I was raised in white neighborhoods. I went to white schools, and later worked for white bosses. I never saw BIPOC exploring outdoor spaces – everything I saw indicated it was a pastime reserved for whites.
My dad and three siblings have been the only consistent Black presence in my life. But we’ve never discussed the outdoors, race, identity, and privilege in terms of our lived experience. As a result, I’ve only recently developed a vocabulary to share what it’s like to be a Black explorer in the out of doors.
I have gone on record as stating that “nature does not discriminate,” but it is important to keep in mind that people do. The fact remains that our outdoor recreational system was established by the same underlying system of oppression that still governs our society. Which is to say, the outdoor recreation industry is discriminatory. In fact, it’s disingenuous and destructive to pretend inequalities in the outdoors do not exist.
Growing up underprivileged, I’ve always understood the difference between a want and a need. In 2016, I decided to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail. I needed gear, but I had no knowledge of the outdoors and no one of color to ask, I knew if I wanted to hike I would have to figure it out myself because of that unspoken notion that outdoor spaces were only for whites. The culture of whiteness that existed on the internet indicated to me that hiking was outside of my means.
HIking seemed to be for folks who had the privilege to choose homelessness – temporary, the duration of a thru-hike, or whatever have you. For people who had an occupation where they could take months off from work simply to hike, spend hundreds, even thousands on backpacking gear. I didn’t fit the mold. During my first, second, third, and subsequent trips to gear shops, reality hit me hard… It’s expensive being poor. And while one doesn’t need top-of-the-line gear to enjoy the outdoors, cheaply-made items can be more expensive in the long run, due to needing to be replaced. Cheaply made items can also at best, be extremely aggravating and, at worst, life-threatening.
I signed up for gear giveaways, saved alumni cans, started a card writing service, and asked for sponsorships. I even had a Gofundme charity drive. If I were eligible to donate plasma, I would have done it: because if someone sets up so many obstacles to prevent you from doing something that others can do easily, it’s worth doing.
I did a ton of research and began gear shopping. I bought the hiking essentials for under $400. I felt good about my purchases. As it turned out, a lot of things failed within the first week, but many things didn’t. I gained a real understanding of what items I should have invested more money in and what items a generic version would work just as fine.
On the trail, hikers bragged about their gear – the high prices they paid. I was in awe – what some spent on a backpack I spent on rent, which I was still paying while on the trail. Others would look to me with suspicion as if I were plotting to steal their gear. Aside from the fact that Black people are less likely to steal because we are the first to get accused. I wish more people would think logically, especially about the intentions of thru-hikers of color. One would have to tote additional items, which would increase their pack weight. Plus, that suspicion goes to show the extent to which even in the outdoors – even with a common love of nature and a common goal of thru-hiking – BIPOC are still the usual suspects.
Hiking 600 miles on the PCT, and later on, multiple trails throughout the U.S., made me realize the unifying language on the trail was gear. As long as I had gear equal to, not necessarily greater than that of white people, they felt safe around me. By greater than, I mean gear that wouldn’t raise questions like, how can you afford that, did you steal it? But I haven’t learned completely how to be safe around them, not in the outdoors. However, I found that as long as I’m “branded,” there’s a layer of protection.
No, the name-brand gear doesn’t make a hiker. It doesn’t mean I’d enjoy the trail anymore with or without the logo. It’s a symbol, a token it means that I paid a price, and therefore I am privy to take part in and be present in a space. I’m by no means wealthy, but I now think about the cost of things, not just financially but on all levels. I know that a logo can be a de-escalation tool, a convo starter, or a friendly nod. So yeah, brands matter. Especially in the outdoors.
There’s a large and, for the most part, an overlooked opportunity for outdoor gear companies to help low-income individuals, in particular BIPOC, safely explore the outdoors. For the 2021 hiking season, I’ve allied with Big Agnes, Cnoc Outdoors, Darn Tough, Guthooks Guide, Gossamer Gear, Pacific Crest Trail Association, Sawyer Products and SlingFin that are actively working to make the outdoors accessible for everyone. And Yes, some of these brands might still be out of reach in terms of pricing, But my hope is over time, that will change.