Meet Iowa’s Wander Women, Community for the Outdoors-Curious

Photos courtesy of the Wander Women Facebook page

Looking to get outdoors now that it’s warmer, but don’t know where to start (or who to go with)? There’s a group for you in Iowa.

Wander Women is an all-female group united by their love for the great outdoors, whether that be camping, paddling, hiking or simply going for a walk.

It’s a women-only guiding business, which means the group leads groups of women (transgender and nonbinary people are also welcome) on recreational trips with activities like hiking, backpacking and camping in Iowa and across the Midwest.

For Jenn Riggs, the idea of starting Wander Women had been in the back of her head for years.

The group’s mission is to help women learn new outdoorsy skills and give them opportunities to have adventures outside in ways they wouldn’t on their own. Their other goal is to help people find community.

“We really like to remind people that if you like going outdoors, you’re outdoorsy,” said Riggs, who started the company in 2018. “It’s creating that type of community that is inclusive and accepting and not judgmental and doesn’t require any previous experience.”

Riggs said she started the company to get outside more, and she wanted to show people there are more opportunities in Iowa to find beautiful places than they might think.

“We say it’s kind of our ulterior motive to get people to go to these places in Iowa, fall in love with them, and want to protect them,” she said.

Riggs said there also isn’t another business like Wander Women anywhere else in Iowa or the broader Midwest.

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How Wander Women works

In 2018, Wander Women ran around 10 trips. Back then, all of the trips filled up and the first sale took about four days. But Wander Women’s popularity exploded in 2020.

“A lot of people fell in love with the outdoors during the pandemic and then they were also so desperate for community. And those are the two things that we offer,” co-owner Kerri Sorrell said.

Sorrell, who has a background in conservation work, joined the company officially in 2021, when that year’s trips sold out in five days.

Riggs grew up in Wilton and Sorrell in Iowa City. They both spent their childhoods developing a love for Iowa and the outdoors.

The group’s only gotten more popular as time has gone on. Trips regularly sell out—24 of the 50 planned trips in 2023 are already closed.

Because of that, Riggs and Sorrell have added more trips and introduced new “bite-sized adventures,” which are cheaper and shorter. Of the nine, only three are sold out. They do monthly free hikes, too, to give people a taste of what trips are like. Wander Women has also expanded into Nebraska.

Becoming more popular has also given the pair the chance to connect and partner with other women-owned businesses in Iowa, they said.

Neither imagined the business reaching this point, despite knowing there was interest.

Riggs and Sorrell employ other women to serve as guides for some of the adventures, and both said they were shocked and excited to see the applications pour in.

“One of the coolest parts of the business is just seeing how many passionate women there are who really care about the outdoors in Iowa and want to make the outdoors accessible and inclusive and fun, and we’ve gotten to meet so many of them through this process,” Sorrell said.

“It further affirms why Wander Women is important,” Riggs added.

The need for women-focused adventures

Both said they’ve felt discouraged from outdoor recreation before, calling it a male-dominated field.

They also said a lot of outdoor recreation is painted with an extreme brush, like scaling cliff faces, and many of the industries in the Midwest are oriented around activities like hunting and fishing as well as hiking and paddling.

A 2017 study from Recreational Equipment, Inc (REI), a camping company, found that women enjoy being outdoors but faced barriers that made it harder. More than 60% reported their interest wasn’t taken seriously and they weren’t taken seriously at sporing goods stores. Many reported not being encouraged to do things outside, starting when they were young.

“There’s so much gatekeeping in the outdoors,” Sorrell said. “And we just wanted to dispel a lot of that, and especially in a state that only continues to get more exclusive and—what feels like—more dangerous. It’s really important for us to let people know that a community for them exists here, and that we want to build those spaces where people feel safe.”

And the community-building mission has worked, too.

“It’s really special. I know that sounds so basic, but it is,” Riggs said. “The participants that go on our trips stay within the community and support it and become guides and build friendships. And then they’re going on trips or hikes with people that they met on the trips independently of us.”

Sorrell agreed, and said the number of people who sign up without knowing anyone else or what to expect always impresses her.

“Our trips are cool in that there’s just such a wide variety of people who come on them,” she said. “It’s very common to have, like, a 25-year-old and then a 65-year-old come in. We have a lot of our participants come from the central Iowa area, but people have traveled all the way from Kansas to come up to a trip.”

And they welcome everyone who signs up, no matter what background they have in outdoor recreation.

“Everyone’s coming with different experiences, different perspectives and forming a group and a connection, which is really cool,” Sorrell said. “We have people who have been camping for 40 years and people who have literally never camped once in their life. And I think that’s kind of the beauty of the trips.”

To learn more about the group and check out the trips they have available, go to their website or check out their Facebook page. They also have an email list so you can learn about upcoming trips as soon as they’re available.

 

Nikoel Hytrek
5/26/23

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2 Comments on "Meet Iowa’s Wander Women, Community for the Outdoors-Curious"

  • This is a great story. Thank you. And I really hope that some of the participants really do end up working to help protect the outdoors, at least when they vote.

    I especially hope that younger Iowa participants are getting involved. I’ve been a volunteer Iowa conservation activist for five decades. It is scary to see how many senior Iowa conservation activists are now slowing down or dying, and a lot of us are worried about who, if anyone, will do the needed work in future.

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