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The Unbearable Whiteness of Camping

People of color have been excluded from the camping industry for decades. The pandemic changed everything.

The Unbearable Whiteness of Camping
[Images: Swim Ink 2, LLC/Corbis//Getty Images, United States Library of Congress]

My Indian father and Chinese mother thought the concept of camping was absurd. Born in the British colony of Malaya in the 1950s—living in simple wooden homes on stilts and showering outdoors among bullfrogs and snakes—they could imagine nothing worse than sleeping in a tent in the forest.

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Looking back, I wonder if they were influenced by the subtle racism that permeated their childhoods. Under colonialism, they had been made to feel uncivilized and backward by their white rulers; they spent their lives trying to escape those labels. All this meant that I rarely spent time in nature growing up. Our holidays consisted of flying to cities like Singapore and Paris, away from trees and wildlife. I now wonder whether I missed out on something important as a child.

As a person of color, I am far from alone in feeling uncomfortable in the great outdoors. For decades, camping in the United States has been an overwhelmingly white pastime: As recently as 2012, 88% of campers were white, according to research from KOA, the largest system of campgrounds in North America. But we’re at a turning point. For the first time, the representation of campers is beginning to align with the demographics of the United States. In 2020, 63% of campers were white; 12% were Black, 13% were Hispanic, and 7% were Asian. Crucially, KOA found that 60% of first-time campers in 2020 were non-white.

How did this happen? The answer is complex. The pandemic is part of it. Camping is a safe, socially distanced way to travel: People who would never have considered sleeping outdoors under normal circumstances gave it a go last year. But even before COVID-19 hit the U.S., outdoor brands and organizations had been under pressure to become more inclusive and market to broader audiences. This year, finally, their efforts bore fruit.

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The myth of the “great outdoors”

It’s a strange irony that people of color have felt so excluded from camping, says sociologist Marya T. Mtshali, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. After all, historically, Black and brown people have had strong ties to the land. Mtshali points out that both Native Americans and enslaved Africans had ancestral knowledge about the natural world, including how to hunt and use herbs. For African Americans in bondage, the outdoors was a rare space for socializing; and later, free African Americans relied on the land for their survival and financial independence.

But European settlement in North America—which involved forcibly taking land from some people while forcing outdoor labor on others—made the outdoors dangerous for people of color. In the late 1800s, this colonization was framed as a brave act of conquering the wilderness—along with the Native Americans who inhabited it. Frederick Jackson Turner, a historian at the time, developed the concept of the frontier as “the meeting point between savagery and civilization,” along with the mythos of Americans as tough individuals who prized freedom and individualism. The myth of the frontiersman permeated pop culture at the time, embodied in figures like “Buffalo Bill” Cody and Kit Carson, who appeared in dime novels, comic books, and shows. In these stories, Native Americans were portrayed as villains who were often violently killed.

In the early 1900s, President Theodore Roosevelt used the wilderness as a backdrop for speeches and photo ops (often wearing Stetson hats) to promote his persona as a rugged cowboy and counter the image of him as an effete Harvard graduate. According to Dan White, author of Under the Stars: How America Fell in Love with Camping, Roosevelt took widely publicized hikes and camping trips, which associated him with a “fantasy version of an idealized pioneer past.”

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When Roosevelt went on to establish five national parks and 150 national forests, these spaces seemed designed for white men who were “roughing it” in order to find deeper meaning in nature. And indeed, over the following decades, the national parks explicitly excluded people of color: Until 1964, many national parks in the United States did not admit people of color, while others were segregated.

The legacy of this racism endures. As recently as 2018, only 2% of national park visitors were Black. “For centuries people who looked like me were not welcome in outdoor spaces, whether by law or because it was coded through Jim Crow,” says Danielle Williams, founder of the blogs Melanin Base Camp and Diversify Outdoors, which help people of color start hiking and camping and push outdoor brands to recognize them. “So we just did not go.”

