What Does It Mean to be Outdoorsy?

Time outside looks a little different for everyone.

Editor’s note: REI believes that the outdoors should be a place where everyone can feel safe and be themselves. And we recognize that we have a responsibility—as a co-op, as individuals and as a society—to make that a reality. We’ve taken steps by launching a set of Product Impact Standards, outlining racial equity commitments and championing legislation that makes the outdoors more accessible to more people. But we recognize we have work to do in helping expand what it means to get outside. This is just the beginning. 

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It’s a sunny afternoon in April, and Poet Grayson is spending it the way he does many rainless weekdays in the Northwest: shooting hoops. Music plays from a phone, adding a soundtrack to the scuffle of sneakers on asphalt. The 20-year-old weaves among friends, shaking out his energy after a long day.  

Basketball is how Grayson has long enjoyed time outside. He grew up drilling layups with kids at local courts. These days, he hits the vast city park near his home twice weekly, linking up with childhood friends. They come for the trash talk and competition, but also for the stress relief that comes with being outside. For Grayson, it’s a break from balancing two jobs, school and college football. He relishes this time, choosing it over glossy gym floors any day.  

“I’m very outdoorsy. That’s why I picked this spot,” he says, gesturing to the nearby river and the grassy field hemming the court. “I like the scenery. I’m big with scenery.”  

Yet, there’s a delta between Grayson’s version of outdoorsy and the adventures the outdoor industry often depicts as recreation. For years, the industry has narrowly defined and measured what it means to be an outdoor participant. The Outdoor Foundation’s annual report on outdoor activities, for example, counts skiing, climbing and kayaking, but doesn’t consider sports like basketball. And that exclusivity can overlook experiences like Grayson’s and prompt people to wonder: Is this a place for me? 

Over the years, a predominantly white outdoor industry, which includes brands like REI, has shaped what it means to get outside, positioning recreation as something technical, rugged and aspirational, enjoyed most often by men in the backcountry who are affluent, non-disabled and white. Scan any outdoor magazine, website or social platform, and you’ll likely be greeted by a homogenous group of people exploring far-off mountains. There’s been little acknowledgment of those who get their fresh air at soccer fields or strolling through the nearby woods compared to peak baggers and big-wall climbers.

By defining recreation this way, the industry overlooks the myriad ways people have long enjoyed time outside—like Grayson’s biweekly visits to a local basketball court.

But experts argue that if the industry were to expand what counts as outdoor recreation, it could help more people see themselves as participants. That, in turn, could result in positive shifts, like encouraging people to invest in policies that protect natural spaces, said J. Drew Lanham, an ornithologist and professor of wildlife ecology at Clemson University.  

“We’re going to have to let people define what the outdoors is … rather than tell them that they, too, can be part of ‘our’ definition of the outdoors,” added James Edward Mills, author of The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors and a longtime professional in the outdoor industry.   

So, what could a shift in the industry’s approach to recreation mean for people and the natural places they love? And what could it take to make the change? 

How we got here

Reframing what it means to spend time outside begins with understanding who and what influenced today’s definition—and who has historically been excluded. 

Many of our perceptions about recreation date back to the late 19th century after the Industrial Revolution, when agrarian labor shifted to factory work and desk jobs. As workers, primarily white men, transitioned from manual occupations often tied to the social construct of “manliness,” they adopted outdoor hobbies such as camping, hiking and sport hunting, says Karl Jacoby, a professor of American history at Columbia University. These hobbies provided a way for them to preserve their masculine persona, he said. 

Former President Theodore Roosevelt further popularized this version of recreation by advocating for people to challenge themselves outside. He took part in his own adventures, like sport hunting and exploring the Adirondack Mountains in New York.  

Expansionism—and its roots in racism—also influenced how people thought about outdoor time. Beginning in the 1840s, Europeans came to the U.S. and staked claim to what they considered a new frontier—even though Indigenous communities had been living on and caring for this land for time immemorial. By 1890, following battles to remove Indigenous communities from the land, Europeans settled much of this territory. People suddenly needed a new way to feel like they were exploring “untouched” parts of the U.S., and recreation helped satisfy that yearning, Jacoby said.  

