Enjoying the outdoors is generally perceived as “free” — it doesn’t cost any money to hike a public trail or visit a national park. With more and more people taking to outdoor recreation for entertainment amid the pandemic, the racial divide and lack of representation for people of color in outdoor industries is becoming increasingly evident.
More often than not, picking up an outdoor hobby requires investment in outdoor education, proper equipment and travel. Gear as basic as a hammock costs around $50, and necessary purchases only climb in value from there.
Travel and outdoor education are similarly expensive, and require a decent amount of expendable income and leisure time. National Park Service data shows that nearly 80% of national park visitors are white — more than likely a result of the cost of travel and the National Park Service’s unsuccessful efforts to market to people of color. Representation in our national parks’ workforces is similarly disheartening: less than 20% of park employees are non-white.
The high up-front cost of outdoor recreation keeps groups disproportionately affected by low income and poverty — people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, those with a disability — from joining in.
According to the Outdoor Foundation’s 2019 Outdoor Participation Report, a staggering 74% of outdoor participants are white. Black participants, however, were the most likely to report that they were “fanatics” about outdoor recreation. People of color aren’t disinterested in the outdoors, they’re simply barred from participating by high cost and lack of representation.
Sometimes, used gear or rental gear can be purchased to get around the high overhead cost of many outdoor activities. However, rental gear is more a short term solution for trying out an activity, rather than a long term solution for an enthusiast. Similarly, used outdoor equipment might be more affordable, but isn’t available and safe for every sport. For example, a used bike is more affordable than a new bike, but used helmet sales are unsafe and essentially nonexistent — personal safety simply doesn’t come cheaper than its new-in-box price.
Cultural barriers in the outdoors are just as limiting as the financial ones. There was not a black female professional road cyclist until 2019, when 33-year-old Ayesha McGowan began competing in USA Cycling’s pro category 2.
In a column for Bicycling Magazine, Ayesha speculates that road cycling might be the “whitest sport on earth.” She mentions spending time in Fayetteville for the Joe Martin Stage Race, where, like many places she visits while racing, she had to wonder whether she’d be accepted “surrounded by white faces.”
The lack of representation in the outdoors extends beyond professional participants. White America simply does not expect to see people of color in the outdoors.
Raequan Wilson, a black cyclist and founder of the #iride4them movement recounts being stopped by a white police officer in a trail parking lot for looking “suspicious [...] with a nice bike.” The officer dismissed him upon deciding Raequan “looked the part,” referring to his cycling kit.
“What hoops would I have had to jump through to prove I belong?” Raequan later asked in an Instagram post, wondering how the officer might have reacted if he had been wearing baggy clothes instead of a cycling kit that matched his bike.
James Edward Mills, a travel writer for National Geographic shares a similar story — while on a paddling trip through the Grand Canyon, a fellow traveler remarked “In 25 years, I think you’re the first African American I’ve ever seen down here.”
His statement embodies the accessibility of outdoor recreation in America: our public lands are perceived as free for all to enjoy, when more often than not, white people are the only group with the resources to enjoy them.
Groups underrepresented in the outdoors aren’t excluded because they lack interest, they’re stopped by the high cost of recreation and the near lack of outdoor inclusion programs. Outdoor industries and organizations have a responsibility to do better, starting by including underrepresented groups in their leadership and outreach.