[Images: United States Library of Congress]
Mtshali says that for centuries, European Americans cultivated a culture of leisure in the great outdoors—camping, hiking, kayaking—which actively excluded people of color. Growing up in South Carolina, she was told over and over again that “camping is not something that Black people do.” Today, she sees it differently. “People say that as though there is some kind of natural law at play: that African Americans naturally don’t want to do these things, while white people do,” she says. “But the truth is that white people have socially engineered their ownership of outdoor culture.”

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As a person of Asian descent, there are historical reasons why I also feel out of place outdoors. When the British colonized India and Southeast Asia, they justified their rule by portraying the natives as uncivilized, partly because of their rural lifestyles and dependence on nature. “The colonial narrative described people of color as ‘savage,'” Mtshali says. “This narrative was used to disenfranchise people of color and take away their land. They were essentially saying, ‘You can’t be trusted to rule over yourselves because you are too much like animals.'”

It’s only now, after years of engaging with the history of colonization, that I’ve begun to connect the dots between my fear of the outdoors and my anxiety that I might live up to colonial caricatures of brown people.

The Slow Push For Diversity

Camping and outdoor brands have known for a long time that their industry had a diversity problem. Toby O’Rourke, president and CEO of KOA, which owns more than 500 campgrounds across North America, began seriously thinking about the demographics of camping when she joined the company a decade ago. At the time, an Asian American board member pointed out to her that nearly 90% of all KOA campers were white, while only 6% were Black—and Latino and Asians were barely represented at all. “I was put on notice very early,” O’Rourke recalls. “She asked me point blank: ‘How are you going to increase diversity on our campgrounds?'”

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To O’Rourke, these statistics meant that KOA was underserving people of color—and there was a business opportunity in expanding the company’s customer base. Over the past decade, she’s focused on including people of color in photoshoots (using real campers) and intentionally inviting influencers of color to visit campgrounds. KOA has also partnered with groups that advocate for diversity in camping, including the In Solidarity ProjectThe Outbound Collective and Latino Outdoors. In the wake of recent violence against Asians, New York-based activists launched the “Yellow Whistle” campaign to distribute whistles as a symbol of solidarity. KOA was an early financial supporter of the campaign and distributed whistles on campgrounds. These efforts appear to be working. Under O’Rourke’s watch, there’s been a steady growth in campers of color at KOA sites, from 12% in 2012 to 37% in 2020.

But despite this progress, racism still permeates some corners of the great outdoors. In 2019, a white manager of a KOA campground in Mississippi pulled a gun on a Black couple who were picnicking there. The manager was promptly fired, but the incident served as a wake-up call for O’Rourke. “It was a pivot point,” she says. “This is not just about marketing. We need to be very thoughtful about who we bring into our brand, from our employees to our franchisees.” Since then, she has launched a diversity-training program and has established diversity standards for hiring.

Brands that sell outdoor gear have also been wrestling with the legacy of racism in their industry. In the past, many of these brands appealed largely to white consumers. When members of Patagonia’s human resources team set up a booth at an internship-recruitment session at historically Black Morehouse College in 2017, they discovered that many of the students who attended had never heard of the brand.

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But that’s changing as these companies begin to feature more people of color in their ads and bring on more diverse employees. “We realized a few years ago that many people did not feel like outdoor marketing is inviting or welcoming,” says Jean-Marie Shields, head of brand experience at Fjällräven, a Scandinavian brand that sells tents, sleeping bags, and other camping gear. “Looking at our imagery about camping and being outside, they didn’t see people who looked like them. They asked, ‘How is this a relatable story to me?'”

Two years ago, Fjällräven started partnering with outdoor experts (or “guides,” in the company’s parlance) within the communities where its 37 stores are located, making a specific effort to find people of color. The brand brought on Black nature photographer George McKenzie to be a New York guide. He often photographs green spaces and wildlife in urban environments—demonstrating that nature is everywhere, not just in national parks and campgrounds. Shields says that McKenzie’s approach is relatable to people who might be overwhelmed by the idea of a two-day hike. “Part of the magic is in the exchange,” says Shields. “It’s learning about how [people] view nature, because one community’s relationship with the natural world is so specific and different from another’s.”

