Ambreen Tariq runs Brown People Camping, an Instagram account that promotes diversity in public lands. She says she can feel like an outsider hiking and camping as a Muslim woman of color and immigrant.
â€œI felt like I had to establish myself â€“ â€˜Yeah, Iâ€™m a camper, Iâ€™m a hikerâ€™ â€“ that other people donâ€™t do as much because they donâ€™t have to question their belonging in that space,â€ Tariq tells Outside.
â€œNot only did I not have an authentic background doing activities in the outdoors, but my family didnâ€™t do it, and I donâ€™t have the legacy of being connected to a piece of land because we were always moving.â€
We need to acknowledge outdoor recreationâ€™s lack of diversity and inclusion.
Without understanding whatâ€™s keeping folks home, we blame oppressed individuals for â€œnot taking initiative,â€ rather than addressing what may be preventing them from participating in certain activities.
To encourage people to take their own adventures, we might say well-meaning things like, â€œAnybody can do this if theyâ€™re motivated enough.â€
This can be inspirational to someone who has the resources and leisurely time to explore the outdoors and needs a kick in the butt to do so. However, the message can be draining for folks who are raring to explore, but canâ€™t.
We forget that societyâ€™s hierarchies of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, body size, and economic class donâ€™t magically disappear in the forest. We deny that society actively discourages millions from playing outside, possibly stopping budding conservation activists.
As Tariq notes, â€œThe more of us who can connect to it, the more we can protect it together.â€
Here are a few barriers that marginalize people have to overcome to experience nature.
1. You Need Equipment
Our society treats nature as something we can enjoy independent of capitalism.
Theoretically, we go there to escape, and all we need are some sturdy shoes and maybe a sleeping bag.
The reality is more complicated. In the United States, outdoor recreation is a $646 billion industry. Open the pages of outdoor magazines, and youâ€™ll find $150 trail running shoes, $500 tents and $4,000 mountain bikes.
Weâ€™ve created a culture of elitism around the outdoors, led by wealthy gear heads.
The Minnesota Land Trustâ€™s Hansi Johnson, whoâ€™s white, recalls how he used to see people wearing jeans and flannel cross-country skiing growing up â€“ a rare sight today.
Even if folks push past mainstream narratives and seek more affordable gear, cost is still a factor for low-income people.
If deals on used equipment or borrowing from a friend arenâ€™t feasible in someoneâ€™s area, gear for a no-frills camping trip can still cost $500. Forget the cost of a car and gas to get to the campsite.
While do-it-yourself fixes for gear do exist â€“ anybody else try cooking on a beer can camp stove? â€“ theyâ€™re not universally known outside of backpacking circles. Ditto on cheap gear websites.
Those who make outdoor activities cheap often have a support system behind them.
As a freelancer with a college education, Iâ€™m perpetually broke, not poor. I couldnâ€™t camp comfortably if I didnâ€™t have the gear my parents gifted me back in high school.
No wonder 40% of participants in outdoor activities make $75,000-plus salaries a year.
The paradox that being poor is expensive is true: If you want to participate in a no-cost outdoor activity, you need to have money to invest in the gear initially.
This system reveals deeply entrenched classism. Ignoring it isnâ€™t going to make it go away.
2. Outdoor Gear Doesnâ€™t Fit Everyone
Cost is just one hurdle. Outdoor gear needs to fit.
Fitness culture overall reeks of fat-shaming, for one, which is reflected in workout clothing offerings.
Ultra-marathoner and cross-country coach Mirna Valerio says on Fat Girl Running that she struggles to find functional, flattering outfits that donâ€™t pinch or cost a lot. In fact, most sportswear goes up to just a size twelve.
For those whoâ€™d prefer cycling: Only last year did anyone think to build a bike for someone whoâ€™s heavier than 300 pounds.
As with disability access, if the equipment isnâ€™t readily available, people arenâ€™t as likely to think that the outdoors are theirs to explore.
If we truly believe that everyone should be outside, we need to hold companies accountable for their limited views on body size.
3. Access to Natural Spaces Is Tangled in Historic Privilege and Oppression
In principle, public lands belong to all of us. In reality, select people get to enjoy it.
Carolyn Finney, geographer and author of Black Faces, White Spaces, explains about how national parks contribute to a larger story about who we are as a country, which historically excludes Black folks.
On Tavis Smiley, a PBS show hosted by Tavis Smiley, Finney reminds us that people of color do have a connection to natural spaces, but some of that land was stolen from them:
â€ â€¦whether itâ€™s the 400,000 acres of land that were originally given to freed enslaved Africans and then taken away, whether itâ€™s all the native people that had to be removed from land in order for the Homestead Act to make sense, and then give it to European immigrants so that they could have their own plot of land.â€
Finney continues, â€œThis is part of the legacy of who we are and our issues of land and ownership and connection.â€
Today, 80% of communities of color live â€œin areas where the proportion of remaining natural area is lower than the state average.â€ According to a study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, low-income neighborhoods are four and a half times less likely to have recreation facilities like parks in some states.
Furthermore, what we consider â€œuntouched wildernessâ€ is anything but.
As Kimberly Fanshier notes for Everyday Feminism, this concept centers around white peopleâ€™s perspective and erases Indigenous populations who lived there for centuries before.
Many national parks and public lands were built on colonized lands. Even US National Parks reflect colonialism, where white leaders ignored Indigenous people in the area to establish.
Our society leverages natural spaces as a tool for capitalism and colonialism, while at the same time touted them as apolitical, free, and pure.
Personally I thought urban minorities do a pretty good job of stealing other people’s bicycles, so why wouldn’t they be adequately equipped for mountain biking?