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Nayelli Gonzalez headshot

What the Outdoors Industry Is Doing About America’s Changing Landscape


Daniela Lopez grew up in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco, a concrete jungle worlds away from the lush green forests and smells of eucalyptus familiar to any wilderness hiker. While only miles from the nearest state and national parks, Lopez had never gone hiking or backpacking until the age of 14, when she joined a guided youth development backpacking trip that took her from the noisy city streets of San Francisco to the majestic shores of Big Sur.

That experience not only changed her view of the outdoors, but it also transformed her perception of what she was capable of achieving. Years later, Lopez now works with the organization that led her first excursion, the nonprofit Bay Area Wilderness Training, and takes city youth to the outdoors.

Lopez’ story reflects a growing trend in the engagement and mobilization to get diverse youth outdoors – a movement that the outdoor industry considers not only valuable, but necessary.

Building a new model

A common saying among outdoor industry insiders goes like this: Most hikers and backpackers are either “newlywed or nearly dead” – a reference to the explicit lack of diversity often seen in the great outdoors. More astonishing is the fact that about 70 percent of those who spend time in local, regional or national parks are White/Caucasian, while only 10 percent are African American or Hispanic/Latino, and only 3 percent are Asian American.

Given America’s changing demographic landscape, which indicates that we will be a majority-minority nation by 2020, those facts do not bode well for the future of outdoor participation or the sustainability of related industries.

But things are changing. Just last year, Latinos spent more than any other group on outdoor gear, according to an Outdoor Industry Association consumer research study. The long-held notion of what an “outdoorsy” type looks like (think of old Sierra Club photos) is being dispelled.

And global outdoor industry giants have seen the writing on the wall.

Surveying demographic data and recognizing a need for change, outdoor retailers such as REI and sportswear giant Columbia understand that a new model to connect with multicultural communities is required to remain relevant within the country’s changing market.

That’s why a few years ago REI and Columbia partnered with the National Park Foundation to launch American Latino Expedition, a campaign to raise awareness of national parks among American Latino and multicultural communities across the nation. As part of the campaign, organizers invited 14 Latino bloggers, social media personalities, and community influencers to take an overnight trek in Grand Teton National Park and share their outdoor experience through social media, using the hashtag #ALEx14 throughout National Hispanic Heritage Month.

The campaign garnered thousands of social media interactions, and that success spurred the launch of the Find Your Park Expedition (#FYPx) campaign launched last year, which invited eight multicultural millennials to take a similar excursion to Mesa Verde National Park. Similar to the American Latino Expedition campaign, the Find Your Park Expedition resonated with multicultural audiences not only because messages were personal and authentic, but because they were shared by people who look like them – not corporate voices just trying to sell stuff.

Such campaigns provide the foundation to build diverse outdoor participation and tap into a new base of potential customers and loyal brand followers. It also speaks to the power of corporate-nonprofit partnerships and influencer engagement.

“The success of the Find Your Park Expedition again demonstrates the incredible value of partnership,” said Scott Welch, Global Corporate Relations Manager at Columbia Sportswear. “The resulting increase in capacity, infrastructure, reach, and efficiency allows each of us to surpass our individual goals and objectives.”

Outdoors for all

Over the past decade, a growing coalition of outdoor organizations and brands have been working (often together) to connect diverse youth to nature and break down barriers to access the great outdoors.

Barriers such as lack of proper gear, inadequate access to transportation, and fear of the unknown often impede low-income, diverse youth to get outdoors.

Organizations such as Youth Outside, an Oakland-based capacity builder, designs cultural relevancy programs and helps address the lack of diversity within the world of corporate, nonprofit and environmental education and outdoor youth programming to connect youth to nature.

“The perception is changing from ‘let's take youth outdoors’ (because without us they’d never get outdoors) to ‘we're doing this together (we’re creating an experience together that they can replicate on their own) – so the mentality and framework becomes more empowered,” said Laura Rodriguez, Program Officer at Youth Outside. “The parks belong to them too, and our programs help to ensure that all youth can get outdoors.”

Protecting the future

In certain states, including California, Texas and New Mexico, people of color already constitute the majority of the population. For the sake of preserving our state and national parks, inspiring future stewards of the planet, and ensuring the viability of the outdoor industry, it’s important that all youth find access points to nature.
“Outdoor experiences really benefit youth, and getting youth of color outdoors is really important,” said Scott Wolland, Executive Director and CEO of Bay Area Wilderness Training (BAWT), a project of Earth Island Institute. “It’s about access, equity, it’s future voters, and it’s helping to build a better planet.

According to Wolland, research shows that unplugging from technology and being in green spaces also has a positive effect on kids’ self esteem and leadership. BAWT, of which 85 percent of participants are youth of color and 74 percent come from low income households, connects teachers and youth workers to their outdoor gear libraries – most of which was built through product donations from companies such as The North Face, Columbia, Osprey and Eureka! – that way youth organizations and schools may outfit their groups for trips free of charge.

BAWT is one of a handful of successful organizations across the country dedicated to getting diverse youth outdoors, for the sake of us all.

“When young people get outside, they see that there’s a bigger world out there that’s greater than what they might know,” said Wolland. “And when they learn about climate change in the context of being outdoors, it can connect them to protecting their own futures.”
Photos courtesy of Bay Area Wilderness Training
Nayelli Gonzalez headshot

Nayelli is the Founder & CEO of CreatorsCircle, a resource hub that connects diverse youth with opportunities to create a life of purpose and impact. A trained journalist with an MBA, she also keeps the pulse on sustainable business and social impact trends and has covered these topics for a variety of publications over the past 15 years. She’s a systems thinker who loves to learn, share knowledge and help others connect the dots. 

Read more stories by Nayelli Gonzalez