Nonprofit Spotlight: Women of the Triangle Hiking Club (WOTTHC)

Kitty Gayner, founder of WOTTHC, stands at a trailhead with hike leader Alex Boutiette (right).

If the idea of a hiking club scares you, you’re not alone. The world of expert backpackers — with their fancy gear and miles of high-elevation trails under their belts — seems elite, untouchable, and gatekeepy. Here’s the good news: They’re not the only hikers with a club.

“I moved here from Ohio two years ago,” said Kitty Gayner, founder and executive director of Women of the Triangle Hiking Club. “When I moved, one of my goals was to make sure I had really strong female friendships. In my experience, two things had gotten me through covid: women and getting outdoors. I wasn’t even a big hiker, but it grew to be something that I really loved and that was really healthy and positive for me when I felt like the world was falling apart. So when I moved, I started looking for a women’s hiking group. I couldn’t find one in Raleigh, so I figured, what the heck — I’ll just start one myself.”

With a goal to make connections with others, Gayner took to Facebook in the hopes of finding other women who would be interested in a local hike or two — and immediately got more than she bargained for.

“I really thought that it was going to be very social; I never intended on founding an entire nonprofit organization,” said Gayner, laughing. “I was like, I’ll be lucky if I get 10 women that want to hike with me sometimes at Umstead. Here we are, two and a half years later, and there’s 6,200 of those people, and I may have overdone it.”

The group grew quickly, full of women of varying ages, hiking abilities, and fitness goals. With absolutely zero experience with nonprofits, Gayner says she “Googled her way to legality” in the hopes of continuing to build this unexpected (but clearly needed) community.

In WOTTHC, women from all walks of life hit the trails across the Triangle.

“I could go on and on about what it means to me personally, but I think what it means to a lot of our members is that there’s that safety in numbers,” said Cara Lewis, hike leader. “Wanting to go out in the woods and have these great adventures, but not by themselves — I think that’s a big appeal.”

While the idea of hiking for fun might seem casual, WOTTHC is a well-oiled machine — offering up to seven hikes per week with 22-plus hike leaders, all within one hour of the Triangle.

“There’s so much accountability and organization,” said Lewis. “What’s so great about this club is when you sign up for a hike, you can count on it happening. You can show up and there might be three other members or 20 other members, but the hike leader is going to be there. Let’s say I’m the hike leader and I’m sick or I get lost or have an accident — there’s a backup. Hikes are rarely canceled.”

When it comes to hikes, WOTTHC has it all. Trail Snails, typically between 1 and 3 miles, are perfect for those who want a more scenic experience. For those with more athletic goals, advanced hikes and field trips, which often have a combo of quicker pace and higher elevation, are always an option.

“It’s more than just a hiking club; it’s a safe, supportive community that celebrates diversity and encourages women of all ages to embrace the outdoors together,” said Jeanette Stephenson, club member. “From affirmation hikes, hikes for native Spanish speakers, to themed adventures like our Taylor Swift-inspired trek, the club offers a variety of experiences.”

Some of the club’s most popular hikes are the sunset and moonlit hikes, a time when most women don’t necessarily feel safe walking on their own.

Hike leader Alex Boutiette speaks to the group of hikers before taking a 4-mile hike in Raleigh.

“We started offering these moonlit hikes, and a couple of our hike leaders specialize in them now,” said Gayner. “They are constantly full with a waitlist; they fill up immediately. And close behind the nighttime hikes are our hiking/yoga combos. In addition to our hike leaders, we have yoga instructors who volunteer their time and offer a class in addition to the hike. It’s always an all-levels class, so it’s always beginner friendly.”

In addition to hikes, the club’s calendar is peppered with fundraising opportunities, dinners, midweek socials, camping trips, and other yearly events. During the warmer months, WOTTHC also offers what they call “field trips,” which can be up to a 3-hour drive away.

“Trying to sum up the impact this club has had on my life is truly difficult,” said club member Rebecca Tibbetts. “I joined it at first to get out of my comfort zone and hike with other nature-loving people. Since then, this club has challenged me to hike beyond what I originally thought I was capable of, from hiking 20 miles on the MST, 10 miles at Pilot Mountain, to completing the 5 Peaks Challenge at Hanging Rock. The women are super supportive and encouraging through every mile hiked. I urge others to join if they are looking for connection, friendship, and joy.”

Holly Springs hiker Karen Pandey hikes with her border collie, Pepper.

As part of their mission to make the club accessible to everyone, membership is totally free — although donations are always encouraged to offset the cost of operating fees. WOTTHC is also dedicated to environmental stewardship, collaborating with nearby organizations and offering opportunities for members to give back to the land they enjoy trekking across.

“Led by the Triangle Land Conservancy (TLC) team, our members gave back by beautifying the environment at one of our favorite parks, Brumley Nature Preserve,” said Gayner. “We are planning even more TLC stewardship days in 2024.”

Ready to get hiking? Receive a free sticker on your first ever hike and come back for a free T-shirt through WOTTHC’s Incentive Program — a way to keep members inspired and motivated. Upcoming programs in 2024 also include Boot Babes, where used or new gear will be collected and distributed to members in need; a leadership development program, where hike leaders will be built from the ground up; an education and outreach program that will focus on environmental education, hiking tips, camping tips, and general outdoor safety; and a carpooling program, providing women with free rides to trailheads.

For those interested in getting involved, WOTTHC’s biggest need at the moment is volunteers.

“We’re looking for women who are willing to donate their skills and their time to help us to continue to build from the inside out,” said Gayner. “So I need to recruit a program director, a social media manager; I’d like someone to help us with our website, things like that.”

Unlike other hiking clubs, WOTTHC isn’t counting your steps — the ultimate goal, says Gayner, is to allow women to feel connected and empowered.

“I always tell my hike leaders that the members that come on their hike will barely remember the name of the trail, but they’re always going to remember their hike leader’s name,” said Gayner. “It’s all about community and building connections and putting people in a space where they can just be with other like-minded women. There’s no expectations. There’s no pressure of hiking the tallest mountain. It’s literally about who you are with. We’re just bringing women together and letting them know that we are here for them, no matter how they come.”

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