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.

My granola boyfriend taking a photo on Chilhowee Mountain, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Accessibility

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.

Privilege

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.

Hope and Faith during a family hike at Fall Creek Falls in 2014.

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.

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Comments 13

  • Scott : Oct 10th

    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.

    Reply
    • Phoebe : Oct 10th

      Definitely some solid observations! I think that speaks to the accessibility of thru-hiking… Life tends to get in the way of such an endeavor. I hope you get a chance to make the trek!

      Reply
  • Remy : Oct 11th

    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 !

    Reply
    • Phoebe : Oct 11th

      Thank you for the valuable information! I think that’s the right plan – do what you can to get involved and be an advocate.

      Reply
  • Will : Oct 11th

    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.

    Reply
    • Phoebe : Oct 11th

      Will, THANK YOU for asking the right questions – you make an important point. I wrote this article to get people thinking about a topic that is easy to sweep under the rug. I think the best way to make an impact is to start locally, in your own community. Maybe you can mentor kids through a big brother/big sister organization, and take kids outside that way. Maybe you can volunteer at local recreation centers and teach children about the world around them in an engaging manner. Maybe you can serve in AmeriCorps and do a year of service to help improve your community. Possibilities are endless, and I’m so glad to hear that you’re thinking about them 🙂

      Reply
  • GEORGE TURNER : Oct 11th

    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.

    https://browngirlonthenst.com

    Reply
    • Phoebe : Oct 11th

      Thank you George! Much love!

      Reply
  • Robert : Oct 12th

    Phoebe:

    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.

    Reply
    • Phoebe : Oct 12th

      I think there are a variety of causes but staying with the status quo is always the easy option. I agree with you, and I’ve experienced similar things while teaching outdoor classes in inner-city Knoxville. The lack of POC representation within the backpacking community contributes to those cultural values that don’t necessarily focus on outdoor time. But just because that’s the way it is now, doesn’t mean that’s the way it always has to be. Outdoor experiences are scientifically proven to help people cope with stress and have better mental health. I believe that it’s important to encourage all people to have those experiences, and the best way to do that is with better representation.

      Reply
      • Phoebe : Oct 12th

        I also think that you are off the mark here by making “they” statements. Perhaps generalizing for a group of people to whom you do not belong is not the wisest choice.

        Reply
        • Robert : Oct 13th

          My use of the term “they” is used in an observational context. Am I generalizing? Maybe so, but you are as well. I think it is safe to say that many African Americans do have the where-with-all to participate in outdoor activities but chose not to. However, when addressing the problems surrounding youngsters born into poverty and dysfunction and the potential benefits they may receive from actively participating in outdoor activities, is in my mind, an entirely different issue. I applaud your efforts. The rewards of hiking and backpacking should be enjoyed by many. Happy hiking to you.

          Reply
      • Scott : Oct 16th

        This topic is, of course not relegated to hiking/backpacking. Both of my kids play soccer and I think Phoebe hits the nail on the head…it is ‘easier’ to maintain the status quo, teach your kids what YOU know and grew up with, etc. (I grew up hiking, but soccer was not even a consideration where I grew up and still isn’t)
        I’ll use my daughters High School as an example. Both the football and basketball teams have a disproportionate number of African American athletes in comparison to over all school enrollment (which is probably about (40-40-20) w/the 20 being Hispanic, Asian or mixed.
        By the same token, my daughters high school soccer team last season (I think) had 2 African American kids on the roster. The argument (while valid to some degree) IS that is a direct result of the cost of soccer in the US. It has even been a point that has been raised by opponents of the US Soccer Fed. that the ‘pay to play’ model does not serve the country well in regards to International competitions (like the World Cup). I think some similarities certainly exist. However, hiking doesn’t have to be costly or expensive, it can essentially be ‘free’… I truly believe it to be an educational/opportunity issue. Thru-hiking is a different animal all together, but lets just get people out there for starters…

        Reply

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