On long distance hikes, women may have a physiological and mental advantage over men

Nov 10, 2015, 5:51 PM | Updated: Nov 11, 2015, 7:46 am
Record breaking thru hiker Heather Anderson at the summit of Sheephole Mountain in Southern Califor...
Record breaking thru hiker Heather Anderson at the summit of Sheephole Mountain in Southern California, April 2015. (Photo courtesy of Heather Anderson)
(Photo courtesy of Heather Anderson)

Edmonds’ Heather Anderson doesn’t like to sit still. In fact, she doesn’t really like to sit at all.

“I just like to hike all day, every day,” Anderson says. “The idea of sitting still is something I really struggle with.”

I first interviewed Heather in 2013 after she broke the self-supported speed record on the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,663 mile trek that snakes from the Mexican to Canadian border. This summer she broke the self-supported speed record on the Appalachian Trail, hiking from Georgia to Maine in 54 days, seven hours, and 48 minutes.

Both records were previously held by men and she shaved an incredible four days off each. While wearing a dress.

This caught the attention of Jennifer Pharr Davis, an author, speaker and hiker who, herself, broke the speed record for the Appalachian Trail in 2011.

“Growing up and playing sports, and also growing up with two older brothers, I observed that no matter how hard I trained or how badly I wanted something, typically men were just faster and stronger. And then I started long distance hiking and it seemed like women were equally able, physiologically and psychologically, to do well on trails and finish on trails. I haven’t seen studies or numbers on this, but through personal observation my hypothesis is that women actually have a higher finishing rate on the trail than men do.”

She recently wrote an article in the New York Times, using both anecdotal evidence and some scientific, hypothesizing that gender is irrelevant when it comes to performance on long distance hikes. And Anderson agrees:

“As a species we’ve genetically evolved to travel long distances, following game and living off the land. So I don’t think it makes sense to assume that one gender or the other would be stronger when you’re talking about traveling long distances by foot. Because as a species we had to move in a group so there would be no evolutionary advantage for men or women to be better equipped for that. I think it’s a genderless strength. It’s a human trait, not anything to do with one gender or the other.”

Davis even theorizes that women might have an advantage.

“First of all, higher body fat percentage, which usually women hate. We hate that when we work out with guys, or we go on a diet plan with them, that they lose weight really quickly and we hold on to it. But we have more fat reserves which means more energy. We also require fewer calories a day. When you’re out in the remote wilderness you’re pretty much always at a calorie deficit. One thing I learned is that estrogen actually helps convert glycogen into energy. And our overall smaller body frame also requires less water, so for hydration needs that’s an advantage.”

She also thinks women were basically born to wear a heavy backpack.

“Being pregnant was like permanent backpacking,” Davis says. “I was like, oh! This feels very similar to what I do on the trail! So I think women are engineered to carry that weight and if a pack is fitting you correctly, you’re going to carry that weight on your hips. You’re not going to carry it on your shoulders.”

When Davis’ trail record was finally broken this summer, it was by Scott Jurek, a super-athlete Jennifer calls the most decorated ultramarathon runner in the country. She was shocked that he only beat her by three hours. But he wasn’t, and agrees that long distance trails know no gender. A fact that both Anderson and Davis hope will inspire women interested, but nervous, about through hiking.

Both women agree that the challenge of hiking thousands of miles in less than two months is more mental than physical.

“My first through hike was on the Appalachian Trail was when I was 21 years old and it took me five months,” Davis says. “I went out there alone and I was terrified, terrified that I was going to be bored and lonely. And then I got there and I realized, oh! Oh! This is peace! It feels so good. This is what’s not available, this is what’s lacking in our fast paced hectic culture and everyday life. I got out on the trail and what I was trying to avoid, what I was scared of, was actually one of the best parts of the experience.”

In the comment section of Davis’ article, many were critical, asking why they even want to set records. Isn’t the point of hiking just being out in nature, meandering? Anderson says she’s never liked to meander.

“Because I don’t like to sit, I like to move,” Anderson says. “So for me, waking up at the crack of dawn or earlier and walking for 18 hours and then sleeping for a few hours and getting up and doing it again, that’s just the way I enjoy being out there. There’s something called moving meditation. You know, I can’t sit in a room and meditate but if I get out and I walk all day, everyday, I get into a very meditative state. That’s how I achieve that. It’s not by stilling the body, it’s by activating it.”

Both Anderson and Davis walked an average of 47 miles a day when they were breaking records.

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On long distance hikes, women may have a physiological and mental advantage over men