Wandering with Purpose

Iowa duo leads Midwest camping trips for women

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Wander Women Midwest co-founders Jenn Riggs and Kerri Sorrell are on a mission to connect, guide and empower women through outdoor recreation. Their mantra? Exploring the outdoors doesn’t have to be hardcore.

Founded in 2018 to provide female-focused guided trips that highlight the natural wonders of Iowa, they’ve grown by building an inclusive community around their brand. Wander Women offerings now include camping, paddling, backpacking and “bite-sized adventures” across the region, attracting beginners and advanced adventurers alike.

Q: As outdoor guide services are popular in the West, what inspired you to bring this experience to Iowa?

Kerri Sorrell (KS): A big, overarching goal of our business is to put the Midwest on the map for the outdoor industry. There’s this underdog feeling, but we just need some advocates showcasing the beauty here. We’re excited to be building the outdoors community and contributing to quality of life and economic development. We’ve had people from Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, and other states sign up for trips.

Jenn Riggs (JR): It’s cool to introduce those outside of Iowa to what we have. When I was working in environmental programming, I found that even a lot of locals hadn’t heard of the wild places we have here. We want people to go, fall in love with the place, want to protect that space and want to help create more places like that.

Kerri Sorrell & Jenn Riggs laying on a blanket outdoors
Kerri Sorrell (left) and Jenn Riggs (right)

Q: What approach did you take to empowering women in the outdoors?

(KS): First, we had to name who the outdoor industry wasn’t serving. It started broadly with the Midwest, and women. Our approach is based on community and education. We’re making sure that our spaces and our business are community driven. We inherently believe that we’re stronger through working together. It’s also very natural for women to gather.

Logistically, we try to think of how an experience will feel for somebody who has never gone camping or paddled, and design the program or trip to serve that person, as well as people who have more experience.

Q: Wander Women hosts collaborations like “pikes” with Pie Bird Pies and reading retreats with Storyhouse Bookpub. How do you foster that connectivity with other small businesses?

(KS): One thing that Des Moines does so well in its small business community is, because it’s small enough to build relationships quickly, there’s so much opportunity for collaboration. Owning a small business while female is a unique experience, so we hosted a retreat to help build a support network and those personal connections. If we’re asking our participants to be brave by signing up for a trip and be vulnerable by trying new things, we also have to be brave in the same ways as business owners.

Q: Through scouting the region for exceptional outdoor activities, what hidden gems have you encountered?

Group of women overlooking a natural setting in Iowa.

(JR): There are so many little gems of county parks throughout the state. I always encourage people who are going to a popular state park to check out the county parks close by. It can be really hard to get a camping spot at Maquoketa Caves State Park, for instance, but nearby Eden Valley Refuge has great options. Tent camping opportunities in our county parks is second to none. Lots of times they’re separate from the RV camping, and having that distance is nice. The fact that all of Iowa’s 99 counties are part of the county conservation system is incredible.

Q: What are some of your most popular trips and favorite trails to explore?

(JR): This year was our ‘Tunes on the Turkey’ paddling trip on the Turkey River Water Trail in partnership with Cabin Concerts, which is based out of Elkader. In Wapello County, we really like Pioneer Ridge Nature Area. They also have the Eddyville Sand Dunes Prairie down there, which is a cool feature [that offers a 1.4-mile rock hiking/interpretive trail].

(KS): We also love hiking at Hitchcock Nature Center [which offers a 10-mile unpaved trail system in the Loess Hills] and Pinicon Ridge Park in Linn County, and Kuehn Conservation Area not far from Des Moines.

Published June 30, 2023

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