Redefining “outdoorsy”

Check almost any hashtag or website dedicated to the outdoors and you’ll see one of a handful of stock images: a young, white woman staring wistfully at a high alpine lake; a young dude-bro catching air on a big mountain bike ride; a tale of epic, death-defying adventure in a remote wilderness. For a handful of people, these kinds of experiences will define their life, whether it’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip or a complete lifestyle. But for most humans, getting outdoors means something completely different.

A family enjoying a day at the park.

There’s a lot of implied competition among outdoor people. Who had the gnarliest experience, who hiked the longest, traveled the furthest, achieved the FKT (fastest known time). And this is reflected in the images and stories we see and hear all around us. And while some may be inspired, others are completely put off. There’s a representation issue in the outdoor industry and it’s making the outdoors elitist and inaccessible to a large number of people.

I remember when I first got into the outdoors. I was a toddler, and I didn’t even know the outdoors was something to be “into.” I liked feeding ducks at the park and jumping rope on weekend camping trips. I liked playing in the dirt and flipping over rocks to look for bugs and salamanders. These faint memories were formative moments in my life. But, when I rediscovered my love for the outdoors in my 20’s, I quickly got sucked into the competitive vibe of outdoor life.

I recall thinking I needed to get in better shape to keep up with my ultra-running friends or to pick the most challenging hikes I could pack into a weekend. I felt bad about being the “slow one.” I scoffed at people strolling on the tourist routes with seemingly nowhere to go. And if I did anything under 10 miles then it was a complete waste of my time. Because I didn’t have a lot of money, I was able to avoid getting obsessive over the latest and greatest gear, making do with what I had and what I could find at secondhand stores.

That carried over when I started rock climbing. I had to get better, climb harder routes. I felt like a failure for not keeping up with my friends. I got mad when I couldn’t do something. And this was a hobby! I wasn’t a professional athlete!

The pressure to perform is really high. And while my drive to do better came from within myself, it was shaped by the people and culture around me. It made me dislike the very thing that brought me so much joy as a kid.

Everyone belongs outdoors

What do we seek outdoors? We seek fresh air, space to move, connection with nature, connection with our friends, physical and mental challenges, beauty, and so much more. To some, that means traveling to the ends of the earth on a huge budget with a ton of specialized skills. To others, that means sitting on an apartment balcony watching squirrels and birds. Neither of those things are better or worse than the other. Each person’s experience in the outdoors will depend on their interests, abilities, budget, gear, skill levels and free time. More often, we have time for coffee on the balcony than an intercontinental trek.

Rooftop views in New York City

These micro-adventures, which may be moments, minutes, or hours spent outdoors, likely do more to satisfy your need for being outside than the big ones that you can only do a handful of times (or never) in your life. So, promoting the value of these times spent outdoors seems essential in encouraging everyone to get out and enjoy nature.

Here is an incomplete list of ways to get outdoors quickly, inexpensively and regularly:

  • walking the neighborhood
  • birdwatching
  • visiting a playground
  • floating in a canoe/raft
  • nature journaling
  • trail running
  • nature photography
  • hiking
  • biking
  • beachcombing

Nature doesn’t just exist in the Alaskan wilderness or slickrock canyons in Utah. Nature is all around you. Look for natural space in local parks, greenways, gardens, rivers and lakes. Notice what plants are growing in empty lots and cracks in the sidewalk. Notice the birds flying between shrubs and bird-feeders. Notice the weather by just stepping outside your house into the outdoors. There’s so much to appreciate close to home before even booking a plan ticket or filling up the tank for a road-trip.

You may never strive to climb Mt. Everest, backpack the Pacific Crest Trail, or sail around the world. But that doesn’t mean your outdoor pursuits are not outdoorsy. (And if you want to do those things, that’s cool too!) Outdoor activities exist on a spectrum so that we can all find what keeps us happy and itching for more. Imagine if we all had exactly the same idea of adventure; that place would be packed!

The outdoors is all around you

Since the pandemic, I’ve been shifting my focus on local adventures and neighborhood walks. I’ve discovered many new parks, open spaces and neighborhood that were completely off my radar in the days before everything shut down. This has been such a gift to re-frame my perspective and change my expectations when it comes to the outdoors. Instead of tracking my speed and trying to link up the toughest challenges, I instead celebrated, well, everything. Every flower, yard sign, friendly face, tree, sunset, raindrop and viewpoint. Just moving my body outside was enough.

I know that not everyone lives in an incredible outdoor mecca like I do; I moved here specifically to be surrounded by mountains, desert, and open space. But I’ve lived in dense cities and rural outposts. In both situations, I was still able to find places to go and things to do. Nature is abundant and all around you, if you just look for it and expand its definition.

Sitting on a backyard playset with my little brother, learning to love the outside.

Safety and risk

The unfortunate fact is, however, that not everyone feels safe in the outdoors. There are many threats to safety that we must consider before venturing out to a new place or even through our own neighborhood. While it just takes some time, education and experience to mitigate the usual outdoor risks like dealing with weather, animals and navigation, a person’s identity also plays a role in the risk-reward calculation.

People of color, LGBTQ+ folx, women and others may feel less safe and unwelcome in outdoor spaces. I do not wish to speak for these groups, but I would like to acknowledge that it is clear that we have a long way to go as a society in helping marginalized communities feel like they belong outside.

And now that racism and hate is thrust into the spotlight, it is high time for people (notably, white people) to take a deep breath, listen, and learn about how we can help make the outdoors more accessible to people of all races, abilities, gender, sexual orientations, EVERYONE. Not just people who look like us.

Some articles to learn more about racism and anti-LGBTQ sentiments in the outdoors:

How to Be an Ally in the Outdoors by Danielle Williams

What the Outdoor Rec Industry Doesn’t Get about the LGBTQ Community by Mikah Meyer

Racism In The Great Outdoors: Oregon’s Natural Spaces Feel Off Limits To Black People by Monica Samayoa

We have some work to do. I am deeply passionate about exploring the outdoors and I so very much want everyone to be able to find their space and enjoy it without fear of violence, no matter what they want to do. Here are just a few organizations that have been putting in the work. Join them or support them:

Get Out Stay Out

Melanin Base Camp

Outdoor Afro

Unlikely Hikers

Wild Diversity

Despite our differences, everyone who wants to enjoy the outdoors has that in common. And why not work on ourselves and on our systems to make every outdoor experience a meaningful one?

If you’ve made it this far, great, let’s get to work now…

If you are comfortable and experienced in outdoor adventures, you can work on using your skills to teach others how to get outside.

If you’ve benefited from privilege, be it white, male, cis-gender, etc. you can take some time to learn about how that privilege has shaped your experience in the outdoors and how systemic racism works. Challenge your thoughts and behaviors. Then, start listening to other people to gain a better understanding of how the system favors some groups over others. And THEN, start working to break down those barriers!

If you have felt left out of the outdoor experience because of your identity, lack of access, or lack of skill, seek out those individuals and organizations that can help you make your way in the outdoor world. Share how YOU experience the outdoors, too.

Lastly, no matter how you get outside, please remember to practice Leave No Trace.

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