Janine Pettit: Launching a movement to help women camp like a girl

Born in the Midwest, but growing up in New Jersey, Janine Pettit has impacted hundreds of thousands of women, but her real impact wasn’t felt until after she turned 50.

Janine and her husband were married in 1983 and started a family the following year when their first daughter was born. Three years later, they had a son. Because the couple truly loved children, they volunteered to serve as foster parents.

In 2003, they adopted one of their foster daughters, whom they call a bonus baby. Along the way, they welcomed one more son through a friendship with their biological son. He needed a family after immigrating to the US and although not officially adopted, he has lived with the Pettit family for eight years now and calls them Mom and Dad.

Janine was technically a stay-at-home mom tasked with raising the children; however, she was very much on the go. She frequently volunteered at their schools and even stepped in to serve as a substitute teacher from time to time. Janine was also the type of person who always needed to have a side hustle going on. She owned an antique shop for a while and worked as a real estate agent for a time. Her favorite venture was running a small sewing business out of her house.

“I was an expert tailor, and few people have those skills anymore,” she explained. “That was always great side money, which I used to take my kids someplace fun and supplement our income.”

Prior to turning 50, Janine considered her family to be her biggest accomplishment.

“All of my kids went off to college and they never got in any serious trouble. They all entered adulthood relatively easily and they remain industrious hard workers,” she explained. “My kids all studied hard and supplemented what we were able to give them for college. They all had jobs and paid their own bills. Honestly, that’s the one thing I’m most proud of them about. They’re all hard workers.”

Changing directions

As her kids began their own lives, Janine could spread her wings a bit. She had always dreamed of traveling with her husband when they retired, but he was very much a homebody.

Even though Janine grew up camping as a child, she never went camping with her own kids. The closest they came was renting an RV when their youngest was in third grade. However, six days into a two-week vacation, her husband confessed how much he hated that lifestyle.

“I was so disappointed because I had an image in my head that this is what we were going to do when our kids were out of the house,” Janine explained. “Life on the road, even for a three-week trip, just wasn’t going to be comfortable for him. I had to think up something else to do instead.”

A short time later, she read a newspaper article about women who travel across the country meeting up with girlfriends camping in tiny campers without their spouses.

“I told myself that’s what I was going to do and it started out as a hobby,” said Janine.

She instantly fell in love with the lifestyle and the relationships she formed. It helped that Janine remembered many camping skills she learned as her father’s helper, such as how to hitch up a trailer and set up a campsite.

“When I got out with other women, I saw them making serious mistakes that could have been really dangerous,” Janine explained. “They were pulling trailers that were way too big for the type of vehicle being used to tow them. They weren’t hooking up their trailers properly, not completing safety checks and many didn’t even know how much air pressure was needed in their tires, which meant they were dangerously over or underinflated.”

So Janine started writing tips to help women become better campers. For example, she wrote a blog about 10 things people should do before pulling out of the driveway. As she produced more content, she attracted the attention of the RV Industry Association (RVIA).

“They told me the RV world was divided into two distinct groups: young families with children and older retired couples using big motorhomes,” she explained. “They saw a lot of potential in encouraging women to become solo RVers. Since I was a woman who traveled without her husband and taught others how to do it, RVIA hired me to write for them.

“I really had no grand plan to do anything else, but I eventually became the Martha Stewart of the camping world,” she added.

Girl Camper was born

Janine had amassed a significant following of fans around the country who helped her see a business opportunity. She founded Girl Camper to successfully connect women to the camping lifestyle and to each other. It started as a national group, but today there are 30 Girl Camper chapters scattered across America. In fact, she expects that to double within a few years.

Girl Camper hosts a variety of camping weekends and larger rallies. Janine even started a lifestyle magazine supporting the movement, which won several awards for editorial content and design. Soon Girl Camper evolved into an empire. The Facebook group alone has close to 300,000 members.

“There was no grand design that I would start something like this once my kids were out of the house. It just sort of happened,” said Janine. “Now, at age 62, I do more in a day than I did when I was 40 with three kids at home. But, I can’t imagine doing anything else. Sometimes it is a daily grind, but I truly love it.”

However, Girl Camper goes far beyond teaching women how to camp and go RVing. That’s secondary to the primary mission, which is caring for women and helping them realize they can do anything they want to do.

“When women are in their 40s, which I call the ‘chaos years,’ they are so tied up in preparing meals, doing endless laundry and getting kids where they need to be that they don’t often take time for themselves,” said Janine. “They are too busy trying to keep the ship running to wonder what their purpose in life may be. For them, it’s an endless cycle of cook, clean, wash, drive and repeat. It’s a job I personally loved but it left me little time for daydreaming.”

“Eventually, I got to a place where I could do a few things for myself, like enjoy a weekend with girlfriends, which would have been unimaginable 10 years earlier,” she added. “When I started camping, I would invite my girlfriends to tag along. But their response was often, ‘Without my husband? It looks like so much fun, but I could never do that.’”

Influenced by expectations

Janine described that attitude as a product of how women grew up back in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. It was an era when boys attended technical training classes, such as auto shop and industrial education, and girls went to home economics.

“I was the president of my school’s Future Homemakers of America club in high school,” said Janine. “I loved every minute of it and I learned a lot. I graduated high school with enough sewing skills to start a tailoring business, which I ran out of my house for 20 years.

“I never thought I couldn’t do what the boys were doing, but it never occurred to me to try. That’s just not where my interests were at the time,” she added.

When Janine met women who claimed they couldn’t go camping, she explained they certainly could, they just needed to learn how to do it.

“It’s almost as if the women needed permission to get out of their own predetermined gender roles and have some fun,” she explained. “They needed to turn off that little loop running in the back of their minds telling them they could never go camping.

“If you don’t want to do it, that’s fine. Don’t do it,” Janine said. “But please don’t let someone else tell you that you don’t have what it takes.

“Once women learn how to master towing, it opens a window in their brain that tells them, ‘Hey, I did this,’” said Janine. “From there, they start thinking about what else that can do, whether it’s tackling home repairs, traveling to Europe or hiking the Appalachian Trail.”

Encouraged by camping

Girl Campers has a strict policy that what happens at a campfire, remains at the campfire. Yet, Janine is amazed by the transformation she sees in women as they sit around the fire pit.

“There are poignant moments where a camper releases something that weighed heavily on her heart for years,” Janine explained. “By sitting around a campfire with other women, she discovers it to be a safe place to unload whatever has been burdening her.

“She will be met with so much love and empathy that it really becomes a transformational moment for that woman. She may have thought she could never go camping on her own, but she’s soon talking with the group about things like engine size, torque and tow ratios,” Janine explained.

The goal of Girl Camper has evolved beyond helping women to try camping to encourage them to move out of their comfort zones.

“We created a place where women aren’t shamed for what they simply don’t know,” said Janine. “There are no dumb questions, nor is there a specific way to camp like a girl.

“Whether you’re a 30-something woman sleeping in a pup tent and using your parents Subaru with a kayak strapped to the top, or you’re in a big Class A motorhome you had to learn to drive after your husband passed away, Girl Camper is there to support women at whatever stage they are in their camping journeys,” said Janine.

Nudged by family

Janine’s family has been tremendously supportive of her work to establish the Girl Camper movement. Her husband, nicknamed the Silverfox at events, often works quietly in the background loading and unloading Janine’s truck so she can interact with members.

However, she admits to having had doubts about what to do after turning 50. Janine questioned her ability to do anything truly spectacular. That all changed during a conversation with her oldest daughter.

“I told my daughter that I needed to get a job somewhere, and she told me I already had one as a girl camper,” said Janine. “When I told her that really wasn’t a job, within an hour my daughter sent a skill set resume she wrote for me that made me cry my eyes out.

“She took every single thing I had done as a mother, from organizing bake sales to starting charity raffles and driving seniors to their appointments, and turned those experiences into a skill set resume,” Janine explained. “As I looked at that list, I realized all women have these skills, but just don’t realize it. It was a life-changing moment for me.”

Today, Girl Camper works to strengthen all women. Hardly a weekend goes by where there isn’t some activity planned by a chapter somewhere. The 30 Girl Camper Guides each run microbusinesses of their own by serving groups of women in a geographic region or specific areas of interest, like hiking or travel.

“Girl Camper Guides make money by hosting a trip, selling their own ads or establishing their own business partners,” said Janine. “We have built a business model to give women an opportunity to build a platform off ours to host their own events and plan activities.”

Substantial investment

Starting Girl Camper wasn’t cheap. It required Janine to make a sizeable investment in herself and her dream. For example, it cost $18,000 just to build a website to connect women to the national organization and various chapters. It took more than a year for Janine to recover that money.

Then, during COVID, all Girl Camper money-making events and activities were canceled. It forced her to take a much-needed break.

“Normally, I am flying somewhere every weekend from January through April. Suddenly, my calendar was completely empty,” Janine explained. “It worked out for the best because I could feel burnout creeping in, and this gave me an opportunity to rest and think.

“But, after making pots of soup for two weeks, I was ready to jump into another project,” she said. “My business partner and I thought if there was room at Barnes and Noble for six different backyard chicken magazines, but there weren’t any magazines about the camping lifestyle, perhaps we should start one. I foolishly thought, how difficult can it be to write a few stories and add some pretty pictures?”

Janine soon learned there was a lot more to publishing a magazine and it all cost money. Fortunately, she connected with an art director who created a fabulous layout, but it cost $13,000 just to get the first issue ready for press, print 2,500 copies and mail them to the first 1,000 subscribers.

“We tapped everyone we knew to buy an advertisement, but we were in the black and able to pay off all our bills. In fact, the magazine has always been in the black,” said Janine. “We really had to believe in ourselves to create a magazine we would want to buy and read ourselves.”

Girl Camper magazine targets all women but especially appeals to “glampers,” which is an industry term for glamourous campers. They like upscale products, like eating off real dishes rather than paper plates.

“I knew my audience very well. They may tow an RV, but when they arrive, they are going to set a pretty table. They’re going to want to know about the best hiking boots, but also where to find cute coats,” said Janine. “By creating a lifestyle magazine, not just a magazine about RVing, we created a publication with a lot of opportunities for revenue.”

The strategy worked. While other magazines are folding and scaling back their editorial pages, Girl Camper magazine is thriving. The spring and summer 2022 issues each had nearly 100 pages with an editorial to ad ratio of 80/20.  By promoting the outdoor lifestyle specifically to women, Janine attracted a variety of advertisers outside the RV industry.

“We are women-centric. We want to maintain good health and we want products that are good for our skin, but also good for the environment,” she explained. “By building that platform, I knew we would not have to rely solely on the RV industry for ad support.”

Ignoring naysayers

It wasn’t always smooth sailing. Janine’s vision for Girl Camper and the magazine attracted naysayers who warned her the ideas wouldn’t work. But, Janine simply tuned them out and focused on her vision.

“Everyone told me print publications were dying, but I did my research. I knew niche magazines were way more successful,” she explained. “I’m a very ordinary person and I go into Barnes and Nobel to buy magazines, so I knew others would, too. I just had to turn off the naysayers.

“When you have an idea in your gut, and your research backs it up, then you just have to run with it,” said Janine. “There is always going to be someone who says you can’t do something or can’t believe that idea. You just have to trust yourself. You are going to need a lot of faith in the early going when you have very little money and no staff. Yes, it’s hard, but you just have to work to overcome that.”

Redefining retirement

Janine doesn’t see herself retiring any time soon. She’s still having way too much fun in life and with her business. That may change now that she is 62 and her husband is 68. But, he also owns a business and has no plans to slow down.

“We both get up every day and go to work. We love what we are doing,” said Janine. “But, I would desperately like a better work-life balance.

“When you reach a certain age, you just don’t want to work as hard as you once did. You can’t take on every opportunity that comes your way,” she explained. “Sometimes you have to say no to a lot of things you really would like to do.”

Janine still sews as a way to relax her mind while still being creative.

“At the end of a long work day, I just love to go down to my basement sewing room and cut out a pillow or make a half-dozen napkins. I never get tired of sewing,” she added.

“I’m also a water colorist. When I’m traveling, I keep a watercolor journal of places I’ve been,” said Janine. “I’ll sit down at night and paint a couple of postcards on blank greeting cards made out of watercolor paper and send it to someone I camped with to help her remember where we were.”

Remember the impact

When the stress of life or running Girl Camper seems overwhelming, Janine opens an email folder where she saves messages from women who have been changed by the organization. That motivates her to keep going because she knows Girl Camper is impacting lives.

“I was speaking at an RV show when a woman approached me afterward to tell me she didn’t know what she was going to do. She was 61 and had just lost her husband,” said Janine. “They had made all these plans to do things together and now she was crushed.

“I told her that I would help and so would other women in our group,” she added. “I asked the RV dealership I was visiting to select a sensitive salesperson to guide the woman, which they did. I called her a few times over the next six months, but then I lost track of her.

“Two years later, I was camping in northwestern Pennsylvania and walking to my camper when I saw the woman,” said Janine. “We hugged and she showed me her teardrop camper, which was covered with stickers of all the places she had camped. She had joined a fishing group and met several other women who were joining her that weekend.

“She said talking to me that day two years earlier changed her life because she didn’t know what she would be doing if she wasn’t camping,” Janine explained. “The woman thought she’d probably be still sitting in her living room crying if I hadn’t shared my conviction with her that camping was something she could do on her own.”

Pursuing passion

When trying to identify a passion, Janine encouraged people to dwell on things they keep thinking about, but never act upon. That’s their heart and soul sending them a message.

“Maybe your passion is something you haven’t even explored yet,” she explained. “If it’s something that’s been on your mind and you’ve always wanted to do it, you should.

“That doesn’t mean you’re going to do it forever or turn it into something big, like I did with Girl Camper,” Janine said. “Your dream doesn’t have to be something that’s going to take over your life. And you don’t need to have every detail worked out in advance to begin. You just need to take that first step to move forward.”

To connect with Janine and learn more about Girl Camper, visit www.girlcamper.com or visit their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/groups/girlcamper.