Why the Outdoors Should Be for Everyone

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Black Women Hiking
People of color often feel uncomfortable and “out-of-place” in outdoor spaces.

Take a walk through a forest and you’ll find yourself in awe of the sheer beauty of the green trees whistling gently in the wind. Camp among hundred-foot-tall red rock faces and you’ll be overwhelmed with the awareness of the smallness of your existence. Listen to the waves crash on a rocky cliff leaving behind a foamy aftermath and you’ll become keenly aware of the power of nature.

Time spent outdoors is full of exhilarating and spiritual experiences that often leave us changed somehow. They are special encounters that can’t seem to be duplicated in the city or in our everyday lives. The outdoors are life-giving – providing both rest and inspiration in a single moment. As I reflect on the love I feel for the outdoors, I consistently return to a single question, “Why don’t more people regularly venture into the outdoors?”.

For many people, the answer to this question is about access. For various reasons, the outdoors are simply not equally accessible to all. For those with disabilities, pathways and trails aren’t often designed with them in mind. Members of the LBGTQ+ community have expressed feeling fearful and unwelcome by others in outdoor spaces. People of color often feel uncomfortable and “out-of-place” in outdoor spaces. Those with limited finances can struggle to find reliable transportation and the ability to purchase outdoor gear.

Wheelchair National Park
National Parks are making changes to help make trails and pathways more accessible to disabled visitors

Outdoor spaces are available to all, but are not always accessible to all.

The reality of the outdoors and of the outdoor recreation industry is that it’s typically been dominated by wealthy, able, straight, white people. For those defined in other terms, accessibility to the outdoors is a major barrier that will only be conquered by all of us thinking differently about outdoor spaces. All people deserve the privilege of enjoying the beauty of the outdoors. They deserve the therapeutic benefits of feeling a fresh mountain breeze across their face, observing the rhythmic crashing of waves against the shore, and taking in a dark sky filled with stars. The outdoors deserve all people as well. As the threat of urban growth and global warming threaten public lands and wild spaces, outdoors spaces depend on a diversity of voices to defend and protect them.

We need to do better. Here’s why:

Public lands are “owned” by us all

The federal government oversees 640 million acres of land in the US. These federally-managed public lands make up just under 30% of all land area in the United States. In addition, countless non-federal public lands including state parks, forests, wildlife areas, parks, forests, greenways, and other units are managed at county and municipal levels. In the US, we have a LOT of outdoor spaces to explore.  The best part about these public lands is that they are available for use by all.

These lands aren’t owned by only specific groups, but by all people.  They are lands reserved and protected for all of our use.  They are the property of those in the disabled, LGBTQ+, and BIPOC communities equally. It’s time that we get better at inviting these groups to enjoy their own lands.

Outdoor spaces are good for us all

More and more research is telling us that time spent outdoors is good for us.  Most people would agree that spending time outdoors is good for our physical health, but research shows that time spent outdoors has a positive effect on our mental health as well. According to the American Psychological Association, time spent in blue and green spaces has cognitive benefits and can lead to increases in happiness, subjective well-being, positive affect, positive social interactions, a sense of meaning, and purpose in life.

Those who spend a lot of time outdoors already know this anecdotally – the time spent outdoors is good for our bodies, minds, and souls.  These important benefits of outdoor experiences should be available (and accessible) to all.  Regardless of a person’s ability, skin color, sexual preference, gender identity, or bank balance, all people deserve the therapeutic advantages of time spent outdoors.  In a world filled with devices, relentless schedules, and unforgiving expectations, we ALL need the outdoors more than ever. Let’s be better at creating equal and equitable spaces for ALL to enjoy the benefits of outdoor spaces.

Lesbian couple camping
While enjoying the outdoors, some members of the LGBTQ+ community have experienced angry reactions from others who disagree with their “lifestyle.”
The outdoors community is better with a diversity of voices

A diversity of voices and perspectives make us smarter and stronger. As we imagine new technology, ways to manage public lands, and ways to be more inclusive, it’s vital that we ensure that many different voices and perspectives are heard.

How can National Parks be more friendly to those who are disabled?  What can we do at campgrounds and state parks to prevent expressions of hate toward those in the LGBTQ+ community? What steps can we take to reverse decades of racial discrimination that people of color have experienced in the outdoors community?  What outdoor gear can be reimagined at lower price points to lower the financial barrier of entry?  How can we make outdoor spaces more accessible for all?  These are all questions that are best answered from within the communities they affect.  Each of us knows our experiences and each of our experiences is different.  Adding in folks who have had different experiences and have different perspectives can only make the outdoors community smart and stronger. It’s time we elevate a diversity of voices in the outdoors community.

The outdoors need us all

When we spend time in outdoor spaces, we become more connected with nature. This connection leads to increased awareness of the environmental challenges we face. With climate change threatening our beloved outdoor spaces (along with the rest of the planet), we need as many people as possible to join the fight.  The outdoors need ALL of us to protect and preserve our public lands. Let’s encourage ALL people to join us in protecting outdoor spaces.

At Outward Spaces, we’re committed to promoting the accessibility of the outdoors for all

As we further explore the challenge of accessibility in outdoor spaces, we’re compiling lists of resources of articles, organizations, and companies that are already tackling this issue head-on. There are so many awesome folks working every day to help those who lack access to outdoor spaces. Their efforts both inspire us and challenge us to be more aware of the experiences of inaccessibility some face.

This article is the first of our “Outdoors Inclusivity Series” we’ll be posting in the coming weeks.  Our hope is to help bring attention to the challenges keeping some from more fully experiencing and enjoying the outdoors.  In this series, we’ll focus on how different communities face accessibility and inclusivity issues in outdoor spaces, suggest ways in which others can help, and point to organizations working with these communities. We’d love your thoughts and feedback throughout this series.  If you have stories to share or know of great organizations we’ve missed, please let us know in the comments.

Remember, the outdoors should be for EVERYONE.

 

View more articles from our Outdoor Inclusivity Series:

Part 2: The LGBTQ+ Community’s Complex Relatioship With The Outdoors

 

Looking to get started exploring the outdoors? Check out our Beginner’s Guide to Camping.

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