Katherine Donnelly | 07.30.2018

As part of Outdoor Project's Women In the Wild series this summer, I have had the honor of working with outdoor women from all over the industry to dig a bit deeper into who they are, how they got to where they are now, how they approach the outdoors, and more. These women are all rad in their own right, regardless of where they come from, what they look like, or how "badass" they might be. Whether they're mothers, daughters, sisters, professional athletes, beginners, weekend warriors, "instafamous," or anywhere in-between, their unique stories, journeys, opinions, and perspectives are incredibly valuable and insightful as Outdoor Project - and the industry as a whole - progresses and evolves to become more inclusive to every type of outdoors person. 

Through in-depth and often thought-provoking interviews, I aim to highlight these women's stories, their work, their adventures, and so much more with an eye toward giving them their well-deserved share of the spotlight while inspiring and empowering even more women to get outside!

In this feature we talk to Elyse Rylander.

A lifelong explorer in the outdoors and founder of OUT There Adventures, this Wisconsin born-and-bred Woman In The Wild is a true game changer. She has dedicated her life to spending as much time outside as possible while working tirelessly to increase LGBTQ inclusivity within the outdoor space, and her tenacity and passion for this mission are evident in every answer. Get the full scoop below, and just try not to be inspired!

Photo by Clayon Boyd at The North Face.

OP: Give us the skinny on who Elyse Rylander is.

Elyse Rylander: I'm a white, cisgender queer woman. I grew up on the lakes and rivers of Southern Wisconsin and got my start in the outdoor industry in 2006 at Rutabaga Paddlesports in Madison. I've been a rental technician at a ski hill, a ropes course facilitator, guided sea kayaking and backpacking trips in Alaska, taught youth climbing classes, and most recently I have been working toward increasing LGBTQ inclusivity and visible representation in outdoor spaces as the founding Executive Director of OUT There Adventures and co-founder of the LGBTQ Outdoor Summit. I also have a deep, deep passion for Wisconsin cheese, especially of the breaded and deep fried variety. 

OP: When did you first know that you were going to spend your life in the outdoors?

Elyse Rylander: I was extremely lucky to be born into a family that placed immense value on time spent outside. I took my first canoe trip at the tender age of four weeks. My sister and I spent every summer car camping all over Northern Wisconsin, running through the woods around our house and small rural community, and in the winter we would navigate the manmade snow and ice at the local ski hill. So, from my beginning, being outside has been where I have cultivated my sense of self in relation to my own being, my friends and family, and to the world itself. 

Since I was 16 I've done my darndest to find jobs that allow me to get paid to be outside, and hopefully I'll be able to continue that trend for a long time. 

OP: What does it mean to you to be a woman in the outdoor industry? 

Elyse Rylander: It means a great many things. It means sometimes being the only. It means having to speak up for basic needs. It means having to be better, faster, stronger, smarter and perfect all of the time, but also relatable, fun and always smiling. It means quickly growing a thick skin to deal with all sorts of misogyny, being exhausted from feeling like you always have to advocate for yourself and others, and also guilty for those times when you're just too damn tired and don't want to be the one to have to say something so you just keep quiet and do what you've been taught: get small and invisible. It means keeping a watchful eye when you're alone and there is some guy (or guys) at the trailhead or on the trail, because you just never know. It means sometimes struggling to find connection with other women in the industry because the system has been designed to uplift only one of us at a time. 

It means having the privilege of being socialized to know how to hold space for others, to listen, to create community and to take your empathy and use it to create substantive change. It means having a unique privilege in my gender expression and demeanor that allows me to deftly navigate spaces that other women may struggle in. It means that when you are the only or one of a few, you become adept at finding and cultivating relationships with some really amazing male allies who give you hope for the future. 

It means a million thoughts every single day that run the gamut between socialized self-doubt and self-criticism to learned unfettered confidence. It means being extremely thankful for those that have come before us and created this industry that still has a long way to go but is an improvement on what came before. It means carrying that work forward for the next generation. 

OP: What has the outdoors done for you, and how do you pay it back?

Elyse Rylander: Without intending to sound dramatic, the older I get the more I believe that the outdoors has saved my life. The statistics around the LGBTQ community and homelessness, substance abuse, and suicide paint a bleak picture. I was lucky enough to be born into a family that is nothing but supportive. They unknowingly gave me the tools to access a medium that centers, anchors and cultivates the confidence to wage war in all of the social and emotional ways one has to when you walk at the intersection of marginalized identities. 

