8 Badass Female Trailblazers You Should Know About
Meet eight of the most incredible women in outdoor exploration and environmental movements who helped pave the way for women today!
Reconciling details about the past adds to our ancestor sisters’ staggering tales as they set off to explore the world while the map underwent a journey of its own. For over 40 years, California was rendered an island. Backpacks developed from wood or steel frames, attached to leather or canvas knapsacks. Women's rights movements in the 1850s provoked laws and social customs when women put a pair of pants on. In the 1940s, Oxford shoes still circulated in women’s sports. Now in the 21st century, we are spoiled with a plethora of life hacks and cushy developments.
The following badass women of the past paved new paths, explored time, trials, and errors, and committed themselves to collaborative efforts. They were brilliant minds skilled in mathematics, exploring, navigating, and astronomy, as well as artistic talent, and all had a role in our contemporary interactions with wilderness.
You’ll notice that these women, in all their varying walks of life, emerge as an inspiration because they thought differently. They didn’t confine themselves to following trend after trend. Whatever label the world may have slapped on them, at the core of it all, they were curious and ambitious. No matter what your interests are, you too can bring something to the table. Women in all fields of work are listed here, and if we look at the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, we can create collective change for our better future.
Ida Pfeiffer (1797-1858)
First Solo Female World Traveler
"In exactly the same manner as the artist feels an invincible desire to paint, and the poet to give free course to his thoughts, so was I hurried away with an unconquerable wish to see the world. In my youth I dreamed of travelling—in my old age I find amusement in reflecting on what I have beheld." –Ida Pfeiffer, A Woman’s Journey Around the World, From Vienna To Brazil, Chili, Tahiti, China, Hindostan, Persia, And Asia Minor, 1850
Ida Pfeiffer traveled around the world twice. One of the first female travelers, her journals were published in seven languages. She captivated millions around the world with her candid travel diaries recounting more than 150,000 miles explored by sea and 20,000 miles on land.
When she was a child, Ida’s mood was most often defiant. She hails from Vienna, Austria, and her boisterous characteristics were socially and culturally unconventional. She burned her fingertips to avoid piano practice and knitting lessons and resisted feminization. However, Ida’s mother carved her out to be a marriageable woman. By an arranged marriage, she raised two sons, and at 45, had fulfilled what was expected from women of the time.
Her responsibilities over, Ida held steadfast to her spirit of adventure, and she set on remarkable adventures using a shoestring budget. She stressed to women to travel at any age or at any status with her remarkable tales and quirky observations. Nobody perceived her frailty as threatening. Her short, thin, and slightly bent body wandered delicately like a little mouse, under the radar with little criticism. When she encountered Dyak cannibals of Borneo, a large island in Southeast Asia, she convinced them her old, white, European-lady flesh wasn’t palatable.
Until French adventurers invaded Madagascar, attempting to overrule Queen Ranavalona, Pfeiffer had overcome her fair share of challenges. Before her journey to this small island, she had just completed a four-volume set detailing her many adventures and overcomings in My Second Voyage Around the World. The threats of war across this small island forced her to attempt an escape through a disease-ridden jungle, where she picked up a tropical fever. She was able to make her way home before she lost the battle against the infections and passed away in 1858.
Ida is the first woman to travel around the world, and she did it alone when it was still very uncommon for women to travel far at all. She collected various fish, insects, and other specimens, and learned how to preserve her mementos, which can now be found at museums throughout Europe.
Ida’s life is a reminder to stay true to yourself, that it's not a waste of time to journal your journeys, and not throw away that pretty leaf you collected
Gertrude Bell (1868-1926)
Explorer, Writer, Mountaineer, Linguist, Arabist, Politician, Spy, Archeologist
“To those bred under an elaborate social order few such moments of exhilaration can come as that which stands at the threshold of wild travel. The gates of the enclosed garden are thrown open, the chain at the entrance to the sanctuary is lowered, with a wary glance to right and left you step forth and behold! the immeasurable world.” –Gertrude Bell, The Desert and the Sown, 1907
There’s a peak in the French Alps, Gertrudespitze, named after Gertrude Bell who originally hailed from County Durham, England. She set off as the first woman to graduate in Modern History with first-class honors from the University of Oxford in 1892.