“Diverse marketing is usually a win, even if it’s done primarily to boost business,” says Williams, of Melanin Base Camp. “As long as it is done ethically and is not appropriating things, just seeing myself represented in [in a brand’s] advertising is exciting, showing me that the outdoors can be for me, too.”

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In October, REI launched the Cooperative Action Fund, a public charity that operates separately from its business and provides grants to organizations that support racial equity in the outdoors. The first $1 million investment went to organizations like Black Girls Do Bike and the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute. Now, the company is enlisting its customers and employees to provide support. “There’s an awareness in the outdoor community that diversity is a problem,” says Kristen Ragain, managing director of the fund. “We’re using our megaphone to draw attention to organizations helping to increase access to the outdoors, especially those led by people who have been historically excluded.”

[Images: United States Library of Congress]

The Pandemic Changed the Landscape

While brands had been making progress in diversifying the outdoors, the pandemic became the catalyst for real change. It spurred Americans of all ethnicities to rethink their vacation options. As the months of lockdown wore on, people were desperate to get out of their houses but felt unsafe flying or staying in hotels. Suddenly, they were willing to consider camping—or its slightly more upscale cousin, “glamping,” which involves staying in wilderness settings in cabins equipped with comfortable amenities.

The number of households that camped for the first time in 2020 was 10.1 million; of these, 6 million were non-white, the highest rate since KOA started collecting this data. The glamping industry, meanwhile, exploded during the pandemic, with startups like Cabana, Autocamp, and Hipcamp rapidly expanding, with the help of VC funding.

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This was a boon to novice campers like me, who felt intimidated by the idea of setting up a tent or building a fire. In the summer of 2020, I began searching for nearby glamping sites that wouldn’t require any knowledge about how to set up a tent or build a fire. I discovered Getaway, a company that builds tiny houses in beautiful locations; my family and I began driving to a site an hour away from our house every month. A year later, with the pandemic still raging, we went further afield to Bar Harbor, Maine, where we stayed at a KOA-owned glamping site called Terramor that sets up luxurious tents in the woods.

Williams points out that it’s not just historical racism that prevents Black and brown people from enjoying the wilderness; it’s also not having the technical skills and knowledge of the outdoors. A veteran camper, she grew up with a father in the army who took her family on wilderness trips. But in her years running her blogs, she’s found that many of her readers don’t have any experience with the outdoors.

“A lot of outdoor knowledge is multi-generational,” she says. “There are some skills and instincts that you can’t just acquire through a book or YouTube. If you’re not white, you may not have parents or grandparents that can teach this to you.” She also points out that seasoned campers often have a lot of technical gear for their trips, which can make it prohibitively expensive to get started.

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Williams says that glamping can be a good introduction to the outdoors for people of color. But it is also much more expensive than traditional camping, which can be a barrier. And ultimately Black and brown folks shouldn’t need to pay more for an experience that should be affordable. That’s why she believes it is important for the National Parks system and other organizations to partner with existing outdoor leaders from marginalized communities to make it easier for people of color to access these spaces.

“I challenge you to find a state park that is working with local indigenous communities,” she says. “These parks have a burden of responsibility to get information out to marginalized communities—and this means doing more than relying on a website and communicating entirely in English.” (The National Parks Service did not respond to our request for comment at the time of publication.)

More people of color than ever tried camping during the pandemic. The question now is whether these novices will continue to do so when the coronavirus recedes.

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I certainly plan to keep exploring the outdoors, and not just because I’ve found it fun and relaxing. For too long, I’ve felt excluded from these wide open spaces. The truth is that they belong to all of us. It’s about time I savored them.

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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