Women in the wild is certainly not a modern thing. Women have been sailing across seas, climbing mountains, and pushing the line of what a ‘woman should do’ for decades. And more so than that, they have been writing about it too. So why, when we walk into our local bookshop and wander to the adventure section, are women almost entirely absent? Men, historically, have often achieved the first ascent of the world’s highest peaks and the first crossing of the widest seas; but women soon followed suit, with their own unique obstacles to tackle to get to that very same point — gender expectation being the most prominent one.
“Reading an adventure book written by a woman about a woman influences me so much more than the same pursuit by a man”
For me personally, reading an adventure book written by a woman about a woman influences me so much more than the same pursuit by a man. The struggles, emotions and feelings are much more relatable, and the achievement feels more emotive; it inspires me to think, ‘maybe I can do that too’.
So this list compiled of the most influential women in outdoor writing aims to inspire you too with tales of deadly ascents and barefoot climbs; of doubts conquered and emotions celebrated. These women are not just writers or adventurers; they are influential humans for having broken down stereotypes, pushed their personal boundaries, shared unflinchingly honest emotions, and influenced a generation of women to do what was never thought possible for our gender. In my eyes, a woman’s place is wherever she wants it to be — with mountain boots on her feet, a pen in her hand, and a lifetime of adventurous tales to tell.
Cycle Tourer & Travel Writer
Often celebrated as the ‘original travel writer’, Irish-woman Dervla Murphy has accumulated over 50 years of pioneering travels and 20 intrepid books to her name. Her most well-known work is ‘Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle’ written in 1965 about a solo cycling trip from Europe, through Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Following this, Dervla volunteered in India and Nepal with Tibetan Refugees, and later crossed the highlands of Ethiopia with a pack mule, writing ‘In Ethiopia with a Mule’.
When her daughter, Rachel, was born, Dervla embarked on many journeys with her; including a 1,300 mile trek in the then little explored Peruvian Andes in 1977, when Rachel was just 9. Dervla writes about her travels in a bold and matter-of-fact way, stating “during a long trek some disaster is inevitable”, but also affirming that she has always travelled for enjoyment, rather than to overcome something. Now aged 87, Dervla Murphy remains a pioneer of women’s travel and has inspired many women to be bold, courageous, and embark on their own journeys in far-off lands.
Mountaineer & Writer
Trailblazing British mountaineer, Gwen Moffat, deserted her post in the army to become one of Britain’s most well-known female mountaineers and writers; living a transient life that took her from the cliffs of Cornwall to the hills of Wales, from running down scree slopes in Scotland to hitchhiking from the Isle of Skye to Chamonix. In 1953, Gwen became the first British woman to qualify as a Mountain Guide, paving the way for many other outdoors women to follow suit. Gwen has written numerous climbing books (as well as being a crime novelist) but her most famous novel, ‘Space Below my Feet’ – written in 1961 – is Gwen’s autobiographical memoir of her climbing career and details her many adventurous exploits in the mountains.
The book was made into an award-winning film, ‘Operation Moffat’, produced by Claire Carter and Jen Randall. Gwen Moffat defied the conventions of what women could achieve in the mountains in the 1940s and 1950s, and continues to inspire many woman to find a sense of belonging in the mountains through her novels.
Hillwalker & Writer
Nan Shepherd (1893-1981) was a Scottish hillwalker, writer and poet, whose most famous work, ‘The Living Mountain’ is often regarded as one of the best nature novels to this day. The short novel – written during the 1940s but not published until 1977 – is a sort of meditation and reflection of Nan’s experiences walking in Scotland’s Cairngorm mountain range; a sensual exploration of the hills Nan loved so dearly.
Rather than being an adventurous mountaineer, Nan often went “stravaigin” (a Scottish term for wandering) in the mountains, writing; “Often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend, with no intention but to be with him.” Nan Shepherd’s poetic tones and lyrical words have inspired many men and women alike to fall in love with the Cairngorm mountains; “It is worth ascending unexiting heights if for nothing else than to see the big ones from nearer their own level.”
Mountaineer, Environmental Scientist & Writer
In 1978, American Arlene Blum lead the first all-women’s expedition to the summit of Annapurna, often regarded as one of the world’s most dangerous and difficult mountains. The expedition was both triumphant and tragic, as two members of the second team disappeared on the mountain. Arlene’s book about the expedition, ‘Annapurna: A Woman’s Place’, was the first account of mountaineering triumph told from a woman’s point of view, and thus had a massive impact in changing opinions of what women could achieve in the world of mountaineering. Arlene details the skill, determination and courage required to climb an 8000m peak, and writes with passion and humour about the expedition.
