Women from groups which are under-represented in the outdoors have come together to share their experiences at a residential weekend in Glen Coe.

Featuring a talk from record-breaking ultra runner Nicky Spinks, the event was hosted by the Women in the Hills research network, which today (International Women’s Day 2023) has announced plans to publish a report containing guidelines aimed at improving women’s access to upland recreation.

“Powerful” personal accounts from the weekend will contribute to the upcoming report, which the network hopes will help to enable women from all backgrounds to experience the benefits of the hills and mountains.

Words: Francesca Donovan | Main image: Joy in the outdoors captured in Glencoe. Credit: Beth Chalmers

The Women in the Hills (WITH) research network was launched in 2020, bringing together academics from the University of Newcastle, University of Manchester and Edge Hill University with outdoor practitioners to investigate the factors that have shaped women’s experiences in the mountains from the early 1800s to the present day.

A Girls on Hills-led navigation of Glencoe.

A Girls on Hills-led navigation of Glencoe.
Credit: Beth Chalmers

Over the last three years, the project has hosted a number of workshops, networking exercises, and published reports. These efforts culminated in the two-day, fully-funded retreat in Glen Coe for women from underrepresented backgrounds and those for whom the cost of accessing the hills would otherwise be a barrier.

This residential event took place last weekend (3 – 5 March). Speaking to The Great Outdoors, Keri Wallace, founder and guide at Girls on Hills, dubbed it “more successful than the project could have hoped!”

The group members were invited to participate in a workshop run by Women in the Hills project lead Kerri Andrews, author of Wanderers, a History of Women Walking. The group also heard from elite veteran athlete Nicky Spinks who spoke of her “humble beginnings as a farmer” and how she reached international acclaim in the world of mountain running.

A workshop at the Women in the Hills residential retreat.

A workshop at the Women in the Hills residential retreat.
Credit: Beth Chalmers

During the day, the groups were guided by female Mountain Leaders from project partners, Girls on Hills, on three hikes in Glencoe, in accordance with participants’ experience. Keri added these days were designed to prove to the women involved that “they are capable of more than they had expected” and to “whet their appetites for more mountain adventures!”

Each member of the group was provided with a diary and a guestbook to record their experiences for Women in the Hills by hand throughout the weekend.

Mada, a woman who had no experience of hillwalking in the UK prior to this weekend, said, “I made a new decision about going to more outdoor places. Nicky [Spinks] inspired me to see that age doesn’t matter. I can do it! This has been my first time in the hills of the UK but it won’t be my last. I am going to encourage my children to come hillwalking with me, too.”

Women hiking in Glen Coe on the Women in the Hills weekend

Participants enjoying the vast views of Glen Coe. 
Credit: Beth Chalmers

Another participant, Shams, said her “assumptions towards my physical capabilities and how limited I thought they were” had become a barrier to the outdoors. She added, “I loved that this weekend proved me wrong. I have a much higher appraisal of my physical strength and confidence when it comes to moving now. A huge helping factor was the lovely group. I kept thinking to myself that these women all have different age groups, different lifestyles, and different experience level, so if they can do it, I can do it too.”

“I felt part of a lovely, supportive group of women. It highlighted the importance of surrounding yourself with like-minded people, who have similar goals as myself – namely, a lovely social walk with an agreed destination with some views, stopping as and when required,” said a third participant named Maggie.

Women in the Hills participant in Glencoe

Smiling faces on one of the three guided hikes led by Girls on Hills.
Credit: Beth Chalmers

Lee, a mother who finds access difficult due to finances, caring responsibilities and cultural barriers, said “It was like a military operation for me, trying to sort childcare and animals to get the time to leave home. I was feeling low when I arrived in Glencoe but the group was so supportive that I feel a lot better now – like I have really achieved something. I am motivated to get fitter and do this more often.”

Keri [Wallace] said, “While some diaries are still being written and others translated, the initial feedback has been overwhelming and we look forward to demonstrating how powerful these kinds of opportunities can be for women’s lives.”

The Women in the Hills project, together with Girls on Hills, “will bring this strong evidence base to bear on future projects aimed at creating the kinds of opportunities that will, as was achieved last weekend, change people’s lives for years to come.”

READ MORE: Women supporting each other is a powerful antidote to fear