Airfare to mountains: $800. Trekking gear: $900. Local lodging: $400. The cost to call yourself outdoorsy: priceless.
What does it mean to be outdoorsy?
When I asked a group of my friends to define what they thought “outdoorsy” meant, the majority of their responses ranged from, “people who like hiking” and “people who like to hike.” One person even said: “Being outdoorsy means that you can afford to access spaces that haven’t been urbanized.”
Hiking a mountain is outdoorsy. Camping is outdoorsy. Sitting in your local park? Not quite as outdoorsy.
The effort to make the American outdoor space more diverse is growing but the current rhetoric around the term “outdoorsy” is about as inaccessible as that 75 percent off Patagonia fleece at the back of an REI Garage sale.
Despite the vast landscape that the outdoors can offer, the term has come to reflect only a small portion of people who enjoy and recreate in the outdoors—and it continues to place an outsized value on expensive or exclusive activities as the “right” way people can enjoy nature.
Part of the reasoning behind this is comes down to marketing an idea to sell more products.
The term “outdoorsy” only began to rise in popularity around 2011, and it has not always been used to describe people who recreated in the outdoors. When we interact with the term online, one of the top searches associated with it is “gift-money.”
Due, at least in part, to marketers attempts to sell us outdoor products and monetize outdoor recreation, outdoorsy has become something that is most often attained through capital or fitting a certain look prescribed to us by advertising and popular culture.
Outside Online began to question the rise in prices in a recent article, and found that a lot of the answers to the price-hike came down to psychology: many consumers are willing to pay more and more to buy into a brand’s exclusive identity and expensive look.
On her wilderness blog Treelines, author Mandi Casolo sums up the new trend: “Unfortunately, “outdoorsy” has been seized by recreation consumer culture, crafted into a curated lifestyle that makes those of us who don’t own a Mountain Hardwear puffy, don’t live out of a van, and didn’t take a gap year in Patagonia, feel kind of left out.”
A way to make the space more inclusive can come down to how we use the language meant to describe it. We may not need an entirely new word for “outdoorsy”—but we all have stake in ensuring that the term expands its colloquial definition to be inclusive of anyone who wants to be a part of it.
During their centennial initiative, The National Park Service took aim at the way that we define outdoors through their “Find Your Park” initiative. The program challenges Americans to change they way they viewed the work “park”: your park can be urban, it can be mountainous; it can be listening to a talk about history or it can serve as a way for you to get exercise.
By reclaiming outdoorsy and broadening its definition and meaning, we can make getting outside and enjoying nature seem more accessible to more people. The term should include exploring the outdoors in a wheelchair-accessible environment. It should include communities who use their local parks. It should include anyone who sits outside to find peace and solace in the outdoors.
And if people see outdoorsy as inclusive of their culture and lifestyle, more people will feel empowered to venture out into local parks and push the definition further.
I most frequently engage with our outdoors, and with the Park system, through trail running. For me, being in nature, even if it is tucked within a larger urban environment (like a city park or a metropolitan trail), is a way to escape.
When I am on the trail, I don’t have to worry about my own ethnic ambiguity, or if I bought the right brands to identify with the space that I enjoy. When I am out there, it’s just me and the trail. I’m outdoorsy almost every weekend even though I’m not hiking the Appalachian trail or climbing a cliff face in Yosemite.
The irony is that we are allowing the outdoors to become an identity factor that is bought, sold, and marketed—and one whose core tenant is an escape from human systems, to find solace, and reconnect with the natural world.
So let’s stop buying into the commercial use of outdoorsy and begin using the term to define a wider expanse of activities. Let’s make sure that it covers anything from sitting in a garden at the center of an urban city to camping in the mountains.
Let’s make the outdoors a space where anyone–no matter their race, gender, physical ability–can feel welcome.
The graphics in this piece were created by the author, Mikka Macdonald.