At Women’s Wilderness Camp, Sisterhood is Medicine


Setting up rock climbs, backing up the trailer and navigating the trail are just a few of the tasks that need to be done at an outdoor education summer camp. At Women’s Wilderness, women do it all. And that’s huge, says executive director Emily Isaacs, as it’s key for girls to look up to their instructors and think: “That person looks like me.”

Women’s Wilderness summer camps provide girls ages 8 to 18 opportunities to learn outdoor skills like backpacking, rock climbing, navigation, backcountry cooking and teamwork — all under the instruction of women. Camps are based out of Boulder and Jefferson County Open Space and offer day and overnight options ranging from five to eight days. Overnight camps leave from Boulder and head to Zirkles Wilderness area near Steamboat Springs or Vedauwoo and the Snowy Range in Wyoming.

The nonprofit’s mission is “to strengthen the courage, confidence and leadership qualities of girls and women through the challenge and support of group wilderness and community-based experiences.” Through activities like backpacking, hiking and rock climbing, the camp offers girls both the technical skills and the heart not just to survive in the wilderness, but to thrive in the great outdoors — and in life.

Data shows girls’ needs are often overlooked in co-ed environments. Isaacs points to a recent Boulder Community Foundation report highlighting just how different boys’ and girls’ needs are. Surveys of Boulder Valley School District high school students found twice as many girls than boys reporting mental health challenges, including self-injurious behaviors, feeling sad and hopeless, considering suicide and attempting suicide.

Using an evidence-based curriculum that draws on camper feedback, Women’s Wilderness seeks to close the gender gap. Isaacs, who has a rich background in outdoor education, says in a typical co-ed environment, girls are often in a group with two other girls, five boys and two male instructors. “You end up with three girls quietly in the background doing everything at a high level and the boys are running around and need a lot of boundaries and structure.” Girls, on the other hand, need something different.

Women’s Wilderness addresses those needs through a three-tiered approach, emphasizing a growth mind-set, emotional literacy and identity development. And they do it by affording girls the outdoor skills, leadership opportunities and role models they need to create a positive definition of womanhood. Moreover, they do it in an environment removed from the culture, social media, peer groups and families that can give girls the message, whether overtly or subtly, that they are not good enough, Isaacs says.

And in the process, the girls experience something special. “I’m confident that being at an all-girls camp allows girls like me to feel comfortable, secure and safe from any social pressures,” says Maya Maldonado, who identifies as Hispanic and attends Jefferson Academy Secondary School in Broomfield. The 15-year-old will return to camp for the fourth consecutive summer this year.

Centaurus High School sophomore Mya Ormsbee agrees. “I feel like if we were with guys… if you messed up or were afraid, [the guys] would judge you. When you’re with Women’s Wilderness and you can’t [figure something out], they encourage you and give you tips and are there for you.”

She feels the Women’s Wilderness staff creates a space where girls can be themselves, which is something that’s lacking in her other extracurriculars. Having attended camp since she was 8, Ormsbee says, “If you’re feeling scared or just not feeling that good they’re always there, and they make you feel like it’s OK.”

Comprised largely of women in their 20s and 30s, the staff at Women’s Wilderness not only have extensive wilderness experience and training, including mandatory Wilderness First Responder certification, but also “get girls.” Addi Cantor is a JeffCo public school social worker with a background in Wilderness Therapy. Now returning to Women’s Wilderness for her second consecutive summer as an instructor, she was initially drawn to the program out of a desire to help young women “discover their best selves in the wild.” She calls Women’s Wilderness an inclusive, non-judgmental, supportive community, where “sisterhood is medicine.”

Women’s Wilderness strives to include every girl who wants to participate, through its diversity and inclusivity efforts. To ensure that finances are never a barrier, the camp offer financial aid, made possible by grants, personal donations and corporate sponsors. And, according to Isaacs, a third of the campers identify as girls of color and half utilize need-based financial aid. The camp also offers programs specifically for girls who identify as LGBT.

If Maldonado’s experience is any indication, Women’s Wilderness is on the right path to diversity and inclusion. She calls it “a place to break down the walls of any labels, stereotypes, peer pressure, insecurities or any form of discrimination.”

It’s not just the campers who grow at Women’s Wilderness. Ormsbee’s mom, Kristi, recalls a time she was biking with her daughter at age 8. Ormsbee said she didn’t feel comfortable with the challenging route and wanted to stop. Kristi credits Women’s Wilderness not just with giving her daughter the confidence to speak up, but also for her own respect for her daughter’s request to stop. As a Women’s Wilderness participant, volunteer and board member, Kristi says she learned the importance of the organization’s deeply rooted “conscious choice” philosophy — which she feels is vital for teenage girls facing peer pressure.

Women’s Wilderness is a place where girls learn to cook on a camp stove, pitch a tent and rappel down a cliff. It’s also a place where they celebrate themselves and their own unique gifts, buoyed by instructors and peers. As instructor Cantor puts it, it’s a place where “girls [are] empowered to be themselves and lift others up to do the same.”

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