Our Pledge to Do Better

Inequality and the outdoors

During a time when society can’t agree on the shape of our planet, not even the most conspiracy-minded would argue that the outdoors is a diverse space.  Our 2019 AT thru-hiker survey, which had 365 respondents, our largest response rate in the five years we’ve organized the survey, had a total of zero Black respondents.  Since this survey captures only a fraction of those who actually hike the trail, this does not mean there were zero Black thru-hikers.  But whether looking at this data or simply spending any amount of time on any of our country’s long trails, it’s quite obvious that people of color are not well represented.

To those readying their retorts of “the outdoors is free and open to all!” or something to the effect, this is the part where we are encouraging you to employ some empathy.

There are countless examples of Black people being harassed or attacked during activities White people consider simple recreation. Last week, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy highlighted this point this point quite well:

We have seen, not just in the past few weeks but throughout the history of outdoor recreation, black men and women try to enjoy the outdoors only to have the police called on them while birdwatching (Christian Cooper), to have a gun pulled on them while picnicking (Jessica and Franklin Richardson) or to have been shot while going for a run (Ahmaud Arbery). We know these are only a few stories among many where black men and women have been systematically marginalized and targeted.

Similarly, we ran a post earlier this month (an immense shout-out to Effie Drew for spearheading this incredible resource) that highlights a long list of media pieces and personalities who’ve been brave enough to share their struggles with racism in the outdoors, among many other resources for further education.  Claiming that the trail is free of racism without taking the time to listen to their experiences demonstrates an utter lack of empathy.

And know this—for every POC who’s willing to share their encounter with racism, there are many others who opt to remain silent.  As the Editor in Chief of this site, I’ve seen numerous instances of people attacking, downplaying, or diminishing someone’s negative experience, whether it be on race, gender, sexual preference, or otherwise.  It’s not hard to imagine how someone speaking up about their accounts with prejudice would be a futile effort.

My first interaction with a Black person in the backpacking community happened roughly 500 miles into my hike of the Appalachian Trail.  He and his wife hosted me and a fellow thru-hiker for two days. He was an AT thru-hiker himself, having completed the trail twice.

During an evening of trading trail stories over a couple of beers, I asked how he got the trail name “Cereal.”  He explained that a local from one of the southern trail towns, a total stranger, approached his group, singled him out, and accused him of being a murderer.  It was not until that moment that I realized his trail name was not a breakfast reference.

“Serial” just so happens to be one of the kindest, most thoughtful people I know in the hiking community. His passion for the AT, thru-hiking, and the hiking community overall is palpable. However, when conveying the story about how he got his trail name, Serial’s sadness was unmistakable.  This experience was a stain on his hike.  He held onto the name as a reminder of the bleak reality that he cannot escape.

A couple of years back, I reached out to see if he was interested in sharing his experiences on The Trek. It didn’t happen, and it wasn’t hard to imagine why.

Needless to say, while your experience may indeed feel like “the outdoors are open to all,” there are many in this community whose experiences tell a different story.

Actions speak louder than words

We need to do better.  The outdoors industry.  The Trek.  Myself.

Let me first address that there is a 100% chance that what follows will not be perfect.  This is true for a variety of reasons.

First and foremost, the below outline is my take on what steps we can take to improve Black representation on The Trek.  But I am a white person from an upper-middle class background.  I cannot fully understand the plight of the POC community.  Please know that I am trying.  I welcome and strongly encourage voices from the POC community to voice suggestions on how we can do better.  Leave a comment.  Send me an emailSlide into my DMs.  The doors of communication are open.

Also, The Trek is not Nike.  We have one full-time employee aside from myself, and even that is growing increasingly less stable in the face of a pandemic that has upended the economy and all but canceled the subject that we cover.  What we can do to help from a financial standpoint right now is sorely limited, albeit not eliminated (more on that below).

Lastly, our Blogging / Vlogging platform, which accounts for the bulk of our content (pre-pandemic anyway), is a volunteer operation.  A necessary pre-requisite for joining is a desire to do so.  A diversity of voice has always been a consideration, but perhaps not surprisingly, the demographic breakdown of applicants has historically tracked the demographics on the AT at large.  That doesn’t let us off the hook, but it does mean that some help from our community will go a long ways toward helping us achieve this goal.  If you know of anyone thru-hiking in 2021 (god willing) who could help us expand our range of voice, we would be very grateful for you to spread the word.  Here’s our application.

