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The skies were gloomy, but my mood couldn’t have been sunnier. I was tromping up the Horn Fork Trail in Colorado’s Collegiate Peaks Wilderness in a light drizzle with two friends. It was the last weekend in August, and the willows that lined the path were just beginning to take on the yellow of autumn. Low clouds obscured the summit of 14,421-foot Mt. Harvard. The weather report had forecast rain all morning, but it was supposed to clear up before the weekend was over.
Abby, Erica, and I had met as college interns at the same outdoor startup. We’d all landed in Colorado following graduation, and had been looking forward to this girls’ overnight for months. As we walked, Abby regaled us with the plot of a horror movie. Then, to lighten the mood, we sang show tunes, grateful that the trail was empty—and just flat enough to grant us the lung capacity to really belt it out.
Our goal was Bear Lake, an alpine tarn with a backdrop of granite spires. The hike in was an easy 5 miles, and we hoped to snag a campsite somewhere in view of its shores. Just in case, we made note of at least half a dozen camp spots we could backtrack to if necessary.
The clouds drew closer around us as the trail steepened up to the lake basin. We cinched up our hoods and forged into the gray void ahead. Before long, we crested a rise and the lake came into view. The peaks we’d hoped to see above it were completely shrouded, but we scampered down to the water, glad to have arrived. A few other hikers were sheltering from the wind and rain behind boulders. Halfway down the shore, someone had pitched a tent and green tarp in the lee of a big rock.
As we huddled together, taking in the gloomy view before we turned back to make the mile trek back to the last protected campsite we’d seen, I heard a whistle. I turned to see a figure, dressed head-to-toe in rain-slicked rubber, standing beside the green tarp. The sound came again, and the man raised his arms and waved us over.
“Maybe they’re breaking camp,” I said. “I bet he’s about to offer us their tent site.”
At the tarp, two men who looked to be around 60 greeted us warmly. “It’s nasty out there. Come stay dry for a bit,” the first man offered, while the other moved over to make room for us under the tarp.
We exchanged the typical hiker pleasantries. They were old college buddies on an annual getaway; they’d been hunkered here for a few nights, and they were friendly enough. After a few minutes, however, I couldn’t shake the feeling that they were being condescending to us.
“Do you have rain paints?” they asked, regarding mine and Erica’s hiking skirts with palpable judgement. I shook my head. I rarely carried mine for short overnights such as this one; plus, I had plenty of dry layers in my pack, which was shielded under a rain cover.
“You girls are going to get hypothermia out here,” said one of the men as he offered us hot water fresh off the Jetboil. “You should always wear rain pants when it’s like this. That’s how people die, being unprepared,” he said. “You’re lucky you ran into us.”
As grateful as I was for the warm drink, his words took me aback. Had this man really just told me I was at risk of death? Sure, it was cold out—but I was dry and comfortable under my shell, and my pack was well-stocked. I knew that a 15-minute hike would deliver me below the clouds and back to tree cover, where I planned to crawl into my sleeping bag and cook up a warm dinner. If worst came to worst, the car was an easy 5 miles away. I had spent enough time outdoors to know when I was in danger, and the cold, damp weather didn’t scare me.
I was ready to get moving again. I’d heard enough than to want to indulge these guys’ hero complex, and I was only getting colder sitting under their tarp. But Abby, ever the extrovert, was engaged in a friendly conversation with the men. They were telling her about a solo woman backpacker they’d met yesterday at the lake; she’d continued past them to the summit of Harvard. “She was out here all by herself,” one of them said, his tone incredulous.
The first guy offered me a pair of fleece mittens. I declined. My own hat and gloves were just a few feet away, under my rain cover and inside my pack. But he insisted. Finally, to put an end to his urging, I took the mittens.
“So, are you ladies students?” they asked us. We shook our heads. I could tell they were impressed when Abby described her job as a sustainability analyst at a large company. When Erica said she worked in advertising at Outside, they nodded in approval. Then they turned to me.
“I’m an editor at Backpacker,” I said. “I work on all of our skills and survival content,” I added with some satisfaction.
I watched the surprise cross their faces. They were subscribers to the magazine, I learned, as they plied me with questions about my work. They seemed mildly impressed, but as our conversation continued, it was clear that even a day job at one of the best-known magazines in the outdoors wasn’t enough to convince them that I knew what I was doing.
Turning to me and Erica, one of the men said, “We ought to write letters to your bosses at Backpacker and Outside and let them know how unprepared their employees are.” Erica and I exchanged a glance and pretended to laugh along. All this because we weren’t wearing rain pants?
I could almost read their thoughts: The editors who had hired me at Backpacker must have made some mistake, or my editing skills must somehow make up for my lack of hiking experience and poor judgement. I was a capable backpacker out for a casual outing with friends on a trail well within my comfort level. But to these men, I was some sort of girlish amateur in need of a savior.
I was past wanting to prove myself to these men, but the conversation continued. I told them about the skills articles I write and the survival podcast, Out Alive, that I help to produce. I told them about the bear attack victims, search and rescue professionals, and avalanche survivors I’ve interviewed. They seemed to scoff as if to say, be careful, or you’ll end up on that podcast yourself.
Finally, we excused ourselves. The men topped off our water bottles and waved us off with a final warning. I was relieved when we dipped back toward the trail and the green tarp receded into the fog.
Striding down the trail, the three of us first laughed off the encounter. Within minutes we were away from the wind and wet of the lake basin; just as we expected, it wasn’t raining at all down on the main trail.
But the encounter had left a sour taste in my mouth. We debriefed: What had made us seem so vulnerable to these guys? Was it our hiking skirts? The fact that they were fathers, and we were young enough to be their daughters? Had some paternal instinct kicked in and compelled them to “protect” us? Had they even realized they were being so condescending?
As far as backcountry encounters with strangers go, this one was harmless. Despite their needless scolding, the men were friendly enough, and non-threatening; our interaction wasn’t even hostile. And yet their condescension put a damper on an otherwise great day, even more so than the rain. It was far from the first time some aspect of outdoor life had been “mansplained” to me. But it was a revelation into how other people—particularly men—view me on the trail, regardless of my recreational or professional accomplishments.
Experiences like mine are almost universal for women and hikers of marginalized identities. However “harmless,” making assumptions about hikers’ ability levels tells them they’re not welcome. In extreme cases, the exhaustion of dealing with these microaggressions on the trail may even be enough to drive them out of the outdoors.. And if it can happen to someone who spends eight hours a day thinking, talking, and writing about hiking, and countless more in the field testing gear and hiking for pleasure, it can happen to anyone.
Before long, Abby, Erica, and I were throwing our packs down in a perfect campsite among some low pines. The clouds had parted and the sun emerged in full force. I pulled the insoles out of my trail runners and lay them to dry in a patch of sunlight.
We dug snacks and books out of our packs and reclined against rocks, basking in the warmth and enjoying one another’s company. Toward the lake, the upper elevations were still enveloped in dark clouds. I thought of the men we’d met huddled under their tarp in clingy rain gear, while down below we lounged in the perfection of a late summer afternoon. It’s a good thing they had their rain pants.