Katherine Donnelly | 09.14.2018

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 Sirena Rana Dufault.

Photo by Russell James Newberg.

OP: Give us the quick and dirty on who Sirena Rana Dufault is.

Sirena Rana Dufault: I’m a 44-year old, half-East Indian, half-Italian child of immigrants. Originally from the Chicago suburbs, I’ve been living in my adopted home of Tucson, Arizona, in the Sonoran Desert for the past 24 years. I’m the founder of Trails Inspire, a consulting company dedicated to promoting the outdoors via writing, public speaking, photography and trail design. I’m passionate about getting people to experience the outdoors and protecting our public lands. 

I have a deep connection to Arizona and love showing people through hiking, backpacking, canyoneering and rafting that this state is so much more than just a desert! I’m one of the leading experts on the Arizona National Scenic Trail (AZT) and have completed it twice. I’ve spent the past decade building, promoting and hiking the AZT, and I’m currently writing a book about it. I consider the Grand Canyon my second home and am working on the Grand Canyon Traverse, section-hiking the length of the Canyon. 

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

Sirena Rana Dufault: Mine came later than most. Though my family would visit public lands on vacation, I didn’t grow up hiking or camping. When I was 19, I went on my first hike right before I moved to Tucson to attend the University of Arizona. At the university, I met people who showed me some of the popular hiking spots in town, and it piqued my interest. 

I was in an accident in 1997, hit by a pickup truck while walking across the street. Over time I developed fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition, lost my job and ended up bedridden. After a while I got fed up with it and decided to start taking walks with my dog. I realized that the outdoors provided a welcome distraction from my symptoms and slowly started increasing the distance and difficulty of my hikes.

In 2007 I went on a hike and saw a sign for the Arizona Trail, an 800-mile trail that at the time was still being built. I got the idea to hike the entire thing, and I section-hiked the Arizona Trail, mostly solo, over a period of 15 months in 2008 and 2009. I always say that the person who started the trail and the one who finished are two totally different people. That journey gave me the confidence to explore, and since then my appetite for the outdoors has been insatiable.

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

Sirena Rana Dufault: I’ve worked in many jobs and industries where I was either one of only a few women or the only one. Being a woman in any of them has meant having to go the extra distance to prove myself, dealing with gatekeepers and mansplaining, and being told that I’ve gotten special treatment because of being a woman. I’ve never let it stop me, but it does get exhausting at times.

As far as my adventures, I feel I am often overlooked. Perfect example: I have taken many people, often men, on their first trips in Grand Canyon. When we would meet other backpackers, it is automatically assumed that the men are the trip leaders even though most of the time I’ve got more time in the canyon than all of them put together. 

It’s not all negative though; through the industry I have met many amazing women who inspire me and provide a wonderful sense of community. I’ve also had the opportunity to be a role model for women who are just starting out or unsure of their abilities. 

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

Sirena Rana Dufault: The benefits are so multi-faceted, here’s a list:

  • Helped me to manage my chronic pain condition.
  • Provided me with a source of confidence that I am capable of doing challenging things, whether outdoors or in other parts of my life.
  • My solo trips have allowed me to absolutely and completely be myself.
  • I’ve been to spectacular places both as an adventurer and while guiding others. 
  • Provided quality bonding time with my dad, who is often my support crew.
  • Made long-lasting friendships on the trail, in the gateway communities, and in the industry.

I pay it back by:

  • Advocating for the outdoors.
  • Designing trail systems and promoting community trail planning.
  • Speaking about economic benefits of trails .
  • Volunteering to maintain trails.
  • Inspiring others to get outside.

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?

Sirena Rana Dufault: I think it’s important to give back. Since I use trails and public lands, I think it’s important to advocate for them, whether it’s by providing public comments online or going to public meetings. 

Since 2007 I have built and maintained trail, and it really makes you appreciate the amount of effort that goes into sustaining a safe path of travel year after year. With budgets for public lands being cut, it’s more important than ever for volunteers to help pick up the slack. I’d recommend looking into it, it’s a great way to spend some time outside and there’s probably a trail crew that would love the extra help.

