Katherine Donnelly | 06.13.2018

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 Nicole Handel.

You may already follow along on her adventures via Instagram as she takes on the outdoors with her handsome adventure pup, Bear, but you can get the full scoop from this Vermont-based Woman In The Wild below.

Photo by Adam Doering.

OP: Give us the skinny on who Nicole Handel is.

Nicole Handel: Wow, starting off with the tough questions, huh? I guess I think of myself as a sort of average Vermont woman making attempts at getting the most out of each day, which often means sunrise hikes, sunset tent setups, and a whole lot of multitasking. I’m best known for my relationship with my dog, Bear, and for my strong opinions on advocating for dogs as well as speaking up about women in the outdoors.

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

Nicole Handel: In some capacity, I’ve always known. When you grow up in rural, Upstate New York, the outdoors kind of has a different meaning than just a backdrop for recreation. I grew up hunting, fishing, and doing other sorts of utilitarian activities outside, which is the interesting part: I never had a recreational relationship with the outdoors until I graduated college, got out of a toxic relationship, and made a pact with myself (and more so, with my dog) to do MORE. Since then, I’ve become an avid hiker, mountain biker, splitboarder, rock climber, paddleboarder, and more. So, the short answer: only about four years ago.

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

Nicole Handel: I think that women bring such a strong energy to anything they are a part of. While I don’t buy into the whole “men are ____ and women are ____,” I do think that women typically do have a core set of attributes that actually make them really naturally equipped for the outdoors. Generally speaking, I think women bring a really holistic, big-picture perspective to anything we do. For example, my boyfriend, Adam, might be focused on a particular route that we plan to take to get to the top of a mountain, while I’m obsessing over every single relevant (or sometimes, irrelevant) detail from the moment we’re in to the next 24 or more hours. For me specifically, being a woman in the outdoor industry means many things. Yes, I care about “keeping up” with “the boys," but I also don’t feel this great need to prove myself as a woman. I also feel the need to find my place in the industry non-competitively. For years I had something to prove as a woman, but I’m kind of over that at this point. I’m proving new things to myself daily, and I’m fortunate enough to be surrounded by men who don’t need any convincing that my place is right alongside of them. That said, I am always conscious of the impression that women can make on other women who maybe haven't yet proven to themselves that they should or can do the same things any boy or man in their life is doing. So, I try to always voice my opinions or perspectives on my own experiences as a woman in the outdoors, both positive and negative.

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

Nicole Handel: The outdoors has given me an even playing ground. Recently, I was discussing with a male friend the beauty of most outdoor sports in terms of women and men competing at similar ability levels. In Crossfit, which I’ve been doing for a few years, there are always men’s standards and women’s standards, and they’re often drastically different. In rock climbing, a V10 is a V10...there’s no way around that. I’ve also discovered so much about my own perseverance, grit, and strength via the outdoors. If you think you’re tough, hike, skin, and camp in a -20 degree Fahrenheit snowstorm...it’ll humble the toughest of us.

If I’m honest, I’d really like to be doing more to give back to the outdoors. Thus far I’ve advocated for (and practiced) human-powered activities: Ski mountains are great, but skinning is better; cars are cool, but biking to work is awesome, etc. Additionally, Adam and I try to be as eco-friendly at home as possible, and we make efforts to donate to conservation groups (both local and national) whenever we can. We’re also looking at starting our own non-profit...stay tuned for details!

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?

Nicole Handel: I think (maybe hypocritically, see above) that outdoor enthusiasts, like celebrities or famous athletes, should use their platform to advocate for the outdoors and for conservation. While I think it’s unrealistic for each and every outdoor enthusiast to drop their job and become a lobbyist (sure, it’s the dream… but it isn’t a reality for everyone), I do think that we can each play some role in preserving the outdoors. And that’s really the key for me-- “some role” meaning, we can each make a different kind of difference (if we were all making the same kind of difference, I don’t think we’d be as effective). The difference that I am currently able to make is: as a customer (your money is your vote-- being a patron to companies that share your vision supports that vision), as an environmental steward (respecting and protecting the lands which I use), and as a voice. Words don’t equal action, but they do inspire action. I will always speak against those practices that either don’t contribute to, or harm, the lands that I love.

OP: Who has inspired you along the way?

Nicole Handel: Oh my gosh, where to start?! I think every single woman who spends time in the outdoors wishes she could be/meet/exist in the same space as Caroline Gleich-- she is, for me, the epitome of a badass. I think the same goes for Margo Hayes. Lastly, Abbi Hearne-- she’s down-to-earth, conquers her fears daily, and takes a mean photo. Get it, girls.

OP: What does adventure mean to you?

Nicole Handel: I’m more “Type A” than I’d like to admit. For me, if it doesn’t make me sweat, work, possibly cry, and eventually feel really good about it, then it probably isn’t my kind of adventure. That said, I’m getting better about appreciating life’s smaller adventures (moving into a new apartment, learning how to make my own maple lattes at home, sitting still outside instead of having to be moving at 100% intensity at all times...that sort of thing).

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

Nicole Handel: If someone were to run analytics on my verbiage online and in person, this might actually be my most-used word. But I don’t use it lightly! To me, a badass is anyone who has conquered something that they once thought was unimaginable. I go to Crossfit with this girl who has lost over 120 pounds and now runs marathons, competes in weightlifting, etc...she’s a badass. I also rock climb with a good friend who is scared of heights and has been CRUSHING V3s lately...she’s a badass. Basically, anyone doing anything difficult: You’re a badass.

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?

