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Inspirational Women: Meet Kelly, your guide to the Great Outdoors


Learning, making friends, having fun and female empowerment. That’s what Kelly Van Laanen is all about. If you’re interested in outdoorsy activities such as camping, canoeing, fly fishing, nature photography or eco-tours to the world’s most amazing habitats, you need Kelly on your speed dial!

Kelly, 44 and from the middle of Wisconsin, loves to travel. She’s been to 28 countries and across most of the US so far, but it’s the outdoor activities that she really excels at. Luckily for her, she’s landed a job that suits her down to the ground. Kelly guides adventure trips for women with Becoming an Outdoors-Woman and Green Edventures, helping us to get off the beaten path and hands-on in the great outdoors. Ultimately, she gets to travel a lot – and take other women along for the ride.

If you want to develop your life skills and experiences, whether that’s learning some outdoor survival essentials or taking a dip in bioluminescent algae, we know the woman to chat with!


Tell us about your life in travel.

“I caught the travel bug early when my grandmother took my best friend and I traveling all over Canada the summer we turned 13. We spent the whole summer travelling Canada and learning about the culture, history, environment, food and music. I especially enjoyed the East Coast (Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia). I loved the marine organisms and coastal environments because they were so unique to me, being a Great Lakes girl. 

“I caught the travel bug early when my grandmother took my best friend and I traveling all over Canada the summer we turned 13.”

Some of my other favorite countries and things to do are:


  • ANY OUTDOOR recreation in Switzerland (especially hiking the Alps and white water rafting the Lütschine a glacial outwash river)
  • hiking and fishing in Iceland
  • kayaking in Costa Rica
  • snorkeling and swimming in bioluminescent algae and saving Giant Leatherback Turtles in Trinidad/Tobago
  • studying natural resources in the Black Forest of Germany while living in the tower of a castle
  • cliff jumping in Curaco
  • snorkeling with sea lions in Mexico

And the list goes on. I love all travel. I love learning about new places. I absolutely LOVE trying exotic foods and beverages. I love the music. I love the people. I love the history. I. LOVE. IT. ALL.  But I especially love doing anything outdoors. Outdoor recreation is my jam. I love to hunt, fish, camp, hike, kayak, canoe, garden, swim, snorkel, stand-up paddle board, forage for wild edibles, mushroom hunt, bike, learn about the outdoor world, read, write, cook wild game, snowshoe, dog sled, ski, ice fish, ice skate, hammock camp, survival camp, clean up litter, restore streams, conserve energy, and I ESPECIALLY LOVE to teach others how to do these activities and become passionate about the outdoor world. I also enjoy making my own skin care products like soap, lotion, SPF lotions, lip scrubs and lip gloss. I enjoy reading a good mystery/suspense/thriller-especially in front of a wood burning fire. I like to create medicinal teas, salves and tinctures out of natural ingredients I find in the woods of Wisconsin or in exotic places I visit.”  


What was your outdoors experience before you joined Becoming an Outdoors Woman? 

“I was really lucky and grew up doing everything there was to do in the outdoors. I grew up hunting in Wisconsin, took a hunting and fishing trip to Alaska for my high school graduation (instead of getting a new car for college), and have expanded the species and places I hunt each year.

I also love to fish both freshwater and saltwater species. I grew up fishing fresh water for trout, pan fish and game fish and expanded to saltwater fishing in my later teens. I love anything having to do with camping and outdoor survival. This was a way of life for us on the weekends and summers growing up in Wisconsin. As my brother and I grew older we started to challenge ourselves by going camping in the winter and bringing very little food to force us to forage, hunt and fish.

We grew up on the shores of Green Bay, so water recreation was a must-do. I still love to kayak, canoe, water ski, sail, and swim. As I started to travel to more saltwater destinations I learned how to dive, snorkel and stand-up paddleboard in the Gulf and oceans.

Since I grew up in Wisconsin I have to include the winter sports too. We went ice fishing, downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, ice skating, and snowshoeing. I learned about dog sledding and skijoring (think a cross between cross-country ski and dog sledding) with BOW.

Since we hunted, we needed to cook with all that wild game. We also canned everything out of our garden and many of the meats we hunted. I learned about some medicinal plants and fungi growing up, but have been much more involved in learning more in the past 10 years. I make a pine sap salve (that is excellent for splinters, road rash and blisters) that I learned from my grandmother. She also taught me to make soap from rendered animal fat. I have more recently added lip balm, sunscreen and lotions into the mix. I have always had a handful of medicinal teas under my belt, but have also been expanding to learn and make more in the past couple years. I have also been getting into hunting for mushrooms. I love it!