OP: Who has inspired you along the way?

Sirena Rana Dufault: When I was getting into the outdoors, I volunteered on a trail crew called The Crazies that helped to build the Arizona Trail near Tucson. I was the only woman among a crew made up of retired men, average age 65, but the oldest was in his 80s. They were some of the most fit people I’ve ever met, and it inspired me to make being active a lifestyle for the rest of my time on this earth. 

More recently I’ve been inspired by a lot of women doing awesome things, whether it’s in the outdoors, the industry, or entrepreneurship. Women like Heather “Anish” Anderson, who has Fastest Known Times on several long-distance trails and is now going for a calendar year Triple Crown. Or women like Georgina Miranda from She Ventures or Gale Straub from She Explores, who amplify stories of women to inspire others. Also people like Jenny Bruso and Unlikely Hikers, Ambreen Tariq from Brown People Camping and others who are helping to broaden the sense of what it means to be “outdoorsy.”

OP: What does adventure mean to you?

Sirena Rana Dufault: Adventure doesn’t have to be some long-distance epic trek to somewhere you’ve never been before. I try to find adventure in the little things as well, like enjoying the sights and animals I see on my walks with my dog or when I’m not feeling well, going somewhere, bringing a chair or a hammock and just being outside. 

But adventures definitely come in different sizes, like the big ones that I’ve spent countless hours preparing, planning, looking at maps and visualizing. The ones that give me butterflies and a sense of stretching my abilities so much so that I don’t even know if I’ll be able to finish. Those are precious.

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

Sirena Rana Dufault: Living life to the fullest while pushing boundaries.

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?

Sirena Rana Dufault: I have had a lot of different careers: archaeologist, massage therapist, working in the video game industry. When I got into hiking, I never imagined I would make the outdoors my career. It was just something I was doing to help heal myself and manage my fibromyalgia. 

I always recommend volunteering for people trying to break into new professions. It’s a great way to meet people for networking, to get a feel for what the work is like, and learn a lot. 

I was volunteering with the Arizona Trail Association when I was offered a job as the Gateway Community Liaison, a position I held for five years. I was volunteering on the Colorado River in Grand Canyon with Arizona Game and Fish when I was told that I should try to get a job as a river guide. Though I had no boating experience, I had other qualities that led Arizona River Runners to hire me (at 38 years old!), and I ended up working four seasons as a rafting guide.

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?

Sirena Rana Dufault: It took me a while to realize that I didn’t have to give up “girly” things just because I’m doing outdoor activities. I’ve worked many jobs where I was the only woman and have downplayed my femininity in the past. I can rock a skirt, put up twinkle lights in camp, and keep my toes polished and still meet my objectives. 

It's great what organizations like OUT There Adventures and Alpenglow Collective are doing to represent LGBTQ+ communities and underrepresented genders in the outdoors. I think people should be able to express themselves however they want and be accepted in the wild, there’s no one right way.  

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

Sirena Rana Dufault: It’s not so much a word or a phrase but a sense of gratitude. It’s changed my perspective in so many different ways. 

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?

Sirena Rana Dufault: In a perfect world, communities provide access to public spaces that are welcoming to all. Public lands are filled with people of all backgrounds, with a wide range of activities for all abilities. Outreach and support is available for underserved populations. 

Visitors are taught about the indigenous people of the land and well-versed in Leave No Trace principles. 

Plenty of funding is given to maintain the trails and facilities on our public lands and the science that is done within them. And that the value of the multifaceted benefits of outdoor recreation - mental, physical, economic, spiritual - is recognized. 

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

Sirena Rana Dufault: As a desert dweller, I’d have to say water.

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?

Sirena Rana Dufault: I am admittedly not much of a gearhead. I’m fortunate to have been supported by the company Gossamer Gear since 2014, and their gear is unisex and works great for me. In fact, the only women-specific gear that I own is my clothes and shoes. 