With that said, here is Our Pledge to Do Better.  This is and will continue to be a work in progress.

Our Pledge to Do Better

  • The Badger Sponsorship, our annual gear giveaway to benefit those lacking resources the opportunity to experience the beauty of thru-hiking.  This year, we changed the format of the precise goal of rewarding the most needing applicants as opposed to the most creative.  We got eight very deserving winners, three of whom were POC.  Their hikes were to be prominently featured through our social channels as well as the channels of the participating brands.  For obvious reasons, that didn’t happen.  In 2021, we will make a pledge to ensure that diversity is an explicit cornerstone of this sponsorship.
  • Featured Content. We pledge to reach out to more Black people in the backpacking community to join our team of Writers, those who are paid to produce featured content. If you know someone who might be a good fit, here’s our Writer application.
  • Highlighting Outdoor POC Organizations and Hikers. We will make a concerted effort to shine a spotlight on organizations that are working toward getting more POC in the outdoors, as well as highlighting POC hikers through our content.
  • Merchandise Proceeds.  No fewer than three items of Trek merchandise will dedicate a percentage of proceeds to organizations that promote greater diversity in the outdoors, with an emphasis on Black hikers. As a start, we are currently donating 100% of the proceeds of Backpacker Radio’s newest shirts to Greening Youth Foundation, as well as 100% of the proceeds of The Trek’s Cloth Face Masks to Outdoor Afro.
  • Backpacker Radio. We will reach out to more POC in the thru-hiking community to be featured as guests on our flagship podcast, Backpacker Radio.
  • Instagram Content. We encourage POC to get involved with our Instagram photo features.  To those who would like to be featured, please tag our accounts (main account, AT account, PCT account, CDT account) or use the appropriate hashtags (#thetrek, #trektheAT, #trekthePCT, #trektheCDT) to showcase your interest and consent.

As a closing thought, I urge everyone on all sides of the infinite amount of arguments penetrating our world right now to please try to default to love when communicating with others.  Evils are the result of bad ideas, which good people are not immune to.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

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Comments 26

  • Gail Muller : Jun 11th

    Great to read this Badger. ???

    • Kimberly "Ronin" Huber : Jun 11th

      Well done Zach, well done. Let’s all suck up a little pride and do better.

  • Kathy McMenamin : Jun 11th

    Excellent article. Thank you for being an instigator of change! Will help in any way I can.

  • Lance Goehring : Jun 11th

    Nicely done, Zach. I’m proud that the Trek is making positive efforts. Too many of those voices that should be leading are not. This is not a time to be timid and pretend there is not a problem.

  • Ryan Jordan : Jun 11th

    I’m proud of you, Zach. It’s good to know you. Onward.

  • Stephen Rickard : Jun 12th

    Wonderful, very timely post! I will be significantly upping my Patreon monthly contribution specifically to support these efforts, and urge others to become Patreon supporters of The Trek if they believe in what you’ve pledged to do.

    I also hope that people see that this is not a sudden reaction to recent events on your part. You and Chaunce have done a great job consistently giving voice to and highlighting the experience of many marginalized or minority communities, including LGBTQ, plus-size individuals and women.

    Have you thought about creating an affiliated Trek non-profit (is The Trek a non-profit?) so that people and companies could make tax-deductible contributions for this work and get you corporate matching funds for donations (in my case my very generous employer matches 3:1 anything I donate to a certified 501c3 charity). Paid internships for POC, for instance, would both help The Trek and are a crucial way to help POC break into the outdoor world professionally. Very few POC have the luxury of taking unpaid internships like my kids and nieces/nephews could, and those internships were invaluable to my kids in college admissions and professional advancement.

    Again, fantastic post — keep up the great work!!!


    • Matt D. : Jun 12th

      To add to Steve’s ‘actions speak louder than words’ post, reach out and engage a POC to section hike or thru hike a long trail or trail near him/her. The Trek, and it’s community, would sponsor. I would donate $50.