I realize how VERY LUCKY I was growing up and learning all of these skills. It is one of the reasons I am so passionate about teaching others to do these things. First of all, teaching other to enjoy the outdoors is a big part of my outdoor legacy. My family has always put priority on teaching others to be passionate about the outdoors. We put it in front of our own recreation most of the time. I've had my chance to learn and do all of these things, now I want to teach others why I love it so much!”       


How did you get into Becoming an Outdoors Woman?

“I jumped right into teaching in 1997 and LOVE THIS PROGRAM WITH EVERY OUNCE OF MY BEING! I fully believe in what we do. I have had several different jobs within the organization…but my biggest love is teaching and guiding trips.  

I love to see people experience new things! It is amazing to watch someone see a whale for the first time, or see their joy in playing in a waterfall. I love to see people learn about new cultures, listen to native music, or actually see something in person that they have only ever seen on TV before. I love it when people get to do an activity they never thought they would be able to do, like zip-line through jungle or rappel down a waterfall. I love to see their barriers be broken down. I feed off of their new self-confidence and pride.

I am most proud of myself when I am helping someone discover just how awesome THEY are. I especially like empowering women, because darn it – women need to know they can do anything a man can do! (My parents taught me to be self-reliant and self-confident, so I feel like it's my goal in life to help other ladies realize this in themselves.) I also love to see people overcome fears, and this happens quite often at BOW workshops. (Fear of water, fear of bugs, fear of guns, fear of other people, etc...)”


Why do you think it’s so important for women to be confident outdoors? 

“Oh boy, it's never ending! We teach women to be independent. We teach them skills they never imagined doing themselves like how to change a tire, jump start a dead battery or how to back up a trailer. We teach them that they can survive in this world solo (if they have to, or want to do so). Women learn how to collect their own food, start the fire to cook it, make a shelter, defend themselves and how to purify water if needed.

We teach women skills they pass down to their children, or to begin new traditions. We teach them the things their fathers only taught their brothers. We break down gender roles. We teach self-confidence. We give them the "I CAN DO THIS" attitude. We help them understand that they can do anything they set their minds to. It carries over to their personal and professional lives and it's something they can teach others in return. 

The world isn't always female friendly. This can be especially true of the outdoor recreation world. Hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation has been predominantly geared towards men for a very long time. Women have had a lack of female outdoor role models, lack of proper fitting clothing and gear, and had a lack of opportunities to learn the skills. Hunting was traditionally a sport that a father passed down to his son, and didn't share with his daughter. The Becoming an Outdoors-Woman program addressed those issues and created the BOW workshops as a solution to these problems. We also acknowledge that women learn much differently than men. We train our instructors to teach in a hands-on, supportive environment.”     


What sort of people can you expect to meet on a Becoming an Outdoors Woman trip? 

“Another great question!! BOW participants run the gamut. They range in age from 18-80+. I taught a 92-year-old woman map and compass, she was my most senior participant. They come from a wide variety of educational, financial and religious backgrounds. I have taught people far more and far less educated than myself. I even got to teach a couple doctors about wilderness first aid and herbal remedies. They do everything from being a stay-at-home mom to being a physicist or working at NASA. I even led a terminally ill woman on her "bucket list" trip. She changed the lives of every woman on that trip. They come from all walks of life.

A BOW trip is also an especially safe way to travel for solo women. It is an ABSOLUTELY JUDGMENT FREE ZONE. The trips are INCREDIBLY empowering for everyone ... Some ladies come into the trip completely burned out and broken down. They all leave the trip feeling like they can take on the world again. I have seen widowed women realize that they can travel the world again, and learn new skills independent of their spouse.  Many of our travelers are seniors. We take the opportunity to give them new self worth and learn how to do many of the activities to accommodate and appreciate our aging bodies.  

How we make that work is by having 3 rules:

  1. have fun
  2. stay safe
  3. no politics


What qualities do you see in the women who thrive on these sorts of trips? 

“What I love most about BOW women is their desire to learn. They absolutely sponge up any information we throw their way. They WANT to be there. They WANT to learn. It works out as a win-win for me, because I love to teach. They are open-minded, and I love that. They are also very courageous, many overcoming fears to learn the outdoor skills they do. For example, overcoming a fear of water to learn how to kayak.” 

Kelly’s next trip as a guide is to Costa Rica in February 2020. If you’d like to join Kelly and Becoming an Outdoor Women and zip-line, kayak and hike past the incredible wildlife of the Osa Peninsula, one of the most bio-rich places on the planet, click here.

See all Adventure trips being planned by Thelma & Louise members.