For years I have hiked in a thrift-shop skirt, but I just changed to a Purple Rain Adventure Skirt. I’m fortunate that I like pinks and purples that are usually available in women’s clothing, but there should be options for those who don’t. 

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

Sirena Rana Dufault: When I was working on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon as a guide and learning how to drive a 32-foot motor boat, I had a trip leader and teacher named Chelsea Atwater. I didn’t know a thing about boating when I was hired, and all the training was done on the job. I was nervous about an upcoming rapid, and she told me, “When you’re doing something scary - take a deep breath, smile, say 'This is badass!,' and then go for it”.

I use that a lot, whether it’s taking on tough terrain, going over the edge on rappel, a challenging business situation, or in my volunteer position working with raptors at a wildlife rehabilitation center.

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

Sirena Rana Dufault: “It’s all going to work out!” It was such a leap of faith to start my own business, and it took a while to even narrow down the scope of the services I wanted to offer. I’m so pleased that I’ve been able to figure out a way to make a living this way, and I have several multi-year projects in the works. 

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?

Sirena Rana Dufault: I have had a blog since my first hike of the Arizona Trail in 2008. I started sharing online rather than just keeping it in my journal because I always appreciated reading the experiences of others when doing research for my hikes. Plus, I’m often solo and it’s the way for me to share the amazing things I get to see. 

I’ve advocated for different causes such as Fibromyalgia awareness, public lands issues and wildlife rehabilitation through my website and social media. I’ve also used social media as a tool to promote trails and tourism. 

Since starting Trails Inspire, I have two sets of social media, and it gets a bit overwhelming at times! I am all in favor of taking a break, which is why I love backpacking and rafting in remote places like Grand Canyon, where you are forced to stop posting for a bit. 

As a woman of color, I think it’s important for me to post not just the landscapes but me moving through them. Representation is vital to inspiration and part of my reason for using social media. 

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

Sirena Rana Dufault: I am excited to be doing research for my first book, Day Hikes on the Arizona National Scenic Trail, with Wilderness Press, due out in Spring 2020. It’s 26 of the best pieces of the Arizona Trail with lots of interpretation about the history, plants, views and more. It will also have information for beginners on how to prepare and what to bring for day hiking in the desert. 

I’m thrilled to be able to share my favorite spots, and each of the hikes will also include information about what to do, see, and eat in the nearby gateway communities. I’m partnering with the Arizona Office of Tourism to write a series of articles, social media posts and presentations at REI during the research process. It’s great to be able to reach a global audience to promote this trail that has given me so much.

Trails Inspire has also designed a community trails system for the Town of Tusayan, which is the gateway community to the Grand Canyon. Over the last year, I developed the master plan, which includes new commuter trails, recreational trails and an interpretive trail, the Grand Canyon History Trail, that will be ADA-accessible and tell the story of human history in the region. 

We just signed the Phase 2 contract, which will consist of environmental surveys as well as a signage committee made up of locals, Native tribes, the Kaibab National Forest and Grand Canyon National Park to determine the interpretation of the Grand Canyon History Trail. The trail is slated to be built in 2020.

As if that wasn’t enough, I’ve also got public speaking engagements, freelance writing assignments, and I’m subcontracting with other companies to do trail design for them as well. I am grateful to be so busy doing what I love. 

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

Sirena Rana Dufault: An artist or professional dancer. I love to dance as much as I love the outdoors. When I can combine the two, I’m in heaven!

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

Sirena Rana Dufault: What I look like during one of my solo backcountry dance jams!

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

Sirena Rana Dufault: I think different themes will resonate with different people, but I always like to say that my favorite compliment is being called inspiring. I hope that after reading this, people take a look at that audacious idea that they’ve had - whether it’s completing a dream adventure, starting your own business or changing careers to a job in the outdoor industry - and decide to figure out how to make it happen! 

Learn more about Sirena by following along on her adventures on her blog or on the 'gram, and by checking out her work with Trails Inspire online, on Facebook, and on Instagram.


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