7 Modern Female Explorers Who Inspire Us

Our editorial team are globetrotters by nature who love all things travel, but what inspires us to take life-changing trips? Women that embark on journeys that defy gravity. Literally. Two women on this list of modern female explorers who inspire us were shortlisted to travel into space on Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic commercial space liner. They may be the first of their kind, but what we love about these incredible women is their courage and how they take challenging the status quo in their stride.

If the recent collaboration between National Geographic and Mattel to create a travel-themed line of Barbie dolls is any indication, telling stories about female adventures is a way for us to journey further, while nurturing equality. Barbie’s resume now includes Astrophysicist and Polar Marine Biologist. This encourages young girls not to accept limits on outdated stereotypes or antiquated ideas of what women can achieve, instead, they discover roles and stories about exploration, science, conservation and research.

Speaking to Travel + Leisure, Susan Goldberg, editor in chief of National Geographic magazine and editorial director of National Geographic Partners, explains, “through our partnership with Barbie, we are excited to reach kids in a new way, using the power of play to inspire our next generation of explorers, scientists and photographers.” In light of this, and International Women’s Day, we are celebrating modern female explorers who inspire us! 

1. Namira Salim

In April of 2007, Namira Salim became the first Pakistani to reach the North Pole and the following year in 2008, became the first Pakistani to have reached the South Pole. But her list of firsts doesn’t stop there. During the historic First Everest Skydives 2008, she was the first Asian to do a tandem skydive over Mount Everest, and as an early founder of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic commercial space liner, was the first Pakistani to travel to space.

When she’s not exploring the earth and beyond Salim is advocating for international harmony as an honorary diplomat and the founder of SpaceTrust, a non-profit initiative that promotes space as a new frontier for global peace.

a women in a snow suit holds up a flag beside the south pole
Namira Salim at the South Pole in 2008 | © Farhadally/WikiCommons

2. Emma Svensson

What happens when an ordinary person tries to climb mountains? This question led to Emma Svensson’s summit of 61 mountains in one year. After watching the movie, Everest, on a flight to New Zealand, Svensson knew she had to start climbing. Although she grew up in Switzerland and was encouraged by her father to be in the outdoors, she wasn’t a serious adventurer. But the movie, Everest, made Svensson wonder if ordinary people could climb mountains and this became the catalyst for her extraordinary journey.

In 2017, she decided to climb the highest peak in every European country, a feat encompassing 49 mountains. In an article penned for the Guardian, Svensson says, “I wanted to be a role model for girls and to tell a story that had never been told. All the stories you hear are so hardcore, of people lost on Everest or K2.”

a woman on a trail in hiking gear surrounded by trees
Asking a question can lead to incredible journeys | Courtesy of Emma Svensson

3. Jada Yuan

In 2018, Jada Yuan became The New York Times inaugural 52 Places Traveller. For one year, Yuan travelled somewhere different every seven days, covering approximately, an impressive 74,900 miles. Prior to landing the “dream job,” Yuan had been working for a decade at New York Magazine, covering stories around the world. She gave it up to embark on the ultimate assignment for the Times. After weeks of non-stop travel, she wrote a moving and inspiring recap of her epic journey. The lessons and memories she imparts in that article will make an impact on anyone.

4. Alyssa Azar

After traversing the Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea at eight years old, and summiting Kilimanjaro when she was 14, at the age of 16, Alyssa Azar set her sights on Mount Everest. The world’s highest mountain can bring even skilled mountaineers with years of experience to their feet, but after two life-threatening attempts and three consecutive seasons, Azar was able to reach the top of Mount Everest at the age of 19. For most people once would be enough, but after summiting from the south side, she then summited Everest from the north side in Tibet, at the age of 21! Making her the youngest woman to have climbed from both the north and south routes.

After these bold adventures, Azar started a podcast called Girls Can Do Scary Things Too. The idea for the podcast came about on her return from Everest to Australia when she shared the experience of climbing Everest with her younger sister’s classmates. The students felt that her story had shown them that girls could do scary things too, while Azar thought that was cool, she was also concerned that at the age of eight and nine years old and they already felt that they couldn’t do something. The podcast, Girls Can Do Scary Things Too, is all about exposing young girls to the idea of “can.”

5. Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Akita

Mountaineer Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Akita grew up in Lukla, Nepal, with Mount Everest in the distance. She became the first woman in Nepal to become a mountaineering instructor and first Nepali woman to reach the summit of K2 and has worked actively to provide relief in the aftermath of the April 2015 earthquake in Nepal. Having captured the hearts of young Nepalese women and others around the world, in 2016 she was voted National Geographic’s People’s Choice Adventurer of the Year. Alongside being a female explorer, she has developed a foundation that assists with women’s education in Nepal. She explains, “I am not educating girls so they can be mountaineers. Once a woman has an education, she can be whatever she wants. I want to support what women want to become.”

two woman unload relief supplies from a helicopter on Everest
Akita helping to unload supplies for relief work | Courtesy of Pasang Lhamu Sherpa Akita

6. Kira Salak

The New York Times calls Kira Salak “a real-life Lara Croft,” and for a good reason. She was the first woman to traverse Papua New Guinea and the first person to kayak 600 miles to Timbuktu solo. 

Salak has acquired numerous prestigious writing accolades by writing about her solo exploration of the world. Each one of her journeys has challenged gender stereotypes, and Salak continues to push back against resistance to the idea of women travelling alone in remote areas through her groundbreaking trips. Although she does feel afraid at times, tapping into her fear and overcoming it, empowers her.

Salak also opts to travel low-tech, which is both inspiring and reminiscent of the early days of exploration. She respects old explorers for what they were able to accomplish despite their limited means.

a woman and three guides look at a map in desert surroundings
Kira Salak and Tuareg guides en route to Ghat and the Jibal Akakus, Libya | © Bobby Model

7. Cassie de Pecol

In 2018, Cassie de Pecol released her memoir, Expedition 196: The First Woman on Record to Travel Every Country in the World, a book that chronicles her spirited global journey. She is considered to be the first documented women to travel every sovereign nation on the planet. She officially set two Guinness World Records, “Fastest time to visit all sovereign countries” and “Fastest time to visit all sovereign countries – Female.” If you want to follow in her footsteps, visit some of the ten countries she highly recommends: Mongolia, Bhutan, Maldives, Vanuatu, Pakistan, Oman, Tunisia, Peru, Costa Rica and the USA.

Having conquered earth, de Pecol set her sights on outer space, along with publishing a book, in 2018 her application to travel to Space with Virgin Galactic was accepted.