Nicole Handel: I’ve always felt very connected to my identity as a woman, but not necessarily based on exclusively my femininity. I love my own duality as a woman-- I spend most of my time wearing dirty, sweaty, ugly workout clothes, climbing clothes, baggy mountain bike clothes, etc. The rest of the time I’m in dresses or rompers or something. Being a woman, to me, just has to do with your perception of your own identity-- this isn’t tied to femininity, but rather duality. Not that men can’t be multifaceted, too, but in my own experiences as a woman, that ability to move fluidly throughout my different facets makes me feel most “womanly.”

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

Nicole Handel: “There will be time”-- it’s a line from a T.S. Eliot poem, that I have tattooed on my foot; I often need the reminder that all things have a time, and all things come in time. I sometimes waste my energy worrying so much about doing, that I don’t savor the doing. So I have to step back and say, “There will be time.”

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

Nicole Handel: My watch! I am absolutely lost without it, and will look at my wrist multiple times a day even if I forget it at home.

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. 

Nicole Handel: I was actually discussing this recently with some climbing friends of mine. I feel like in the outdoor industry, especially in rock climbing, there is this like...competition… happening, revolving around who can be more gritty, more dirtbag-y, more authentic, and these qualities are usually related, in their simplest form, to the way women are dressed. It’s cool to climb in old pants and a baggy t-shirt that you’ve had since middle school--I am all about it. But I prefer to climb in leggings and a tank top, and I often feel like people see that as a very “diva” move. At its core, I really like women-specific gear when there is a function behind it. For example, women-specific bikes are cool because their geometry caters to a more stereotypical woman’s body; women-specific packs are cool for the same reason. But I don’t buy into the “pink tax” situation, where companies make something pink and all of a sudden it’s A) More expensive and B) “Women-specific.” I want my clothes and packs and bikes to fit my body...but I don’t need anything to be pink. I’d actually prefer if it wasn’t...

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

Nicole Handel: I honestly cannot choose one piece of advice or direction! I will say, though, that I had three teachers in high school who literally changed my life for the better and gave me a strong sense of identity; two were English teachers, and one was a history teacher, and they got me through a lot of struggles during a really pivotal time in my development. I credit most of my confidence to them. If I had to sum up all of their direction in just one sentence, though, it would go something like, “You are so much more than you think or know.” I didn’t realize the power of support until pretty recently. Maybe I wouldn’t have written so much had they not urged me to; maybe I wouldn’t have explored or traveled so much had they not believed that I would...etc. I would share that advice with anyone on the brink of doing anything big: You can do it, and you will do it if you believe that.

OP: If you could give one piece of advice to yourself when you were just starting out as an outdoor adventurer, what would it be?

Nicole Handel: Objects in motion stay in motion! Figuratively, I mean. I would have told myself to just keep doing things. I remember the first time I ever hiked alone with Bear...summiting was such an accomplishment for me at that stage of my life, and it sparked my independence and spirit for adventure. However, I wish I had gotten into all of my other outdoor interests sooner; I wish I had just kept moving then and joined every local group, climbing gym, mountain bike meetup, etc. But, better late than never!

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?

Nicole Handel: Social media, for me, is an outlet. I recently realized that Instagram was fulfilling some interests that I had when I was younger but that I have never pursued professionally. For example, I always wanted to be a writer, a photographer, an advocate for women, an advocate for dogs...and while I don’t do any of those things, technically, full-time for work, I get to do them on Instagram. I get to write my thoughts down, and, for whatever reason, people are interested in reading them… it’s fulfilling in its own way. And I can say with total honesty that I have always been 100% authentic online; I write about the bad days (my dog getting into the refrigerator, me falling and crying-- a lot-- my first time splitboarding, etc.) as openly as I write about the good days. A couple of weeks ago, though, I partnered with this company whose product I genuinely liked, but then they had me post a caption (under my own caption) that was really corporate-feeling and totally inauthentic to me...it felt awful. I pushed back, and told them how I thought...but it was the first time I ever actually felt like my Instagram wasn’t entirely me. I’ll never do that again.

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

Nicole Handel: A lot of the same stuff and a lot of new stuff! Climbing, biking, hiking, camping, dog-ing...and also a climbing-focused trip out west, and a potential Nepal trip next winter. My dream is to align my work and my play…a full-time job in the outdoor industry (but not a 9 to 5!) is hopefully happening in the near-ish future.

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

Nicole Handel: “Anxious, Passionate, Probably Crying: The Tale of One Very Antsy, Emotional, but Motivated Girl (and her very similar dog).”

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

Nicole Handel: Hopefully, I come back as a dog and Bear comes back as my human owner so that we can keep hanging out indefinitely. Is that weird?

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

Nicole Handel: I’m not one for secret-keeping…I’m pretty sure the whole internet knows any of my embarrassing stories. But, for those that don’t: When I was little, I really wanted to be in the Iditarod. I identified one major issue that I would have, though, which is that I was (am) always cold. So, for “training” purposes, I would go outside in the winter wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and no shoes, and stand in the snow for as long as I could stand. Spoiler alert: It did not help with my perpetual coldness, and I did not (yet) participate in the Iditarod.

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

Nicole Handel: Just DO the stuff you want to do. I know this sounds cliche, but being scared to do something will 100% of the time lead to you regretting not doing it. Take your leash-reactive dog to the park and WORK ON THAT SHIT; rappel down a waterfall even if you’re scared of heights, etc, etc. I’m not advocating for doing things beyond anyone’s skill level-- just their comfort level.

Learn more about Nicole and her work online, and follow along on her adventures with Bear by checking out her Instagram.


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