She went on to write a personal memoir of her climbing achievements, ‘Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life’ but now focuses her attentions on environmental issues, named as one of 100 “Women Taking the Lead to Save Our Planet”. A passionate mountaineer and writer, and a woman who has undoubtedly inspired many.
Kayaker & Writer
Solo paddler extraordinaire, Audrey Sutherland, has a kayaking career spanning five decades and has paddled an estimated 12,000 nautical miles. Almost all of her voyages have been long, solo expeditions in a blow-up boat on the waters of Hawaii and Alaska — many also later in life.
Her expeditions are not exactly about finding adventure, but rather a seeking of simplicity; she paddles slowly, focusing her attention on finding beautiful camping spots and cooking delicious meals. Audrey’s first book, ‘Paddling My Own Canoe’, details her trips in the 50s and 60s along the north shore of Moloka’i, Hawaii and is renowned, along with her subsequent novels, as a classic in solo sea voyages. Audrey writes, “Always I came back from these trips feeling like a skinned-up kid, feeling like a renewed, re-created adult, feeling like a tiger.”
Audrey has written three books about her kayaking expeditions, ‘Paddling My Own Canoe’, ’Paddling Hawaii’, and ‘Paddling North’ (published by Patagonia) and is said to have given many women confidence to go out on their own expeditions, no matter what age — “Go simple, go solo, go now.”, she urges.
Arctic Traveller & Writer
In the mid-1990s, Sara Wheeler became the first women to be accepted as writer-in-residence in Antarctica, where she stayed for seven months and produced her first book, ‘Terra Incognita’. Since then, she has made numerous journeys to polar regions and written five books about her explorations. For her most recent book, ‘The Magnetic North: Travels in the Arctic’, Sara travelled to Russia, Alaska, Greenland and Northern Norway. The book accounts a foray of historical, geographical and anthropological facts about these polar regions that will prove invaluable in the future. Sara’s work goes beyond just outdoor writing, and will certainly remain present as an emblem of anthropological history and climate change.
Climber, Trail Runner, Poet & Novelist
Helen Mort is a writer, climber and trail runner based in Sheffield, named as “one of the most brilliant poets of her generation” (Robert McFarlane). Mort’s most recent poetry collection, ‘No Map Could Show Them’, explores the history of women’s mountaineering through poems of grit, humour and passion. The collection honours some of Britain’s best female mountaineers (such as Alison Greaves who died descending K2) who dared to break ground, with a strong force of feminism against the male hegemony that tarnishes the world of mountaineering.
Mort has just published her first novel, ‘Black Car Burning’, to high critical acclaim. While climbing may be a strong theme throughout, the book also tackles trauma, loss, love and trust. Mort has an exceptional talent for entwining outdoor literature with gritty reality to create works that conjure up a multitude of emotions, and will most certainly inspire a generation of climbers. Her latest book has just made it onto my reading list!
Fell-runner, Therapist & Writer
Julie Carter started her professional life as a science teacher, before becoming a GP. She took up fell-running at the age of 40 as a way of coping with the trauma of a close friend’s death. Despite some physical challenges, Julie become national champion in her age group on two occasions and fell in love with running on the fells. ‘Carter’s novel, ‘Running the Red Line’, was written to encourage others to succeed – in both sport and in life – despite the many physical and mental challenges we all face. The novel talks about how she has narrowed the gap between her and the ‘red line’ – in deep friendships, experiences and the beauty of the fells. Julie later set up her business, MindFell, which aims to improve the mental and physical health of her patients as a whole.
Long Distance Hiker & Writer
For me personally, Cheryl Strayed is an incredibly important writer as she was, in many ways, the reason I started hiking. Her most famous work, ‘Wild’, is an autobiographical novel about Cheryl’s 3,000 mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail; though the novel is so much more than just a novel about hiking, but rather one about humanity, loss, addiction, and finding peace within yourself. After the death of her mother to cancer, and the subsequent breakdown of her marriage, Cheryl vows to hike the 3,000 mile PCT with no prior long distance hiking experience. This is a story about how the outdoors can heal us, one that has resonated with many women around the world; one that inspires its readers to go outside.
Endurance Athlete & Writer
Anna McNuff is an endurance athlete, adventurer and self-proclaimed mischief-maker. She was named one of Conde Nast’s “50 Most Influential Travellers in the World” and has written two books about her pursuits; ‘The Pants of Perspective’ about her 3,000 kilometre running journey through the wilds of New Zealand, and ’50 Shades of the USA’ about an 11,000 mile cycle through every state in the USA. McNuff is recognised as a witty and honest writer; though not a ‘real runner’ or cyclist, her adventures prove that you don’t have to be extraordinary to achieve great things. Anna has succeeded in pushing the boundaries of what a woman believes she is capable of, and brings her readers on her journey with her through the feelings of courage, failure, fear and triumph.