Travel

How to Get Outside in a Way That Serves You

Outdoor equity activists weigh in on finding representation and community in Mother Nature.

Image by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Image by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Image by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

I get a special sort of feeling when I see a fellow Black person in a place I didn’t expect. Sometimes, that’s at a concert. Other times, it’s in Nordic countries. More recently, it’s been in nature-where thin, white, able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual, male adventurers tend to prevail.

The feeling is a mixture of many things: surprise, because, despite all expectations, there we are. Safety, knowing somebody who gets it is nearby if any bullshit goes down, as it often does. There’s also a fair bit of giddiness, a sense of instant connection (acknowledged via the nod). And there’s a tinge of bittersweetness, knowing it’s because it so rarely happens that the moment is cause for celebration.

If you’re from any group that falls outside of what we typically think of as the “outdoorsy type,” you almost definitely know the feeling. 

As we collectively unfurl from the fetal position and crawl out of the pandemic, the Great Outdoors seems like the ideal place to seek some much-needed relief and grounding. But for marginalized communities-who have been disproportionately impacted by the past year and a half, whether by the coronavirus or the climax of the United States’ long struggle with social inequalities-that reemergence comes with a litany of questions about who can comfortably enjoy and see themselves represented in outdoor culture.

Until recently, the visibility of plus-sized and queer people in the outdoors industry has been virtually non-existent. More than 25% of Americans (about one in four) live with a disability-and yet, holistic accessibility is extremely limited. And while people of color are expected to make up the majority of the US population within the next two decades, we are still noticeably absent in national parks; according to National Park Service data, just 23% of visitors identify as people of color.

Yet despite a culture of outdoorsmanship that often gatekeeps, a new generation of advocates and activists-including trailblazing (pun intended) collectives like Diversify Outdoors, Unlikely Hikers, Hello Ranger, Latinxhikers, and Disabled Hikers, among others-are uniting marginalized outdoorspeople for a common cause: spending time with Mother Nature in a way that embraces and uplifts their communities.

While it’s difficult to summarize the complex needs of dozens of disenfranchised communities in as many words, there are ways to make outdoor culture more inclusive for everyone. Whether you’re new to hiking and camping and don’t know where to start, or you’re an experienced nature-lover looking for a community of like-minded adventurers, here are a few ways to make the Great Outdoors a part of your life.

Photo by Henry Mullins
Photo by Henry Mullins
Photo by Henry Mullins

Don’t feel like you have to compromise comfort and safety to get outdoors

“All the things you fear when you’re going into a remote place are a sort of roadmap for your privilege,” says Ambreen Tariq, founder of Brown People Camping and author of Fatima’s Great Outdoors. “My biggest fear when I’m outdoors is not a snake. It is not a bear. It’s not a spider in my tent. All I’m trying to avoid is a white man attacking me.”

One of the most prominent limitations of marginalized outdoorspeople comes down to concerns about personal safety. Past experiences with harassment and bigotry-as well as widespread violence against marginalized people-are always in the back of Tariq’s mind, even when she’s trying to de-stress in nature. “There isn’t, like, a gate you pass through where you can leave all your baggage,” she says.

Brad and Matt Kirouac, the husband duo and co-founders of Hello Ranger, experienced similar anxieties during their years traveling the US in an RV. “We didn’t hold hands as much when we were on the road because we didn’t know [what to expect in] certain areas,” Brad says. Negative experiences, like harassment from a group of homophobic strangers during a trip to Wyoming, only reinforced those fears.

Photo courtesy of Hello Ranger
Photo courtesy of Hello Ranger
Photo courtesy of Hello Ranger

It’s shitty, but it’s true: people in some places will be more accepting of marginalized identities than others. And while that’s not okay, it is okay if you stick to your comfort zone in order to feel safe while you enjoy the outdoors

“The thing that gives me the most confidence and comfort in life is familiarity,” Tariq shares. “The more familiar I am with a space or setting or community, the more at ease I am. So that does dictate where I end up in life. That does dictate where I go, and the types of risks I choose to take.”

