People come to nature for many reasons and with a whole range of skills, abilities, and knowledge. By nurturing diversity in the outdoors we allow everyone to feel the positive effects of time spent in nature. Here’s how to be an ally for everyone you meet on your adventures.
Nature is Different for Everyone
The rise of Instagram influencers and #adventure culture presents us with a version of the outdoors that is most often white, wealthy, able-bodied, and largely centred on male narratives of exploration. This has created a glossy yet, uninspiring picture of the outdoor experience as somewhat homogenous; it’s all fit bodies, epic peaks, and stories of achievement and triumph. Or is it?
I came to nature to heal. After significant trauma left me detached from my body and relentlessly on edge, the outdoors became a safe haven. Time spent meandering aimlessly through wild places gives me the space and freedom to explore my own inner landscape, and presents me with myriad opportunities to come home to myself.
‘When I press my toes into the grass and feel the wind rush through my tangled hair, I’m immediately grounded in the experience of this moment.’
And as a person with complicated history, the present moment is my refuge.
For some, these histories represent a doorway to ancestral wisdom and a sense of rich spiritual identity; for others, trauma, dispossession, and ongoing marginalisation. When we fail to recognise the complexity of the outdoor experience, we silence one of nature’s greatest lessons: diversity is the key to resilience, strength, and abundance.
5 Ways to be an Ally in The Outdoors
1. Connect with Indigenous Culture
It goes without saying that when you head outdoors anywhere in ‘Australia’, you’re reaping the benefits of having access to stolen land. If you’re interested in preserving the rich biodiversity of wild places – whether for environmental reasons or otherwise – then the fight for justice and reconciliation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be fairly high on your list of priorities.
For millennia, First Nations people have presided over the landscape with a deep sense of kinship and understanding of the complex ecosystems at play. This knowledge is fundamental to environmental sustainability, cultural preservation, and generational healing.
Ensuring this wisdom is respected and honoured requires us to centre the voices and perspectives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our understanding of the places we visit. Do your research, explore respectfully, and challenge yourself to widen your sphere of understanding.
2. Don’t Gear Shame
One of my least favourite adventure subcultures is the gear-clique. You know the type, right? They always have the latest and greatest gadgets and they make a point of ensuring everyone knows about it, usually via a process of elaborate storytelling about ‘That Time I Sent an Ice-Climb in Patagonia’, or something of the sort.
I went on a multiday hike recently and got roasted for my ‘basic’ set up; a mid-range one-person tent that I bought on sale for $150 at an outlet store. I laughed it off, but it’s worth pointing out that gear shaming is an insidious breed of outdoor elitism that is basically anti-everything the outdoors should be about. My tent is delightful and cosy, and for a lot of folks, $150 isn’t actually that cheap.
People come to the outdoors with a range of financial capacities. If you grew up taking skiing holidays with your family, that’s great! It’s also a privilege that requires a level of affluence that locks many people out of the experience.
It’s totally cool to spend your disposable income on gear and global trips (guilty) if that’s what brings you joy; just try not to trample the dignity of people who might not have access to the same financial resources as you.
3. Celebrate Diverse Bodies
I’ve heard a lot of folks say that the beauty of the outdoors is that it doesn’t discriminate. And while it’s tempting to view your transcendental peak summit as a profoundly unifying human experience, this is far from a lived reality for a lot of people.
Outdoor spaces are, for the most part, designed with athletic and able-bodied punters in mind. Naturally, this comes with a whole range of assumptions about what it means to be ‘athletic’ and ‘able-bodied’ and makes finding accessible adventure spots a challenge for people with mobility considerations. Many outdoor adventure spots don’t offer accessible walkways and campground facilities, and there’s a prevailing narrative in outdoor culture that being fit = being skinny.
We can wield our love of the outdoors as a powerful force for good by developing what I call a set of ‘outdoor ethics’. We can use these to champion for accessible sites in all our public spaces, support inclusive gear brands, and resist the urge to stereotype the people we encounter on the trail based on the bodies they inhabit.
When we do this, we go some way towards ensuring the outdoors actually is for everyone. And remember girls, #trailsnotscales.
4. Respect People’s Boundaries
Heading outdoors is an awesome opportunity to challenge yourself. Tackling a gruelling climb, trying a different activity or overcoming a bit of a pickle are great ways to test your limits and learn new skills. These experiences can create a real sense of kinship when shared, but it’s important to remember that we all have different boundaries and what sounds like encouragement to you might be crossing the line for others.
Give your pals plenty of positive affirmations and encouragement, but know when to back off, too. And it goes without saying that in the outdoors, just like in literally any other place on Earth, no means no.
Here are some examples of what boundaries in the outdoors can sound like:
- I’m not comfortable standing on the edge of a cliff for a photo;
- Thanks for offering to help me, but I want to set up my own tent;
- I’ve experienced racism/sexism/transphobia/fat-shaming etc at that spot before and I feel weird about going back. Any other good spots around here?;
- Your trip sounds exciting but I can’t afford to come. Count me in next time, though!;
- I appreciate your input but I know how to light a fire;
- The spot you suggested isn’t accessible to me. Maybe we could go somewhere else?;
- I’d rather not share a tent with them;
- Could we walk/ride/run/swim a bit slower?; and,
- No, I will not share my fire-roasted choccy-banana with you.
5. Challenge Your Assumptions
Making a commitment to actively challenge your assumptions and expand your thinking is an awesome way to show you value diversity in the outdoors.
Practicing your values in all spaces is a life-long journey – an adventure, you might say – that requires you to have a deep understanding of yourself, the people around you, and the broader social and political systems we’re all enmeshed in.
Each of us comes to the campfire for our own unique reasons, with a personal history that colours the way we experience wild places. Diversity is one of nature’s greatest strengths, and we should all aim to live more closely in her image.
Feature photo by @antgreenphoto