Backpacking’s Dearth of Diversity: A Problem That Can’t Be Ignored

The Situation at Hand

I was going to write my second article on Massachusetts ski mountains, ranking them from worst to best. This was the plan. Then something happened. An acquaintance from college reached out to me about my proposed underlying goal of “finding out more about why the backpacking community lacks diversity,” as I worded it on Facebook, to see what kinds of measures I would be taking. I regretted telling him my only real plan is to proactively ask backpackers on the PCT what they think about this lack and what can be done about it.

Living in the Denver area, he told me he has hiked many of the nearby trails and couldn’t help but to notice this blatant void of diversity. I was fortunate enough to get his two cents on the matter, and I now feel I have a leaping head start on this roving aspiration to “find out more.” So, no offense to the slopes of The Commonwealth, but they’re gonna have to wait at least one more week for my attention.     

It’s obvious to me that outing is overwhelmingly a white man’s sport. Whether I’m hiking, skiing, or just in the outdoors for any matter, all I have to do is take a look around me to see this. And when I do see people of color indulging in the outdoors, my subconscious is sometimes there with a, “Hmm—you don’t see that often,” a thought likely never to see its days of verbalization.

My love for the outdoors really ballooned into what it is today when I was a teen, and most of my friends were there for the ride—my white friends. I’m sure I assumed at the time that I was just from an area more densely inhabited by Caucasian people, and the same ordeal was occurring in the parallel universes of non-white majority neighborhoods. But in Lornett Vestal’s Sierra Club article, “The Unbearable Whiteness of Hiking and How to Solve It,” she touches in on a cold reality, “In any given year, less than half of African American adolescents age 13 to 17 will participate in even one outdoor recreation activity.” But why—why—is this?

Let’s take a look at the facts. According to the estimated 2019 Census Bureau, Non-Hispanic whites make up 60.1% of the U.S population while Hispanics and Latinos of any mix make up 18.5%, African-Americans make up 13.4%, Asians make up 5.9%, people of two or more races make up 2.8%, Natives make up 1.3%, and lastly Pacific Islanders make up only a mere 0.2%. In 2018, the U.S government set the poverty threshold for one person at an income of $12,784 a year. I’m not sure what standards they set this by, but it’s certainly not the ones they’re living off. Regardless, I’ll provide their “poverty stats.” They better be mailing me a giant grain of salt to handle this one, however.

In 2018, Hispanics were 1.74x more likely to find themselves in poverty than their white counterparts. African-Americans were more than double as likely, and Native Americans were a whopping 2.51x more likely. Race alone is not a reason for any group of people to be poorer than the next, and if you think this is the cause, instead of institutional and systemic racism that has prevailed from under the rug for decades—well then—this might be a good place to stop reading; this article isn’t for you.

You might be saying to yourself by now, “Come on Nick! Enough with the numbers! I just want to know WHY this is!” If so, I’m sorry if I bored you. Let’s get to it. Here is the list of factors I’ve come up with from my research and discussion with peers.

The Factors

Money

The president of ATC took a lot of heat last year after she made a remark about backpacking coming from a “place of privilege.” For the few who didn’t come from this snug upbringing and chose to speak their minds on the matter, I sympathized. But she wasn’t wrong—for the most part. I see many outdoor enthusiasts reiterate the narrative that the outdoor life is the “simple” one and you don’t need much—yada yada. This is ignorant and insensitive, if you ask me.

I had to buy thousands of dollars of gear to embark on my Appalachian Trail hike. I also had to have the financial security to save money for the time I would be away. Furthermore, if these enthusiasts ever plan on returning to society (they do), then they need the security in life to have somewhere to return to. Any outing venture consisting of more than just a day hike is virtually guaranteed to require some investment. Again, twice as many African-Americans live in poverty than whites. With this, they only have half the opportunity Caucasians have to backpack or do other outdoor activities.

Access

This one ties in closely with poverty. Access to trails, ski mountains, rock climbing, etcetera usually requires transportation. Obviously, transportation requires money. It’s easy to overlook this one, but without my own vehicle and support of family and friends who own cars, it would have been nearly impossible for Bran and I to pull off our AT flip-flop, and I can forget any possibility of completing the New England Trail.

On multiple occasions, I had to pay friends to drive up to eighty miles round-trip to pick me up from my section ends on this footpath, take me back to my car (which was often in the opposite direction), and immediately return back home (Covid). Even my days of skiing usually require at least a sixty-mile round trip. Most people don’t live right on the edge of the wilderness, and even though my home city borders the boonies and seemingly endless forest of the the Berkshires, I still have to drive a crap ton to do what I do.