While there is probably room for improvement in my stewardship (oh, for more time and money...), I hope that one way I can give back to the outdoors is through the thousands of people, including the hundreds of LGBTQ folks, I have taken in to the outdoors and shared my knowledge and passion with. Stewardship starts with exposure, and I've been lucky to be able to play a role in thousands of moments of exposure to the mountains, ocean, rivers and forests. 

OP: Conservation and protection of our public lands are central themes in today’s outdoor recreation narrative. As someone who spends a significant amount of time outdoors and on public lands, what role do you think outdoor-minded nonprofits - and outdoor enthusiasts, in general - should play in this evolving conversation and landscape?

Elyse Rylander: Hopefully we play an informed, humble, and helpful one. There's much room for growth on all of those fronts, and the need will continue as usage numbers of wild spaces continues to explode. For nonprofits that run programming on public lands, we are training our instructors, educators, guides, etc. on land ethics, and they are then sharing that knowledge with thousands of participants every year. By working with local indigenous communities who are the original stewards of the land we operate on, we have an opportunity and, I think, a responsibility, to add even more to the fight for the protection of our wild spaces.  

OP: Who has inspired you along the way?

Elyse Rylander: I've crossed paths with so many amazing people that have influenced my journey, but there have been a few key players. From the beginning, my family set my foundational connection and respect for nature and adventure. My dad never turned down an opportunity to go outside with my sister and I, and this instilled in us a deep curiosity for the natural world. My mom, who is a teacher and would take us on multi-week summer car camping trips all over Northern Wisconsin, showed my sister and I that there are no limitations to our possibilities because of our gender. My sister has been my number one adventure buddy since we were big enough to take off into the woods around our house on our own, and we definitely keep pushing each other to grow our list of adventures. Now I spend the most time outside with my partner, Emily, who comes from the world of environmental education, and she brings such passion for the care of our planet that it's hard not to get excited about wolf lichen or piddock clams. 

OP: What does adventure mean to you?

Elyse Rylander: Adventure to me is exploring some place for the first time. It doesn't have to be in a wilderness setting, but just any novel experience. You approach those moments with such an "eyes wide open" mentality, and I find them just so exciting and invigorating. I can't remember what I ate for breakfast last Tuesday, but I remember exactly what the icebergs looked like the first time I saw them bobbing or beached in Columbia Bay, or how the air smelled and felt as we meandered through the markets in Hoi An, Vietnam. I even remember the name of the cashier at the one pseudo grocery store in Waston Lake, Yukon, from my first ever drive from Alaska (Mary). Any time you're experiencing something new that makes you wake up and pay attention strikes at the core of adventure to me. 

OP: What does the term "badass" mean to you?

Elyse Rylander: The most concise way to define badass to me is overcoming the odds. I don't have the same admiration for the accomplishments of a white cis dude for whom the system is set up to privilege that I do for the woman of color. To be able to overcome non-chosen poverty, lack of representation, bias, and all of the other things that come with a marginalized identity and to get yourself out there and hiking, climbing, paddling. That's something to be truly inspired by. 

OP: We are seeing a shift in what the term woman or female might bring to mind (LGBTQ, etc.), both in the outdoor community and throughout the world. What does being a woman mean to you? Femininity?

Elyse Rylander: As mentioned above, being a woman means many things to me, and I won't put your readers through those many lines of text again. Femininity is something we don't explicitly talk about as much as an industry, or society. I personally do not identify with much of our socialized ideas about femininity. Those spaces are too constraining. Our industry needs to continue its conversations around how it engages with the idea of femininity, and specifically how it continues to prioritize the sexualization of certain bodies. As women in the industry, we need to show up better as allies for each other and stop perpetuating the implicit homophobia and transphobia I experience time and time again. I stopped attending "women's" specific events recently because I rarely find myself at home in those spaces. We need to better understand the social nuance to the ideas of masculinity and femininity, unpack our biases and phobias as it relates to these concepts, and understand that at their core they are completely made up. As feminist theorist Judith Butler argues, "Gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original...the act of elaborating itself is evidence that it is perpetually at risk...that it 'knows' its own possibility of becoming undone." 

OP: What mantra or set of words do you live by?

Elyse Rylander: I can't say that I have a mantra or words to live by, but my sister and I have laughed at the fact that we both seem to possess a motivation to just have more adventure stories than our parents, so I suppose the question of "Have Mom and Dad done this, and would they think it was cool?!" has been a subconscious driving force in my life. That and "Just don't be an asshole." 

OP: In a perfect world, what does the outdoors (the people, the places, the community as a whole, etc.) look like to you? And what can outdoor brands and media companies, such as Outdoor Project, do better to help get us there?