In 1899, Gertrude got her first taste of mountaineering on La Meije in France. The group made their way across valleys and over glaciers. With hours of steep climbing ahead, Gertrude removes her long skirt, ties on the climbing rope, and finishes what she started in her underwear! In a letter describing her experience, she said, “It began to seem quite natural hanging by my eyelids over an abyss.” While mountain climbing (let alone her educational experience) was regarded as socially unacceptable for women, in the two years after La Meije, she scaled every peak in the Swiss Alps and mapped out 10 new routes in the Bernese Alps.
A trip to Persia ignited her love for language, and Bell was fluent in Arabic, Persian, French, German, Italian, Turkish, and English. She crossed an unmapped Arabia six times, collecting thousands of valuable photographs and writing down her observations. British Intelligence even sought her out to lead soldiers through deserts!
Her power and influence assisted Iraq’s independence and played a major role in creating its borders and establishing the National Museum of Iraq. When political turmoil arose, her involvement and inclusion with the government were significantly reduced. Her attempt to establish a government under the British agenda was politically controversial and had a damaging effect on the Middle East, eventually breaking out in war and violence. Her life’s work was often overlooked and Bell increasingly grew tired. She died shockingly young at 57 from an overdose of sleeping pills in her room in Baghdad.
She was an intelligent, adrenaline-fueled adventurer with an enormous heart for people equally. Her name was honored most recently with a new genus of bees discovered in Saudi Arabia, the Belliturgula, a chance for her story to be respected and retold in a more deserving light.
Alexandra David-Néel (1868-1969)
First Western Woman Into Tibet’s Holy City
“Let each one follow entirely, always and anywhere, the impulse of her nature, be it limited or brilliant. Only then will man know what it is to live, instead of despising life without ever having lived it. ” –Alexandra David-Néel, 1898
Raised by her father, a Freemason, and her mother, a Protestant-Catholic, Alexandra David-Néel emerged from France as a Buddhist spiritualist, anarchist, feminist, opera singer, writer, and explorer.
At age 15, Alexandra walked 200 miles and boarded a ship to England to speak with an author and member of a society for Theosophy. Darwin’s claim that all religions are expressions of a single truth caught David-Neel’s interest.
Starting her search for freedom and spirituality, she wandered far, read when she wasn’t traveling, and absorbed information from the environments around her. Her treatise on anarchism, circulated by a friend, was translated into five languages. She advocated for women’s financial independence and fought for economic emancipation.
Later, she spent 14 years walking around India, China, Nepal, and Bhutan. She lived in a cave at 13,000 feet above sea level for two years until she made a plan to hike into Tibet. Along with her was 15-year-old monk Albert Arthur Yongdon, whom she met after her departure from the cave. She adored him and eventually adopted him as her son. They traveled only at night, enduring freezing temperatures, and trekked through a 19,000-foot pass in the Himalayas to reach Lhasa, the center of Tibetan Buddhism. Disguised as pilgrims, they peered into the forbidden city. They remained there for two months before they were discovered and sent back to France.
She lived to be 101 years old and wrote more than 30 books about her travels, philosophies, and religion. Like Gertrude Bell, she faced criticism for being a woman with overflowing ambition. Her influence struck poet and novelist Jack Kerouac, as well as spiritual teacher Ram Dass and philosophical entertainer Alan Watts. The Dalai Lama, world leaders, and writers also sent her congratulations. In 1925, upon her return to France, Alexandra David-Néel was welcomed by the French government with a medal in her honor as an intrepid explorer.
