Overcoming Women’s Barriers to the Swiss Outdoors

“Nature, well, she was my first teacher”. That is Heather Turnbach’s first reply to my questions about her new Swiss venture. She started OutFit Women’s Movement, designed to help women build outer strength, inner confidence, and autonomy through self-powered outdoor adventures.

Heather recently rediscovered nature herself. After growing up in the Pocono Mountains (Pennsylvania), with deer and wild turkey neighbors in the forest behind her parents’ house, she decided to explore the world. However, she ended up exploring mainly cities around the US and Europe. After a burnout in 2019, she moved back home for a while and got in touch with what she called “her first teacher”. “Nature really does wonders, for your mind, body, and spirit. Some doctors are even prescribing nature to patients.” 

Adventure from your doorstep

When returning to Switzerland, she decided to go on a 10-day trip alone through the Swiss Alps. “It was a self-powered adventure. I wanted to test my abilities and see how far I could go in 10 days. I’ve done plenty of running races, which are pre-planned and fully supported. However, this time I would be planning the entire route, the camping stops, and the gear, all by myself. I left my house in Zürich with a 6kg backpack, my bike, and my trail shoes. This experience taught me that you don’t have to go far to find adventure, it can start right at your doorstep!”

“Self-power: the ability to confidently move freely from wherever you are to wherever you want to go.”

Heather’s mission is clear: “I want to set you free through experiencing nature, without needing me in the end”. She wants to support us and the next generation of girls, who might need nature even more than we do.

The outdoor gender gap

Even when talking about the outdoors – a place that should be equally accessible for all – there is a major gender gap. Women are less active in the great outdoors than men. Maybe this is due to the historical gender roles that were assumed (men as conquerors, women as domestic caretakers), or is it because girls aren’t encouraged to do activities outdoors? Research by REI states that 60% of women believe that men’s interests in the outdoors are taken more seriously than theirs. Additionally, they aren’t able to come up with a single female outdoor role model. As the saying goes, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

This data is striking, as nature could have an even bigger effect on women than on men in terms of letting go of social pressures around thinking they have to be perfect, lean and pretty all day. Pressure comes from all sides: society, media, family, and friends: all things you can escape from while exploring nature. When women are in nature, they become aware of their ability to be self-sufficient and self-reliant, which is freeing them from expectations of “being perfect” for others’ approval. And while the gap is still there, it is changing. There are more programs and opportunities than even one generation ago. For example, women, who once weren’t even allowed in the Alpine clubs are now the fastest-growing group. 

“ 72% of women say they feel liberated or free when they are outdoors.” REI, 2017

“If you identify as a woman and you want to explore your possibilities in nature, I’d love to connect. I want to help you grow your knowledge and confidence. Everything you need to be able to go wherever you want to go.” Heather’s first focus is on women in Switzerland: she has already partnered up with Switzerland Tourism for their 100% Women campaign as one of their service providers from women for women.

Your adventure, your pace

To empower and guide these women, it is important to understand the individual stories and to know what gives each individual strength and what might hold them back. Based on this, all journeys are customized, catering to each person’s or group’s needs. This can be a stroll in the local park or a hiking trip in the Swiss Alps, whatever fits the level and goals. 

“Switzerland can be an intimidating and overwhelming place to explore if you’re not a local. I once had a client who was originally from Malaysia, she had moved to Zürich for work. She knew her capabilities and was familiar with nature. Well, she knew a lot about her nature: the jungle. She was afraid to explore a lot of the outdoors in Switzerland, as she had never walked on snow before!”

“You don’t have to go far to find adventure, it can start right at your doorstep.”

There can be many different barriers to enjoying the immense Swiss beauty. Which of the 65,000 kilometers of trails to start from, for instance? That is where Heather steps in: “I support women to get over these barriers, gain confidence, and take themselves from where they are now to where they want to be.” 

The larger impact

When we started to chat about all the benefits nature gave us both in the past, we realized that many of our learnings also apply to personal and professional lives. You can prepare 100%, but nature has its unexpected ways. Knowing what to do when the unexpected happens is a life lesson for everyone. “Self-power is all about freedom, not only outdoors, but in your way of living, working, and thinking. So much of our life doesn’t feel free anymore, so I want to unlock that in women. There are no limits!” 

Her own Big Hairy Audacious Goal? Having chapters of OutFit all over the world, making it a global movement. First, it starts with building a community of women in nature here in Zürich though. She is planning to create it based on self-power courses, fun pop-up events, and gear services and will lead her first groups in the next months. 

Are you ready to recharge and rediscover yourself? Do you want to become part of this amazing community? Or do you just want to ask Heather some questions? Visit the website or contact her directly! 

© All Pictures by the interviewee – Heather Turnbach

Sarah Ebling

          Sarah Ebling holds a professorship in Accessibility Studies at Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) and is a senior researcher at the University of Zurich. Her research focuses on natural language processing in the context of disabilities and special needs, specifically, sign language technology and automatic text simplification. Her groups’ contributions involve artificial intelligence techniques with a strong emphasis on user involvement. She is involved in various international and national projects and leads a large-scale Swiss innovation initiative entitled „Inclusive Information and Communication Technologies“ (2022-2026; https://www.iict.uzh.ch/).