Making the Outdoors a More Inclusive Place

In the spring of 2016, I was a freshly-minted college graduate of Northern Michigan University. This lesser-known school sits on the shores of Lake Superior, surrounded by wilderness in every direction. I was feeling a bit sorry for myself, having to graduate and “grow up,” so I put it off by applying to be a sea kayak guide for the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. I quickly realized that the male-dominated world of guiding wasn’t going to just warmly embrace me. As I sat and watched the dirt road through the hole in the floor of a beat up passenger van nicknamed “The Death Trap,” with 10 shirtless 20-something dudes, I was thinking about quitting.

Imposter syndrome was hitting me hard. I thought: I don’t belong here, I’m not strong enough to keep up with the guys, I don’t have what it takes to be a professional guide, and I’m a fraud. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was far from being alone on this issue in the outdoor industry. Woman in the outdoor industry not only experience imposter syndrome, but sexual harassment as well. A 2017 survey of 1,364 professionals in the outdoor industry from a Boulder-based leadership company, Camber Outdoors, found that the experience woman are having in the industry is different than it is for men. Their study showed that 38% of all woman surveyed at the industry-level (including bike, outdoor, snow, and run segments) felt they had been directly or indirectly affected by behavior or comments which were discriminatory or biased. Compare that to 18% for men in the industry. Another study from the Outdoor Industry Association shows that after age 26, woman are 55% less likely to be involved in outdoor activities. Whereas, 60% of men reported engaging in outdoor activities into their 20s and 30s.

Woman aren’t the only individuals being pushed to the fringes of a privileged outdoor community. People of color are also highly underrepresented in this community. A 2010 Outdoor Recreation Participation survey Conducted by the Outdoor Foundation reported that of 137.8 million U.S. citizens engaged in outdoor activities, 80 percent were Caucasian, a trend which is also consistent amongst those of us who chose to work in wilderness settings. One of my favorite advocates on this topic is James Edward Mills, who is an outdoorsman and a journalist who wrote the book titled The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors. In his book, he discusses his experience of the first all-African American summit attempt of Denali, and discusses why African American role models are needed in the industry. As someone who loves our Earth, Mills also makes a case for the need for diversity in the outdoors in order to spark passion for conservation amongst people of color. In Claire Martin’s Outside Magazine article, Is Diversity Just a Marketing Strategy for Gear Brands?, she discusses the need for diverse voices to be more involved in the outdoor industry. She notes that according to a 2014 report by Green 2.0, only 12 to 15 percent of people of color are being represented in environmental organizations. With this in mind, Martin later mentions that according to a U.S. Census report, by the year 2044, people of color will be the majority. With a majority of the U.S. population being people of color in our near future, I see a huge need for the industry to outstretch its muddy hands and embrace change, not only for equity’s sake, but for the environment’s as well.

So, the question becomes, “What can we, as members of the thriving outdoor community here in Boulder, Colorado, do to make the outdoors a more inclusive space?” Good ways to do this include (but are not limited to): identifying ways in which you hold power and privilege, checking your biases, engaging in respectful conversations about issues of diversity, being welcoming and patient with those who may be new to the outdoor community, and utilizing your voting and purchasing power.

There are some absolute rock stars out there doing incredible work to help support diversity and inclusion in the outdoors. Here are a few of my favorite sources and organizations who are working to diversify the outdoors:

  • Outdoor Women’s Alliance:
    • Their mission: “Through the lens of human-powered adventure, we work to inspire confidence and leadership in women of all ages, believing that strong women have the power to build healthy communities and — quite literally — change the world.”
    • https://www.outdoorwomensalliance.com/
  • Black Girls Trekkin’
    • Their mission: “Through our passion, we’re inspiring and empowering black women to spend time outdoors, appreciate nature, and protect it. We hope to build a community that will show the world that women of color are a strong and present force in the outdoors.”
    • https://blackgirlstrekkin.com/
  • AndShesDopeToo
    • Their mission: “We specialize in connecting women worldwide with friendship and adventure by offering retreats and rendezvous that are removed from comparison and competition. We believe in community and in the strength of nature to heal us all. Let’s discover genuine bonds, happiness, and confidence, together.”
    • https://andshesdopetoo.com/
  • Colorado Discover Ability Adaptive Outdoor Recreation

Although I had to endure a summer full of lewd comments and tough-guy performances, I discovered within me a passion for guiding, and changing the face of the outdoor industry. Not only this, but I discovered a inclusive community of people who have similar goals through Colorado Wilderness Rides and Guides. By seeking out this community, I have been able to meet inspirational woman, and others in the industry who are working to “change the record.”

  • Written by Jessica Bailey. Adventurer and Guide for Colorado Wilderness Rides and Guides.