In Unmixed Company


By Laurel Kallenbach |

A few years ago, I read about a yoga and writing retreat held in a remote jungle setting on the Mexican coast. It was the perfect getaway for me while my husband was traveling for work. But there were two catches: I wasn’t that confident about my yoga expertise (much less whether I could do it outdoors) and soul-baring creative writing isn’t easy to share with total strangers. So I hesitated – until I noticed one retreat labeled “Women Only.” Then I was sold.

The trip was everything I dreamed of. Sleeping in an open-air setting, yoga at sunrise and sunset, hikes and beach excursions, and a dozen women of all ages and abilities who bravely wrote and read aloud their uncensored words. I stretched more than my hamstrings that week, and I was filled with a unique confidence and energy that I’m convinced came from being in the buoyant company of other women.

It turns out that women-only outdoor experiences are a hot trend among adventure outfitters. For centuries, guys have forayed into the wilderness with other guys to celebrate or prove their manhood. Now women, it seems, want the same experience. And there are many opportunities: It’s easy to find dozens of women-only tour companies, and even more organized trips.

Guys, on the other hand, must be mostly organizing their own adventures these days: Unless you count gay men’s tour companies, very few trips are advertised as “Men Only.”

But what is the difference? Do men and women need different trips? Are you missing out by signing up for a mixed trip – or are you losing something by signing up for a women’s tour or planning an outing with just men friends? The answer may depend on your expectations.

Size and Skills

One obvious reason that some men and women might choose separate outdoor experiences is the physical difference between genders. On team-oriented activities such as rock climbing or canoeing, physical size and strength can determine what each person does. In whitewater rafting, a large, strong paddler needs to anchor the boat’s prow – also the most exciting place. So, although women can paddle as well as men for their weight, on mixed trips it’s often guys who end up steering.

Then there’s the skill and confidence gap. For generations, boys were expected to learn and hone outdoor skills; girls weren’t. So in some age groups, there’s still a huge gender difference in camping, rafting and climbing skills.

Jim King organizes river trips for colleagues in their 50s and 60s; some for just men, others that include their spouses. “We generally pick pretty intense trips with rough camping conditions and no facilities, and frankly, most of the women our age don’t get as excited about them,” he says. “When we do go with the women, we back off the hardcore stuff, we don’t spend as much time on the river and we don’t choose destinations with dangerous whitewater. We also budget more time for relaxation and cultural events that everyone can enjoy.”

While adjusting for skill and interest gaps can make coed trips more comfortable, the specialized instruction available on single-sex trips can help bridge those gaps. Melissa Horton, 36, says that on a recent all-women climbing expedition at Joshua Tree, she found it helpful and inspiring to have a female climbing instructor who focused on their strengths. “I hadn’t realized that climbing movements are so different between the sexes,” she notes. “Because women’s center of gravity is our hips and thighs, this instructor told us to use our feet more and not rely on our arms as much as a man might. It made a huge difference.”

No Pressure

Of course, building skills, strength and size aren’t the only considerations. When they’re out under the stars, in the quiet woods, or on the wild river, most people want to relax and let go. “The wilderness is a place where people reconnect with themselves and get in touch with what’s important – things we forget in our hectic lives,” says Marian Marbury, owner of the women-only Adventures in Good Company.

Without the added pressure of role-playing or worrying about what the other sex will think, both men and women on same-sex trips can let down their guard and let the wilderness do its magic. “I’ve guided mixed groups, but I always have more fun with the women,” says Marbury. “I don’t know if men laugh more in all-men’s groups, but women for sure laugh more on all-women’s groups.”

The word from at least one men’s trip is that the same does, in fact, go for guys. David Sebastian remembers one particularly long, wet day during the all-male Patagonia expedition he joined. “One guy was hilariously funny,” he recalls. “We needed that humor one rainy afternoon when we huddled around the fire in our underwear trying to dry off. We had a great time just joking around and kidding each other.” Sebastian doubts that the scene would have been the same with a bunch of women present.

Unique Support

Outfitters say that while groups of men and women may expect the same level of whitewater or technical climbing on their journey, they do have different expectations for the ? relationships they’ll forge on the trip. “From an early age, girls tend to develop a sense of identity and competence through their quality of relationships, whereas boys develop that through activities and accomplishments,” asserts Laura Tyson, cofounder of the Women’s Wilderness Institute in Boulder, Colo.

“I may be overgeneralizing,” she notes, “but I’d say that typically, men will feel satisfied with a trip where they did a bunch of great stuff, whereas most women, aside from wanting those same sorts of compelling activities, also want a sense of having forged satisfying relationships.”

It turns out that the two groups also offer each other rather different types of support. While men tend to cheer each other on with challenging words, such as “Come on! You can do this; just go for it!” women support each other through nurturing.

