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March 10, 2022
Girls Who Hike Virginia is more than just a Facebook group; it’s a community of like-minded women who can connect, network, and discover Virginia parks and trails together. This group is a safe place for women – making the group female only. What started as an interest turned into a 13,000 person Facebook group, now the beginnings of a non-profit organization.
Stephanie Whitesides, the admin of the Facebook group, Girls Who Hike Virginia, is a Virginia native who is passionate about hiking and bringing people together. Stephanie grew up in Southwest, Virginia. After graduating from High School, Stephanie moved to South Carolina, where she met her husband and started hiking for the first time. “I had never hiked before until my mid-twenties,” Stephanie confessed to me. “At first, I thought it was crazy to spend the day in the woods and then quickly realized that it’s fantastic.” She told me how she realized that hiking brought her peace and solace. From this discovery, she turned to the internet to find groups she could hike with. “So I found Girls Who Hike North Carolina and Girls Who Hike South Carolina,” Stephanie said she hiked several trails with this group and even accidentally did a solo hike when she was trying to find the group after arriving late due to traffic. “I knew they were out there somewhere, so at least I knew I wasn’t alone on the trail.”
Stephanie Whitesides, admin of the 13,000 person Facebook group, “Girls Who Hike Virginia.”
Stephanie and her family moved back to Virginia several years ago. While in Virginia, Stephanie joined the Girls Who Hike Virginia group. At this point, the group had about 1,000 members and was part of a national organization. However, it wasn’t until December of 2020 when Stephanie was trying to plan future hikes as motivation post-surgery. “ I knew I needed to get moving again after surgery, and my motivation was planning my hikes… and missed hiking with other women.” Stephanie realized the Girls Who Hike group had disappeared. “I specifically searched the group and it told me that it was archived and I was upset because that’s who I connected with the most.” Stephanie was disappointed, to say the least, but then realized that the Facebook group gave her the option to “take over as admin.” Stephanie thought, “That’s no big deal- it’s only a thousand people.”
Little did she know that the 1,000 person group would grow to over 13,000 people in less than two years and eventually lead her to where she is today – trying to bring the group back to an organization. To keep the group engaged, Stephanie made sure to ask questions and interact with the posts. Currently, the group is very active, with women asking questions about different trails, hiking gear, and overall looking for recommendations. “I want this group to be a safe place for women to ask questions free of judgment. I can remember women asking questions about underwear or how to use the bathroom in the woods, which are questions women would not feel comfortable asking in a group with men, and I remember thinking, ‘oh my gosh, these are questions I have always wondered, but never knew who to ask.’” Now the group has grown into helpful tips and tricks and a place for women to help each other out. For example, a woman couldn’t physically hike at the moment but wanted her dog to get out, so she turned to the group to see if anyone would be willing to take her dog on a hike with them- sure enough, she made a connection.
Stephanie asking for tips on cleaning hiking gear.
The group is also a great reminder to get outdoors when you can. The hikes the women in the group go on range from a walk around the neighborhood to extreme full-day hikes or even overnight hikes. It’s about pushing boundaries and getting out of your comfort zone. You are more likely to do that with people who are similar to you. Stephanie never thought she’d find herself back in Virginia or hiking, and now those are two things she’s passionate about and working so hard to connect with other people and to protect.
The goal of the Girls Who Hike Virginia non-profit is to help educate women on trail safety and to provide any information they need to feel safe on the trail. Stephanie is also excited to raise money to give to Virginia Parks and other Virginia local outdoor groups. “I’m focusing on making sure everything stays related to Virginia. I’m just so excited to raise some money and contribute to something good. I can’t wait to give back to the state. When I left after high school I never wanted to come back, but I love it here. Very excited to be able to do something for local communities. Anything related to the outdoors and hiking.” Stephanie feels extremely lucky to have unarchived this group and it’s brought her to find all these amazing women who want to help her on this journey of starting a non-profit. She said that it “Feels surreal because it’s just a bunch of strangers coming together and wanting to accomplish the same thing. Everyone is so incredibly supportive, and I’m constantly being surprised and impressed.” Stephanie told me that she doesn’t typically doubt herself but that trying to start this non-profit had really intimidated her. Hence, she was so grateful for the outpouring of support when she announced that this was something she was considering. “I just put this out there, and I was blown away with the responses from people- I have support, there are people who want to do this, we can make this happen.”
Even with incredible interest and support in the non-profit, there are hurdles to jump to become an official 501C3. It’s a bit of a process. However, there are so many people who are excited and just want to be part of it. “Hiking with other women makes you feel strong. There are all these strong women, and there’s so much excitement. And we are going to do this. They are so passionate about hiking and how they enjoy the outdoors. It became this thing- that I hoped would happen. I’m amazed that we are actually going to do it.” Stephanie recently selected her board members and they are in the process of putting together an Ambassador program, membership program, and completing all the documentation to apply for non-profit status within the next couple of weeks. Her goal is for Girls Who Hike Virginia to be an official non-profit organization by the end of the year!
Congratulations to Stephanie and best of luck! To learn more about Girls Who Hike click here. Or join the Facebook group here.