#ITSGREATOUTTHERE meets Wanderlust Women

Amira Patel is the founder of Wanderlust Women, a hiking and adventure group for Muslim women. Amira’s vision is for it to be normal in society for women from her background to explore the great outdoors, to feel confident when they are out in nature. We spoke to Amira to learn more about her own experience in the outdoors, and plans for the future of Wanderlust Women. 
What was your introduction to the outdoors?

Growing up, my family were quite into travelling and visiting really nice landscapes, and my mum was into outdoorsy things. She got us into swimming and cycling and took us out on adventures. Then when she went through a divorce and wanted to get into hiking, she found a group called Explorers Connect and used to go out with them. For some of their meet ups, they would allow members to bring someone along with them and my mum took me. I remember my first hike – well more of a walk up a local hill – and I was crying almost all the way through, because I thought it was the hardest thing ever, but loved the fact that I completed it. After that, I developed a passion for the outdoors, usually walking with my mum.

How did Wanderlust Women start?

I began to realise how much I loved adventure and trying new things, but it was very rare for a woman from my community to do this. Then I went through the trauma of my own divorce and discovered that the outdoors was also a healing space for me. That was my initial journey, but I was going on my own and didn’t have anyone to share the experience with at that time. So, I started to develop the idea to create a group for Muslim women and get more of us into the outdoors. I started organising meet ups and retreats, because for me it was about finding that spiritual connection too. But an idea is an idea and it was only five years later that I took it to the next level. I set up Wanderlust Women during the first lockdown. I think that the pandemic actually really helped. COVID had allowed us all to slow down, and it helped me to realise what I really wanted to do, and in general, more people became interested in getting outside. So, I put the call out to see what would happen and the rest is history. It’s during those last three years that I decided that the outdoors is where I want to focus all of my energy, so I left my job, left my home town and moved to the Lake District. Now I’m training to become an outdoor instructor and I deliver workshops and other activities. I’ve been here for just over a year now and it’s where I run Wanderlust Women along with other projects and organise expeditions as well.

What obstacles did you face in finding your way in the outdoors and how did you get over them?

Although my mum was into the outdoors, it wasn’t common for women from my community to be active in that way. Wearing religious clothing wasn’t always a physical barrier as such, but there were times when I felt uncomfortable doing certain things because I got stared at, or there wasn’t appropriate kit available that I could use. For me, what was really helpful is that I made a lot of friends through Instagram who introduced me to loads of activities, and if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t have got into climbing, or paddle boarding or kayaking or things like that. Because they introduced and welcomed me and I felt comfortable as a result, I was able to try these activities. Coming from inner city areas, there are quite a few barriers, whether financial, lack of appropriate kit or other resources – and this is me talking for a lot of women from my community. For me, I saw those barriers and was determined to overcome them for myself, and also see what I could do to get rid of them for others. Now that we have a proper voice, a lot of these barriers are being recognised more widely, so we can tackle them and get more women into the outdoors from under-represented backgrounds.

Do you find that the outdoor industry is making the right moves to welcome more people from diverse backgrounds?

There has definitely been a change, but it’s sad to see that the change has taken so long. It’s taken a pandemic and other circumstances for people to realise that there’s a problem. Sometimes, there can be tokenism and certain groups are being focused on and used to tick boxes. We’re still having to fight for proper systemic changes in attitudes and approaches, and we shouldn’t have to fight – these issues should have been properly addressed a long time ago. There is change happening now, but because of the history, that does still lead to the question over whether it’s genuine and will be sustained. Are companies really getting people outdoors from under-represented communities? When I started out I was pretty naïve, but I have learned a lot. Now, I’m wise to people who simply wants to get on the bandwagon in using someone in a campaign who looks different or is a different colour, and then does nothing more. There are so many different issues that need to be addressed, so this work has to be ongoing. But at least it has started and that’s positive. This work needs to be sustainable. Often, the default response from organisations is ‘here, have kit, have kit, have kit’. A better solution would be to work together to set up a resource centre, or centres, where all of the groups that are helping these communities get into the outdoors can access product, expertise and other support that can build the momentum we’re starting to create, for the long term.

Although this issue is not about kit, are there products that don’t currently exist, which you and others from your community would find useful?

Definitely. Making an assumption that there’s a typical person who looks like a hiker is not being inclusive and it’s also missing a potentially important market. I’m working on a project with Trekmates and we’re going to launch the first outdoor hijab and niqab, which will have performance features and fabrics, which will allow wearers to explore the outdoors while still wearing modest and religious attire. My attitude has been that if you don’t see something that’s needed, then create it. That was my approach with Wanderlust Women and it applies to product too.

Now that Wanderlust Women is well established, what do you want to achieve in the longer term?

When I started Wanderlust Women, it was simply a social group to get women outdoors. But the more I learned about what I was doing, I realised that I didn’t just want to take women outside, but wanted to help build their own confidence and skills, so that they in turn can support and train others, and take even more women out from their own communities. I really want to achieve the resource centre that I mentioned, with private changing facilities, a supply of the correct clothing available to use and outdoor leaders, all catering for Muslim women, and allowing them to enjoy themselves. It's some way off of course, but my aim is to have Wanderlust Women units in many locations, starting with a base here in the Lake District. In the meantime, we’ll keep doing what we’re doing and giving more women the confidence to get outdoors.

How can people who are interested get in touch with you and Wanderlust Women?

There’s my Instagram account and Wanderlust Women’s, and our website. Please get in touch!

You can follow Amira on Instagram at @amira_thewanderlust, and Wanderlust Women at @the.wanderlust.women. Find out more about their work at www.thewanderlustwomen.co.uk.


Interview requests – contact Amira on Instagram Contact: amirawanderlust@gmail.com