By Isla Ashby and Louise Hammersley


Globally there has been an explosion of women-only adventure groups. It wasn’t until we went on a recent all-women trip ourselves that we discovered there was something really rich and powerful about this dynamic. Inspired to explore this new terrain, we planned an adventure. Our intention was to understand the unique experiences of tramping as women, independent of our male friends and partners. We also planned to capture our experience in a film, as there are so few examples of active women in the outdoors having fun and feeling empowered to do so. With the support of a Federated Mountain Club scholarship, we set off on a two-week circuit earlier this summer, walking along the two major ridgelines of the Tararua mountain ranges.

At the mercy of the unpredictable and extreme weather changes, typical of the Tararuas, we had to divert our plans on multiple occasions to avoid getting blown off ridges or trapped in huts. Throughout the tramp, we visited 14 different huts, nearly got hypothermia and (for a section) forgot both sets of innersoles for our boots. We also danced, sang, yelled into the wind and felt a whole spectrum of emotions. On Day 14, we walked out the other side of the mountain range excited to share our journey. 

Upon reflection, we were really undertaking two journeys. One involved the physicality of walking across a mountain range and the other involved a journey to reset our tramping norms and re-imagine them as women:  unpacking our socialisation within the high testosterone norms of New Zealand tramping culture. What follows is the story of our second journey:  the observations, conversations and experiences we had as we walked and talked together.

‘Anything you can do, I can do bleeding’ -Artist Mary Moore

As chance would have it, we both simultaneously got our periods on the first day of our tramp. This meant that the first week was more challenging than anticipated with our fluctuating pain and energy levels. However, sharing the experience together and being able to anticipate and adapt our days to meet each other’s needs really helped. It was also such a relief not having to bear the double burden of explaining ourselves. 

Even when we share that we are on our periods in mixed groups, there is a high likelihood that men won’t understand the variety of implications of this statement – men not getting the challenges associated with handling menstruating while outdoors, let alone the changing needs women have as they ride their hormonal energy fluctuations. Little would they consider that a long drop or an exposed ridge is not a great place to try and sort yourself out, especially when some of the long drops didn’t have doors! 

We actively rebelled against the unspoken ‘suck it up buttercup’ mentality that can emerge in mixed-gender groups. Karen Bell said in her master’s thesis that when hiking “women and older trampers are more likely to emphasise the importance of social contact and experiencing nature – the process – while many of the young men emphasised the physical exertion – the goal achievement.” 

We certainly noticed these differences as we prioritised the experience of walking over trying to beat DOC times or outdo other trampers. We found that we were much more transparent when checking in with each other about how we actually felt, both the ups and the downs. We wondered if questions of ‘how are you going?’ in a female-centric group are read as an act of connection and empathy, which could be interpreted more defensively by groups with typically more masculine cultures. Transparency became essential in the higher-risk and physically demanding terrain of the mountains. By being honest about when we were good to push on and when we wanted a break, we became very intune with each other. This enabled us to more confidently negotiate the intensity and pacing of our hike.

There is a lot of ego in the bush with trampers feeling the need to prove themselves. This ego is often present in the art of comparison. Sometimes it can be hard not to fall into these traps with the need to prove that you too are capable. In our film, we made a conscious decision to not share our daily walking statistics, because we wanted our tramp to be more about what we were doing instead of how much distance we were covering and how fast we were doing it. Instead of drawing attention to the rugged aspects of our endurance and physical strengths, we decided to foreground our capacity to be ourselves.

This celebration of playfulness felt like something of a radical act, especially in the backdrop of the double standards of judgement about women’s capacity, which we will talk about shortly. We brought matching children’s animal-shaped toothbrushes (featured in our daily hut photos) and tubes of bubbles that we blew across the valleys. We rainbow-ified our hiking poles with duct tape to add some joy to our tramping outfit and we danced along the ridges at every chance we got. 


En route, we interviewed a series of women about their experience tramping – as women. One of the key themes among interviewees was the double standards that they felt existed within outdoor culture. For example, the double standards within tramping forums where women have their competence interrogated and how the media portrays them when things go wrong. We too are fearful of these unfair expectations, despite both of us having had many years of experience in the bush. As we were walking, we half-expected some old man to pop out of a hut and question our competence. Despite over-preparing to the best of our abilities, we knew that if something was to go wrong we could be criticised and held to a different standard than a man would.

Another barrier to helping women feel capable in the bush is the lack of technical gear that is designed to suit and fit the female anatomy. It is ridiculous that no footwear designer considered making boots for women until 30 years ago! Especially as women’s feet are a different shape, with different injury issues created by our different stride lengths and weights. Similarly, hiking packs were not designed for women until 40 years ago. Clearly these can’t be one-size-fits-all when you consider things like breasts and hips. Tramping with boobs would have been miserable until the late 1970s when the sports bra was invented.

And don’t get us started about pockets! Also significantly women haven’t had clothing, sleeping bags or sleeping pads that suited their specific temperature requirements until very recently. The phrase ‘pink it and shrink it’ held sway over an industry interested in women’s consumer dollars, but not in redesigning gear that actually supported women to be safe, warm and active.

In one of the huts, we met young women wearing makeup. This surprised us because it is rare to see women who accentuate their femininity when in the backcountry. We hypothesise that this is the case because women here still feel the pressure to foreground tough and resilient qualities over their perceived femininity. Fortunately, we feel these standards are being tested and in the process of change. We are now seeing women broadening their wardrobes and expanding the notions of what makes a tramper. We did not want to tone down certain parts of our visual expression to be taken more seriously. Our small displays of femininity consisted of wearing jewellery and enjoying creating original daily hairstyles. 

We feel that we are still in a dominant tramping culture where we have to prove ourselves rather than express ourselves. The cultural space within tramping for women is like an ultralight tent – there’s not a lot of room to thrive, but you can survive. Proving you are as good as a man is still an unspoken subtext, making it hard ground for women to flourish on the basis of their own strengths. This observation becomes very apparent when you hear the experiences of female solo trampers and how they are treated. The continual trope of it being unsafe for women to walk alone perpetuates and limits both women’s sense of what they can and should do as well.

When talking about safety in the bush, women are at no more risk than men in terms of their actual ability to survive or read weather or terrain. However, there is a world of difference between the perceived safety of women as opposed to men in the bush. You wouldn’t tell a man that he is ‘brave when he is tramping alone’ or ask ‘where his partner is?’ The battle for women’s rights in urban public space has been challenged and fought by generations of feminists. The backcountry is the next frontier that needs to be reclaimed for women to enjoy and where they can find themselves.

We walked out of the Tararuas feeling more connected, alive and capable than we had ever felt before. We hope that our film ‘Traversing the Tararuas’ makes women feel more empowered and excited to be their authentic selves and reclaim the wild.

To watch our full adventure, don’t forget to check out our video linked above and follow us on Facebook and Instagram @Traversing_the_Tararuas to learn more about our adventure!


We would like to thank FMC for giving us this opportunity. We would also like to thank some incredible local brands for their generous donations of food and gear. This adventure would not have been possible without the immense support and generosity we received from our community. We are beyond grateful!