Women in the Wilderness

Sierra Club Outings has organized all-women backpacking trips for 40 years and counting

By Amy Trowbridge

March 2, 2024

Ten women pose on a rock high up in the Sierra. One holds a Sierra Club banner.

The inaugural women's backpacking trip in 1984, led by Letty French (bottom middle). | Photo courtesy of Colby Library 

The year was 1984. Ronald Reagan was in the middle of his two-term presidency, the Cold War was raging, and Sandra Day O'Connor had become the first woman appointed to the US Supreme Court. Women around the nation were fighting to cement the gains made by the women's movement in the 1960s and 1970s, amid backlash and discrimination. With so much change in the wind, a few leaders saw the opportunity to grow Sierra Club’s Outings program by leading the first Sierra Club backpacking trip exclusively for women.

Twelve people stand in front of a brown wooden building in a wooded area with a sign that reads Ranger Station / Devils Postpile National Monument / Elevation 7560.

A 1987 women's trip in Devils Postpile National Monument, California, led by Roz Bray. | Photo courtesy of Colby Library 

While the Outings program was founded in 1901, only nine years after the creation of the Sierra Club, never had there been an outing exclusively for women. Among the visionary leaders who pioneered the women's trips were Letty French, Frances Reneau, Carol Dienger, and Carol Hake. When Letty and Frances proposed the idea of a women's backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada, they were met with some pushback. However, those in the Outings program who did not understand the reasoning behind the idea soon fell silent when the trips rapidly filled up and a second and third section had to be added to accommodate the demand.

Carol Dienger, one of the pioneers of women's trips, says, "There is something about women being able to help each other in a way that is very positive.... [We] are able to encourage and lift each other up and learn from each other in constructive ways." Martha Schultz, another leader involved in the early days of women's trips, adds that the women who attended "were all there to learn. They were all so supportive of each other. When you put men into the mix, they tend to take over without even realizing what they are doing." 

In the days when women backpacking, especially solo or without men present, was a rarity, these trips geared toward women taught vital backpacking and wilderness survival skills, and more importantly, they empowered the participants to see that backpacking is something well within their abilities. As Dienger says, "If you don't try something, you won't find out how much fun it is and how much it can expand your horizons."

Four people stand in front of the roots of a giant fallen redwood tree, with ferns and trees all around.

Women on a 2019 trip to the California redwoods. | Photo by Carol Armstrong

The Sierra Club’s female leaders knew how important it was to teach fellow women wilderness skills and show them backpacking was well within their reach. However, they did not expect how transformative and life-changing these trips would turn out to be for the participants. Dienger’s daughter, Jenny Moon, was raised taking family trips with the Sierra Club and began staffing women's beginner backpacking trips in those early years. In 1986, Moon and Schultz led their first women's backpacking trip together and have since each been leading Sierra Club trips both in the United States and abroad. In 2024, this "dream team" will reunite once again to lead the Moab Adventure for Women

Ursula Glick-Kelley, a participant on that 1986 trip, found the experience life-changing, and it instilled a deep love of the wilderness. Glick-Kelley has since joined the Outings leadership team and will be leading Boots and Boats in Bend: A Women's Multisport Trip this coming summer.

Five people climb a rocky mountainside with hiking sticks, with a lake below, in John Muir Wilderness.

A 2021 women's trip in John Muir Wilderness, California. | Photo by Jeannie Sivertsen

Over the past 40 years, women's trips have evolved and expanded to include service trips, lodge retreats, multisport adventures, and of course, backpacking excursions across the United States. The first trips were mostly beginner-friendly and an opportunity to learn new skills. While this continues to be the case, today’s trips also provide an opportunity to escape and relax in a beautiful environment without the burden of trip planning and preparation.

In terms of the vision for the future of women's trips, leaders Dienger, Moon, and Schultz want to see the outings carry on and expand. A key component is recruiting passionate, adventurous young women to become volunteer trip leaders who can help continue this incredible legacy. For everyone else, the Outings program strives to add more categories of specialty trips, catering to a range of different identities.

Upcoming Women's Trips

Service and Fun in Sunny St. John, Virgin Islands National Park, US Virgin Islands. February 25–March 3. Leader: Randi Coen Gilbert. Price: $1,255. [24028A]

Women and the Majesty of the California Redwoods. June 2–7. Leader: Annalee Abell. Price: $1,600. [24060A]

Kenai Peninsula Adventure for Women, Alaska. June 3–11. Leader: Cristina Breen. Price: $3,945. [24608A]

Women in the Wilderness: Lakes and Peaks of the Pecos Wilderness, New Mexico. June 17–22. Leader: Arian Pregenzer. Price: $1,150. [24270A] 

Women's Eastern Sierra Adventure, Green and Baker Lakes, John Muir Wilderness, California. June 29–July 3. (Rated: 3) Leader: Pam Abell. Price: $750. [24855A]

Women in the Wilderness: Trail Work and Alpine Splendor in the Ruby Mountains, Nevada. July 14–20. Leader: Elizabeth Taylor. Price: $595. [24321A]

Boots and Boats in Bend: A Women's Multisport Adventure in Central Oregon. July 28–August 3. Leader: Ursula Glick-Kelley. Price: $2,635. [24167A]

Women's Rae Lakes and Sixty Lakes Basin Adventure, Kings Canyon National Park, California. August 11–17. Leader: Julie VanTilburg. Price: $1,175. [24857A] 

Women's Coastal Multisport Escape: Whales, Hiking, Kayaking, and Yoga, Plymouth, Cape Cod, and Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. September 1–7. Leader: Jessica Lakari. Price: $1,499. [24409A]

Women in the Wilderness: Wonderland Trail Loop, Mt. Rainier National Park, Washington. September 2–12. Leader: Julie VanTilburg. Price: $1,215. [24221A]

Moab Adventure for Women: Hike, Raft, and Ride in Southeast Utah. September 8–15. Leader: Jenny Moon. Price: $2,440. [24170A]


For detailed trip information or to register, call 415.977.5522 or visit our website, sierraclub.org/outings.