  • David Tucker : Jun 12th

    I’m a black man and would love the exposure to the channel I’m creating which I’m hoping will provide inspiration to POC to get outdoors. I clicked on the link above but it says it’s for this year. Next year I’m planning to attempt the AT and PCT and would finish my Triple Crown in ’22. In ’17 I attempted the PCT but was forced off trail due to injury. I was able to hike 1650 miles including all of the Sierra in a high snow year. I have a business partner that’s been a long time editor at a local news station that will be doing my editing and channel management while I film from trail.

    • Molly : Jun 12th

      Well said. And also, it seems all the more genuine since you guys were already making inclusive efforts before George Floyd’s murder — that episode with Akuna was super interesting.

    • Beckie : Jun 30th

      Good luck, David. If that was a knee injury, please get yourself into good shape so that you won’t have any discomfort when you get to NH and Maine. My daughter (Asian Indian/white) and I have been hiking for years and have seen a small increase in the number of Blacks on the trails (we hike mostly in the White Mountains in NH). Hope your channel gets a lot of exposure. Everyone deserves a chance to go. Hope to cross paths with you next year when you get to NH!

  • Hal : Jun 12th

    Well done.

  • Sam Knox : Jun 12th

    I don’t think it’s a good idea to use the behavior of white people as the standard for everyone else.

    If other communities are less enthusiastic about outdoor recreation, that’s okay, and certainly nothing to feel guilty about.

    • Liz : Jun 12th

      We might need to feel guilty if white actions have made BIPOC feel uncomfortable and unwelcome on the trail. Did you read any of the stories of harassment BIPOC have experienced on trail? Maybe you, specifically, didn’t take an action that made someone feel uncomfortable, but what we need to do is make actors who do exclude BIPOC feel uncomfortable and unwelcome. This isn’t about guilt, it’s about confronting reality and taking appropriate action. It’s not a single-day process; it will take time.

  • Jim Rahtz : Jun 13th

    Good article, nice to see. The park system I retired from created a targeted program to bring inner-city youth out to one of our parks for an overnight experience. Two things always stood out to me (as generalities): 1. how little familiarity of the outdoors most of the participants had and 2. how quickly a little encouragement and experience out of doors would result in more interest and enthusiasm for being out in nature.

    Glad to see the Trek making extra efforts to be more inclusive. This type of work not only makes the outdoors more welcoming, but will improve the outdoor community as a whole.

  • John Folsom : Jun 14th

    A very difficult issue but like all things worth doing, not only for POC’s benefit but for all of our benefit, it is more than worth the effort and time. I read “The Unlikely Thru-Hiker” by Derick Lugo. A very upbeat but enlightening account of his thru-hike, his decision to thru-hike and his prior outdoor experience.

  • jen : Jun 14th

    And lets not forget our Hispanic community, we need to have Spanish signs, trail guides and such put out all along the AT too!

    • Beckie : Jun 30th

      AMEN!!!!!!! I’m white, my kids are half-Indian, and my city is at least 80% Hispanic. My daughter and I hike mostly in NH. Very few Latin hikers; fortunately there are a few small groups starting to take school kids on small local (Massachusetts) hikes. Hope to see them going uphill someday!

  • Kathy : Jun 14th

    Very well said on a topic that is well overdue. Some folks have difficulty with empathy and therefore they can’t even imagine having white privilege. I’m a white woman veteran and at least knew for a short period of my life (5 years in the Army many years ago) what it felt like living and working in an environment where you are in the minority and your presence often unwanted. We all have to do better.

  • Sam Taylor : Jun 16th

    Good Information

  • Shilletha Curtis : Jun 23rd

    Thank you so much for all of this. Truly.

    • Beckie : Jun 30th

      And thank YOU for your excellent article!

  • Beckie : Jun 30th

    Thank you so much for this, Zach! I hike with my youngest daughter, we’ve been on the trail for over 20 years. I am white, she is Asian Indian/white. Years ago, while we were hiking Mt. Eisenhower in NH, I was thinking about the lack of POC hikers. Within minutes, 3 young Black men were coming down the trail. I have seen a few NOBO AT hikers of color in recent years. I am glad more people are thinking about this and what can be done to encourage folks and make them feel welcome. Everyone deserves a chance to experience nature and feel safe and welcomed.


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