Our everyday lives went sideways in 2020. Where do we go from here? Meet five leaders with a vision for how the outdoors can help us heal, and a plan to build a more equitable future for all.

By Jenny Bruso

A woman standing in the woods wearing a black t - shirt.
JENNY BRUSO | Photo Credit: Peter Hanson
When I was a kid, I used to spend all day in the ocean. 

My mom would have to get up from where she was sunbathing to make me eat or put on more sunscreen, and then it was right back out to the water. I’d float on the surface and let the swells gently bob me around and dare waves to crash into me, like I could tame them. They’d tumble me, sometimes dangerously. I’d finally break free and gasp for air, salt water burning my nostrils and going down my throat. This was when I felt most alive. When my lips turned blue and my teeth wouldn’t stop chattering, it was time to go home.

Those days in the ocean, or coasting my bike down the biggest hills, or gardening with my mom, are my best childhood memories. My childhood was hard, and as I grew up, life became harder. I forgot how to access that joy. At some point, I didn’t notice like I used to. Have you ever been immune to mountains? To sunsets? I have. I forgot how beauty can break me apart and fix me up even better than I was before.

About eight years ago, I began dating someone who loved the outdoors. I found my way outside again in the form of day hikes and I rediscovered that wonder, that inherent sense of place I knew when I was a kid. My world opened back up, but this rediscovered freedom to be was conditional.

I noticed very early on that outdoor culture was something else entirely. In the Pacific Northwest, particularly around Portland, Oregon—the whitest big city in the U.S.—it wasn’t exactly surprising that most of the people on trail were white. This image of the outdoorsperson was even more pervasive on social media and in advertising.

“The outdoor industry version of who is “outdoorsy” doesn’t represent most of us.”

While my whiteness is a calling card of outdoor culture, my size and queerness were at odds with what I was seeing. Comments from other hikers referencing my size frequently puncture(d) the sense of place I felt while hiking.

I needed people to talk to about this. I needed community. In 2016, I started Unlikely Hikers—a diverse, antiracist, body-liberating outdoor community featuring the underrepresented outdoorsperson. We’re an Instagram community, a nationwide hiking group and, now, a podcast. The outdoor industry version of who is “outdoorsy” doesn’t represent most of us. We are people of size, Black, Indigenous, People of Color, queer, trans, and nonbinary. We are people with disabilities and people who use the outdoors to aid our mental health. We talk about access, politics, and conservation while we honor the land and its Indigenous stewards. We explore and build community at these intersections.

This summer, I interviewed outdoor leaders who aren’t simply diversifying the status quo, but creating a whole new outdoor culture from the ground up that is for everybody and every body. I asked them about their outdoor careers and lifestyles, how they experience parks and public lands, how COVID-19 has shifted plans, and their hopes for the future. I hope their stories inspire you to take inventory of your own outdoor experiences. Each of us has a responsibility to use our privilege to benefit those who have less access. How can you be part of creating this change?

Read more of Jenny’s writing and support Unlikely Hikers at Jenny Bruso & Unlikely Hikers and on Instagram @unlikelyhikers

Read Jenny’s conversations with outdoor leaders below: