Written by Julia Schaffer
As indoor options became more dangerous after the introduction of COVID-19, many people have turned to the outdoors as a safer alternative. The fresh air and open trails are always welcoming new hikers with open arms. Unfortunately, many avid hikers do not have this same reaction. Gatekeeping has been a rising issue in recent years among the hiking community. Gatekeeping is defined as “the activity of controlling, and usually limiting, general access to something” and usually stems from a deep rooted idea that some people are more ‘worthy’ of the outdoors than others, which in itself is discriminatory.
Many hikers guilty of gatekeeping argue that “new hikers” are more likely to “overcrowd and harm” different trails. This idea assumes new hikers do not know how to hike respectfully, rather than allowing them to learn. This can be seen as many instagram influencers refuse to tag the locations of the trails they hike. In an article written by Melanin Base Camp (MBC), an activist group that promotes diversity in the outdoors, points to the problem with the “no geotag” movement and how it promotes discrimination in the outdoors by saying “The #nogeotag movement is a form of gatekeeping, or elitism. It involves individuals—usually those unaffected by structural racism and privileged to have grown up hiking and camping—asserting their self proclaimed authority over who should and shouldn’t be allowed into certain outdoor spaces.” Although crowded trails can be frustrating, it is important to remember that everyone has the right to experience the outdoors, regardless of their experience.
With this privilege, we see a narrative that “real hikers” have better gear as well. You will hear people remark that you need certain brands, expensive hiking boots, and a large financial commitment to hiking. I know I have heard hikers comment on others’ attire and tagged them as beginners. These judgements can create a very unwelcoming environment. In fact, this narrative further pushes an agenda that assumes hikers with lower funds are unable to be “real hikers.” Having a longer amount of experience and more expensive gear does not equate to worthiness in the outdoors. No new hikers should be deterred from the activity because of outdoor gatekeeping. Although, beginning any new hobby may come with a small price tag, there are ways to minimize spending. I have attached a small list of less expensive hiking items for beginners. However, what is most important is that you are comfortable, happy, and safe so do not feel obligated to spend money on any items you do not deem as necessary for you.
How can we create a more welcoming and inclusive environment? First, do not fall into the trap of performing any level of gatekeeping. I know it may be easy to think, “she just came out here for instagram photos” or “I would never dress up that much to hike” or “they are not even wearing hiking books.” These stereotypes of what “real hikers” are may be ingrained in hiking culture, however we need to collectively stop ourselves and remind ourselves that there is no one correct way to enjoy the outdoors, given that you are treating the trails with respect. Second, answer questions! If someone asks you about a specific trail — Tell them! Do not withhold information about trails or how to find them- it is public land. However, being transparent with information does not equate giving unsolicited advice or policing other hikers. Policing other hikers can come off as assuming you are more qualified than them and can perpetuate the hiking hierarchy. Sharing infographics and spreading awareness on social media is a great way to create a comfortable learning environment without calling anyone out.
One thing that I have learned about, years after I began hiking, was the 7 principles of Leave No Trace (LNT), which is a way to keep the nature around you healthy and clean for everyone. I attached the 7 principles below for any new hikers or older hikers who are unfamiliar with it. Be sure, however, to remember that these are just recommendations and it is more important to focus on your personal impact and your group’s impact rather than judging others who may not have learned about it yet.
The important takeaway here is that the outdoors creates a space where people can improve their mental, physical, or spiritual self, create new perspectives, and just have fun. There is no “wrong” way to do it, and the trails should be welcoming to every and all beginner hikers. If you want to lower your impact on the environment, it is best to focus on what you can personally change.
For Beginner Hikers/ Campers: What I wish I would have known
Hiking does not have to be a huge financial investment, and the prices associated with hiking should not deter you from experiencing the outdoors. Here is a list of cheaper brands to start with:
A common narrative is that people who hike in sandals or sneakers “aren’t real hikers.” This narrative is completely false. Hike in what you are most comfortable in without breaking your bank! I know many amazing hikers who have preferred sneakers for different hikes. However, if you’re looking for something with more ankle support but are not ready to spend $200 on a pair of brand name hiking boots, there are some cheaper options.