Know that your concerns are valid, and never be afraid to set boundaries. If the thought of a solo camping trip out in the wilderness makes you uncomfortable, start small and close to home. Many people don’t realize there are plenty of alternatives in their area-state parks, national forests, and national monuments, for example-where they can enjoy nature without worrying non-stop about placing themselves in harm’s way.

Matt Kirouac’s advice if and when you do decide to venture into the wilds? Try not to let your fear run the show. “There’s a balance of going in with mindfulness and self-awareness without suffocating yourself,” he says. “[You might need to take] that kind of precaution, but don’t let it deter you or make you afraid to be open to adventure and experiences in whatever way you’re comfortable with, in whatever way makes you feel safe.”

PHOTO BY CHERISA HAWKINS
PHOTO BY CHERISA HAWKINS
PHOTO BY CHERISA HAWKINS

Reconsider what it means to be ‘outdoorsy’

Social media and ad campaigns for outdoor gear may have us convinced that the consummate outdoorsperson should aspire to scale Mt. Kilimanjaro-but there are more realistic ways to frame “outdoorsiness” that don’t make anybody feel inadequate. If you’re struggling to overcome feelings of anxiety or intimidation, it may help to  reframe what qualifies as “getting outdoors.” Even things like an afternoon soaking up some Vitamin D in a local park or exploring a botanical garden count as enjoying what nature has to offer.

“For me, being outdoorsy is sitting outside with my family and having a carne asada barbecue by the lake,” says Adriana Garcia, co-founder of Latinxhikers.

“At the beginning, I wanted to do hardcore things. I would go on a five-day trek in Machu Picchu, or do intense backpacking every now and then,” adds fellow co-founder Luz Lituma. “But now, I’m like, ‘I’m outside, I’m grabbing my chair, and I’m sitting and enjoying the view.”

Photo by Elise Giordano
Photo by Elise Giordano
Photo by Elise Giordano

Due to their disabilities and chronic pain, Syren Nagakyrie has always had to take things slow when hiking. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. “I can’t go climb a 14k peak or go for long thru-hikes, so I have developed a skill at being able to appreciate what I can do, notice everything that’s around me, pay attention to the small things that I find on an outing, and draw meaning from that.”

Nagakyrie finds that one of the biggest barriers to entry for disabled outdoorspeople is a dangerous lack of information about accessibility. In fact, a related incident-in which they arrived at a trail only to encounter unexpected obstacles like steep stairs and drop-offs that left them frustrated and in pain-is what spurred them to launch Disabled Hikers.

“I’ve tried to talk to program managers or park rangers about my needs, and they just didn’t really understand. They thought, oh, well, then you just need a wheelchair-accessible trail. And that wasn’t what I was necessarily asking,” Nagakyrie says. Wheelchair accessibility as a blanket remedy doesn’t begin to cover the wide range of potential needs. 

“[We need to focus on] developing [guides] that take into consideration the broad variety of disabilities out there,” they add. Their upcoming book, The Disabled Hiker’s Guidebook, will be the first resource of its kind.

Instead of worrying about pulling off feats of strength and endurance, they encourage people-disabled or not-to appreciate quality over quantity: pay less attention to the number of miles hiked or peaks reached, and more attention to the small glimpses of beauty around you that you might otherwise miss.

Photo by Brie Jones
Photo by Brie Jones
Photo by Brie Jones

Find your people online

Jenny Bruso lived in Portland for eight years before she got around to visiting even the city’s most iconic natural sites, all of which were a short drive down the road-all because it seemed like there was no space for people like her.

“I had a disdain and an avoidance of exercise because I just associated [getting outdoors] with diet culture,” she says. “It was just always this young, cishet, white outdoor fantasy. And I really just needed to see everyday people getting outside in everyday ways.”

As a result, Bruso ended up spearheading Unlikely Hikers-an Instagram community that has united 120k outdoorspeople and counting, all of whom were after the same need. Social media’s also allowed inclusive groups like Latinxhikers, Brown People Camping, Disabled Hikers, and Hello Ranger to provide resources and support to thousands of marginalized adventurers.

