Privilege and Thru-Hiking: Food for Thought
I’ve done a mountain of research in the past few months preparing for my March thru-hike start date. This research has allowed me to observe some trends in the outdoor community. I’ve joined a few ultralight backpacking groups on Facebook, and they are overwhelmingly populated by white men. White men also produce a majority of reviews for gear and trails. Though still not equal, women’s voices have begun to enter the hiking and outdoor world more frequently over time. But how often do we interact with people of color in this setting?
Reflecting upon the many hikes and backpacking trips I’ve taken, the trend is similar. I struggle to recall people of color that I have encountered on the trail. The majority of people I’ve interacted with on trail fall into the mostly white, fit, educated, “granola” category.
Because hiking and backpacking is time-consuming and often expensive, many people find it hard to fit into their lives. Students, people who work multiple jobs, and anyone with financial struggles are often unlikely to be able to make outdoor time a priority.
Backpacking is an activity that can be inaccessible to many people, and it is important that we, as a community, acknowledge this.
Many large universities are making an effort to address issues with accessibility by taking people on backpacking trips and providing all of the gear. This photo is from a trip to Grayson Highlands that I took my freshman year. University of Tennessee Outdoor Programs (UTOP) led the trip, and many foreign exchange students came with us. The trip provided the opportunity for many people to get outdoors that likely wouldn’t be able to do so on their own. It was during this trip that I really decided I had to thru-hike the AT.
I can only speculate at the reasons behind the lack of minorities within the outdoor community. However, I’ve had a little input from some people close to me. For example, Hope, my little sister, is in high school. Hope told my parents that she and Faith get noticeably less encouragement and guidance than comparable white students. This phenomenon is best described as implicit bias. Implicit bias refers to a unconscious mind-set that stems from stereotypes and societal beliefs that actually affects people’s actions and decisions. Bias is an example of the way that people of color are often presented with more barriers to success than white people.
One such barrier is that opportunities for high-paying jobs can be few and far between for people of color. Many hiring managers have preconceived notions that a person of color might not be as good of an employee. So when a person of color has a great job, it can be a really big deal to give it up to thru-hike.
And as if it wasn’t already hard enough to get outside, people of color are rarely represented in the outdoor world. One can imagine that if you never saw people like you doing things outside, it would be more intimidating to try to do those things yourself. Likewise, my dear friend Cheyenne, who is biracial, also mentioned to me that fear for her own personal safety is another consideration when spending time in rural outdoor spaces. That point really struck home for me, as it’s something I cannot even imagine having to worry about.
The privilege of being white in this world is something that can be very uncomfortable to acknowledge and talk about. However, we can actively try to make the outdoor world more accessible. As you endeavor into the outdoors, be conscious of your thoughts and actions. Truly listen to people who are different from you. Change has to start somewhere—maybe it can start with you.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.
I would be interested to see the statistics, but I think you will also find (in regards to thru hikers in general) a large group of a) younger kids (I’m old so I can call you kids…lol) right out of or not long out of college – pre-kids, probably pre-spouse, pre-house etc. AND b) recent empty-nester retirees in their late 50’s/early 60’s. My kids and I have discussed the AT at length, so if it happens for me (I’m 56, my kids are 13 and 16) I will most certainly fall into the latter category.
Also, in regards to your college Comment….We met some students from Emory and Henry at Trail Days in Damascus. If you are seeking outdoorsy type majors and real outside activities applied….that may well be a school worth checking out for anyone who has that interest.
Thank you for writing this! I am a white, able-bodied woman considering a 2019 solo thru-hike and have thought about this a lot. If I do the hike, I am hoping to partner with a nonprofit organization that supports diversity in the outdoors; I’d ask friends and family to pledge $ per mile and donate all the proceeds. You may already be familiar, but there are a ton of really interesting people and accounts like @blackgirlstrekkin, @melaninbasecamp, and #diversifyoutdoors !
