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The Cairn Project + Gastro Gnome


We are thrilled to partner with The Cairn Project this summer to create a delicious, packable snack that does more than just fuel hungry hikers. The Cairn Project expands outdoor access for girls and young women by supporting community-based wilderness and outdoor education groups around the country through a small grants program. Gastro Gnome's founder Shannon Waters, was once an aspiring outdoors woman herself, so working with The Cairn Project to create a delicious snack that gives back to that community in more ways than one is a match made in trail mix heaven. You can add a Trail Mix to your cart here, and keep reading as Alison Wright, The Cairn Project's founder, joins us for a guest blog about the origins and strength of the mission at TCP below.


“Girls don’t need another inspirational quote. They need opportunities to welcome challenges, to identify and overcome fears, to assess risk, to step up as leaders, to find community, to fall and dust themselves off – less talk, more rock!” – Julie Polovitch

This perspective expresses the core mission of The Cairn Project: to connect more young women and gender-expansive youth to the transformative learning that outside spaces offer us. The Cairn Project pursues this mission through an adventure-driven nonprofit model. The organization makes grants to local groups around the US that focus on getting more young womxn climbing, adventuring, and leading. They’ve channeled $250K+ to groups around the country – in 13 states so far,  with more on the horizon.


Founders Alison Wright and Sarah Castle launched the organization in conjunction with a 12-day thru-hike of the John Muir Trail in 2016. The triumphant end for southbound hikers on the JMT is Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the continental United States. For Alison and Sarah, summit day was blustery and unseasonably cold – a freezing final climb at the end of a long 212 miles. On top of the US, the duo celebrated a “bucket list” backpacking accomplishment more than a year in the making. It seemed like an end point – one to be proud of.

“In retrospect, that summit was just the beginning,” says Sarah. “In the course of preparing for the trip, we’d stumbled upon the idea of turning the adventure into something bigger. Knowing how transformative outdoor adventure can be for young women — seeding self-esteem, inner strength, and the tenacity to embrace the unexpected — we based the mission of The Cairn Project on a vision of fostering our future leaders and environmental stewards.”

As they worked through fastpacking food plans, gear lists, and itinerary tweaks, Alison and Sarah also built a nonprofit start-up — branding, website, charitable status. A couple months prior to their departure out of Yosemite Valley, they launched a crowdfunding campaign. By the time they reached Mt. Whitney, they’d raised more than $30K  – which resulted in six $5K grants to homegrown outdoor groups in several different states getting young women out backpacking, rock climbing, mountain biking, and more.


“From the outset, we wanted our efforts to help reduce the barriers that continue to leave girls — and especially girls of color — significantly under-represented in outdoor education and the outdoor industry generally,” says Alison. “We decided that the best way to do this was through funding: we’d raise money from our friends and families, and then pass it on to community-based groups giving young women the chance to learn and explore outside.”

For The Cairn Project’s founders, the chance to turn an adventure into something bigger than themselves grabbed their attention and wouldn’t let them go. “Something just felt right during that backpacking trip – it felt great to know that we were hiking for a cause, for a community that was saying they were behind us and our ‘more girls outside’ mission,” says Alison.


It turns out they’re not alone: “We’ve had more than 40 Ambassadors join our effort and turn an outdoor adventure into a campaign that gives back,” says Sarah. “Our Ambassadors have done so many amazing things – packrafting trips, jumping in icy water every day for a month, thru-hikes, multi-sport adventures of biking, kayaking, and running through urban open spaces . . . it’s really inspiring to partner with women who have that adventure stoke, but who also want their adventure to have impact.” Each campaign is also a chance for the Ambassador to share her own outdoor story, to educate her network about the barriers and inequities that continue to keep too many girls off the trails and rock walls, and to call her community to action.

The impact of this is impressive: grants to groups in 13 different states for scholarships, logistics, and gear support. In 2019, The Cairn Project convened a peer learning cohort for leaders of their grantees; this gathering was profiled on an episode of the She Explores podcast – and the organization is planning to build this part of their work. The Cairn Project also financed the production of See Us Outside, a She Explores mini-series exploring the relationship that girls and women of color have with nature. The series featured several of The Cairn Project’s grant recipients.

Six years in, The Cairn Project’s founders remain convinced of the importance of this work and of the unique “adventure fundraiser” model they’ve built. “In the stripped-down simplicity of self-powered time outside, in landscapes where we feel most alive, we have the chance to see out beyond the horizons that normally hem us in,” says Alison. “What’s lying out there, beyond the boundaries of the day-to-day limitations, routines, and expectations we all face? We want more young women to find out.”

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