Confession: I was not looking forward to going to REI Outessa. Being a long-distance hiker, ultra-runner and working in a male-dominated industry, I constantly fight the stereotype that I am less tough or capable than my male counterparts. The idea that women need a safe space to exercise and learn outdoor skills fundamentally bothered me. I know women to be incredibly tenacious and innovative—perfectly capable of trying something new and intimidating on their own.
In the four days running up to Outessa, I hiked 90-ish miles on the Pacific Crest Trail and Timberline Trail. I had walked from Mexico to Canada on the PCT in 2014. Being back on the PCT flooded me with pride and exacerbated my contempt for Outessa.
When I started backpacking, I did every boneheaded thing you could imagine. I trusted everyone’s opinion but my own. The first time I hitchhiked, the man who gave me a lift picked up my pack and said, “That’s way too heavy. It’s gonna split your pelvis.” There are lots of know-it-alls in the backpacking and hiking community that will leverage their years of experience and Paul Bunyan-esque adventures to make you feel like you are doing it all wrong. The last thing I wanted to do was tell anyone how to strap on a pack and take a hike.
And then Outessa started, and I was teaching an “Intro to Backpacking” class. And it wasn’t a bunch of women who read Wild and had delusions of curing themselves in nature. It was moms and city dwellers and veterans. Women of all walks of life—women who achieved incredible feats. And the women were so excited and curious and razor sharp. We had conversations about conditioning, nutrition, condensation and sex so far beyond the shallow scope of conversations I have with gear nuts.
I had the honor of sharing some tricks I’ve learned over the years. I got to answer all the questions I had been too afraid to ask when I was starting out. I learned how to make phenomenal (and easy) car-camping BBQ from a woman in a Gear Repair Class. I learned what an Instagram Story is from an attendee. I hydrated solely on Allegro Almond Milk Mochas. I savagely rolled my ankle running down a ski slope in the dark. I used Herbal Essences conditioner for the first time since high school. I missed my mom and sisters and wished more than anything they were there with me.
I am a judgmental, stubborn New Englander. It takes a lot for me to admit when I am wrong about something. Outessa grew on me in spite of myself. There is something contagious about being part of a community of people that are so supportive and genuinely excited. There is a real value to being in a place where you feel completely at peace to be your unguarded self. Being around women celebrating each other and themselves with such unbridled exuberance was so restoring for my spirit.
Do I believe that every woman is capable of teaching herself how to navigate in the back country and paddleboard on a lake? Yes. But Outessa isn’t really about the activities and the swag. It’s about an extraordinary community of women who coalesce for a mid-summer weekend. It was a privilege to be part of that moment.
Kathleen Lynch is a former Big Agnes Customer Service Representative who has recently moved into the Product Development side of the company. The ladies of Outessa loved to hear her story about hiking into the Mt. Hood, OR event!