Closing the adventure gap: Women of color are reshaping the outdoors travel industry

Meet three women who had to become their own role models

In June of 2017, Grace Anderson biked 161 miles alone from Lander to Jackson, Wyoming—a state with a population that is 84 percent white and 1.3 percent black. As she paused at each rest stop along the way—the only black woman at every point—she was reminded of a phrase she saw once at a coffee shop:

Your existence is radical.

“Just riding alone as a black woman, covering this much ground in a state that never expected to see me on a bike—that’s something I’m really proud of,” Anderson told me.

As a black woman, Anderson has had to spend a lot of energy navigating racial dynamics in her daily life. Cycling in the outdoors is one of the few places where she feels completely free. In a recent Instagram post, Anderson wrote:

What makes you feel most in your body? … For me, it’s while I’m on a bike.

When I’m sailing down a 18% grade beside the ocean. When tapping my brakes just light enough to remind myself that they work and I won’t plunge into the ocean. When I feel the wind whipping past me so fast that I feel like I’m flying.

So many things disproportionately impact me and other black folks. Enough that I sometimes feel without agency in my own body. So this year, I’m chasing black joy.

Grace Anderson and her bike.
Grace Anderson and her bike. | Photo courtesy of Grace Anderson
Grace Anderson is "chasing black joy."
Grace Anderson is “chasing black joy.” | Photo courtesy of Grace Anderson

Her Instagram account displays photos of her biking among cacti and sandstone peaks near Red Rock Canyon, posing in her rock-climbing harness in the Wind River Mountains, and cozied up in her sleeping bag with snow-covered peaks behind her. Just last week, Anderson posted a photo of herself camping among the boulders in Joshua Tree National Park, with lines from a poem by Nayirrah Waheed: “Black women breathe flowers, too.”

These images send a powerful message: Women of color are allowed to have just as much fun and freedom outside as anybody else.

Historically, this has not always been the story told. Narratives about adventures in the outdoors almost always centered around the experiences of white men: Henry David Thoreau went into the woods “to live deliberately” and “not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Edward Abbey reflected on solitude in Desert Solitaire. Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild left his overachieving past to camp alone in the Alaskan wilderness. Hatchet. Into thin Air. Between a Rock and a Hard Place. The list of adventure books featuring white, male protagonists goes on and on.

These narratives all implied the same thing: Only men inherently sought after moments of adrenaline and adventure. Only men needed moments that made them feel alive—and free.  

These narratives all implied the same thing: Only men inherently sought after moments of adrenaline and adventure.

Women of color like Anderson are now challenging those stereotypes. In the last few years, many other women of color have staked their claim in the outdoor industry, creating groups and organizations that give them more visibility. Groups like Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors, Brown People Camping, Native Women’s Wilderness, Unlikely Hikers, Black Girls Hike, and many others have all helped people of color connect over their shared love for the outdoors.  

Meanwhile, other women of color and activists are getting on board. In 2017, Brittany Packett, a vocal leader in the racial justice movement, published a photo of herself riding a bicycle in the mountains along with an essay that also reflected on black joy: “I choose to exhibit a full range of emotions in a world that wants to make black women two dimensional. I choose joy because I’ve been told all black girls get is pain.”

The “don’t loop”

In a media landscape inundated with negative imagery about people of color, these women contribute a much-needed reminder: Prioritizing joy is yet another way of fighting against racial inequality. At the same time, they are slowly closing what African-American outdoorsman James Mills called the “the adventure gap”—the wide disparity in representation for people of color in the outdoor industry.

Research by Carolyn Finney—author of Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors—found that in issues of Outside magazine published between 1991 and 2001, only 103 (or roughly two percent) of the magazine’s 4,602 pictures of people contained African Americans. This creates what John Robinson, a black former Forest Service biologist, called the “don’t loop”: “People of color don’t (insert activity) because people don’t engage in an activity in which they don’t see people like themselves.”

For those who hold marginalized identities both as people of color and women, there are even less examples to look up to.

Anderson understands on a deep level how lonely that feeling can be. As the director of this year’s PGM ONE Summit—an annual gathering of professionals of color who work in the environmental and outdoor movement—she has seen how personally meaningful it can be for people of color to know they’re not alone in loving the outdoors.

