Shifting Gears Aims to Get More Women Outside

Nadine Van Niekerk has long noticed inequality in the world of sports and outdoor recreation. Growing up in South Africa, she noticed that girls’ sports were less important at her school, often receiving less funding and inferior coaches. Rather than accepting this discrepancy, she took action. When there was no water polo team for girls, she gathered a group of peers and asked the teacher for a team. At her university, when she learned there was no opportunity for women’s diving, she asked for that, too.

Now, as an adult, she surrounds herself with women who share her interests. Two years ago, she and three other Bellingham residents started Shifting Gears, a nonprofit dedicated to connecting female-identifying individuals to the world of outdoor recreation and to one another. Shifting Gears regularly hosts inclusive biking and hiking trips in Bellingham and the surrounding areas. “We want other women to experience the joy that comes from being outside and being in tough situations outside,” Van Niekerk says.

Despite the strides women have made in recent years, a 2017 national study by REI suggests that the outdoor industry is still male dominated. The study revealed that women face social barriers to getting outside. For instance, 70 percent of female participants said they feel more pressure to conform to social expectations such as to “be sexy,” “lose weight,” and “smile more.” Sixty percent of participants said their interests in the outdoors were not taken as seriously as men’s, and that they were also taken less seriously while shopping at sporting goods stores.

Van Niekerk says part of creating a welcoming environment for bikers and hikers of all experience levels is respecting that everyone learns differently. Instead of saying, “Just do it,” the leaders at Shifting Gears listen to participants, check in with them, and celebrate when someone overcomes a challenge. Each trip has up to six female- identifying volunteer leaders that help out and share their experience with the group.

Before becoming a nonprofit, the founders of Shifting Gears considered starting a guided biking business. After leading a pilot bike trip, they discovered that although participants enjoyed their experience, the financial aspect was challenging for most. That’s when they realized they wanted to make recreation more accessible to people who may lack the money, resources, or experience required of traditional biking trips. Most trips they run now cost $5–$50 per person or might even be free. Beginning riders can sometimes also borrow gear.

For Van Niekerk and many others, the outdoors is the perfect place to unwind and relax. People feel more joyful, confident, and empowered after spending time outside, Van Niekerk says, and she wants everyone to feel that way regardless of gender, age, or race.

During the warm months, Shifting Gears hosts weekly mountain bike trips and a program specifically for mothers and their children, called Moms Outdoors. In the future, they hope to expand their trips to include winter sports such as skiing and snowboarding.

To see more information about future trips or to donate to the organization, visit letsshiftgears.com.


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"Instead of saying, 'Just do it,' the leaders at Shifting Gears listen to participants, check in with them, and celebrate when someone overcomes a challenge."