Your article is a call to action, without suggesting an action other than thinking about it. So what should we do? A guy I once worked for, used to say, “don’t come to me with problems unless you have solutions to suggest”. Are there organizations that I can volunteer my time? Are there organizations that I can contribute to that promote the outdoors to the less-privileged? What else can we do besides thinking about it?
In general thru-hiking is a profoundly selfish activity, especially for anyone that has commitments or responsibilities. Anyone able to swing it, is privileged.
Great question. There are plenty of outdoor companies that offer a leg up for underprivileged and even folks with disabilities. One of those I work for every summer and it’s Wilderness Inquiry. We’re based out of Minneapolis, MN and have a spectacular mission. Many more programs that deal mainly with school aged children come to mind. Volunteering is easy and starts with a simple email.
As far as changing the privileged outdoor sector we’ve all grown up in, there’s no simple answer. At the base, it’s socio-economical. We can all do a better job of encouraging others to recreate by educating them on free and low cost outdoor options such as county/state parks and the ever popular BLM lands. This starts with children, if we can engrain something as simple as the importance parks play in everyone’s lives, that’s another tool in their recreation toolkit.
As far as the outdoor industry, it’s an expensive thing to tackle. I think what most people don’t realize, is that you can complete a day hike in street clothes. No expensive hiking boots or high class backpacks are required; just a map and a water bottle are all it takes to get the average person going on short treks.
Great big Amen to everything you said. After my first section, I het for a while and talked to an African American gentleman about my age. He said, he had always been interested in backpacking bet felt like he needed a mentor. Now he doubts that he can physically handle it.
Check out this blog. I followed her through both her PCT and Colorado trail hikes. She did fund raising for an organization called Big City Mountaineers on her PCT hike.
Relative to the population, I agree there are disproportional fewer African Americans hiking and backpacking across America but I don’t agree with your assessment of causation.
Over the last 3 decades how many Air Jordan shoes or similar shoes have been sold to African Americans? I think it is safe to say probably millions. As you know these shoes aren’t cheap. My sons played both baseball and football all throughout their youth. The participation rate for African Americans in these sports, especially football, is rather significant. I can tell you first hand these sports are not cheap. The equipment is expensive coupled with the costs of camps, extra training the experience can cost thousands of dollars. I live in Florida, have you been to Disney lately? I have and it is quite costly and while there I saw lots of African Americans. Went to the movies the other night and an African American couple sat nearby, they ate snacks like my wife and I and I assume they paid to get in as well. My night cost almost 60 dollars. I bet theirs did too. Poverty is a problem in this country for people of all races but many African Americans could afford the costs of hiking and backpacking they just chose to spend their dollars elsewhere.
Also the idea that African Americans don’t hike because of some embedded racism or fictional privilege is completely baseless. If that were the case you would see that evident in the many other activities. No I don’t believe it is money, racism or privilege keeping African Americans off the trails, I think it is cultural. Now there are exceptions but sadly, they see no value in it and don’t want to do it.
A lot of assumptions and opinions (bias) in your response. Observational or not, categorizing a race as having a homogeneous culture is flat-out bias. There are uncountable ways to be black in the United States and to distill it to your observations leaves a lot of blind spots.
I searched “why are all thru-hikers white?” into google and came upon testimonials of black thru hikers experiencing outright racism on the AT. Are we to disregard their observations and testimony? They are living their own black life that doesn’t seem to fit into your narrative.
We all need to rethink, re-educate, and restructure race relations on and off the trail.
Spread your liberal propaganda somewhere else… I’m white and i busted my butt to afford all I got
No one is saying you didn’t bust your butt. If you’re white and you live in America, you benefit from privilege. It is not propaganda; it is the history of our country — the whole country and systems thereafter were made to most benefit white people. Doesn’t mean you don’t suffer and work hard and have challenges. But if others say they face challenges that you can’t see, listen to them. Realize your experiences are not universal.