As far as Jenny Bruso is concerned, there’s no such thing as a misfit in the outdoors. At least, that’s what she hopes to achieve through her organization, Unlikely Hikers.
“As I began researching trails and gear to improve my adventures, I was disappointed to find that so much outdoor media isn’t really written for the new outdoorsperson, even "how-to" pieces. This felt like a barrier, and a frustrating one. This, on top of how difficult it is to find plus-size gear and how cost-prohibitive so much of it is, had me kind of up against the wall with this thing that I was loving so much that didn’t seem to have a place for me,” said Bruso in a 2019 interview for Outdoor Project's Women In the Wild.
The implications of failing to engage a more diverse audience in protected natural spaces are significant and far-reaching. However, efforts are being taken by renowned organizations like the NPS and grassroots organizations around the world to create greater equality of access to the great outdoors.
For some, going on an outdoor adventure requires a lot more planning than simply driving to the nearest trailhead. Accessibility to nature depends on an abundance of factors, but outdoor spaces have been historically un-diverse. In many ways, getting outside is still a privilege. But outdoor advocates have found that often, the facilitation of a community is what’s needed to expand society’s definition of an “adventure lover”.
Accessibility goes far beyond just the location and monetary resources of underprivileged and BIPOC groups—it’s also about the knowledge and information needed to succeed in nature, and sourcing the necessary gear and supplies. Organizations and movements of all levels have cropped up across the world in response to the outdated notion of who can appreciate the outdoors, such as social media-based groups like Unlikely Hikers—an outdoor community that caters to the underrepresented outdoorsperson. Prioritizing accessibility, the community offers organized hikes around the nation, a podcast with Jenny Bruno, and a sense of community for adventurers of all backgrounds—plus-size, Black, Indigenous, people of color, queer, trans and non-binary, disabled, neurodivergent and beyond. The organization was created in response to the “narrow definition of who is ‘outdoorsy’ that isn’t representative of most of us,” and seeks to foster connections with nature for a broader audience by breaking down basic barriers to access in a psychologically and physically safe space.
Greater accessibility can also mean rethinking the way trails are designed in the first place. Nevada geologist and professor Ed Price founded the Trail Access Project in 2015 to address this discrepancy.
“Most hiking trails in the past have been designed for only the non-disabled. This may be because the natural terrain makes considering hikers with disabilities too large of a lift for trail builders, or it may be because trail users with disabilities were simply not considered at all. Regulations now require that new trails on federal lands be built with certain accessibility characteristics, such as moderate gradient on hills,” said Price
For others, the terrain itself presents a nearly insurmountable challenge. Aspiring hikers with physical disabilities may struggle with trail width, grade, terrain, and overcrowdedness. Organizations like the Trail Access Project ensure that those with physical disabilities and wheelchair-users can have safe and meaningful outdoor experiences—by collecting information and forming a database of backcountry and frontcountry trails around the country that may be suitable for adaptive hiking. The nonprofit also lobbies and fundraises for increased accessibility modifications on trails that are less accessible, increasing the number of wheelchair-friendly backcountry spaces available.
For many adventurers, there are still more considerations to account for when planning a trip to the outdoors. Outdoor Afro’s founder Rue Mapp is seeking to flip the script on who belongs in the outdoors by offering safe and supportive nature experiences for members of the Black community.
“Adventuring comes with so many things to think about. What gear do I need? What expertise do I need? Who is coming with me? Black people also need to wonder if they are going to be the only ones there, what are they driving past to get there—Confederate flags, political affiliations, etc. Once you are where you want to be, are people going to think you don’t belong?” said Mapp in a 2020 interview with Forbes Magazine.
Aligning with the National Park Service’s visitor demographics, scientists have found that communities of color are three times more likely than white communities to live in nature-deprived areas—about 74% of communities of all color in the contiguous U.S. compared to 23% of white communities. Groups like Outdoor Afro are working to address this discrepancy by promoting Black connections and leadership in nature by offering online and in-person events and leadership training, partnering with prominent outdoor brands like REI Co-op, Clif bar, and KEEN, and most importantly, building an expansive network of Black outdoorspeople across the country—essentially, building an entire community of like-minded individuals from scratch.
Once a project dreamed up at her kitchen table, National Geographic Explorer Mapp’s organization has expanded to over 40 states, operating in 56 cities. With goals of making the outdoors a welcome environment for the Black community, Mapp added, “We activate our work through a recruited and trained volunteer network. Those are folks all over the country, and we’ve been fortunate to have representation from New York to Ohio, Chicago, Detroit, as well as the Twin Cities.”