Last year, in the middle of the conference, an older Southeast Asian woman came up to her, hugged her, and started to cry. She told her, “I didn’t know how much I needed this.”

“I started crying then too,” Anderson said. “I didn’t know how much I needed it, either.”

Anderson hopes the Summit continues to send a bold message to the industry that they can no longer ignore or erase the presence of people of color outside.

“So many people in the outdoor industry do a great job of telling us ‘You aren’t out there,’” Anderson said. “PGM ONE does a good job of saying, instead, ‘We are out here, we have been out here, and now we’re all in this room together. It’s been so beautiful to watch.”

Miho Aida at the Grand Canyon.
Miho Aida at the Grand Canyon. | Photo courtesy of Miho Aida

Turning outdoor into a career

Growing up in Tokyo, Miho Aida had to become the example of a woman adventuring outside she had never seen. As a kid, she lived in an industrial area next to a paper mill, surrounded by pollution. One evening, when she watched a BBC documentary on the U.S. Park Service, she became fascinated. She had no idea people could make a career out of working in outdoor spaces. In that moment, she resolved to take a year off to explore the national parks of the United States.

“No one told me to follow my dream, so I had to tell myself,” Aida told me.

In 1993, she arrived in the U.S. and bounced from one adventure to the next: She helped a family run a ranch near Bozeman, Montana. She enrolled in Western Wyoming Community College in Rocksprings, Wyoming to improve her English and take more courses in geology. She went camping through Glacier, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton national parks. Later, after deciding she wanted to immerse herself more in Jackson, Wyoming, she posted an ad in the local newspaper offering to make Japanese food and take care of children in exchange for free housing. She ended up working with a family in the town for the next two months.

“No one told me to follow my dream, so I had to tell myself.”

After her experiences in the United States, when she returned to Japan to complete a Ph.D. program, academia began to no longer feel relevant. In the last year of her Ph.D., Aida decided to quit and move back to the U.S. She enrolled in the Teton Science School in Jackson, Wyoming to become an environmental educator. She eventually joined the organization NatureBridge and has been working there ever since.

“To me, it was my American dream,” Aida told me. “To grow up in a place without access to nature, and end up living and working in the mountains.”

Overtime, Aida began noticing that in the U.S., she rarely heard stories of indigenous women in the bigger conversations about the environment. So in 2013, she decided to travel to the southern edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska to interview people of the Gwich’in Nation. She ultimately turned her interviews about the 30-year fight to protect ANWR’s lands from oil into the short film The Sacred Place Where Life Begins: Gwich’in Women Speak. The film won multiple awards in festivals, and Aida has taken it on a bicycle film tour for over 2,500 miles across the country since 2014.

Miho Aida surfing
Miho Aida surfing. | Photo courtesy of Miho Aida

Through her ongoing media project ”If She Can Do It, You Can Too,” Aida hopes to continue using film and storytelling to present more images of women of color engaged in the outdoors, so that others’ experiences may be less lonely than her own.

“Moving here was probably the most difficult thing I have ever done,” Aida told me. “But then at the end I thought, ‘If I don’t do this, what’s going to happen to the other girls that look like me? They won’t believe they can do it either.’”

Finding your own path is a protest

The day Marinel de Jesus found out her mother had passed away, she suddenly saw a clarity about the direction of her life that she never had before.

“It was a mortality wake-up call,” she said. “I decided I was going to stop waiting for a mentor or model; it was just going to be me.’”

At thirteen years old, de Jesus’s family had immigrated to the United States from the Philippines in search of a better life. Though the U.S. provided her with many opportunities, she still never felt like the country fully welcomed her or allowed her true agency. She recently described her relationship to the U.S. in a Facebook post: “America invites you to the dinner dance party. It allows you to eat. And dance. But it doesn’t allow you to decide on the music they play.”

Once in college, de Jesus studied law knowing it would provide her family with financial stability. But meanwhile, her passion for the outdoors steadily grew. She started by doing local hikes near D.C. to decompress after work. That progressed to short backpacking trips in the mountains nearby. Then, in 2014, she took a year off from work to travel across twenty-one countries—hiking in places like Mongolia, Southeast China, Thailand, Albania, and the Canary Islands.

