HIGH POINT — Jody Bitzenhofer still laughs about the first backpacking trip she led a couple of years ago.
The 46-year-old High Point woman had recently volunteered to become the administrator of a Facebook group called Girls Who Hike NC, a site created for North Carolina women who share an interest in hiking and backpacking, or who want to learn. As the admin, Bitzenhofer had decided to lead a group of women on a 23-mile backpacking trip at Grayson Highlands State Park in Virginia.
“Some of the women had never backpacked before, and I remember thinking it was gonna be a mess,” she recalls. “The first day, one of the girls had a bad dizzy spell. The second day, another one ran out of water, and we had to modify the route. Things were not going well.”
That second night, though, as the small group of women sat around the campfire talking and commiserating, something clicked, and the women began to bond in a way they hadn’t before.
“There’s just something so raw and honest and vulnerable about being out in the woods and away from society, where we just let our guards down and let people see who we really are, and that’s what happened,” Bitzenhofer says.
“On the third day, when we got back, the women were all hooting and hollering like they had just climbed Mount Everest. It was amazing.”
Since then, Bitzenhofer and other volunteers have led dozens of day hikes and backpacking or camping trips — even a few rappelling and rock-climbing adventures — and the private Facebook group has grown to more than 10,500 members.
“It’s not just about getting out and backpacking, but connecting with other women and building a community,” Bitzenhofer explains. “And getting outdoors, especially where there’s no cellphone service, is a great way to connect.”
It’s also about empowering women of all ages to try something new and build self-confidence through the sense of accomplishment hiking and backpacking can provide, especially for women who have never tried backpacking.
“I think it gets women out of their comfort zone and challenges them to do something they didn’t think they could do,” Bitzenhofer says. “It creates a sense of empowerment, and I think they’ve taken that into their home life, making changes in their personal lives, as well.”
Consider, for example, the case of Becqui Masters, a 51-year-old Elizabeth City woman who joined Bitzenhofer for that first backpacking trip back in August 2019.
“Hiking is something I grew up with, but I had never been backpacking before that trip,” Masters recalls. “I was absolutely miserable, because I had no idea what I was doing. But I stuck with it, and Jody has taught me so much about backpacking — she has an incredible amount of knowledge.”
Since then, Masters has participated in a number of backpacking trips, including outings to Hanging Rock State Park and Uwharrie National Forest. She has even driven as far as eight hours to join the group for a trip, and she says it’s worth it.
“I’ve met some incredible women, and I’ve gained so much self-confidence,” she says. “I’ve done things I never thought I would do, especially at my age and with my health.”
Masters admits she’s come a long way from being that disconsolate woman who was backpacking for the first time two years ago.
“When I went on that first trip, I was so miserable,” she says. “My pack weight was so heavy, and it was so hot, and I wasn’t used to that kind of terrain. I remember thinking, ‘I’m never doing this again,’ but now I can’t wait to go back.”
That’s the kind of enthusiasm Bitzenhofer hopes to foster through Girls Who Hike NC. And to encourage women who’ve never backpacked, she has turned the Facebook group into a nonprofit organization that will be able to loan equipment to first-time backpackers.
“I see so many women who are wanting to do this, but they’re sitting on the sidelines because it’s intimidating, and because of the expense,” Bitzenhofer says.
“This is not something where people can just go out and purchase gear just to see if they like it. My goal was to get our nonprofit status and then approach companies and ask for equipment donations. That way, the women just have to pack their clothes, pack some food and water, and show up. And if they like it, then they can piecemeal the equipment.”
According to Bitzenhofer, Girls Who Hike NC is open to women of all ages and all levels of experience.
“We come from all walks of life, all ages, all political leanings,” she says. “When we have an event, all of that stuff just kind of dissolves, and we come together as women who love the outdoors.”
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