Backpacking while BIPOC: How to stay safe and what allies can do
Updated: Jun 16, 2021
Black and Indigenous POC have learned to fear the outdoors for the very real threat of violence. In many cases our families were of the understanding that if you went into the woods, you might not come back out.
Part of embracing our freedom is reclaiming our connection to nature and empowering ourselves by traversing the lands that were taken away, or that our ancestors didn’t have access to.
As recently as 1967, a Civil Rights Act passed that banned the segregation of public spaces including our country’s National Parks.
But that didn’t magically fix things.
The same way the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free the last slaves until Juneteenth; the Civil Rights Act was slow to ease restrictions to outdoor spaces for POC until the early 1990s.
The long-term effect of exclusion and trauma reflects in the amount of BIPOC participating in outdoor activities each year.
In a 2019 study by the Outdoor Foundation, Black people made up only 9.4% of outdoor participants. Hispanic people were 11.6% of outdoor patrons. White people made up an overwhelming 71.5% of outdoor patrons.
Today BIPOC courageously reclaim outdoor spaces, to retell our story as one of joy, peace, and adventure. But there are still challenges to face when you become the outdoorsy Black person.
When my group of friends and I go hiking in predominantly white areas, we’re likely to meet with stares, awkward questions, and on occasion, negative interactions.
That doesn’t stop us.
Here Are Some Ways We Can Stay Safe:
Go as a group
There is safety in numbers.
If a solo hike is calling your name, ALWAYS let someone know where you’re hiking or backpacking and when they can expect to hear back from you.
Join an Online Group for BIPOC
Niche interests like backpacking as a Person of Color can get lonely. At least until you convince your skeptical family and friends that they aren’t going to get eaten by a bear if they go on a trail with you.
Find your tribe through activities you enjoy. Groups like this often share alerts about potential threats on the trails that aren't in main news.
Know Your Surroundings
Do your research! Get familiar with the terrain and the trail by looking it up before you go. I like to use All Trails to get to know the area before I hike it.
What are the common plants and animals you should avoid, and what season are they prevalent in?
Take a virtual course with someone who knows their stuff.
LAAF Travels holds Intro to Backpacking online events that won’t even take a full hour of your time. Click the link to learn more!
Dress for Success
Even if you can’t afford a trip to REI for the best and latest, there are still common low-cost tactics you can use to stay safe.
Try tucking your pants into some thick socks during tick season.
Layer your clothes to accommodate for weather changes.
No hiking boots? Most times you can get away with solid running shoes if the area is dry enough.
Hiking boots aren’t the most attractive footwear next to your new Converse, but they will get you back to the trailhead in one piece without a twisted ankle.
Preparedness is a virtue
We never plan to get hurt, but we should always carry a small emergency kit.
Carry more water than you think you need—Especially if it’s hot out.
Don’t depend on google maps to avoid getting lost. Download a map to use offline or go old school and carry a paper map.
Want to learn how to backpack in Seattle? LAAF Travels is offering 15% off of their backpacking trips in June for Black women and femmes who are interested in learning! Check them out!
Being an Ally Outdoors
The journey to becoming a great ally is a long one, but it’s worth it. You can get started by hitting the books.
BIPOC already deal with racism and discrimination. Too often we’re also expected to educate the well-intentioned white people around us.
It’s a heap of emotional labor that should be your own responsibility.
If your goal is to show up as an ally, you are the one who has to do the work.
The work is…
Reading books on the struggles that Black people and POC face.
Celebrating and elevating stories from BIPOC communities.
Intentionally starting the conversation from a place of knowledge and understanding.
Celebrate Juneteenth this year by empowering yourself to make a change through learning what change looks like.
The American Hiking Society has a variety of resources that you can read, listen to or watch to help you on your journey to becoming an ally.
Acknowledge Your Privilege & Use It To Help
Your privilege is almost like your shadow. You might not realize it’s there because you’ve never had to deal with the effects of not having it.
No, that doesn’t mean you haven’t experienced your own hardships in life. It means those hardships likely haven’t been related to your skin color. Once you acknowledge your privilege, it becomes a superpower you can use for good.
Is a white person harassing a Black woman on the trail?
Interject firmly and diffuse the situation.
Is someone in the group constantly talking over your Asian American friend?
Speak up! Say something like, “Actually, I’d like to hear what she’s saying right now and you’re interrupting her.”
Someone made an ugly comment towards the Latinx woman in your group?
Stand with her in solidarity and make it known that comments like that will not be tolerated.
Remove Barriers to Entry
Even with a budding interest in getting outdoors, it might not be accessible for some POC. Issues like transportation, finances, and getting gear can prevent us from making it to the trails.
When we tackle those issues, we still face what’s known as a “hidden curriculum”, impacting our sense of belonging in these spaces. You can take action to remove these barriers and promote an inclusive experience.
Provide transport options like carpooling
Share your gear with someone who needs it
Cover etiquette basics with new backpackers
Consider offering a sliding scale or payment plan option
These tips are just a starting point.
There are tons of ways you can work towards allyship.
It’s always a good idea to intentionally include people who don’t look like you. Just make sure that wherever you’re inviting them into is prepared to welcome them.
Allies Make Mistakes Too
As with anything you’re new to, you’re going to make mistakes.
Don’t beat yourself up over it.
Take ownership and be accountable for your words and actions.
As we all work to create more inclusive spaces, there are some behaviors you’ll want to avoid.
I shouldn’t have to say this, but it’s important—
Unless someone is seriously injured or dying, don’t call the police on Black and Indigenous POC in the woods.
They’re probably out enjoying nature and minding their business.
Don’t make rude comments or ask insensitive questions.
Have you felt like an outsider before? Like there’s something wrong with the way you look, speak, or act?
Of course, you have.
Why make your fellow trailblazer feel othered in the same way?
We should absolutely talk about race. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider how your words might affect others.
Don’t Say You Don’t See Color
Unless you are physically blind, you see it.
And it completely avoids the conversations that can make you a better ally.
Don’t Overcomplicate Your Jargon
Getting into a conversation with an experienced backpacker throwing around lingo like bivy, base weight, and switchbacks can be overwhelming.
Newbies don't know what it means and it can be embarrassing to stop the conversation every five seconds to ask.
It can also intimidate BIPOC who already feel like this is somewhere they don't belong.
Use common terms that everyone can understand when describing a backpacking venture.
We’re on this journey together.
We’re all learning together.
Be kind to your fellow humans and understand that YOU DON’T OWN THE OUTDOORS. No one does. And that’s beautiful!
When we move closer towards inclusivity we widen our perspective and our world. Empowering ourselves and others to be the change we want to see.
If this has motivated you to take charge of your outdoor experience as Black or Indigenous POC, take advantage of the limited deal for June where you can get 15% off of your backpacking trip with LAAF Travels.
Seychelle (she/her) is an African American writer based in Maryland. She specializes in copywriting for personal finance, equality, and lifestyle topics. When she's not writing, she's an avid hiker, cat mom, and reader of comic books.