Does the outdoors really have a diversity problem?

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There are no ‘whites only’ signposts at trailheads, no segregated commode, no permits awarded by colour – so why does the outdoors have a diversity problem?

My younger sister watches the Arctic reindeer roam around on my screen. She smiles as one nips at a basketful of grain. Then, she double takes.

“Wait. Is that you?” she asks.
“Yeah. Of course.”
“You look like a farm girl!” she says in a tone somewhere between amusement and disdain. “Where’s your long coat?”
“I was in the Arctic,” I say. “I wasn’t going to wear a floaty coat from Zara.”

She tosses aside the phone, mystified as to why I’d choose comfort over style 350km north of the Arctic Circle.

I can’t blame her though. Five years ago, I was exactly the same. On a 2010 trip to Iceland, I wore Uggs instead of hiking boots and a coat that wasn’t waterproof let alone windproof.

diversity in the outdoors

In fact, the only reason I’m any better today is because I met a boy who loves camping – or should I say a white boy who loves camping.

His colour is relevant because had I, an Asian girl, met an Asian boy or black boy instead, I may never have become outdoorsy-ish like I am today. Why? Because apparently the outdoors has a diversity problem.

In the US, 20% of national park visitors are from ethnic minorities compared with nearly 40% of the general population, according to the National Park Service (NPS).

In England, only 1% of national park visitors are from ethnic minorities (Natural England) compared with 14% of the general population (Office of National Statistics).

This disparity is repeated across a number of nations and has prompted the question: does the outdoors have a diversity problem?

Outside, the prominent magazine for outdoor enthusiasts, recently interviewed Ambreen Tariq who runs @brownpeoplecamping, an Instagram account which aims to “get people to rethink what being outdoorsy means”.

Ambreen’s interview in the magazine is titled To Diversify the Outdoors, We Have to Think About Who We’re Excluding and uses snippets of her Instagram posts which plead: “our public lands should be more inclusive and must reflect the diverse population and history of our country.”

This led me – a fellow outdoorsy brown girl – to wonder if we really are being excluded.

Does the outdoors exclude ethnic minorities?

This question seems deliberately provocative. After all, there are no rules or regulations keeping ethnic minorities off the trails. There are no ‘whites only’ signposts looming above trailheads, no segregated commode, no permits awarded by colour.

outdoor dievrsity

There is no ‘whites only’ sentiment in the outdoors, so what’s keeping minorities away? (Image: Center for American History, UT-Austin; Fair Use)

In the outdoors, you’re only limited by ability. In fact, given the collegial attitude of most hikers, climbers et al, surely the outdoors is one of the few places in which colour doesn’t matter?

I’m a brown female from a Muslim family and have never been made to feel uncomfortable about this in the outdoors. I can’t help but wonder if the fight for diversity would be better aimed at increasing representation in parliament, closing the pay gap, improving social mobility and securing better education.

With that said, it’s very easy to claim there’s no exclusion if you yourself feel included, so it’s important to examine this issue more closely.

In 2008 to 2009, the NPS asked non-park-visitors whether they agree with a number of reasons for not visiting NPS units more often.

The top reasons given by ethnic minorities were:

  • Awareness: ‘I just don’t know that much about NPS units’
  • Access: ‘It takes too long to get to any NPS unit from my home’
  • Cost: ‘The hotel and food costs at NPS units are too high’

Incidentally, these reasons are also the top cited by white respondents. This indicates that these are generic problems and not specific to ethnic minorities. It’s when we look at the largest disparities that we gain more useful insight.

Tellingly, the largest gap is in ‘I prefer to spend my free time doing electronic activities’ with 17% of white respondents agreeing with the statement compared to over twice that (38%) of non-white respondents. So far, no exclusion – but looking further down the list reveals some interesting insight.

  • Experience: ‘NPS units are unpleasant places for me to be’ (5% white vs 17% non-white)
  • Service: ‘NPS employees give poor service to visitors’ (5% vs 15%)
  • Safety: ‘NPS units are not safe places to visit’ (5% vs 13%)

Around three times as many ethnic minorities feel NPS units are unpleasant and unsafe with poor service compared with their white peers. The disparity is reduced among those who do visit parks, but it’s still noticeable (approximately double rather than triple).

Given that there are no tangible barriers to engaging with the outdoors, perhaps the question isn’t whether the outdoors is exclusive, but whether it is inclusive.

Does the outdoors include ethnic minorities?

The romantic view of the outdoors is of rolling hills and leafy trails; of stunning big walls and freshwater lakes; of introspection, solitude and of meaning.