Marinel de Jesus in the Appalachian Mountains.
Marinel de Jesus in the Appalachian Mountains. | Photo courtesy of Marinel de Jesus

“They say if you go away for six months, that’s vacation. But if you leave for longer, things begin shifting in your mind,” she said. “For me, before I started my trip, I thought maybe a year of travel would get hiking and trekking out of my system. But instead, it actually solidified that it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

When her mother passed away, de Jesus had entered her fifteenth year working as a lawyer in D.C. and was on track to become a judge. Though she appreciated the social impact of her work, she still felt a sense of “misalignment.” On the topic of questioning her career, she wrote: “It wasn’t about wanting more out of life. It was about coming home to myself.”

“I thought maybe a year of travel would get hiking and trekking out of my system. But instead, it actually solidified that it was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

Within months, she left her law practice as a prosecutor, sold her house, and moved to Cusco, Peru to pursue her dream of starting her own trekking business. De Jesus saw her decision as challenging the limited narratives offered to immigrants in the United States.

“As immigrants, we are drilled to focus on surviving, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re happy,” she told me. “I hated the idea that immigrants are only allowed to survive. We can go above and beyond that.”

In Cusco, de Jesus now lives in an apartment with a view of the Andes outside her window, and she runs her business from home. Her trekking business—Peak Explorations—has a mission of creating more inclusive trekking tourism experiences that address the inequities women and indigenous communities face in the industry. Through her time trekking around the world, she began interviewing porters on hikes about their work experiences. Their stories gave stark examples of work discrimination: Many porters often carried far over the maximum weight suggested for trekkers. They were given meager meals mostly consisting of rice, and lacking the protein and other nutrients needed to sustain the physical exertion of the trip. They often slept in the dining tent used for meals that had no floor, and thus flooded quickly whenever it rained.

Marinel de Jesus at Inti Punku, Peru. | Photo courtesy of Marinel de Jesus
De Jesus on the Huchuy Qosqo trek.
De Jesus on the Huchuy Qosqo trek. | Photo courtesy of Marinel de Jesus

Through research, de Jesus realized these inequities were common in trekking industries across the world. She now intends to use her work to create best practices for the industry as a whole. De Jesus is also a part of the coalition Diversify Outdoors, which aims to bring together leaders in the outdoors space to promote diversity and inclusion throughout the industry.

After twenty years of following a conventional path, de Jesus now sees her life as going against the ways immigrants in the U.S. often define success.

“If I had stayed working as a lawyer, I would have just been following the typical path of an immigrant in the United States—giving up their dream to do what brings the most money,” said de Jesus. “I think of my life now as a protest to a lot of things. Living my life, I want to show there are other ways to be successful.”

A new narrative

Anderson, Aida, and de Jesus have not only helped shape different narratives about women of color in the outdoors. They have also found ways to use their outdoor experiences as a tool for creating greater social change throughout the industry. But as more women of color use their love for the outdoors as a springboard for inspiring social justice work, Anderson still strives to remember the greater message: Joy itself is a radical act.

Last March, she remembers a group trip she organized for girls of color with GirlVentures. Before the trip, Anderson and her co-instructor had planned a strong curriculum about power, privilege, and race to share with their students. But once they arrived at the camp, they witnessed the girls instantly transfixed by catching lizards and frogs by the river.

“All we could hear were their giggles and laughter. All they wanted to do was catch frogs all day,” she said. “As I watched them with my co-instructor, we realized: They probably don’t get this opportunity very often, to be in a safe space, to just laugh and be in their bodies.”

“They probably don’t get this opportunity very often, to be in a safe space, to just laugh and be in their bodies.”

On this same trip, just moments later, while waiting in line for the bathroom, a stranger reprimanded one of the young Latinx girls for speaking Spanish.

“That moment made me realize we didn’t need to bombard these kids with a curriculum on racism and privilege. They already know it; it happens to them every day,” she said. “But what they don’t have every day is perhaps a space of just laughter and release.”

Anderson and her co-instructor then decided to change their curriculum entirely. In a society still so centered only on the pain of women of color, the existence of these girls having fun outside with lizards and frogs was indeed radical on its own.

“Just showing up in these white spaces and having the time of our lives—that feels like enough.”