Empowering Women Through Wilderness Skills

When Sasha Cox lost her mother, she turned to nature and friends as a way to cope—now she’s bringing the outdoors to a new group of friends through Trail Mavens retreats.

The campfire roars, the foil dinners steam, the whiskey makes a few rounds and there’s not a man in sight—only a group of women who call themselves Trail Mavens. As they banter with one another, some shed tears, some mention significant others, but they each talk with vulnerability about their intentions for the weekend as if they’re longtime friends.

Groups no larger than 10 ditch the distractions of urban living to unplug during weekend escapes organized by Sasha Cox, the San Francisco-based founder of outdoor skills retreats that empower women to be self-sufficient starting campfires, pitching tents, reading maps and hiking double-digit mileage.

“There’s a depth of connection that you can create when you’re talking about real stuff and nobody’s distracted by a cell phone. There’s no reason for any pretense and everybody shows up authentically as who they actually are in the world,” says Cox. “It just means that everybody is really getting to know everybody else for who they are instantly without all the small talk and bullshit that usually comes at the beginning of a relationship.”

Sasha Cox | Photo: Kara Brodgesell

Since the maiden voyage in April 2014, more than 550 women have gone on 80 backpacking, hiking and camping trips spanning California’s forests, shores and deserts—including locales such as Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Big Sur, Point Reyes, Death Valley and Tomales Bay. Meals, tents, chairs, stoves, fuel, firewood and even sleeping bags, if needed, are provided.

By early summer, trips through the start of August had already filled up and spilled over to waitlists, evidence of a demand Cox believes has been simmering for years.

“It’s this community of women of all ages and types and stages, and you’re out in the woods together,” says Lisa Rowland, a college friend of Cox’s who inspired the venture by being the first to come to her mind when the idea was born. “I remember growing up and realizing Girl Scout camp was a place that I could burp loudly. And it was like, you could do things like talk about your poop with other girls. That was not a thing you did in school. That wasn’t valued. Trail Mavens, it’s like, let’s just break this down because let’s be honest, no one is pretty out here. We’re all just pooping in the woods.”

Trail Mavens at Tomales Bay | Photo: Kristina Frost

It was in 2013 when Cox, grieving the loss of her mother who died of cancer, set out on a year-long backpacking trip in Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania, Borneo, Indonesia, Peru, Columbia and ended in the U.S. to reset and move past life’s heartaches. She quit her job as an event designer and facilitator, which required her to be peppy, and in her grief didn’t feel she had the emotional bandwidth to start something new so quickly.

Four months in, on the second morning of her hike along the 35-mile El Choro Trek in Bolivia, the sun rose from behind the Andes Mountains and Cox had three epiphanies.

The first was that she hadn’t cried in weeks. The second and third realizations came split seconds later.

“I realized that I had never ever been camping or backpacking with my best girlfriends in San Francisco and my mind was blown,” she says. “I didn’t understand how that was possible: that I had never combined this experience, which was clearly so healing for me and so empowering for me, with these women in my life who were also so healing and so empowering. What would it be like if I combined these women with this experience?

“And then again, I realized that everything I had ever learned about the outdoors, I had learned from men. I had never had a female role model in the outdoors.”

Photo: Kara Brodgesell

The name Trail Mavens—in Yiddish, maven means trusted expert in a particular field who seeks to pass knowledge to others—was thought up a few days later and in the remaining months of her trek, Cox pitched the idea to people she met along her travels and continued to build its mission for her return.

Cox—raised as a city girl in the capitals of Tegucigalpa, Honduras and Washington D.C.—says she didn’t have her first empowering experience in nature until after graduating from Stanford University when she was dating an outdoorsman. She said he generously shared and patiently taught what he knew about wilderness survival, but she later learned through launching Trail Mavens that not everyone is as lucky.

“There are so many women who have the experience of going outdoors, often with a male partner who doesn’t necessarily create the space for the woman to step in, get her hands dirty, try starting the fire and yeah, probably mess it up the first time,” she says.

She says, in what she had heard from women, the woman has no room to learn for herself by working through frustration, trying something new and celebrating the eventual success.

Trail Mavens at Point Reyes | Photo: Chelsea Dier

At the start of every Trail Mavens trip, Cox says, the strangers and soon-to-be friends start with a conversation about what expertise they can offer and what they hope to master, as part of her cultivation of vulnerability and openness not always found in real life.

“When there isn’t only one right answer, I think it’s so much easier to mess around and get a little bit dirty trying new things,” Cox says. “It’s hard for failure to exist.”

It was as a Trail Maven in the Marin Headlands where self-proclaimed girly-girl Kelly Clifton lit a camp stove for the first time and discovered tips she didn’t know she might one day need to know. “Like, where’s a good place to put a tent?”

Clifton says the moment she opted for a pair of clunky hiking boots over suede over-the-knee boots, she realized her priorities had shifted. She says she considers the trips an investment in herself.

Now, she has co-led the weekend escapes and added more gear to her closet—her own sleeping bag, sleeping pad, Camelbak water pouch and solar-powered light—than she’s ever had. She was even emboldened to hike alone during her first solo trip in Joshua Tree in the spring of 2016, when she explored the Cholla Cactus Garden and Skull Rock and got turned around looking for the Lost Horse Mine trail.

“I try to get every woman I know to go on the trips because even if you’re not outdoorsy, you get so much out of it,” says Clifton. “It’s really cool to be self-sufficient and make your own food—that has its benefits, too. But there’s just nothing like being with a group of really awesome women.”

Strong, funny, smart and courageous, she describes the women she’s met. “They made a choice to take time for themselves in their busy schedules, obligations and ‘should haves’ and decided to spend the weekend outdoors.”

Trail Mavens around the campfire

Trail Mavens at Tomales Bay | Photo: Kristina Frost

For Claire Stein, a project manager for a Bay Area construction company who works long hours, the appeal to Trail Mavens are the pre-planned trips and instant community.

“We talk about our intentions for the weekend and that immediately creates a certain amount of intimacy that doesn’t really exist in real life,” she said. “It gets very personal pretty quick because people are more open about why they’re there. And it’s often especially because we’re in the Bay Area, they want to get away from their crazy, hectic weeks. This serves as an outlet for that.”

The campfire sizzles as the women pour water on it. With bellies full of their charred dinners, warm from the shared whiskey, the Trail Mavens head to their tents to drift off to sleep under the stars, resting up for another day of mastering the outdoors together.

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