Tents can get PRICY and many 2 person tents can range upward $200+. Depending on where you go and what you plan on doing, there are a variety of very low priced tents (Target and other similar stores seem to have frequent sales.)
Clothing is where I try to save the MOST money. Let me emphasize: WEAR CLOTHES YOU FEEL COMFORTABLE AND HAPPY IN. There is absolutely no need to spend hundreds of dollars on name brand outfits, unless that is something you prefer and can afford to do. Of course, it is important to research the weather in the area to make sure you are prepared for the weather. However, there are a lot of cheaper ways to do this, starting with a lot of items you probably already own! A summer day hike in Pennsylvania for me consists of any comfortable t-shirt and running shorts- nothing fancy! Although colder hikes may require non-cotton items, beginners should not feel obligated to make large purchases until they are more comfortable with what exactly they need! Keeping clothing simple with what is in your closet is what works best for me!
Raincoats at REI can be upward of 100-200 dollars. Although many argue the increased quality, it is important to understand that the price of gear should not turn you away from hiking. The cheapest coat I could find at REI was the REI Co-op Rainier Rain Jacket ($90). However, I have been using a Walmart’s womens raincoat (Bagilaanoe Womens Hooded Jacket ($20)) for years without issue. You can find many cheaper options that won’t break the bank and can keep you warm and dry in case of rain. Remember in wet/cold weather it is best to wear non-cotton undershirts!
Although long duration through hikes (multiple day hikes that consist of carrying your tent/all belongings on your back) may require more heavy-duty backpacks, your typical Pennsylvania day hike does not. Although L.L. Bean and REI tend to sell day bags sitting around $100, there are plenty of cheaper options. My favorite day hike bag was purchased from Walmart and is perfect for holding snacks, my water pouch, and trail maps while I do small hikes throughout the summer. Here are some cheaper options:
High Sierra HydraHike at Target ($35)
Ozark Trail Bag at Walmart ($20)
Boulder Pack Foldable Backpack at Amazon ($17)
And remember, if these prices are unaffordable to you, you can always make use of items in your own home. Although perhaps not as comfortable, I have done day hikes using draw strings or smaller school backpacks.
WHAT IS ‘LEAVE NO TRACE’?
Leave No Trace (LNT) is a guideline of minimum impact practices for anyone visiting the outdoors. The organization’s mission is to provide “innovative education, skills, and research to help people care for the outdoors.” For more information of what they do and their other projects, visit https://lnt.org/.
The 7 principles to minimize your impact outdoors are as follows:
Plan ahead and prepare
It is important to plan where you’re going and what you’ll need. Not only will this ensure your safety but will also help to ensure that damage to natural resources will be minimized as well.
Travel and camp on durable surfaces
This principle is in place to minimize damage to the land or waterways. Traveling off trail can cause damage to vegetation. Permanent damage can occur when surface vegetation or organisms are trampled beyond recovery. When vegetation dies, it often results in barren areas that can lead to soil erosion. Examples of safe camping locations can be found here.
Dispose of waste properly
PLEASE DO NOT LITTER. Plastic and trash is not supposed to be left in the woods and can be hazardous to various organisms.
As far as human waste, it is important where you go to avoid pollution to water sources. A more detailed guide to waste disposal in the woods can be found here.
Leave what you find
I know wildflowers are beautiful and you may feel the desire to pick one. A reminder I tell myself is that if I have this flower, the next person will not be able to enjoy it. And if all the 300 million visitors a year that National Parks receive take a flower, there would be none left.
Minimize campfire impacts
The demand for firewood and the potential dangers of campfires make them a less preferred choice. Small, compact stoves may be a preferable choice if you are through hiking or in the woods. Many campsites however, have designated fire areas. It is best to stay within those areas.
When we enter the woods, we enter the home of many different animals and plants. I like to think of it as if I was entering a new friend’s home. I would treat their home with respect, I would not force their pets to eat human food, I would respect their space, and not try to stress them out. I keep this mindset while I am hiking. I am a guest in this beautiful wooded home. Do not feed animals, respect their space, and treat their home with respect.
Be considerate of others
Share the trails, be mindful, and treat those you encounter with respect. Although not included in the LNT webpage, I also like to pull up my bandana/ mask while hiking during a pandemic when I see other hikers approach me.