It is all that but it’s also a multi-billion dollar industry with monolithic corporations and sprawling marketing, press and PR teams. Do these giants of the outdoors include minorities?

Homepages of all outdoor brands from pages 1-10 of ‘men’s jackets’ range on Cotswold Outdoor (bar one homepage which included no people). The only sign of diversity is from United By Blue.

Perhaps we are in a bit of a stalemate: advertisers cater to white people because they frequent the outdoors more – and white people frequent the outdoors more because they’re the ones being catered to.

I went in search for a wider view.

Hiren Joshi, a 35-year-old IT consultant from London, spends time kayaking, climbing and skiing. He tells me: “I don’t know why people would claim that [diversity is an issue] as all the activities I do are very inclusive and the people are quite open and friendly. Generally, people are open and ethnicity just doesn’t seem to be an issue.”

Hiren says he has never felt unwelcome in the outdoors: “It’s a personal choice. There’s nothing that would hinder any ethnic minority from engaging in outdoor activities – even language isn’t a barrier in a sport. The people I’ve met have been very inclusive.”

He does, however, acknowledge that there may be a problem with regards to messaging: “If someone from an ethnic minority wants to engage, there is nothing to stop them. Maybe that message doesn’t get out as much as it should do.”

Sami Rahman, a 29-year-old writer from London, suggests that the problem is inward: “There are no Asian role models that encourage us, especially for women. From the moment we start school we are taught to do well in maths and science. Kids that are good at sports or PE are perceived as ‘dumb’.”

“I’ve never heard of an Asian family going camping and that’s because most are not brought up to do those things.”

She adds: “It’s more of a community issue. There are Asian women’s swimming and aerobic classes but nothing that encourages us to go out more. I’ve never heard of an Asian family going camping and that’s because most are not brought up to do those things.”

Sami believes the onus is on ethnic communities themselves, but also that more could be done to encourage engagement. Asked if the outdoor industry should do more to include ethnic minorities, she says: “Yes, definitely. [Representatives] could visit schools where there are high concentrations of ethnic minorities like Tower Hamlets. Community groups could arrange camping or outdoor trips to encourage families to take their children.”

It seems the outdoor industry could do more to improve diversity, but is this a worthwhile initiative given that a sizable chunk of the ethnic minority population would prefer to spend their free time on ‘electronic activities’?

Is diversity in the outdoors even important?

Is diversity in the outdoors is even important? It’s a recreational pursuit, so isn’t fretting about it a bit like fretting that not enough black and Asian people are collecting stamps or spotting trains?

Well, not exactly.

Firstly, nature is good for you. It boosts mental health, physical health, wellbeing and development. Failing to engage large groups of the population in the outdoors ‘because they don’t want to’ is like failing to engage them in non-smoking initiatives or exercise campaigns and healthy eating drives because they ‘don’t want to’.

I’m not a fan of the nanny state but if something is so clearly and thoroughly beneficial, then those benefits should be promoted to everyone.

Study after study has shown that engaging with nature boosts mental and physical health, wellbeing and development

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, promoting the outdoors helps breed a sense of ownership, pride and responsibility. We need to cultivate future stewards of the outdoors and the more people we engage, the better for our national parks especially when the general population is diversifying.

On a more economic level, many national parks depend on public money, political support and community engagement for funding. Failing to engage endangers the future of our national parks.

How can we improve diversity in the outdoors?

There are several ways in which the outdoor community (i.e. outdoor brands, national bodies, educational organisations) can improve diversity in the outdoors.

Raise awareness: Run publicity and education campaigns in media serving different ethnic communities. Develop outreach programmes in areas with high concentrations of ethnic minority communities.

Outdoorsy people from within ethnic minorities communities could, like Ambreen Tariq, share their own pursuits in an effort to encourage others to follow their example.

Diversify representation: Use models from ethnic minority communities in advertising and marketing material. Sponsor role models from a diverse range of backgrounds.

Subsidise transport: Partner with environmental groups, school districts, community-based organisations and local governments to provide transport assistance to those who can’t reach parks on their own.

Create a connection: Focus not just on footfall but on developing a meaningful connection to the outdoors. Highlight historic contributions of ethnic minorities in park presentations to garner real buy-in from visitors.

These initiatives offer benefit not just to ethnic minority communities but the great outdoors itself in all its magnificent but vulnerable glory. Only in engaging a diverse range of people can we protect the future of the outdoors in our increasingly diversifying population.

We hope to see you out there.

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Additional photography: Dreamstime

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