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Hiking Isn't Just a White Sport

The outdoors is not immune to racism. Read this article to discover the racial gap in outdoor recreation and what you can do to narrow the gap.

By: Lysianne Peacock + Save to a List

This article was originally published on HIKEspiration.

The Race Gap in Outdoor Recreation

When I started HIKEspiration, I wanted it to be a blog that inspires anyone regardless of age, gender, race, ability, and any other orientation to get outside. With the current social climate, I have decided to take a hard look at inclusion and hiking because there are some racial indiscrepancies and the outdoors is not immune to racism. In fact, there is a large gap in hiking participation when it comes to race. When searching for numbers on race and ethnicity in hiking specifically, I came across a blog article on The Trek that explored the demographics of people who thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2019. Ninety-five percent of these hikers were white while a staggering 0% were black, 1.4% were Asian, and 2% were Hispanic (Mariposa, 2019). Hiking is not just a white sport, and it is time to diversify race in the outdoors because our parks and trails were made for anyone to use.  In this article, I aim to identify why there is a race gap in the outdoors specifically focusing on African American participation because they have the lowest outdoor recreation participation in regard to race at 33% (Outdoor Foundation Report, 2017), and how we can narrow this gap so the outdoors and hiking can become more inclusive.

Why is There a Gap?

While the numbers in various studies show that black Americans do participate in hiking, the numbers are low which poses the question: Why is there a race gap in hiking participation? We analyzed a few articles and studies to discover why.

A Historically Reluctant Relationship with the Outdoors

During my graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, I had the opportunity to attend an event that featured Carolyn Finney, a black woman who examined the relationship between black Americans and the outdoors. She is famous for her book Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors (Buy On Amazon for $27.95). She stated that black Americans have a reluctant relationship with the outdoors because before the Civil Rights movement when the Jim Crow laws were in place, not only did they apply to restaurants and movie theaters but beaches and other outdoor spaces as well. Going back even further, some think that slavery had a traumatic impact on the relationship between black Americans and the environment (Goodrid, 2018). Even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, there has been a residual effect on participation in outdoor recreation leaving normative ideologies from the past in place. 

Racial Discrimination and Racism

Currently, police brutality has been making the outdoors feel unsafe to African Americans. According to a 2019 study, fear of racial discrimination and racism while recreating outside was a chief concern of black Americans (Edmonds, 2019). This has been experienced in a variety of forms. Participants mentioned that they avoided places specifically because they were known to be racist area while others experienced racism at Boy Scout Camps. Meanwhile, traveling to participate in outdoor recreation isn’t safe with many interviewees mentioning that they were pulled over just for being black and traveling between small towns.

Social Status

Another constraint to outdoor participation is social status. According to a 2018 study, marginality perspective suggests that social status of minority groups is a direct contributor to the under-represenation of minorities in the outdoors (Goodrid, 2018). The marginality perspective, coined by Randel Washburne in 1978, suggests that African Americans and other minority groups do not participate in outdoor recreation because of socioeconomic constraints that affect accessibility such as limited or restricted access to education and financial income. 

Outdoor Places Viewed as White Spaces

Many African Americans view outdoor recreation activities as a”white activity.” Goodrid (2018) interviewed 12 African Americans to gather their perspective on outdoor spaces, and found that the majority of them viewed outdoor recreation as “white activities.” This has been attributed to the way outdoor spaces are portrayed in the media. According to an interviewee in the study “whenever you watch TV, it’s usually a white male.” REI and North Face were also specifically mentioned as using white actors to advertise their products.  Another factor that has contributed to this perspective is exposure and upbringing. Many of the black American’s interviewed were not exposed to the outdoors when growing up and it did not become important to them until they discovered it themselves later in life. Finally, as discussed above, systematic oppression also played a part in the perspective of outdoors places viewed as white spaces. Many connected the whiteness of activities to historical oppression, black people not having access, or feeling uncomfortable outside of their locked home.

How Do We Fix the Racial Gap?

Now that we understand why there is a racial gap in participation in outdoor recreation, what part can we play in narrowing this gap regardless of the color of our skin?

1. Educate Yourself

I will say this time and time again, education is the first step towards making any change. If I hadn’t done the research, I wouldn’t have known that the effects of the past have greatly contributed to the lack of participation in outdoor recreation among African Americans. Below are a few suggestions to start educating yourself so you can help narrow the gap.

So You Want to Talk About Race

By Ijeoma Oluo

This book is a good start to educating yourself about racism. This book is for white and non-black people who don’t know how to have a conversation about racism and how to examine it in the world and in yourself.

(Buy on Amazon for 13.59)

Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors

By Carolyn Finney

Carolyn Finney, a professor at the University of Kentucky, explores why African Americans are underrepresented when it comes to interest in nature and participation in outdoor recreation.

(Buy On Amazon for $27.95)

2. Volunteer 

If you’re looking to take action, volunteer for an organization. One of the constraints to black people participating in outdoor recreation is the lack of exposure growing up. Volunteer for a youth organization that provides recreational opportunities for minority groups so they can have that positive exposure to the outdoors. Look for local groups such as the YMCA or the Boys and Girls Club.

3. Support Inclusive Outdoor Recreation Groups

If your finances support it, donate to an African-American hiking group. These groups work to connect African-Americans with connections and leadership through nature. Supporting these groups can help give them the resources to expand the resources they can offer. Outdoor Afro is the most popular group. This African-American Adventure Group works to connect thousands of people to nature through hiking, camping, biking, birding, and other outdoor activities. They use social media to create meet-up events.


Hiking is not just a white sport but with the racial gap in outdoor recreation, it can be easy to view outdoor places as white spaces. By educating ourselves, volunteering, and supporting African-American adventure groups, we can do our part in narrowing the racial gap in the outdoors. 

The mountains shall bring peace to the people.
Psalms 72:3


Edmonds, D. A. (2019). Perceptions of african-american outdoor experiences. Retrieved from https://repository.lib.ncsu.edu/bitstream/handle/1840.20/36665/etd.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

Goodrid, M.C. (2018). Racial complexities of outdoor spaces: an analysis of african-american’s lived experiences in outdoor recreation. University of the Pacific Dissertation and Theses.

Mariposa. (2019). The 2019 hiker survey: general information. The Trek.

Outdoor Foundation. (2017). Outdoor participation report.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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