Emma “Grandma” Gatewood (1887-1973)
First Woman to Thru-hike the Appalachian Trail (AT) Solo in One Season; First Person to Thru-Hike the AT Twice
“I get faster as I get older.” –Emma Gatewood
At age 67, Ohio-born Emma Gatewood, now a mother of 11, casually informed her kids she was going for a walk. On her jaunt into the woods of Maine, within the first 48 hours, Emma became lost for several days. Thanks to the efforts of park rangers, she turned up, turned around, and headed home. A year later, with her pack at 15-17 lbs, she emerged as the “Founder of Ultralight Hiking” and was the first woman to hike the entire 2,055 miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT) by herself.
The media blew up when they heard about Grandma in the wild. Reporters jumped out of the bushes, trying to get an interview with her. But, nobody mentioned her abusive husband until 2014 when Ben Montgomery published his book Grandma Gatewood's Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail. He revealed that in 1939 her husband broke her teeth and her ribs. When she countered by throwing a bag of flour at him, the police arrested Emma and left her husband unpunished. However, the West Virginia mayor of Mullens glimpsed her battered face and forced her back to her abuser the following day.
The blatant disregard for women must have felt like getting punched in the gut all over again. In life’s toughest moments, some of us can only focus on taking one step at a time. In Grandma’s case, it may have been the best decision of her life. She took to the Appalachian Trail where she cruised past Boy Scouts, covering 14 miles per day in her Keds tennis shoes. She became the sixth person to complete the AT and helped boost its popularity. She also raised awareness about trail cleanup.
Emma Gatewood was inducted into the Appalachian Hall of Fame in 2012. Hiking and happy the last 20 years of her life, from 1955 to 1973, she passed away at 85, leaving an unforgettable legacy.
Celia Hunter (1919-2001)
First Woman to Head a National Environmental Movement; Creator of Conservation Movement in Alaska
"I think what I'd like to leave with people your age is the idea that change is possible, but you're going to have to put your energy into it… I'm past eighty and I'm not going to be the mover and shaker of this, but people like you are. And you're going to have to bite the bullet and decide what kind of world you want to live in. " –Celia Hunter, 2001
A 10-month bicycle tour through Europe, hitchhiking back into the states on tankers, flying P-51 Mustangs and P-41 Thunderbolts with Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), Cecilia Hunter’s life was about pursuing adventure. She was born in Arlington, Washington to a Quaker family who believed in simplicity and spiritual equality. They functioned very self-sufficiently, relying on the land, so Cecilia’s upbringing perfectly suited her future.
WASP was under fly restrictions over Alaska for a few years when Cecilia decided she needed to see the last frontier for herself. She and her good friend, Ginny Wood, made a deal with another pilot and subsequently flew for 27 days before greeting Alaska in a snowstorm. The trip was only supposed to take 30 hours, but given the bad weather, it took them almost a month. At one point along the way, they flew for just three hours and Ginny was frozen to her seat. They had to chip ice off of her legs to get her free! Both women walked away with no serious injuries and without any consequences. They began their life in Alaska flying commercially, but that just wasn’t their style!
By the summer of 1951, Celia staked 67 acres of land in Mt. McKinley National Park and opened Camp Denali, known now as Denali National Park. Camp Denali showed her values and deep admiration for the Alaskan wilderness. After a run-in with biologists in the foothills, she sold Camp Denali and founded the Alaska Conservation Foundation and then formed the Arctic Wildlife Refuge.
She led movements against oil drilling, nuclear bombing, radioactive waste, radiation labs, and the construction of dams. For 20 years, she battled state senators and congressional representatives until legislation approved and passed the preservation of 100 million acres of the Alaskan wilderness.
The Sierra Club awarded Cecilia the highest honor, the John Muir Award. She received this incredible recognition for her work in 2001, the same year that she passed away.
We recognize her achievements in national and international conservation causes. She received Alaska’s first Lifetime Achievement Award. Her legacy and leadership tips can be found on AlaskaConservation.org.
Junko Tabei (1939-2016)
First Woman to Summit Mount Everest; First Woman to Climb Highest Peaks in Every Continent
“Technique and ability alone do not get you to the top; it is the willpower that is the most important. The willpower you cannot buy with money or be given by others. It rises from the heart.” –Junko Tabei, 1975
Japan’s landmass is 70 -80% mountains which makes it a terrific place to mountaineer! Japanese mountaineer Junko Tabei’s career launched after graduating from university in Tokyo when she joined men’s climbing clubs. With them, she climbed every major mountain in Japan but grew tired of the constant criticism from her male club partners.
