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Report: New Outdoor Participants Were More Diverse in 2020—With Some Caveats

A new survey from the Outdoor Industry Association shows that newcomers to the outdoors during the pandemic boom were younger, more female, and more racially diverse than in the past.

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The pandemic brought a lot of new hikers, bikers, and paddlers into outdoor spaces in 2020. Now, a new report from a major industry group suggests that these newcomers were also more likely to be female, non-white, and from urban areas than the existing outdoor recreation community.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association’s New Outdoor Participant report for 2020, people who tried outdoor activities for the first time were about 9 percent more likely to be female and 7 percent more likely to be from an urban area. They were also slightly more racially and ethnically diverse, with 34 percent identifying as Black, Native, or people of color, compared to 29 percent of existing outdoor recreationists.

The outdoor recreation community is still disproportionately white. While a July 2019 estimate from the United States Census Bureau estimated that about three-quarters of the U.S. population is white, white people made up an overwhelming 95.3 percent of national forest visits between 2015 and 2019. For Black people, who make up 13.8 percent of the population, that figure dips to a microscopic 1.2 percent. Only about 38.5 percent of total visits were women. 

Stephanie Maez, the OIA’s managing director, says that the study validated what the OIA had already learned anecdotally through its Thrive Outside program: that more people from historically underrepresented communities are getting outside.

“We really see the value in understanding new participants,” says Stephanie Maez, Managing Director of OIA. “So we can…focus on how to increase retention and build on our work to increase access, particularly in diverse communities, to the outdoors.”

The catch: A lot of those new participants don’t plan on staying outside. About one quarter of respondents to the survey said that they didn’t plan on continuing their new activities, citing reasons like travel and family demands. 

To Sarah Murray, executive director of Women’s Wilderness, acknowledging the outdoors’ diversity problem is a necessary step to confronting it.

“I think reports and media need to recognize and call out that [the outdoors] is a place where groups with a certain identity have not always felt welcome or represented,” says Sarah Murray, Executive Director of Women’s Wilderness.

Last year, almost 50 percent of participants served by Women’s Wilderness’s programs were Black, Indigenous, and people of color; the organization also began offering programs specifically for queer youth. That sort of specialized programming can help include people in outdoor spaces that may have otherwise felt alienated. The OIA report found that one of the most frequent ways people learned of outdoor activities was by word of mouth. Targeting specific communities can help them spread opportunities to connect with nature to people outside of the outdoors’ traditional networks.

Murray points to the lack of representation in the culture of the outdoor industry and its assorted brands as another of the major barriers to inclusion. She emphasizes that boards of directors, program leaders, outdoor athletes on magazine covers, and other highly visible positions reflect an image that is overwhelmingly white, male, and stereotypically fit.

“Outdoor companies, nonprofits and land management stakeholders need to build cultures where marginalized people are included, respected, listened to—and paid,” adds Danielle Williams, the founder of both Diversify Outdoors and Melanin Base Camp, two organizations that connect people from historically underrepresented groups with nature.

Both Williams and Murray emphasize that the outdoors’ lack of diversity and inclusivity is a problem of both system and culture, one that will require a widespread shift in thinking. But there are ways to get the ball rolling in local communities.

The OIA report found that one of the major reasons for new outdoors participation was proximity: People who live closer to outdoor activities simply get outside more often, and there are fewer natural escapes in urban areas, which tend to be more ethnically and socioeconomically diverse. Supporting efforts to create more opportunities for participation in cities, like the City Parks Alliance, would help reach a diverse urban base.

Want to help make the outdoors more diverse? These organizations are helping lead the way.

More organizations and resources are available through Diversify Outdoors, a new coalition of digital media creators from underrepresented groups that are making waves in outdoor spaces.

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