Katherine Donnelly | 06.20.2018

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 Emily Downing.

On the hunt to shine a brilliant light on women within outdoor media and journalism, this Woman In The Wild is equal parts editorial guru and powder hound. You'll likely find this Colorado-native in the mountains - whether it be the skin track or guiding a cat skiing adventure - or in the classroom working toward a graduate degree in Integrative and Public Lands Management. Get the full scoop below.

OP: Give us the skinny on who Emily Downing is.

Emily Downing: I am a skier, trail runner, and mountain lover. I am also Outdoor Women's Alliance’s managing editor, a guide in northwestern Montana, and a Wilderness EMT.

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

Emily Downing: I don’t remember ever consciously making a decision to spend my life outside. I was lucky enough to grow up hiking and skiing with my family and really valuing both of those activities. Thanks to my mom’s stories about her own experiences living in Park City in the 1980s, I always knew that I wanted to ski bum for a few years as well. Sometime around the end of high school, I started to realize that I could choose to spend my free time pursuing outdoor activities like backpacking, skiing, and rock climbing, and I was hooked.

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

Emily Downing: Up until the last year or two, I never really felt like being a woman affected my role as a guide. I consider myself fairly lucky to have been surrounded by people who never doubted my abilities based on my gender. Sure, there have been instances where I have not felt that support, but by and large I don’t think it’s made a difference in my work as a guide.

However, I would say it’s much different in outdoor journalism. I discovered Outdoor Women’s Alliance four years ago after a frustrating search for female voices in outdoor magazines. I’ve never felt like there’s a lack of women outside doing things, be it mountain biking or rock climbing or skiing, but you’d never know that based on what you see in outdoor media. It’s exciting to see the industry change over the last year or two – there’s a new awareness of this disparity. I really feel like we’re about to start seeing a more equitable amount of published photos, articles, and videos by women (and about women).

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

Emily Downing: I am challenged in so many ways by the experiences I have outside, and that is invaluable. The biggest challenge is always coming to terms with the constant reminder of my own insignificance, a feeling I think many people get from being in the mountains. I’ve always let that feeling guide my actions in the outdoors, whether it’s following Leave No Trace principles while recreating or developing my own conservation ethic. I want to make sure I remain insignificant so that others (humans, animals, and plants) can enjoy the same wild places I love.

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 nonprofits in the outdoor space - and outdoor enthusiasts, in general - should play in this evolving conversation and landscape?

Emily Downing: This is a great question, and something I’ve thought so much about in the last couple of years. (In fact, I am actually going back to school so I can devote some serious study and work to this question). In all aspects of my life – as a guide, as a recreator, as an outdoor media consumer/contributor – I’ve been unable to ignore the booming interest in the outdoors and our public lands. I see it in the explosive growth in visitation that my corner of Montana has seen in the last couple of years, the number of people I see using trails, and also in the increasing social and political influence of the outdoor industry. I think it’s so, so important for people to get outside and experience wild places in order to develop a respect for the natural world.

However, I’ve also seen first-hand how places can be loved to death. I know that there’s a balance somewhere – there has to be, because there are now 7 billion of us sharing these wild places. There are many bright sides to the explosion in popularity of outdoor activity. In recent years, we’ve seen the creation of thousands of groups dedicated to various aspects of land and resource conservation. The influence of outdoor media can’t be overlooked either, as it plays a huge role in getting people outside as well as supplementing the work done by nonprofits and other conservation groups. I think outdoor media can also do a lot of good in starting conversations that force us to change our perceptions of how to recreate in order to uphold the vitality of the landscapes we use.

OP: Who has inspired you along the way?

Emily Downing: This is an industry full of an overwhelming amount of inspiring people. Everywhere I look, I see awesome people doing really cool things, from setting new routes up remote mountains to fighting for the outdoor community’s voice in the political arena. Outdoor activities both breed and attract strong and motivated individuals, which translates into some seriously inspiring accomplishments.

That said, most of my personal inspiration comes from my friends and family. The people who get me out the door at dark-o’clock in the morning to run, the people who encourage me to push past self-doubt, and the people who just can’t stop having fun outside. These folks are the reason I do what I do.

OP: What does adventure mean to you?

Emily Downing: Growth is an essential component of adventure in my mind, and people grow when they are learning. I learn by being presented with new experiences and challenges, which happens in the outdoors but also can be found in meeting new people and hearing different perspectives on any given topic. Even sitting on the couch reading a book can be an adventure!

