Katherine Donnelly | 06.22.2018

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 hope 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 Nielson.

Lifelong lover of the outdoors and co-founder of Dirty Gourmet, this Woman In The Wild spills all - from her journey and goals through the outdoor industry to the importance of family in all aspects of her life. Get the full scoop below.

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

Emily Nielson: I was born in Reno, Nevada, and grew up the rest of my life split half and half between Las Vegas and Orlando. My parents worked in the entertainment industry, but were also big outdoorspeople. All those tourist attractions made it enticing for my family to get away from it all and get into the backcountry on days off. We camped a lot with Aimee Trudeau’s family (we’re cousins).

I double-majored in Biology and Philosophy at Florida State University, and moved back West to work at an outdoor science school in Big Bear, California, wanting to focus on experiential outdoor education for my career. I’ve remained in the outdoor industry ever since, working as a Sales Manager at REI until recently becoming a full time business owner with Dirty Gourmet.

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

Emily Nielson: I went on an Outward Bound trip when I was 15 years old. Though the outdoors were already my comfort zone, I learned so much more about myself and my capabilities on that trip than I thought I would. I also learned that you can make a career in the outdoors, which had never crossed my mind before.

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

Emily Nielson: I never thought much about my gender throughout the majority of my life outdoors. I was born into it with other strong women to guide me, which made it easy for me to learn the skills needed to do the activities I loved. I was comfortable being the only woman in most groups as I got older, and it took me a while to understand how off-putting the industry was for other women who were just getting started.

When I began working in action sports retail, I experienced the intimidation that many other women had tried to convey to me in the past. Though I learned and became comfortable with technical gear quickly, I never imagined there would be so much hesitation to trust me from customers and co-workers. I have always been willing to admit when I don’t know something, but I found myself trying to fake the “shop talk” and felt terrible about myself if I made a minor mistake, watching the customer immediately write me off and walk over to a male (often untrained in the department) to ask the same question. I struggled and wanted to quit everyday for a while, but my supportive female boss pushed me on. This was what I needed to get through the learning stage of something new in the outdoors, and I realized that needed to be my future role for other women. I became the Sales Lead and then the Sales Manager of the department and worked to prepare more females to feel comfortable learning in such space.

As a growing female leader in the industry, I still spend too much time comparing myself to others and feeling like maybe I can’t handle it after all. But I’ve learned to feel comfortable being uncomfortable, and I can usually disarm the whole conversation by being honest and authentic about the fact that I might not know everything, but I’m willing to learn and try because that’s what outdoor recreation is about in the first place.

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

Emily Nielson: I don’t think I even knew much about what it meant to be self-confident or self-reliant until I went on my first Outward Bound trip. I was an incredibly shy child who was afraid to admit any of my own opinions or thoughts to the outside world. Going on that trip was the first real time I got away from everyone I knew, and I could redefine myself without being held back by preconceived notions and pre-built reputations. I quickly realized that I could grow much more than I’d thought- yes, in outdoor activities like backpacking and rock climbing, but also in forming relationships and believing in myself.

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 enthusiasts should play in this evolving conversation and landscape?

Emily Nielson: You can only protect what you love and understand, so it is much more likely for an outdoor enthusiast to have the motivation to protect our wild lands than someone who hasn’t experienced it. Our role as enthusiasts is to be just that- enthusiastic about talking about our experiences! We need to get as many new people out there as possible to see what they are missing. The problem of not having enough public lands for us all will grow as popularity increases. Disrespectful treatment of our lands likely will, too, but then so will the need for protection and care. The support for protection will make it more likely to get it.

OP: Who has inspired you along the way?

Emily Nielson: I’ve been lucky enough to meet many amazing people in the industry, but my biggest inspiration will always be my dad and Aimee’s dad. They are brothers who have always made it a priority to fold outdoor experiences into our family’s lives. They have shown me how easy it is to get outside, even if just for half a day, and how essential the experience is to overall health and well-being. I will always make it a priority for my family, and I hope the tradition continues.

OP: What does adventure mean to you?

Emily Nielson: Adventure is a synonym for unpredictable, and it has everything to do with attitude. My favorite memories are of trips where things didn’t go as planned, whether we saw incredible shooting stars because we forgot our tent or got stuck in a surprise snowstorm and had to dig ourselves out through a tunnel in the morning. Even the worst sounding stories can be the best memories if you look at them in an adventure-tinted light.

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

Emily Nielson: It means the user is surprised by the success level of the woman being labeled as such. This is an overused term directed almost exclusively toward females nowadays. The person using the term usually means for it to be a compliment, but it generally makes women feel like she must already be an expert in a particular activity to be accepted.

OP: How have you managed to align your career with your passion for the outdoors? And do you have any advice for someone who is looking to do the same?

