Outfitters both emerging and established are catering to female adventurers looking for excitement, wellness, and social engagement — without the guys around.
It was New Year's Day 2012, and Allison Fleece was feeling unmoored. On a whim, she e-mailed a group of her most intrepid friends. "This time next year," she wrote, "I want to be standing on the roof of Africa." The following winter, she was on the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, exhausted and giddy, with nine women beside her. She turned to Danielle Thornton, a climbing buddy who would soon become her best friend. "This is what all travel should be like," she said.
The next year, Fleece and Thornton headed back to Kilimanjaro — this time leading a group of 29 women from 11 countries on the first trip of WHOA Travel, their fledgling adventure-tour company for women. In their previous lives, Fleece, now 31, had been an education advisor and Thornton, 34, a creative director at an ad agency. But a few months after their Kilimanjaro expedition, they'd quit their jobs, Googled how to form an LLC, and launched a travel business. WHOA stands for Women High on Adventure or Women Hooked on Awesomeness, depending on whom you ask.
It's one of the latest additions to the growing list of women-only adventure companies — outfitters that cater to a generation of female travelers who prefer surf weekends and mountain-climbing expeditions to the spa weekends of old. The idea goes back to the late 1970s, when women who'd come of age in the era of second-wave feminism began starting scrappy adventure programs, outdoorsy relatives of the feminist music festivals and conferences that were then sprouting up around the country. By the late 90s, upscale operators had joined the fray, courting luxury travelers — often widowed or divorced retirees who had the time and money to travel but didn't want to be the loner in a group of couples. More recently, with a certain demographic of women rebranding feminism as less a political calling than a lifestyle choice — one focused on personal empowerment and self-care — female-centric travel companies are retooling and expanding once again.
"We were around back when women-only travel was kind of a joke," says Jennifer Haddow, who seven years ago took over Wild Women Expeditions, a Canada-based company founded in 1991. "People didn't really see why it was valuable." Now veteran outfitters like Haddow are diversifying their offerings to take advantage of a growing market. Wild Women has added horseback riding in Mongolia and cycling, trekking, and rafting in Thailand to its original roster of kayaking and canoeing trips in Ontario and British Columbia. Adventure Women, a 35-year-old Massachusetts company that changed hands last year, has begun catering to younger clients with its "adventurettes" — bespoke getaways, like long weekends of riding, river floating, fine dining, and massages in Montana, for women who don't want a traditional bachelorette party — in addition to its bucket-list journeys to places like Ireland and Nepal.
Some lifestyle companies outside the travel industry see all-female trips as a way to extend their brands. REI's recently expanded Outessa program brings women to different U.S. mountains for long weekends of yoga, hiking, and bonding. The sporting-goods giant has also ramped up its backpacking- and camping-centric REI Women's Adventures, which offer rugged outdoor experiences in locations ranging from Africa to America's national parks. For the crystals-and-Coachella crowd, the bohemian apparel brand Free People operates FP Escapes. Its wellness-focused itineraries, including superfood cooking classes in the Andes and yoga workshops in Yelapa, Mexico, come with cleanses, meditation rituals, new-moon ceremonies, and Instagram-ready accommodations like tepees and tree houses.
For some upstart outfitters, personal growth is as central to the mission as having fun. Damesly, founded last year, emphasizes professional networking and skill building, combining volcano hikes in Iceland and surfing lessons in Hawaii with workshops on topics like video editing. Fit & Fly Girl's health-focused retreats come with daily workout classes and nutritious meals. Explorer Chick has several offerings for beginners to develop wilderness survival skills and learn backpacking basics.
But for all the attention these programs devote to women's individual well-being, many also emphasize social responsibility and making lasting connections in the places they visit. "You can't just show up to sell women stuff. You have to be participating in the communities and engaged in their issues," says Wild Women's Haddow. "Clients respond to authenticity." For her company, that means striving to partner exclusively with women — even in places like Nepal, where female guides are hard to find — and supporting social-justice groups. On its Morocco trips, Adventure Women brings guests to a women's textile cooperative outside Fez to speak with the artisans about their lives and work. Before its Kilimanjaro treks, WHOA puts guests up at a nonprofit hotel that funds a primary school for area children; travelers' fees also help sponsor two local women to join the group on every climb. The company operates a similar program for its Machu Picchu treks.
Despite the wide range of experiences offered by these companies, all tend to attract travelers who, whatever their age or background, have reached a turning point in their lives. If you can handle whitewater rafting down a Peruvian river or summiting a 10,000-foot peak, a cross-country move or a divorce doesn’t seem quite so insurmountable. Physical challenges expunge emotional pain, and many women find it more comfortable to tackle them in the company of their peers, even if they’re strangers.
Kelly Luck, 42, booked her Kilimanjaro trip with WHOA after a grueling battle with breast and thyroid cancer. On a cold, clear night this past March — the 8th, International Women's Day — Luck summited the mountain with 30 other women. "I don't think I could've done this with my husband," she says. "Being there with this powerful collective of women was the only way for me to go. It makes you so strong."
The kind of sisterhood Luck and Fleece both found on Kilimanjaro is one that more and more women seem to want. "We as a gender are done compartmentalizing ourselves," Fleece says. "We like to go out for a nice dinner in heels, but we can also put on hiking boots and camp on a mountain for seven days. And women are realizing that there are others out there who want the same thing."