“There’s generally very little showing off or one-upping in a women’s group,” says Diane Terry, owner of Unleashed Adventures. “A lot of women act in an almost maternal way, using a soft voice like they might use to encourage a child. They won’t let each other give up – the ‘kid’ will have to do something scary – but it will be accomplished gently.”

Freedom to Try, Or Not

That gender-specific support can make a big difference in how much someone enjoys the trip – even how much he or she accomplishes. It appears that many women feel less intimidated asking questions about a new skill, or even exercising ? a skill they already have, when they’re not around men. As a result, they may get to participate more actively and confidently in single-sex adventures.

After guiding Outward Bound outdoors trips for years, Tyson noticed that, on mixed trips, the women tended to be quieter and less actively involved in decision making than the men. “Too often on those trips, women somehow end up in the background,” she says.

On a same-gender trip, many people feel more accepted just being themselves and doing things at their own level or pace. Around women, for example, many men are conditioned to think they should always lead, when in fact they prefer sometimes to take it easy or let someone else go first.

Women let gender roles hold them back in other ways. “Women are so tuned into what others expect of them that they often don’t listen to their inner voice,” says Tyson. “An all-female trip allows each person to check in with herself and to have the courage to say, ‘I don’t feel like climbing to the top of that cliff today,’ or conversely, ‘Yes, this is what I really want to do!’”

Good Clean Fun

A final advantage to same-sex outings is the notable lack of sexual tension. If you are straight, same-gender trips can offer you an opportunity to focus on your sport without the distractions of flirtations and weird romantic vibes. They are ideal when your spouse or significant other doesn’t share your enthusiasm for an activity – but also isn’t thrilled about you running off to the forest with a bunch of eligibles. On a single-sex adventure, your partner may worry far less about whether someone might suggest that you zip your sleeping bags together.

Of course, if you’re not straight, the single-sex adventure may be somewhat more complex. It’s worth noting that there are lots of adventure outings organized specifically for gay and lesbian groups. And if you’re looking for love, singles outings (both gay and straight) are also fairly easy to find. Still, the vast majority of outings are organized around experience and adventure, not orientation or spousal status.

Happily, wilderness is always an equal-opportunity experience. All-male, all-female, mixed-gender – the primary goal is the same: to challenge yourself in the forests, canyons and rivers while enjoying the glory of nature.

Getting out there is the sweet part. Getting to enjoy the company of your own gender is just icing on the cake.

Multiactivity international trips. 800-804-8686;  Women’s active vacations in the United States and abroad. 877-439-4042;  Women’s adventures in the western United States, Mexico and Peru. 888-378-1978;  International rafting, hiking and kayaking. (Will charter men’s groups.) 800-643-2784,  Rafting and multisport U.S. and international trips for women. (Will charter men’s groups.) 800-462-7424;  Gay and lesbian international travel. 800-743-0458;  Women’s wilderness adventures in the Canadian Rockies and British Columbia.  International travel for gay men. 800-565-1241;  Women’s international outdoor and cultural travel (occasional men’s tours). 914-967-6941;  U.S. and international inn-to-inn bicycle trips. 800-247-1444;  Experiences for women and teen girls in the Rocky Mountains and Southwestern deserts. 303-938-9191; 

Jim King, 59, a Chicago real-estate investor, rafted the Great Bend of China’s Yangtze River on a chartered expedition led by Earth River.”In the rafts, there wasn’t much time for chatting; we just concentrated on staying alive. But around the campfire at night, we’d have cocktails, eat dinner and talk about our families, what kind of work we were doing, and so forth. A lot of us were in the same stage of life where we’re making a lot of changes, especially with career.”David Sebastian, 43, from Greenwich, Conn., rafted the Futaleufu River in Patagonia, Chile, with a men’s group organized by Unleashed Adventures.”There were two brothers from Chicago who were especially nervous about the rafting, so they sat in the middle – the safer part of the boat. On the plane flying home, one brother remarked how great it felt to have challenged himself. Guys don’t often admit to each other that they’re scared to death, so I always have a warm feeling for that moment.”Carol Wobekind, 49, an art gallery owner in Boulder, Colo., has learned self-reliance during Women’s Wilderness Institute backpacking trips to the Utah desert and the Rocky Mountains.”If men were present, I might not have charted our course, used a compass, set up camp, cut firewood, hung the backpacks in the trees in case there were bears, or figured out the logistics of situating the tents so they’d be safe from a storm. Those are tasks I probably would have relegated to a guy, figuring that he’d somehow be better at engineering.”Melissa Horton, 36, of Rapid City, S.D., chose an all-women’s rock-climbing trip in Joshua Tree with Adventures in Good Company, to reestablish her faith in her skills after an injury.”When I’ve traveled with men in the past, there’s always that issue of competition. The last time I climbed, I took a bad fall and hurt my ankle, and the experience blew my nerves. I wanted to get back into climbing, but I knew that to regain my confidence, I needed the kind of support women could offer – an encouraging, nonjudgmental environment.”

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