Emily Nielson: I always joked that I planned to weave all my interests into one complex career that I invented myself. At this point, I’ve done just that. I got myself into the industry in an entry level position way below my qualifications and I quickly moved forward because I loved the feeling of sharing my mission with others. I received a steady flow of opportunities that were atypical of any of my positions because my mission aligned with what is actually important.

Follow your passions wherever they take you, and if they are authentic, you will be a success. The world runs on passion and authenticity, and they will carry you anywhere you want to go if you let them.

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

Emily Nielson: I don’t really mind being a woman, but my goal is to not have to think and talk about it all the time. I want to think about what particular struggles I’ve overcome as an individual with my specific set of experiences. There are people I can relate to along the whole gender spectrum based on their experiences, not their gender. I don’t want it to feel weird and against the grain to be a woman who owns a successful business in the outdoor industry.

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

Emily Nielson: Live your life as an exclamation, not an explanation.

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 Nielson: The “outdoors” is the real world, and it should be integrated into everything. I want to see nature take back it’s place in everyday life. Green should be the dominant color we see walking down every street. We should feel the clean air bathing our lungs as we breathe it in at home and at work. Everyone should be able to de-stress by stepping outside and admiring what they see, wherever they are, and think about running/hiking/exploring when they think of exercise rather than a temperature-controlled room full of man-made equipment to simulate it.

As an industry, it is our responsibility to keep “the outdoors” from being a short-lived and exclusive trend. We need to make sure it grows into an integral part of everyday life with benefits that are strongly understood. We need to focus on approachability and inclusiveness in our advertising, and we should consistently build more tips for how to incorporate outdoor recreation into our busy and disconnected lives.

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

Emily Nielson: I’m a major journaler, so I always have a notebook and pen with me wherever I go. I recently learned that they are no longer teaching cursive in school, and it broke my heart. I love analog writing, and I’m sad to see it die.

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 Nielson: I hate the idea of women-specific gear, but I do believe there is a noticeable difference when it comes to fit of technical gear such as backpacks and footwear. I’m very small framed, so I quickly recognize the difference in comfort between something like my Gregory Deva backpack or my low-volume Lange ski boots and a unisex equivalent. I constantly wonder about whether offering extended sizing would eliminate a lot of gender-specific needs, but I don’t know if that would be enough for a truly good fit in some cases.

It is very frustrating that color is still such a cultural issue, though. If there is a hint of purple on a lime green sleeping bag, the small young male that would fit nicely into it won’t even dream of making the purchase, and I’d love to own something that was just plain green instead of mint or teal. Patagonia has done the best job of shaking this up, and REI is following suit, but the problem persists.

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

Emily Nielson: My mother always told me that if you put what you want out into the universe you will get it. This was such a silly-sounding mumbo-jumbo piece of advice that I usually rolled my eyes, but it didn’t stop her from repeating it my entire life. I never had a clear idea of what I wanted in my head, and my direction has always been more of a spiral than anything resembling a straight line, so I didn’t realize I’d been doing this all along. Looking back, I can see that I have managed to succeed at getting almost everything I’ve ever truly wanted.

OP: If you could give one piece of advice to yourself when you were just starting out Dirty Gourmet what would it be?

Emily Nielson: Don’t be afraid of competition or collaboration. The more friends we have in this industry, the more we can grow and positively impact the world together. We are a generally shy trio, and we spent a lot of years waiting for others to come to us with opportunities, though there were plenty of people out there who we were secret super fans of. We should have reached out sooner.

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 Nielson: Our business started as a blog, which we were told could never be successful without a solid understanding of social media. We have found ourselves to be mediocre at best in terms of growing traffic and followers, but every post we post is authentic to our brand and timely. This has helped us increase the loyalty of what followers we have, which has proven to be more useful to our current business model than fast growth.

As an individual in the beginning, I fell into the trap of wanting to share everything I was doing with my friends. One day I forgot my camera and thought about everyone who’d be sad not to share the glorious sunset I was witnessing. I told myself it was ok to be fully present and experience it for myself and no one else. I walked myself all the way out there with my own two feet, so I was the one who deserved the experience. I am now almost absent from social media as an individual.

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

Emily Nielson: There are so many unknowns with our future, and I’m learning to live in the now as best I can and enjoy the ride, which takes many turns. We hope to be able to scale our current business considerably in the next year or two which, should free up more time to work on new projects with DG and spend more time with our families. I’m currently a foster mom to three sweet kiddos who teach us more about being fully present than anything else ever could.

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

Emily Nielson: Duality.

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

Emily Nielson: A giraffe. I easily get sucked into the details and am always trying to back up and be able to see the bigger picture around me. Being a giraffe would help.

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

Emily Nielson: I’m 34 with three kids and I still don’t feel like I am old enough to be called a “woman.”

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

Emily Nielson: Just get out there and do stuff. Do what you want and feel great about it (even if that feels weird at first). 

Learn more about Emily and her work with Dirty Gourmet here, and make sure to check out their new cookbook - Dirty Gourmet: Food for Your Outdoor Adventures (Mountaineers Books)


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