Against All Odds, Black Women Are Hitting The Trails

<span class="copyright">Illustration:Jianan Liu/HuffPost; Photo:Getty Images</span>
Illustration:Jianan Liu/HuffPost; Photo:Getty Images

Itwasn’tuntil I was in my mid-20s and living in Seattle that I went on my first hike with a colleague. As a Black girl growing up in Detroit, let’s just say that the practice was not common in my circle.

If you’ve ever gone hiking, the chances that you passed another Black person — let alone another Black woman — on the trail are relatively low. Although the trend is slowly shifting, recent data showed that fewer than a quarter of visitors at national parks were people of color. In 2018, 6% of visitors were Black. So why so few of us? Well, that’s complex.

There are several barriers at play that keep many of us from participating in outdoor recreation. And while no one is literally stopping us from exploring the outdoors, the context to how we’re perceived is important here. It wasn’t that long ago that my community was legally banned from public parks and prohibited from accessing many trails around the country.

The residue of segregation persists, and that bias impedes many of us from experiencing what would otherwise be pleasant adventures in nature. Many times, this bias is direct (e.g., when law enforcement or park rangers are called on a group of Black women, or they are referred to as a “mob”). Other times, the prejudice toward us is subconscious and subtle, rearing its ugly head even in the most granola-toting, Barack Obama-voting, MLK-quoting liberal. Some of my peers have been asked if they know where they’re going, for example. The message, either way, is that we are not welcome here.

We also cannot ignore that safety is a heightened issue for Black women and nonbinary people. We live in a world that often underestimates, oversexualizes and endangers us. And so, when hopping onto a trail that may lead us deep into nature, we’re facing a compounded risk.

And then we have to consider logistics. Black Americans are statistically less likely to live close to green spaces, biodiversity and other outdoor amenities that are conducive to hiking. And while we know that proximity to green space has links to mental well-being, our access to the great outdoors is an oft-overlooked component of social justice.

There is also the issue of gear. Though hiking appears to be an egalitarian form of working out (it’s kind of just walking, right?), it’s not. Good hiking shoes on their own — even when purchased secondhand — can be expensive. Just preparing to hike, some women I spoke to told me, can feel othering.

“I remember being on the trail, and nobody looked like me,” Ryan Surbaugh, a 34-year-old biracial woman who lives in Washington state, tells me. “I remember going in [outdoor retailer] REI, and nobody looked like me and nothing fit.”

And so, if we want to hike, we’ve got an uphill journey ahead of us. But we’re out here, and we’re creating change for ourselves and our people. The first step for many of us is representation; we need to see ourselves in nature. Jenny Bruso, the creator of the Instagram account Unlikely Hikers, which posts images of Black, gay, transgender and disabled hikers, helped convince REI to expand its plus-size clothing offerings. The reality is that the curves that bless many Black women’s bodies are not typically what companies had in mind when designing outerwear.

Groups such as Black Girls Hike and Black Girls Trekkin’ are building a camaraderie of color and quite literally changing the landscape so we can reap the physical, mental and social benefits of traversing the outdoors together.

“Hiking with other Black women provides a support system and sisterhood on the trail,” says Nicole Boyd, who co-founded Black Girls Hike RVA in the Richmond, Virginia, area during the COVID-19 pandemic with friend Shara Cade. ”It’s powerful to know that we can take up space like everyone else and bask in the joy of being out in nature unapologetically.”

Though it makes us hypervisible — which, as we know, can be a risk on its own — getting the squad together outdoors not only builds solidarity, but increases safety, especially in terms of injuries, altitude sickness, dehydration and the potential of getting lost. And so, gathering to hike feels right. There are also groups that cater to Black people regardless of gender (Outdoor AfroMelanin Base CampVibe Tribe Adventures), women of color more generally (Brown Girls ClimbHike Clerb), and others. Soon, we might not make up such a small percentage of people hiking — and that change feels powerful.

“I love to be outside. I love to move my body. I love to sweat. I love to be with people. I love to socialize,” says Sigourney Woodfork, a 32-year-old Black woman from Montreal and avid hiker. “For me, hiking brings all those things together.”

While Woodfork hasn’t had negative experiences when hiking, she tells me about the first time she went cross-country skiing (another pretty racially homogenous outdoor activity) and how she was stared at.

“It makes you a bit self-conscious,” she says. “It makes you hyperaware of your presence in that space.”

Still, she notes, being outdoors is worth it and vital in our technology-obsessed age.

“I deeply believe that nature is healing,” she says. “And seeing something that’s not a screen is really, really necessary.”

As spring rolls on, I encourage everyone to consider a hike. Invite a friend along to surrender to the stillness that can come from interacting with your natural surroundings. Hiking is for us too. We can only hope that it will continue to become more inclusive to Black women, and that this shift will affect every other outdoor sport that feels inaccessible to us.