She decided to make her own space. “Let’s go on an overseas expedition by ourselves” was the motto of Junko’s Joshi-Tahan mountaineering club for women, the first such group in Japan. The first year after the group’s introduction in 1969, they summited Nepal’s Annapurna III. Japan’s first all-women climbing club locked in the title as the first women and first Japanese climbers to reach its peak.
Junko's leadership transcended her team through the forces of nature, physical strength, and endurance, media mockery and criticism, as well as their internal struggle against tradition.
By 1975, the team was ready to face the 30,000-foot high Everest. Before doing so, mountaineers ask for permission and safe passage, as they are at the mercy of the mountain. During their journey, an avalanche hit the team’s camp at 20,000 feet. The vigorous impact from Everest's tumbling snow caused severe injuries. Junko was under her tent and unable to move out of the snowy depths. She held onto consciousness long enough to pass a pocket knife over to her guide who managed to cut her free. An average-sized dry avalanche runs around 80 mph and some survivors describe the feeling as being hit by a truck. So, before continuing any further, Junko decided to allow time for recovery. But after taking just two days for recovery, the whole team persevered further up the mountain.
Twelve days later, there was only enough oxygen for only one person to attempt the summit, and the group nominated Junko. She inched across a thin ridge of ice and crossed Mount Everest's finish line.
By the end of her career, she had climbed 70 of the world's highest mountains. She led annual excursions up Mt. Fuji for children, which was her last activity on the mountains before she died of stomach cancer at age 77. In her memory, an asteroid (6897 Tabei) and a mountain range on Pluto (Tabei Montes) were named after her.
Sophia Danenberg (Born 1972)
First African American and First Black Woman to Summit Everest
“For me, venturing into the unknown wasn't climbing Mount Everest.…They were much smaller and went largely unnoticed….A small series of yesses that set me on a path.” –Sophia Danenberg, Hopes and Dreams Are Overrated, TEDxUChicago, 2015
In 2006, Sophia Danenberg did not yet know she was the first Black woman to stand at the top of the tallest mountain on Earth: Everest. There were lightning bolts below bursting with reminders of the storm she just weathered. Her face was frostbitten, her oxygen mask clogged, and she was fighting bronchitis. But when faced with the choice to give up, she climbed on for the love of the sport.
Sophia envisions her journey not as a path but as a wave. Riding one, letting others pass, taking the good ones all the way, but sometimes falling. She prepares herself for those falls, and she’s eager for opportunity.
After earning her degree from Harvard, her career as a senior engineer for the Green Energy Program started a change in the industry’s mishandling of hazardous chemicals. Today, she is Washington’s State Park Commissioner and serves on various boards and committees.
Born in Japan, Sophia moved to the states at six years old. She grew up in Chicago, spending a lot of time playing outside but never got involved in sports. Her college best friend introduced her to the outdoor-sport community and her later move to the Pacific Northwest sparked this passion. Quickly, Sophia completed Mount Tasman, Kilimanjaro, Rainier, Baker, and Mount Kenya. She explains that her learning progression, from traditional mountain climbing to ice climbing to mountaineering, felt very natural.
Meanwhile, mountaineering remains dominated by wealthy, white men. As people awaken to this reality, new resources are rapidly emerging. The American Hiking Association’s Racism in the Outdoors provides a long list of resources to encourage everyone to get outside and explore. We should all find inspiration in Sophia’s adventures.