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

Emily Downing: I use this term maybe a bit more than necessary, but I mean it every time I use it. To me, “badass” has two meanings. Sometimes I use the term to mean hardcore, as in the type of adventure that has you route-finding on the side of a mountain with your feet numb from cold. In other instances (mostly when I’m using the word to describe people), “badass” signifies a go-getter, as in a highly motivated person who doesn’t take no for an answer. I realize that’s a pretty literal answer.

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

Emily Downing: I go through phases where different mantras help motivate me through whatever I am facing at the time. For the last few years, I’ve been motivated by the mantra “challenge yourself,” which has kept me seeking new experiences and pushing myself and helped me to avoid the stagnation that can sometimes come with seasonal work.

Recently, however, I’ve been really inspired by a few words from a Thoreau quote: “once well done.” Right now, I feel like I need to be reminded to slow down and make sure I give whatever I’m doing my full attention and effort.

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?

Emily Downing: In my perfect world, there would be a vastly smaller human population putting a lesser strain on the planet. More realistically, however, I would really like to see a shift in the way we use the outdoors, one geared toward a perspective of respecting both the landscapes we recreate on and the other people that use those landscapes (regardless of the type of use). Outdoor brands and media companies need to stop romanticizing the idea of “one man alone in the wilderness,” which was a beautiful ideal during the 19th and 20th centuries. Unfortunately, that ideal is no longer realistic or sustainable with the current population and popularity of outdoor recreation. Instead, we need to start educating people on things like Leave No Trace principles and how to share our resources in a sustainable way (the Glacier National Park Instagram account @glaciernps has been doing a beautiful job with this recently). Stewardship is now more important than ever, and it’s up to the industry to make this conscious change in perspective.

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

Emily Downing: A headlamp! Because it only takes one misadventure to learn to always have one in your pack.

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?

Emily Downing: I am not going to lie – I think most women-specific gear is a load of hooey. Not because it isn’t made well (I think we’ve come leaps and bounds in that arena in the last decade), but because I don’t think it’s necessary. As long as you have gear that fits your size and adventure level, you should be able to use that gear to have a good time outside. Rather than focusing on making (and selling) more women’s gear, companies should save their marketing dollars and simply make a wide variety of sizes, styles, and, yes, colors to sell to everyone, regardless of gender. And can we please start pricing things based on the amount of materials used and the quality of the product? For instance, it kills me every time I see a men’s backpack and, right next to it in the store, the pastel-colored women’s version that is four liters smaller yet costs the same.

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

Emily Downing: One event that stands out in my mind is a moment that occurred during an eighth grade English class. Our class was distracted from the lesson by the boughs of a sapling moving around outside the window. A worker was uprooting the recently planted tree and moving it into the yard. The classroom filled with indignant queries – why would he uproot a tree that was just planted? I made a comment along the lines of “Maybe there’s a pipe or something there that he has to access.” The teacher turned my way, shouting “AHA” and surprising me and the rest of the class into silence. “That is important,” he said. “We should always give people the benefit of the doubt.”

For some reason, this has stuck with me, influencing how I view the actions and words of others. Even when (especially when) I don’t understand where someone is coming from, I force myself to realize that I don’t know the whole story and try to reserve judgment.

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?

Emily Downing: While I like to say that social media plays a very small roll in my life, I use it almost every day. Social media connects me to people and ideas influencing the outdoor community, and I feel like it keeps me relevant as an editor.

However, I try to stay hyper-aware of how the content that I consume on platforms like Instagram makes me feel. I constantly check in and ask myself if scrolling through my feed is inspiring me or making me jealous of others. If I’ve been trending toward the latter, I know it’s time for a break.

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

Emily Downing: I actually just moved back to Colorado (where I grew up) to start a graduate program in Integrative and Public Lands Management. I want to figure out how outdoor media can play a role in making the increase in recreation on our public lands sustainable. It will be interesting settling back into an academic routine after spending so much of the last six years of my life running around outside, but I’m excited for the challenge.

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

Emily Downing: “Unlimited Carrots and the Other Perks of Being a Ski Bunny.” I wish I could take credit for this title, but I have a friend who is really talented with headlines and he came up with this one. As the title suggests, I eat a lot of carrots.

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

Emily Downing: I hope I’d come back as a tree of some sort, like a ponderosa pine. I get the sense that trees experience events very differently than humans do, and I’d really like to understand a different sense of time and significance.

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

Emily Downing: I think I come off as a highly practical person, but I am a romantic at heart and love fairy tales and the endings associated with them.

Learn more about Emily by following her on Instagram, and make sure to check out Outdoor Women's Alliance here.


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