One thing I have noticed more acutely this year is that outdoor recreation can seem completely out of reach for people. This is due to a variety of things, including but not limited to ableism, racism, socio-economic restrictions, sexism, homophobia, and much more.
Our culture shares the image of the outdoors as a white man, strong, tall, and physically fit. He has money, he’s usually middle class or upper, he has the right equipment, everything works properly, he is equal parts American Dream and elitist. He is what we are supposed to be in the outdoors.
When you grow up inundated with that story it is hard to picture yourself in the same space. This is where representation matters, and having more diversity in the outdoors is just as important as in any other area. This means that diversity in the marketing and messaging of travel journalists, and marketing is equally important (and not tokenizing people).
I had the benefit of growing up white and with a family that embraced the outdoors through camping, horseback riding, and hiking. While the world I grew up was dominated by a strong man narrative, I also was able to find my own fit in the culture.
For my friends, colleagues, and many others the lack of representation meant that their view on outdoor exploration was one that existed apart from them. While many have bridged that gap, many others feels that they are unwelcome and even permitted from doing the things I enjoy daily.
In the recent case of the Great Smoky Mountains Vandalism in September 2020 there is even more concern on feeling welcome and safe. For black Americans their right to explore the outdoors may exist, but their safety is in question. While the Smoky Mountains event is horrible and disquieting, it is not alone in a long list of aggression and conflict many have felt when trying to venture into outdoor spaces. My privilege as a white person means that my safety, based on skin color, is not in question.
This is not to mention the deep complexity of what the outdoors means on a nation that was established on the land of other people. Everywhere in the United States was once the hunting grounds, sacred sites, and home of Native Peoples that inhabited the America for Millenia before white people. This fact is not discussed nearly enough and the representation of this fact is not shared nearly enough in histories, sites, and markers.
For ableism, the ideation of people with only a certain type of body feeds off of the racism, fatphobia, and homophobia that exists on these other levers. When we do not show that all people can and are welcome into spaces, we fail to open a door for those that have equal right to explore and engage. When we say only one type of person can do “this” we shut the door on all the others that would be able to bring effective and vital changes and voices to such spaces.
Beyond outdoor exploration the travel industry also needs to have a reckoning with how it markets and connects people with travel. This includes having inclusive language, advertising to all people, and providing expertise and support for different needs and concerns.
We have a lot of things to figure out as a culture in regard to these issues, but there are things we can do to welcome more people into the natural areas so many of us love. A big start is welcoming people that are not traditionally welcomed and brought into the outdoors. It means taking people hiking, showing them how to go camping, and inspiring them to enjoy the land they have equal access to.
While outdoor excursions often require income needs and time off, there is still plenty that can be done to help people get outdoors and enjoy natural areas. It doesn’t have to be expensive, and it certainly can be fun with only a short amount of time. A lot of this comes down to education, outreach, support, and the expansion of programs to aid people in getting out of doors.
It can be as easy as volunteering with Girl Scouts, or asking a co-worker that has never been hiking to go with you. It can be changing your marketing materials to be more inclusive, and finding companies that are working on the matters discussed above. It is opening the doors to others that have been disenfranchised. It means listening to those that say they have been left out or even hurt by current and past programs.
Travel and outdoors exploration may not be the only thing needed to make the world a better place. However, I do believe it will make the world better with bringing more people into the fold and welcoming everyone to explore and engage in our valuable natural places.