Elyse Rylander: To me, any place, whether it's inside or out, looks perfect when it embodies true inclusion. For me that means not just opening the doors and saying "c'mon in/out!" but rather intentionally creating a space and culture that recognizes and honors systemic injustice and lived oppression/trauma to the point that everyone can show up as their authentic self and be seen, heard, valued and respected. 

OP: What is one thing that you never leave home without? 

Elyse Rylander: My bright orange Von Zipper Elmores on Chums. I'm actually on my second generation after the first bit the dust after 6 years of constant wear, and the pair I have now are knockoffs. Patiently waiting for Von Zipper to make them again...cough, cough. 

OP: Let’s talk gear - what are your thoughts on women-specific gear? Love it, hate it? Are there any companies out there doing it right? And how so? When does it matter to you most to have gear specific to women versus unisex products?

Elyse Rylander: My thoughts on women's gear can be summed up as, "meh." There is so much work to be done on this front, and I don't think any company is doing this well at this time. I personally get all of my pro deals in the men's lines for a number of reasons (cut, color, function, etc.), and I completely understand from a gender affirmation standpoint why people have intense feelings around clothing. So, overall I think gendering our clothes or gear is not an inherently bad thing, but we need to unpack the social weight, expectations and assumptions around the act of gendering our gear and understand the true why of what we are doing. The only time I do intentionally seek out women's specific gear is in search of things like PFD's or drysuits. "Women's" specific PFD's can be way more comfortable and do often fit better than "men's," and I think drysuits may be the one example in the industry in which the "women's" version really has the upper hand. #RearDropseat 

OP: What is the greatest piece of advice or direction that you’ve ever received, and what’s the story behind it?

Elyse Rylander: One of my mentors, Jeff Weidman, told me that anything worth doing takes three years. The first year you're a total junkshow. The second year you think you know what you're doing, but you don't. And in the third year you're actually making true progress, dialing in your systems and getting your feet under you. I've found that to be true in all facets of life, and a good reminder in many situations to be patient. 

OP: If you could give one piece of advice to yourself when you were just starting out with OUT There Adventures, what would it be?

Elyse Rylander: Win the lottery first! All jokes aside, I don't know that I would have any advice to give myself as everything I've learned along the way is what I needed to learn in order to grow. It's been a long and difficult road that I didn't truly understand when I started out, but how could I without actually going through it? Another mentor of mine, Jay Satz, would say "be patient," but that's another conversation for another day...

OP: In a world seemingly run by online personas, how do you approach social media and how does it play into your lifestyle - both work and play?

Elyse Rylander: Ugh. I hate social media. I've been trying to find a year-round social media intern for years for OTA because I have zero desire to acquire that skill. I also think "diversity" is a hot topic in the industry right now, and I have never wanted to build OTA off of how many followers we have. It can be a successful way to approach the work, but the product I'm "selling" doesn't fit the model for creating a social media influencer anyway. So, for better or worse, I choose to invest as little as I can in to it. It's such a black hole, and that energy can be used for good, but it's also just so surface level. The consequences of our unchecked addiction to social media terrify me, so I like to keep it at an arm's distance. 

OP: What’s next for you in the coming months and years?

Elyse Rylander: We have the second annual LGBTQ Outdoor Summit coming up in October in San Francisco, and we're constantly building up our reach and our programming. I'm also getting married next summer, so it looks like the running at full steam will be continuing for at least the foreseeable future. 

OP: The title of your autobiography would be...

Elyse Rylander: Why Wisconsin Cheddar Is The Best and Other Such Musings 

OP: In your next life, you will come back as...

Elyse Rylander: A transient orca whale. 

OP: Tell us one thing about yourself that no one knows.

Elyse Rylander: Uh...I really can't think of much that no one wouldn't already know. The best I can do is that I have food-induced asthma, which really just means I cough a lot when I eat solid dry things, like sandwiches. Really scandalous stuff over here. 

OP: If our readers were to take one thing from this interview, what would you like it to be?

Elyse Rylander: Critically analyze EVERYTHING. That was another piece of great advice I received years ago from a professor. That doesn't mean be critical of everything, but rather be curious. Seek to interrogate the why and how of something, not just take it at face value. 

OP: Feel like we missed anything? 

Elyse Rylander: Go Pack Go. Save the whales, but seriously. Never make assumptions, and just don't be an asshole.

Learn more about Elyse and her work with OUT There Adventures online, on Facebook, and on the 'gram.


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