Sarah Marquis (Born 1972)
Solo Hiked Over 10,000 Miles from Siberia to Australia
“There are so many lessons with walking. It's difficult to put words to those lessons. Because all those lessons are given to me by feeling, by experience, by sweat. This is this connection, this really organic connection with the land. Because we are all the same. That’s what I discovered. I’ve been everywhere in the world, basically. I saw humans in all those harsh environments. They all want to have food, be safe. Their family to have a roof on the top of the head, and that's it. So when I walked like that for six months, I reached a point, you know, where I'm like, this little ice cube, and the ice cube melts and you become nature. You lose your identity of yourself. There is no thinking anymore.” ―Sarah Marquis, Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival interview National Geographic Adventurer Walked 20,000 Kilometres Alone, 2016
Swiss adventurer Sarah Marquis’ first long hike was the Pacific Crest Trail. “I saw this little trail called PCT. Had no idea what was going on there,” she said in Walking Alone in the Wilderness: A Story of Survival. On this adventure, she came close to death upon a snowy summit, suffered second-degree sunburn on her face, and was fined $5,000 dollars for unknowingly walking under police jurisdiction when she veered off the main trail.
Canoeing rivers in Canada and spending a month without food in New Zealand, Sarah is familiar with taking a less common path. Less than two years after her PCT experience, she began her trek around Australia in 2002—starting in the middle, then walking the entire perimeter. Shortly after she started, she heard a clicking sound. An Aboriginal community out hunting called her over, asking her to join them. She stayed with them, and before continuing on alone, they gave her a totem, a Jabiru bird. Fourteen months later, she promised herself that as soon as she got home, she would start talking to the world about their connection with nature.
Walking confirms her belonging to Earth and to nature, which is why she does it. Now, 20 years later, she’s lost count of how many miles she’s walked. She spent three years roaming the Australian Outback and also walked 10,000 miles from Siberia to the Gobi Desert, to China, Laos, Thailand, then to Australia. She logged another 5,000 miles in Chile, Peru, Andes, and Bolivia.
There are so many stories to tell, and only she can tell them. Sarah is a National Geographic Explorer and 2014 Adventurer of the Year nominee, 2013 European Adventurer of the Year, and Condé Nast Traveler Magazine’s Top 30 Most Influential Women Travelers. She’s currently working on her eighth book perched in her tiny house among the Swiss Alps.
Other Honorable Badasses
- Egeria (4th Century): History’s first documented traveler
- Isabella Bird (1831-1904): First woman admitted into the Royal Geographical Society (7 Reasons Isabella Bird Should Be Your Role Model)
- Annie Edson Taylor (1838-1921): Barreled down Niagara Falls
- Annie Smith Peck (1850-1935): Record-setting mountain climber
- Fanny Bullock Workman (1859-1925): Record-breaking female mountaineer
- Nellie Bly (1864-1922): Traveled around the world in less than 80 days
- Annie Londonderry (1870-1947): First woman to bicycle around the world
- Marion Randall Parsons (1878-1953): First woman on the Sierra Club’s Board of Directors
- Louise Boyd (1887-1972): Awarded for 10 week-long search-and-rescue mission
- Clare Marie Hodges (1890-1970): First female national park ranger
- Aloha Wanderwell (1906-1996): “World’s most traveled woman”
- Georgie White (1911-1992): First female river-raft guide
- Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz (1936-2021): First woman to single-handedly sail around the world
- Teddi Boston (Born 1936): First woman to solo thru-hike the PCT northbound
- Margaret Moth (1951-2010): Courage in Journalism award from the International Women’s Foundation, first news camerawoman in New Zealand
- Carolyn ‘Ravensong’ Burkhart (Born 1956): First woman to solo thru-hike the PCT northbound
- Susan Butcher (1956-2006): Pioneer in dog-sled racing
- Rahawa Haile (1985): Writer and queer Black female AT thru-hiker
I hope these women resonate with something within you and give you an example of how to grow into the person you want to become. Studies have shown that those who have role models typically possess at least three qualities from them. There is a lot to be gleaned from the women above.
For a long time, I rejected the idea of a role model, afraid of being disappointment when faced with flaws and failure. But, that’s also a beneficial lesson! Learn from their mistakes. Emulate their resilience.
Many of these women faced criticism for their unpopular opinions and socially unacceptable endeavors. Yet they persisted in seeking a life rich with discovery, learning, and exploring. So tell me, what can we do? How should we make this life better?