While getting online might seem a little counterintuitive to getting outside, it may be just the confidence boost you need. Even if you’re just exchanging tips, stories, and questions in the comments box, having a sounding board with folks from your community and increasing your exposure to outdoorspeople who look like you can go a long way in making you feel welcome in the outdoors.

Find a hiking buddy-or two, or ten-who will meet you on your level

Bruso’s earliest forays into nature were demoralizing, to say the least. “I had a friend take me on a hike that was way too difficult for me. He thought that it was an easy hike, but it totally squashed my spirit and my body. So for a long time, I thought I didn’t like hiking.” 

It wasn’t until a few years later that she was able to rediscover her connection to nature alongside somebody who didn’t push her beyond her limits. “I was finally invited on a hike by somebody who was fully ready to meet me where I was-someone who just wanted to take me out into nature and not, you know, get ‘crushed’ by the outdoors, somebody who just wanted to be reverential in nature and show me what that was like.”

Now, that philosophy of meeting people where they are is the backbone of Unlikely Hikers group outings. The groups only move as fast as the slowest hiker. That way, nobody gets left behind or is made to feel bad about their skill on the trail, and everybody can instead focus on enjoying their time outside.

Bribe your friend group into a weekend camping trip, snag a close pal for a local hike or picnic, or seek out local hiking groups in your area on social media. And if there aren’t any existing meetup groups in your area, Jenny Bruso suggests taking matters into your own hands. “Make the thing that you want to see, if you have the ability. And if you don’t have the personal bandwidth to do it, there is somebody who does.”

“Whatever community that you want, they are there,” adds Bruso. “If you feel like you need it, there are other people who absolutely need it, too.”

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Tiana Attride is Thrillist’s associate travel editor. Please invite her on your camping trip, she’ll bring stuff for s’mores!

Travel

8 Suburbs Near Phoenix You Should Absolutely Visit

You could use a little space.

Discover Gilbert AZ
Discover Gilbert AZ
Discover Gilbert AZ

Phoenix is pretty great. There’s the burgeoning culinary scene, the diverse culture, the arts, of course, the sports, the great outdoors, and don’t forget about the more than 300 days of annual sunshine. We could really go on, and on, about how great this place is, but all of that greatness can blind you to all the excellence just outside it. The suburbs across The Valley are not to be missed. To encourage you to actually explore them, here’s what the best of ‘em have to offer.

Photo courtesy of Tempe Tourism
Photo courtesy of Tempe Tourism
Photo courtesy of Tempe Tourism

Tempe

Notably, Tempe is recognized as home to one of the largest universities in the country, Arizona State. But this Phoenix suburb is so much more than a college town, although it does add to its undeniable magic. Downtown Tempe plays hosts to epic arts festivals, dragon boat races, marathons and triathlons, and dozens of other events that all take place a short-distance from Tempe Town Lake, a two-mile long perennial reservoir and urban park that attracts cylicts, rowers, and active types. Break a sweat with a hike to the top of A Mountain and take in a panoramic sunset view. Or, just belly-up to the bar at one of Tempe’s innumerable craft breweries. Both are solid choices. And both can get you acquainted with this laidback Phoenix suburb.

Photo courtesy of Hotel Valley Ho
Photo courtesy of Hotel Valley Ho
Photo courtesy of Hotel Valley Ho

Scottsdale

Nearly half of Scottsdale’s land area is dedicated to open spaces and untamed desert. Outdoor activities like mountain biking, hiking, road cycling, horseback riding, and kayaking reign supreme here, and the city certainly leans toward an active, wellness-centered lifestyle. And while there’s no shortage of desert to explore, Scottsdale also claims some of the best spas in the world, award-winning restaurants, world-class golf courses, it’s the center stage for major events like luxury car auctions and sporting events, and it’s even got a bustling arts scene. This Phoenix suburb checks all of the boxes, really.

