excited about, and that is the best case scenario.”
She says the way the group and the show have changed over time is “a small reflection of a bigger movement that’s happened within women in the outdoor space.” In the last 5 years or so, tons of grassroots outdoor organizations for women have popped up. There’s Women Who Hike, a nation-wide group run by Nicole Brown. Jeanine Pesce is creative director for RANGE, “independent agency + magazine inspired by the culture of the modern outdoor movement.” Johnie Gall, one of the original creators on the scene, runs Dirtbag Darling, which is now a platform for her work that “examines the relationship between humans and the environment.” Sasha Cox has Trail Mavens, Gina Bégin founded the Outdoor Women’s Alliance.
“I can’t even name the number of social media accounts that feature outdoor women. It’s just crazy how it’s blown up in the past four years. All these grassroots organizations started doing it and then big brands got on board because they were kind of getting lambasted for not talking to women in their media.”
One of the biggest recent campaigns was REI’s “Force of Nature” series. And the demand for brands to recognize their non-male audience is only growing. Straub points to the Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge, which aims to raise awareness and keep companies accountable not only in their marketing, but also their hiring practices. And it’s not just about gender – it includes race and ability standards.
“It’s just been this whole awareness effect that’s been happening because the outdoor industry has been so traditionally white and male.”
With all of these apparel and gear brands improving their campaigns, it’s easier than ever to find ways to join other women outside. There’s a group for everyone. Got a baby? Shanti Hodges runs Hike It Baby, where she addresses the specific needs and issues one encounters with a little one in tow. My personal favorite, Jenny Bruso’s Unlikely Hikers, features “fat people, people of color, queer, trans, gender nonconforming folks, people with disabilities and so on.”
Straub also wants to see a change in the way we talk about outdoor activities. We talked a lot about big, elaborate trips like the hiking the Pacific Crest Trail or climbing Mt. Everest as examples. But taking a walk in the park or down the street should be held in higher regard.
“There are small ways to access the outdoors without it being what we think of as a grand adventure,” Staub says “You don’t have to summit a mountain for it to be an experience…There’s a group for everybody and I also think that outdoor time is more accessible than the picture that is painted by the outdoor industry.”
Later this year, Straub will add author to her list of achievements. “She Explores”, a book inspired by the project, is a collection of stories, photographs, and artwork “from women who are inspired by the adventure found in the outdoors.” The list of contributors is too long to list here; it’s a sign that these stories are out there, ready to be told.
Whether it’s a walk through the park, ultrarunning, or backpacking through the Howe Sound Crest Trail, the important thing to keep in mind is that we’re not alone. There are so many of us looking for new ways to get outside, and there’s more ways than ever to connect with each other. While all the news cycle noise and personal drama can get overwhelming online, Straub tries to remember that it’s brought her joy, too.
“I think about some of my richest friendships and relationships and they’re found through this thing that I dreamed about from a cubicle in 2013,” Staub notes. “Sometimes I can feel frustrated by the internet or by social media, but when I think about the real-life connections that come from that, I’m very, very grateful.”
Photo by Jon Gaffney
Editor’s note: this piece has been updated for clarity.