Representation

We feel invited and welcome when we see people who look like us doing something. This is natural, and while there’s nothing wrong with this, it’s important we recognize the role representation has in the backpacking community. White dominance in outing tabloids and advertisements does not portray a message of invitation and welcome to people of all ethnicity. This has improved over the last decade or so, but people need to see real outing figures, not just actors getting paid to bend over a Coleman stove.

Culture

This factor is purely derived from my own contemplation, but from raw experience it seems poverty thrives more in the city than in rural America. Don’t get me wrong, though, I know there are impoverished areas in the backwoods, but I bet my bottom dollar these communities are mostly white and have the benefit of self sustainability to a certain extent. Outing simply isn’t something that flourishes in city culture.

What Can WE Do?

I wish I could tell you there was a way we could pick up a magical wand, wave it at the mountains (or deserts, swamplands, wherever the heck you backpack) cast a spell, and fix everything. This is a tough one, and there’s likely more you can do to alleviate the stigma against weed (last week’s article) than there is to even out the playing field of inclusion on trail.

Money, access, and culture are problems more rooted from a societal issue as a whole than something specific to outing, and I don’t expect one person to miraculously step in and recurve these grim parameters. As someone with my Bachelor’s in Criminal Justice, it would be a dream-come-true to start or be involved in a program that takes at-risk youth and brings them backpacking. This could work wonders, I believe. But even this seems far, far from attainable. 

Representation is where I think some people can make a difference. I say some, however, because as someone who already fits the white-hiker stereotype, there’s not much I can do to—well—represent physically. I can represent an attitude of inclusion, inquisitiveness, and encouragement of diversity in backpacking, though. I choose to do this. If you’re in a similar position, try to learn, absorb, and show your desire for a community that embodies this. Who knows—you might just find the mission is more tangible than you thought.

For those who can represent, you hold all the cards in your hand. If you’re someone who has a passion for the outdoors not of the stereotype, I might even argue you have an obligation to do this.

“People sitting at home can be inspired to buy a backpack and a plane ticket because they are following someone who looks like them on Instagram. That really happens all the time,” as Leah from The Trek says in her article, “Trail So White— Why The Trail Needs More Diversity.”

It’s true, and I see it happening every day.

There are a handful of organizations and people proactively taking measures to increase diversity in outing. Diversify Outdoors is a website that collates the social media influencers of outing diversity and displays them for users to follow on their site. Memphis Rox, a rock climbing gym in Tennessee, seeks to grow a more diverse outing community by never turning anyone away from their gym, regardless of ability to pay. Of course, these are just two of many different moving parts in this mission, and while we still have ways to go, I am made hopeful by these growing measures.

Why Diversity Matters

So, all this aside, why does diversity matter? From a subjective standpoint, it’s easy to just say, “I’m not racist. I treat everyone with love and respect and so does the majority of everyone else. White people just hike more. It is what it is.” I think it’s rationales like these that have rooted some of the fury of naysayers to recent racial issues gone viral.

Why should I have to do more when I’m already a loving person? 

I get it. It can be frustrating, especially when the proposition that you have to do “do more” is misinterpreted for accusation of having done something wrong or not being a “good person.” But this is not what this means at all. What this does mean is we as hikers have an obligation to understand this under-representation of minorities in the community. And since I assume everyone wants to have the best hiking community possible, then I’ll also assume we want the most diverse version of it as well.

To believe we have reached anywhere near this threshold as a white-dominated culture is nothing but a fallacy. Just like I do on this blog, we should always seek the most diverse group of people and voices possible. Race and ethnicity boils down to one thing: geographical roots. The more variation in background, life experience, and culture we have, the better the input we also have for backpacking trails. Beyond this, if we have a diverse community, then everyone gets a chance to experience the great outdoors, not just the privileged. Who wouldn’t want this? The puzzle consists of many pieces. Let’s do our best to complete it.       

 

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Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Race_and_ethnicity_in_the_United_States

https://www.diversifyoutdoors.com/resources

https://www.sierraclub.org/outdoors/2016/12/unbearable-whiteness-hiking-and-how-solve-it

https://www.povertyusa.org/facts

http://www.thetrek.co/appalachian-trail/trail-so-white/

http://www.memphisrox.org

Published by Nicholas J. Devlin

I'm a freelance writer from western Massachusetts. Horror, comedy, and all the unholy things my parents told me to stay away from are my favorite. Oh and I like the outdoors. boomsplayground.com/ fulldarkfever.com

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