Wilderness Camping is not just a guy thing

Wilderness Camping is not just a guy thing

Thursday, April 19, 2018 Guest Blog by Cara Berzins

Ladies, no matter what hats we wear and titles we carry, I suspect that there are some core things we all want. For example, I carry the titles mom, wife, teacher, writer. I’m always looking for ways to improve how I carry those titles. I think as women we are always looking for ways to grow, and unfortunately, we tend to doubt ourselves and wonder whether we are doing any of those things right. I know I do. 

I believe I know a secret and unexpected way to build confidence and reduce doubt and guilt. This is my story of how wilderness camping shaped my identity and set me up for a happier life. 


I was 1 year old when I visited the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for the first time. It’s a wilderness camping area of supreme quiet, endless forests, and interconnected lakes stretching across the northern border of Minnesota. Every summer, as a family of 5 and sometimes with friends, we meandered the over 1500 miles of canoe routes traversing more than 1000 lakes. 

Not only did my parents get double takes because they brought young children with them into this utterly remote wilderness camping area, people noticed when two of the three little ones were girls. 

As my sister and I grew, we became increasingly aware that we were a rare breed in the BWCAW. We couldn’t help but feel a sense of accomplishment when we were able to load ourselves up for portages with ease while guys with other traveling groups looked on openmouthed. One of us would help the other slip her shoulders into a large bulky looking canvas canoe pack. Sometimes, to avoid coming back for another trip over the portage we would carry two packs. The other would be strapped on backwards so the backpack part hung in front. (Believe it or not, this method was actually easier because the weight was distributed more evenly!) Then the one carrying the packs would prop up the canoe as the other centered her shoulders under the yoke. Away we went after taking all of 3 minutes to load up. Seeing a teenage girl carry a canoe on her head all by herself was a shock to some of our fellow campers. Seeing how impressed they were was a huge self-esteem boost to me in the years when girls usually feel especially awkward.

The wilderness does not discriminate. When the wind howls and the waves rise into frothy whitecaps, you still need to paddle back to your campsite whether you are male or female, 8 or 80. You need the same bare minimum of gear to survive and enjoy your time in the wilderness. As yet, there is no portage concierge available to shunt these belongings from one waterway to the next. This fact makes it seem like a man’s world. Instead, this very fact makes wilderness camping the great equalizer.


I believe these experiences have shaped my self-image in fundamental ways. 

  1. I feel strong and sure of myself. Traveling for miles powered only by my own muscles taught me to be confident in myself and my ability to handle physically demanding situations. 
  2. I feel a connection with nature that is strongest in this true wilderness, but helps me seek out and find that same feeling even in places where nature is scarce.  
  3. This connection with nature is like a deep seated well of tranquility. It helps me combat anxiety and stress, which gives confidence in my emotional ability to handle demanding situations. 
  4. Being at the mercy of the elements taught me that I can’t expect things to always be easy. It also taught me not to give up when the going is hard.
  5. I learned to think outside the box. Sometimes you need to be innovative and learn to make do with what you have when you are traveling with the bare minimum. (Once we traded minnows for toilet paper from a group of fishermen. Priorities😉)
  6. I learned to distinguish between need and wants. You quickly realize what is needed and what’s not when you have to carry it all for a couple of miles.
  7. The value of cooperation and teamwork is obvious in the wilderness. If you aren’t paddling in unison, you get nowhere fast. If you don’t work together to set up camp, it takes twice as long.


Some of my happiest memories are times we spent as a family camping. The sound of a paddle swishing through the water, the call of a loon, the lapping of waves, rain on the tent flaps, beavers slapping the water with their tail, various bird calls, the rustle of our feet on the portage, waterfalls thundering, wind rushing through the treetops. How often do we experience these sounds anymore? The effect they have on the mind and body is . . . I struggle to come up with the right word. Invaluable, healing, soothing, life altering.

Nancy Piragis summed it up well on the welcome video for Piragis Northwoods Company. She said, “I never forget a canoe trip. I never forget a day in the woods. But I forget days at home, I forget days in the office. . . Every single time you go out there’s always memories to be had.” You find that life has been reduced to what is right in front of you. No distractions, no rushing, no multitasking. It’s so good for your psyche and your brain.

Humans seem to be built to perform their best when at one with nature. It makes us happier, healthier, calmer. This effect has even been hitting the headlines recently. I especially enjoyed this recent episode of Innovation Hub on my local NPR station. It’s about the scientific evidence that nature is good for us.

One of the saddest side effects of modern living is that people have started to fear nature. And yet nature has so much to give us. They flood their yards with spot lights at night, they avoid uninhabited areas because they are afraid of the animals. For me, the sounds of nature are so soothing, it seems absurd to be afraid of them. I remember when I realized how much people fear nature. I was camping with friends, a single mother and her daughter. She mentioned they might not sleep well because of the noises. That night in my tent I listened with extra attention to the forest noises. Because I was listening so intently and imagining how it would sound to someone unfamiliar with the forest, my senses were all on high alert. Suddenly, I heard a terrifying, unidentifiable rumble. For a few scary moments my mind rushed through a whole series of animals until it finally dawned on me. A jet was flying high overhead! I felt relieved to finally identify the noise. But this confirmed my previous opinion; the creature most to be feared is our own species, humans. No animal noise could sound that terrifying. In the end my friends slept well, and decided they loved camping.


My parents gave me a priceless legacy by taking me wilderness camping as a girl. Since then we have camped with my nieces and my daughter. At first the noises and the wildness made them nervous too. But soon enough they feel just as comfortable and at home as they would in their own house. The difference is, instead of being enclosed in walls and under a roof, the lake cradles them under the vast blue sky while the forest sings its lullaby.  

Experience wilderness camping for yourself. If you want to learn to believe in yourself, if you want to connect with nature more deeply than you thought possible, if you want to shake off the built-up stress and pressure of every-day life, then wilderness camping might be just the right thing for your next vacation!

Editor’s note: Piragis Northwoods Outfitting offers a fully guided Women Exploring Wilderness Canoe Camping Trip. We also have Women Guides on staff as well as men, each with excellent experience in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. We also have all the gear you need for your trip at The Boundary Waters Catalog and for RENT.

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