Racist policies and practices, such as segregation and the removal of Indigenous communities from land, have also contributed to who has been welcomed or excluded from the outdoors. For example, through the mid-1960s, Jim Crow laws banned people of color from gathering at certain parks and green spaces. And people have routinely appropriated Indigenous culture in their outdoor activities, including camping in tents or wearing Native regalia, Jacoby said. 

Today, recreation, as it’s been traditionally defined, continues to be enjoyed disproportionately by people of a certain race, gender and social class—namely, white, male, non-disabled and wealthy. In 2020, 72% of participants were white and more than half were male—a gender gap that’s remained unchanged for nearly a decade, according to data from the Outdoor Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), a trade group made up of outdoor brands and retailers, including REI. 

Access to green space is also disproportionately in favor of well-off, white families. In the U.S., about 70% of low-income communities live in nature-deprived areas. An analysis by The Trust for Public Land revealed parks that primarily serve people of color are, on average, half the size and used by nearly five times the number of people compared to green spaces used by majority-white communities. Environmental racism also poses a threat to BIPOC groups—for instance, studies have shown that historically underrepresented groups are exposed to significantly higher levels of air pollution compared to white communities. 

Put simply, Western, white culture has influenced much of today’s definition of recreation, which continues to be enjoyed most often by men and people with an above-average income.

That view of recreation—as a place for people to challenge themselves—hasn’t changed much in the last decade either, said Lanham, the ornithologist from Clemson. Many people today continue to treat the outdoors as a place to prove themselves. Among their pursuits, people set the fastest-known times, hike challenging trails and complete “first” ascents (though many peaks were likely first summited by Indigenous people). Likewise, today’s outdoor culture continues to predominantly market activities with significant barriers to entry, like skiing and mountaineering, compared to more accessible ones, like walking and basketball.  

Time in nature shouldn’t be aspirational, Lanham said. “It should be accessible.” 

Versions of outdoor time 

Beyond shooting hoops twice a week, Grayson hikes, swims, strolls through his neighborhood and visits taco trucks. He doesn’t hesitate when asked whether these activities count as outdoor time.  

“The simple things matter, too,” he says on a phone call. “Just going out walking around your neighborhood, walking around your community. Little things matter.” 

His experience represents one of numerous versions of outdoor time that exist.  

For Lucienne Nicholson, the outdoors has long been a place to relax. She grew up on a farm in northern Haiti, and her grandparents, both farmers, raised her to view nature as both a place of sustenance and a place to unwind. It wasn’t until she moved to the U.S. with her family at age 16 that she learned of a new way to enjoy time outside. People called it recreation, and it required gear and an objective.  

“You would never hear when I was growing up recreating in nature. You would hear being in nature,” said Nicholson, the executive director and founder of the New York-based nonprofit Inclusive Woods and Us, an REI partner. 

Being outdoorsy, as the industry defines it, is often an investment of time and money. The more you have of each, the easier it is to participate. Depending on the sport, hopeful adventurists must consider the price of gear, travel, lodging, passes, permits and clothing, among other things. People who recreated about once a month in 2019, on average, had a household income of nearly $74,000, according to OIA. To put this in perspective, the median income in the U.S. in 2019 was $68,703.   

The learning curve for many activities can also be steep. In many cases, a person learning a new sport must either know someone who can teach them the necessary skills or pay to attend a workshop or class. And depending on where a person lives, an activity may not be easily accessible. Spending time outside is easier for people who own a vehicle or live near safe, well-maintained parks and trails. But that’s not the case for every American—about 100 million people in the U.S. don’t live within a 10-minute walk of a park, according to the Trust for Public Land. Plus, much of the federal public lands people flock to are concentrated in the West. 

But what if we broadened our aperture? What if we viewed the outdoors as a place to relax and shoot hoops and read a book on the porch? Changing the narrative around what counts as outdoor time—prioritizing backyard play as often as backcountry treks—invites more people to acknowledge the innumerable ways they can and perhaps already do enjoy outdoor time. 

