Wild women: the rise of all-female outdoor activity groups | Camping holidays

Wild women: the rise of all-female outdoor activity groups | Camping holidays

It was a little after midnight when I heard footsteps approaching my bivvy bag. Normally when wild camping, a sound like this would cause me to sink further into my sleeping bag, hoping I wouldn’t be seen. Yet that night, sleeping on a hillside on the western escarpment of the Chilterns in Buckinghamshire, there was no need – or indeed chance – to remain hidden. I was surrounded by six other women in bivvies, giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “girl’s night out”.

As an adventurer and ardent solo wild camper, I have for more than 15 years been voluntarily plunging myself into the wilderness – in the UK and overseas – alone. I have never needed company on adventures. I’m not afraid of the dark, or worried about going for a pee in the middle of the night. Sleeping out solo doesn’t scare me. But wild camping in a group – especially a group of other women – terrified me.

An Adventure Queens hiking group
An Adventure Queens hiking group. Photograph: Jeni Smith

Of the six with me that night, four had never wild camped before, while the other two were fellow adventurers Sophie Roberts and Anna McNuff. The latter would, a couple of months after our camp, officially co-found an online adventure community for women called Adventure Queens.

I arrived late by train from London and tracked them down from a Google Maps pin they’d sent me from the hillside. Already the conversation was in full swing and I felt apprehensive about joining them. While the novice campers were talking about their fears of sleeping outside, I, conversely, worried about the socialising. I’ve always had more male friends than female, and in school I never really fitted in – didn’t wear makeup, didn’t enjoy shopping, and was always accused of not being “girly” enough.

Yet as soon as I arrived I was welcomed into the fold. I was handed a plate of food, offered a drink and included in the conversation. There was no campfire – that would have been against the wild campers’ etiquette – but I felt unexpectedly warmed by their presence.

“Adventure Queens began as a single Facebook group,” says Nadia Weigh, the current community co-lead. “We wanted to create a space for women to share ideas and exchange tips, but it has grown.”

Now there are 13,000 community members, 60 volunteers, 25 regional groups, three international ones and a mums’ group too. Not bad for something that began as a night out on a hillside for a small group of friends.

They are not the only women’s group to have seen phenomenal growth. “I didn’t come from an outdoorsy background,” says Bex Band, founder of Love Her Wild, another UK-based non-profit adventure community. “But after hiking in Israel I wanted to do more in Britain. I started a Facebook group, hoping to connect and learn skills with other like-minded women, and it just snowballed – growing massively since the pandemic. Now we have more than 50,000 Wilders spread over 40 regional groups in Britain.”

After conducting a survey of members, Band found the main barriers to women getting into the outdoors are lack of confidence and concerns over safety. The women I camped out with in the Chilterns echoed these worries. Several said they would only be able to sleep knowing there was a group of us. One asked if someone would come with her if she woke up needing to pee in the night. Immediately her bivvy neighbour offered. It was a small gesture, but clearly meant a lot.

The Muslim women’s group on a trip to Kosovo’s Rugova mountains last month
The Muslim women’s group on a trip to Kosovo’s Rugova mountains last month

Reading through the comments and posts on Love Her Wild and Adventure Queens now, I can see that their strength lies in the online chat. No one feels too shy to ask how to put up a tent or deal with a period on an adventure; it’s like tapping into a massive book of cheerleading contacts, instantly.

Other women’s adventure communities include the Muslim Women’s Travel Group, started in 2015 by Sadia Ramzan. “Muslim women have more specific questions, such as food being halal, tolerance to wearing a hijab and being away from places that serve alcohol,” she says. “It was a great way of making friends and asking questions.” Now her Facebook group has more than 27,000 followers and she runs overseas trips – two this year are already sold out.

Gutsy Girls was established five years ago by Natalie Bannister, who moved to London, felt isolated and decided to form a group on Meetup. It started with six women meeting to try standup paddleboarding in the capital, and has grown to the point where Natalie runs it full-time. In 2022 she took 1,000 women on 400 trips in Europe, and 266 in the UK.

A Gutsy Girls paddleboarding trip to Sardinia
A Gutsy Girls paddleboarding trip to Sardinia

In the Chilterns, when I woke up the next morning, just as dawn was starting to illuminate the inner green walls of my bivvy bag, Anna had already fired up the camping stove and offered me a coffee. As I sipped my brew I again felt warmed, by the gesture and the drink.

Many of these groups, which also include Black Girls Hike (which started in 2019 as a walking group and has grown to become a certified training provider, offering trips overseas), have seen their membership grow by thousands, but others are choosing to remain small and simple.

Sarah Gerrish started Wonderful Wild Women in 2016 when she moved back to Cumbria with her young family and didn’t have anyone to enjoy the outdoors with. She started on Instagram, inviting others to meet for coffee and, if they liked, a wild swim. This became a monthly event, along with trail runs, book club meets and skill sessions. Despite pressure to grow, especially recently, she has steadfastly decided to keep it local and free. “I just want to shine a light on normal, everyday women who have families, jobs and responsibilities,” she says.

That morning on the hillside, with my first group of female campmates, we spent at least an hour talking, our conversation moving seamlessly from how to fix a leaky bivvy bag to identifying the red kites flying overhead, and complaining about the lack of trains to where we wanted to go on a Saturday. People asked me what I was doing next, and seemed to be genuinely rooting for me when I told them my goals. I had arrived a sceptic but left feeling supported.

By the time we said our goodbyes, everyone was beaming – the newbies from surviving their first bivvy, the adventurers from sharing their skills, and me from finally finding a girls’ night out that could be friendly, not frightening.