Photo by Lauren Topor Reichert
Photo by Lauren Topor Reichert
Photo by Lauren Topor Reichert

Gilbert

Not too long ago Gilbert was a sort of sleepy, far-away farm town. That’s certainly not the case anymore. Gilbert has grown exponentially, but its agricultural roots are still readily present in its personality and charm. Downtown Gilbert is home to dozens of restaurants and bars, most of which have a local, farm-to-table approach, naturally. And then there’s Agritopia, a friendly neighborhood with its very own shared garden and community spaces that include Epicenter and BARNONE, where you can order a wood-fired pizza, a can of experimental natural wine, and camp out under a canopy of trees in the open-air. It’s practically a utopia.

Mike Boening Photography
Mike Boening Photography
Mike Boening Photography

Cave Creek

A gateway to Horseshoe and Bartlett Lakes, Cave Creek’s position on the outskirts of Tonto National Forest makes it a primo spot for outdoor activities like biking and hiking and adventure by way of air balloon or horseback. Modern cowboys and gals can mosey over to The Buffalo Chip Saloon where bull riding and swing dancing are just part of a typical day. Additionally, Cave Creek has its own botanical garden, raptor rescue, and a gallery packed with person-sized crystals. And it’s all yours to discover.

Ade Russell/Flickr
Ade Russell/Flickr
Ade Russell/Flickr

Mesa

Point your GPS east and you’ll arrive in Mesa, Arizona’s third largest city. Whether you’re after outdoor adventure, looking to explore the arts and culture scene, or searching for locally made ciders and craft beer, Mesa has it all. There’s a hip, growing downtown area lined with storefronts, restaurants, theaters, and tasting rooms. And if you’re game for a little outdoor recreation, Mesa is your jumping-off point to scenic Sonoran Desert trails including Usery Mountain Regional Park, Lost Dutchman State Park, and San Tan Regional Park. Mesa is also just a short distance from The Salt River where you can cruise by wild horses and native wildlife via paddle board and Saguaro Lake is just up the road.

Experience Fountain Hills
Experience Fountain Hills
Experience Fountain Hills

Fountain Hills

At the center of this Phoenix suburb is an expansive urban park and monumental water fountain that tops out at 560-feet. The fountain in Fountain Hills is larger than the Washington Monument, and it’s three times as high as Old Faithful. Pack a picnic and spread out in the park for an afternoon where you can traverse the walkable paths, cycle around the waterway, or play a competitive bout of frisbee golf. If you swing more towards traditional golf, there’s a shortlist of premier golf courses to tee-off at. And like many of the Phoenix suburbs here, Fountain Hills is surrounded by wide-open desert and scenic vistas just waiting to be explored.

Camelback Ranch - Glendale
Camelback Ranch – Glendale
Camelback Ranch – Glendale

Glendale

Arizona sports teams including the Coyotes and Cardinals have home turf advantage in Glendale. Over the years Glendale has hosted three Super Bowl bouts and will host another in 2023. But Glendale’s not just a sports mecca for fans of professional football and hockey. This Phoenix suburb is homebase to Camelback Ranch, a modern ballpark with all the amenities where the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers take the field each season as part of Cactus League Spring Training. Take your time in Glendale into extra innings and visit Historic Old Town Glendale. Here you’ll encounter eclectic antique and vintage stores, restaurants, candy shops, and coffee houses.

Pedal Haus Brewery
Pedal Haus Brewery
Pedal Haus Brewery

Chandler 

Museums, urban parks, art galleries, and growing neighborhoods like Uptown Chandler and Downtown Chandler give this Phoenix suburb lots of appeal. Rows of palm trees line the Downtown area where you can start your day with a locally roasted coffee and organic breakfast bowl. Downtown Chandler regularly hosts community-focused events and it’s a popular hangout for craft beer drinkers. SanTan Brewery, Pedal Haus, and The Perch, with 40 beers on tap and tropical birds at every turn, all call this Phoenix suburb home.

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Lauren Topor Reichert is a Phoenix-based multimedia storyteller, photographer, and content creator. Her work has been featured in travel guides, national publications, and the social feeds of some stellar local restaurants. Follow her around Arizona, and beyond, on Instagram @hungryinphoenix.

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