Backpacking Tips for Women
Women make awesome backpackers because we’re well-equipped biologically and physically: We’re built for endurance, have high pain tolerance, store fat better than men, are stronger in the hips (which is great for carrying packs), and are more in tune with our bodies so we know when to rest. And, women excel at creating community on the trail, at supporting each other.
— Liz Meschio, REI Outdoor School instructor
There are more women backpacking today than ever before and women are inspiring other women to get out there: The jump in number of women hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail can be attributed in great part to Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 transcendent memoir, Wild.
Whatever motivates us to hit the trail, most of us women find our backpacking experiences to be empowering, soul-enriching, even life-changing. Whether we hit the trail solo or with others, for a single weekend or for months on end, the ability to carry what we need on our back in order to commune with nature, and with other outdoor enthusiasts we meet on the trail, is simply unmatched in other aspects of life.
If you’re young or old, a first-timer or veteran hiker, you’ll find inspiration from other female backpacking enthusiasts. Following are some suggestions to help you prepare for your next trip. Many of these tips apply to both men and women, while some will address common concerns that women backpackers face.
If you’ve never been backpacking before, or need a refresher on the basics, be sure to read our article on Backpacking for Beginners.
Camping and hiking gear: Make sure your pack is comfortable, you know how to set up your tent, you have a quality sleeping bag and pad, and you know how your stove and water filter work. Bring along repair supplies for the above. Note that there are women-specific options for backpacks and sleeping bags that may provide a more comfortable fit and better performance than unisex or men’s styles.
Clothing and boots: Make sure you have clothing appropriate for the weather and your destination. Fast-drying underwear is of particular note for women because it helps you avoid yeast and urinary tract infections. Also, be sure your boots and feet are comfortable. For more tips, see our articles on how to choose backpacking clothes and how to choose hiking boots.
Hygiene items: In addition to basics like hand sanitizer and personal wipes, women do have some specific gear considerations for hygiene.
- Menstrual supplies: Many backpacking women like to use a menstrual cup because it reduces the extra weight of carrying tampons and it cuts waste. It’s a good idea to carry a “go kit,” an ultralight stuff sack or dry bag that holds your clean supplies along with a separate sealed bag for waste. For more information, see our article, Backpacking With Your Period.
- Pee funnel: Planning to backpack in cold or rainy weather? A specially designed funnel lets you keep your pants on and stand up to pee; and, with practice, you can use it in your tent at night with a bottle.
- Pee rag: Some women suggest using a cotton bandana instead of toilet paper when you pee. Tie it to the outside of your pack to dry in the sun. Rinse it as often as you can.
- Safety whistle: This can be a deterrent to animals and humans as well as a way to call for help.
- Bear spray: This could come in handy for bear attacks (or human interactions if warranted).
- If you’re traveling solo or to very remote locations, you might also consider carrying a personal locator beacon (PLB) with satellite messaging so you can send an “I’m fine” message once a day (or at a pre-established date and time) and so you can send an SOS if something serious happens. Also, before you go, always leave your detailed itinerary with someone you trust.
Human encounters: The people who go out on trails for long distances tend to be friendly, helpful and generous. That’s not to say unfortunate things can’t happen. Here are some tips women backpackers have shared that help them feel prepared to avoid and deal with dodgy situations:
- Avoid camping within one mile of a road or trailhead. Stick to camping in established campsites.
- Avoid camping on or near a game trail. You don’t want animals—or hunters—literally running into you.
- Trust your gut. If you meet someone you feel uneasy about, don’t feel you have to answer questions about where you’re heading, camping, etc. Feel free to make up an excuse to leave them. Tell them you have to make your miles that day, or are getting an attack of giardia—so goodbye! Stride off confidently.
- Consider wearing a fixed-blade, holstered knife in a prominent position on your belt. That can make someone think twice about hassling you.
- Carry a can of pepper spray made for personal self-defense if that makes you feel more secure.
- Don’t hesitate to use your safety whistle if you need to. Three blasts is the universal call for help.
For smaller potential hazards, such as snakes, again, find out if any poisonous species may be found where you’re going, how to identify them, how to avoid them, and what to do if you encounter or get bitten by one.
Getting lost or injured: Carry a detailed topo map, GPS and compass and know how to use them to avoid getting lost in the first place. See our articles about reading a topo map and how to use a compass. On a long-distance trail, know ahead of time where your “escape” routes are to civilization if you get sick or hurt and need to cut your trek short. Chances are, if you’re on a well-traveled trail, someone will stop to help.
Loneliness: Being alone for days on end can be a challenge—and also empowering. You’ll solve your own problems and make your own decisions without input from others. If you prefer to backpack with someone else, especially as a newbie, find a partner through your own group of friends or local hiking clubs. If you’re solo on the trail, help create a community of other solo hikers. And then there’s the tried and true companion, if your route allows: a dog.
- Cardio workouts (hiking, cycling, elliptical training, etc.),
- Training hikes with a weighted backpack (increase weight and distance over time to build stamina)
- Resistance workouts to build strength and stability
Also, before tackling a long-distance trail, practice short trips of at least a couple days.
For a suggested training plan, read our article, Backpacking: Training Tips and Exercises.