Recent gains in outdoor recreation among black travelers help disprove the old stereotype that black Americans don’t camp, hike, or otherwise take these kinds of trips.
“I’m proud to say we have a team of 11 people who right now are in Tanzania, who are on Mount Kilimanjaro,” said Rue Mapp, founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro. This leading nonprofit is dedicated to getting black Americans into nature through advocacy and meet-ups with regional leaders in 30 states, and is nearly a decade old with offices in Oakland, California, and Washington, D.C.
“It’s historic because it’s all African American, from the office to the participants to the leadership in the field,” said Mapp.
The percentage of American campers who are black rose from 6 to 8 percent between 2012 and 2017, now more closely reflecting that 13 percent of the population is black, according to the 2018 North American Camping Report from Kampgrounds of America. In addition, 14 percent of new campers in 2017 were black, plus 34 percent of non-white millennials said they just started camping in the past few years, compared to 18 percent of white millennials.
The report also found that black campers were the fastest growing group of RV users. Among black campers, 27 percent said an RV was their primary accommodation in 2017, up from 19 percent the previous year. Forty percent of black campers said they tried an RV for the first time in 2017, and nearly 40 percent of all black campers who did not own an RV said they would consider buying one.
This trend may help to combat the famous lack of diversity among National Park visitors, which the National Park Service says it’s trying to rectify. An NPS study from 2008–09 found that its visitors were 78 percent white versus 7 percent black. In addition, a 2017 study by Outdoor Foundation found that overall outdoor participation skewed 73 percent white and 9 percent black. The study also found that the top five activities among black outdoor participants were, in descending order: running, biking, fishing, camping, and hiking.
Online Helps to Get Outdoors
Social media and the sharing economy help tremendously to break down barriers for black travelers wanting to access the outdoors.
Not only can first-timers easily answer their questions online, but they can avoid the daunting cost of purchasing equipment by sharing on a site like StokeShare or renting from a retailer like REI. Alternative campsites are also increasingly available, which include cabins, glampsites, and other situations in which the camper need not bring so much gear. In terms of RVs, the demand for cheaper, smaller, less intimidating campervans, as opposed to hulking Class A motorhomes, is reflected both by sharing services like Outdoorsy and rental outfits like Jucy.
Even so, a welcoming community of black outdoor enthusiasts is just as important as solving logistical problems.
At the forefront of the movement, Outdoor Afro’s membership has nearly doubled from 17,000 to 32,000 just in the last two years, according to founder and CEO Rue Mapp. Roughly 40 percent of Outdoor Afro’s activities involve hiking because it’s inexpensive and accessible, bringing in people of varied incomes, ages, and abilities.
“Outdoor Afro allows me to be all the parts of who I am. I can take delicious soul food on hikes with a nutrition bar,” said Mapp. “You don’t have to give up who you are.”
Mapp said that history plays a huge role. Black Americans were long relegated to the rural south during slavery, linking nature and pain for generations — then, when six million black Americans escaped to the urban north and west during the Great Migration, their memories of nature became more distant while remaining painful.
“Healing hikes are a big part of what we do, inspired by the feeling of assault on the black body in nature, wanting to reclaim what it means to be outside, and to do what African Americans have always known we can do, and that’s to lay down our burden down by the riverside,” said Mapp, also citing Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit.
Mapp has worked closely with the National Park Service for years on increasing diversity and said it’s key to remember the lesser-known parks. A heavy-hitter like Yosemite is remote and requires a pricey, lengthy trip for many visitors, but a park like New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park is not only more accessible, it speaks directly to the black experience. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco is similarly easier for many families to reach.
“National parks are more than just beautiful landscapes. They’re also places that hold the story of America, and a lot of those stories are of us,” said Mapp, who also said to watch out for the National Park Service increasing the visibility of those more accessible parks.
New York-based Brothers of Climbing is younger but growing as well. The organization was founded in 2012, devoted to increasing diversity among rock climbers, and has grown to attract around 30 members to its monthly meet-ups. The group, which was featured recently in an ad from outdoor retailer REI, travels more or less monthly as well, recently to Telluride, Colorado, and Joshua Tree, California.
Soon, members will travel to its Color the Crag festival in October in Steele, Alabama, just over two hours drive from Atlanta, Georgia. Brothers of Climbing partners with Brown Girls Climb for the event and over 100 people attended last year according to co-founder Pieter Cooper. Black women are very active in the group he said.
Encounter Camp is also seeing growth, serving a subset of black travelers seeking outdoor recreation combined with career development and inspiration, about 90 minutes from Los Angeles at Pali Retreat. Attendance grew by 50 percent from the first retreat in 2017 to the second in 2018, and while the event is still small with 24 participants in June, the demand and reaction are encouraging.
“This year was more popular than last year, and more of how we envisioned it, more people saying, ‘This really changed my life,’” said Kareem Taylor, co-founder and managing director of Encounter Camp.
Taylor said their new payment plan was extremely popular in addition to their signature campfire night. Other activities included zip lining, karaoke, a dance class, archery, and professional development workshops. Taylor spent more on advertising this year as well.
“There is demand for more events like Encounter, but also smaller, local events that can be a catalyst for the ‘big’ retreat,” said Taylor. “We’re currently, expeditiously, considering all of our options.”
Similarly, Mapp of Outdoor Afro sees great potential in untapped demand. “It’s your grandma’s garden. It’s your fishing trip that you went on with your dad or your mom. We have a lot of assets to build on.”