The outdoor adventure world is a lot like golf.
A few years ago I decided to develop a better relationship with my father-in-law. He’s a top-notch golfer and I thought taking up the sport would give us something to talk about.
There were obstacles. Cost, for one. You can find second-hand clubs at any garage sale but using quality tools adds enjoyment to the sport. Costs also include specific clothing, accessories, and green fees. The public course nearest me charges seventy-five dollars for eighteen holes. Private courses are even worse, with initiation fees, forced use of caddies, minimum dining requirements, and yearly dues.
Golf has its own language, one that needs one-on-one explanation. Not the terminology—you can learn that anywhere. I’m talking about the subtle stuff: how to interact with your fellow golfers. The unwritten rules.
I felt awkward, out of place, and under-equipped. I was surrounded by people who knew more than I did, owned better gear, and spent all their time swapping golf stories instead of having more inclusive conversations. I realized I wasn’t having fun and never would.
Does that sound like an experience you’ve had in the outdoor adventure world? If so, you aren’t alone.
This should not be the case.
The greatest thing about the outdoors is it’s expansiveness, both physically and metaphorically. Our natural spaces should be the proving grounds of equality, the very opposite of golf. A golf course is enclosed. It has boundaries and a price tag intentionally designed to limit the people who use it. Golf courses are the playgrounds of privilege—huge swaths of open space set aside for the private use of people who can afford to play.
Total cost of this campsite plus the cast iron skillet: fifteen dollars. Fifteen bucks won’t get you very far on a golf course.
I think most of us do not want our chosen outdoor sport to mirror the worst aspects of golf.
Even a moderately priced “good” mountain bike will cost five-thousand dollars or more.
Walk into any cycling store and ask for help and watch as the employees try to keep contempt from flickering across their faces. “Used gear? I dunno, try Craigslist man. I sell new gear. Good rides in the area? Download an app, dude, I’m here to sell you a bike, not be your babysitter.”
The steel frame Raleigh Kodiak pictured here was purchased from Craigslist at a great value—but only because a lifelong cyclist invested time and energy into helping me choose a quality piece of used gear.
How about backpacking? As the sport becomes increasingly focused on ultra-lightweight gear, more and more average folks are getting priced out of quality equipment by white-collar backpackers who can afford cottage industry toys. Then there’s the social stratification of backpacking. Long distance backpackers are better than weekenders. Triple Crowners are more badass than thru-hikers. Off-trail expedition-style hikers—now those guys really have it figured out.
This pack, purchased at Wal-Mart, is perfect for a day hike. In certain kinds of outdoor circles it would be cause for embarrassment.
Skiing, hunting, surfing, fishing, climbing: all have isolated, cliquish cultures with increasingly expensive entry barriers.
So why does this matter?
A few reasons spring to mind. Those who spend time outside are happier. Folks from diverse backgrounds enjoying the outdoors together is good for the soul of our country. People ought to be able to recreate in amazing public places with the least amount of barriers possible.
Maybe the most pressing point? Climate change and the increasing destruction of our natural resources.
People struggle to care about abstract concepts. Climate change is not abstract. But it can feel that way, and the sheer scale and timeframe of it make it difficult to comprehend. Getting more people outside and enjoying themselves is the only way our country is ever going to come together on this issue before it’s too late. We have to create investment.
Golfers do not have the responsibility of mowing the greens. Someone else does it for them. We don’t have the same luxury when it comes to our outdoor resources.
So in the interest of stewardship, what can we do about the snobbery problem?
We Can Start at the Top
We in the outdoor media world need to better understand our country. On a recent trip with other outdoor writers, the Midwest was spoken of as a wasteland empty of both outdoor adventure opportunities and outdoor loving people. Both assumptions are false. The industry needs to be writing about Arkansas, Kentucky, and Ohio just as much as it writes about Colorado, California, and Washington.
Outdoor adventures abound across the entire country, not just in popular mountainous areas. This woman is on a winter hike in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, just outside of Akron, Ohio.
Additionally, those of us who write about gear can focus more on equipment that is reasonably priced but still effective. We also need to recalibrate what we view as “reasonably priced”. Gear guides should not cater only to those who can afford to drop ten thousand dollars at a time.
We Can Be Mentors
Instead of yelling at a stranger for dropping into your line, spend a few hours teaching her how to catch a wave. Irritated by a lack of trail etiquette? Host a group ride and teach. Explain the language, the culture, the unwritten rules. De-clique your clique and create an easier entry point. A bonus: spending a few days introducing someone to the fundamentals will only improve your own skills.
These climbers are taking a moment to help a beginner read a route in Hueco Tanks State Park, outside of El Paso, Texas.
We Can Spread the Wealth
Many of us upgrade our gear every few years, not because the old stuff was broken or worn out but because technology or design has improved our options. Instead of trying to recoup the cost by selling online, put your privilege to work by donating it to someone who needs it. How will you identify such a person? See the above point.
The Zaskar GT 26” pictured here is a sweet mountain bike. 26” wheels are no longer in fashion, but this ride has been a fantastic entry point into the sport. It was given to me for free.
We Can Reach Across the Aisle
Many outdoor adventure aficionados have an instinctive dislike for hunters and vice versa. But we have some major things in common: enjoyment of the outdoors, love of gear, and commitment to resource stewardship. Let’s start leveraging these common goals to affect real change in public policy. In today’s political climate it feels almost hopelessly naive to believe that such a thing is possible. But I choose to do this. You can too.
We Can Welcome Strangers
In talking over these ideas with some acquaintances, someone said, “This is all great as long as it doesn’t get more tourists in the area.”
Nods all around.
A common thought. The trails are too crowded. The parks are filled with trash. Our cathedrals are overrun by barbarians. I understand the worry, but none of the problems that crowds bring are insurmountable. The above steps can go a long way. Talking to each other. Explaining stewardship principles instead of picking fights or muttering under our breaths. Sharing in the wonder as humans, rather than dividing ourselves into tribes.
Those of us who love to play in the outdoors do not own it. But it is ours to steward. If we don’t, no one will.
The world is not a golf course.