“Obviously, not everybody has a backyard, but more people have opportunities to do backyard than backcountry,” Lanham said. “[Expanding the definition] is an opportunity to go where people are. Not take them where you want them to be.” 

The importance of redefining participation 

Industry and media interpretations of the outdoors can heavily influence how and whether people see themselves outside, Mills said. If they don’t see similarities between themselves and the people partaking in outdoor activities, they may conclude nature isn’t for them. Mills can relate. As a Black man from Los Angeles, he rarely saw himself in depictions of outdoor activities. 

In his youth, Mills’ favorite activities involved a fishing rod and a hunting rifle. His family nurtured these hobbies. But even with this encouragement, media portrayals shaped his idea of an outdoorsperson. 

“I envisioned hiking boots and sleeping bags and tents and backpacks and national parks and distant remote locations and exotic environments,” he said. “That, to me, was what the outdoors was defined as.” 

Some outdoor groups have worked for years to make the outdoors a more equitable place. Organizations like Latino OutdoorsOutdoor Afro and Black Girls Do Bike are among those that have created space for people of color to come together outside, develop relationships, address challenges various communities may face outside and celebrate and inspire communities outdoors. It’s taken the rest of the outdoor industry—including retailers like REI—longer to catch up.  

But in 2020, more of the industry began opening its eyes to the impact and limitations of portraying a narrow storyline. 

The pandemic highlighted the benefits of time outside and the ways people could enjoy nature close to home. In the absence of indoor gatherings, people turned to urban walks, backyard play, patio hangouts and other local pursuits. In a special report published in 2021, the Outdoor Foundation, for the first time, acknowledged walking for fitness as an outdoor activity (though this activity doesn’t appear in its annual reports).  

Then, in the wake of increased social unrest sparked by the murder of George Floyd, many outdoor brands—spurred by collective pressure and urgency around the centuries-long fight for racial justice—pledged to be more inclusive, including in their marketing, hiring and product creation.  

The co-op announced racial equity commitments. Sierra Club apologized for the racist remarks of its founder, John Muir. And many other brands and organizations publicly acknowledged their shortcomings as predominantly white-led companies.  

But even with these steps taken, experts and some outdoor companies say there’s more work to be done. There are benefits to reframing what outdoor time looks like. 

Expanding notions of recreation could diversify the pool of people advocating for outdoor policies. For instance, it’s easier to explain the importance of protecting the environment or fighting a threat like climate change when people see how they’re connected to natural spaces, Lanham said. 

“Stakeholder growth means that more people have a say in policy on outdoor issues that aren’t just in Denali or Grand Tetons, but they’re in city parks,” Lanham said. “That perception of nature that is more inclusive gives people agency. It’s not just that sort of place that only people with that color skin or that brand go. It’s my every day.”  

It also makes room for more voices at the table. Traditionally, Westerners have viewed land either as a marketplace of resources or as a place of recreation, said Carolyn Finney, author of Black Faces, White Spaces: African Americans and the Great Outdoors. But this view overlooks other ways to interpret and enjoy natural places. For instance, Indigenous communities often use land for religious ceremonies, and yet, they have historically been excluded from conversations about resource extraction and land management. 

Of course, Finney warns that creating space for a broader range of outdoor experiences is more complex than changing a definition. And it doesn’t necessarily mean ridding the outdoor world of traditional activities like hiking. Finney herself enjoys treks in Nepal and visits to national parks. But change requires thinking differently about people’s experiences outdoors. 

Ultimately, rewriting what it looks like to spend time outside could open the door for more people to see themselves as having a relationship with nature—whether that takes the form of advocating to protect urban parks, summiting a peak or shooting hoops at a local park. 

“To bring nature home is important,” Lanham said, “and bringing nature home is not just making it those places that you’ve got to cross a continent to get to.” 

Editor’s note: REI partners with Latino Outdoors, Outdoor Afro and Black Girls Do Bike. Through this partnership, each organization receives financial sponsorship, in-kind benefits and support for events the organizations host, among other efforts.