The outdoors is a boys’ club, especially when it comes to outdoors gear and clothing. Traditionally, women’s clothes are fitted, stylish, and come in bright colors like coral or turquoise or have bright, unavoidable patterns. Men’s, on the other hand, come in neutral colors, are often plain and simple, and are more durable. There is also a big difference in the way these garments are marketed.
In their 2017 study, the Outdoor Industry Association reports that 51 percent of outdoor consumers in the U.S. outdoor recreation industry are women. In the $887 billion industry, however, women typically spend $334 annually while men spend $599.
Betha Cochran, a fly fisher and activities guide from Durango, Colorado, believes that the industry is heavily marketed towards men because it has only recently opened up to women. And she has recently experienced this firsthand.
“Finding companies with women’s gear is really difficult. We went to a fly fishing show and the whole stadium was full of vendors,” Cochran said, “and they secluded all of the women’s gear to a small area by the food stations. There were only about eight booths specifically for women’s stuff.”
But this isn’t a trend limited to trade shows. It is a trend seen across the market, particularly online. Moosejaw, an outdoor recreation outfitter, is a perfect example. On their website, a men’s Northface fleece is marketed as heavyweight and perfect for exploring new dtrails, hanging out fireside, and is “so soft, your lover will probably try to steal it.” The women’s, on the other hand, is marketed as a cozy piece perfect for enjoying the fall weather, and the fleece is described as “snuggly.”
Gendered marketing plays into the difficulty women face with how they are treated in the outdoors. Marketing to women in a hyper-feminine way suggests that they need to be treated accordingly in the outdoors.
Teal Lehto, a raft guide from Southwest Colorado, frequently runs into this issue in the workplace. “Personally, I love bright colors and everything pink. I get a lot of discrimination from other guides for wanting to look good while working,” Lehto says, “and some clients also do not take me seriously if I look ‘too cute’ on the water.”
This presents another struggle women face in the outdoors—not being taken seriously in the industry. It becomes a tightrope walk between not coming off as too feminine while also not being too masculine. The struggle lies in trying to uphold certain traditional female roles while also trying to portray a strength that is stereotypically required to participate in the outdoors. It becomes a thin line between doing what you love and doing what is going to be accepted.
And outdoors sportswear only seems to hinder women more by “shrinking it and pinking it.” This is the act of taking something designed for men, making it smaller, and recoloring it to be more feminine. While there is good intent behind this idea, catering to the feminine population, it is impractical at times and supports gendered stereotypes.
Allison Butler, a Boulder, Colorado, transplant from Saint Louis, Missouri, describes her personality and everyday style as girly. She prides herself in looking nice and put-together, but she still expresses frustration when it comes to finding her gear.
“Outdoor activities are the sort of things that I don’t think need to be bright or overly feminine. I would rather my gear be practical,” Butler says. “Pretty much all of my outdoor stuff is black except for some rare, random things.”
According to the Outdoor Foundation’s 2017 Outdoor Recreation Participation report, women make up 46 percent of all outdoor participants. This is a relatively high percentage and the number is slowly on the rise. Despite seeing more of a female presence in the outdoors, outdoors wear companies can’t seem to find a happy medium to represent that.
Alex Delvecchio, an outdoor enthusiast from Conifer, Colorado, likes to do just a little bit of everything when it comes to outdoor activities. “I run with the boys, so to speak—I do ‘boy’ sports—and I wish that my gear could represent that a little better,” says Delvecchio.
On the other side of things, there are some outdoor fields that are slowly gaining more popularity among females. In a lot of cases, instead of making products hyper-feminine, the brands don’t really market to women. Cochran mentions, fly fishing is an outdoor industry that has only recently seen significant female participation, and the gear market reflects this.
Among the handful of outfitters, there is a lack of variety in women’s wear. “Most of the women’s gear is made to look like the men’s,” says Cochran, “and if there is any color variation it is usually teal or pink. Most of the waders are made smaller, so being really tall makes it hard to find the right fit.”
Sizing is another major issue the women’s market struggles with. Throughout the other branches of women’s wear, clothing sizes are fairly standard. Small is a size marketed to smaller, more petite women and the specs go up from there, usually remaining cropped and fitted.
Generally, women in the outdoors are built more athletically. Even the smaller, more petite participants tend to exhibit stronger features including broader shoulders, bigger legs, and wider rib cages. Traditional women’s sizes become ill-fitting and impractical.
“I have been an athlete my whole life and my body reflects that. I’m only 5-foot on a good day, but the small gear just doesn’t fit comfortably,” says Delvecchio. “When I go up a size, it fits awkwardly, too. There is no real in between for a small, strong human.”
Although men aren’t usually affected by the bias, it doesn’t go unnoticed. Owen Wurtz, an outdoor enthusiast from Bozeman, Montana, notices the bias, especially with the gendered color schemes. However, while Wurtz agrees that there is a certain sense of gender inequality in the outdoors, he does not believe that gear is a determinant.
“I think that if a girl’s skill is equal or greater than anyone else in the outdoors, they will be respected. If you are pushing your limits, no matter what gender you are, you are going to buy your gear to support that,” Wurtz says.
In 1972, the passing of Title IX, which states that any federally funded program cannot discriminate based on gender, marked a revolutionary change to women’s participation in athletic activities. Since then, women have been revolutionizing the world of athletic activities. But, despite this, bridging the gender gap has been a slow process.
In 1977, female athlete Lisa Lindahl created the first athletic bra for women, sewn together from two jock straps. Since then, companies have been slowly trying to adjust to female participation. Title IX is a perfect example, offering a wide range of gear specifically to women.
This is a big step in the right direction and similar companies are continuously emerging. But with progress comes challenge. Typically, the gear sold by these outfitters is incredibly expensive and although it offers a wider variety of styles, it still tends to hold onto the bright color phenomenon. The tendency to gender clothing and gear is outdated and a change to the market is critical.
“It seems ridiculous for a company to make one sex’s clothing inferior to the others,” says Wurtz. “It can’t be that hard to manufacture gear that is suitable for everyone.”