How the pandemic diversified camping, one of America’s whitest pastime

My Indian father and Chinese mother thought the concept of camping was absurd. Born in the British colony of Malaya in the 1950s—living in simple wooden homes on stilts and showering outdoors among bullfrogs and snakes—they could imagine nothing worse than sleeping in a tent in the forest.

Looking back, I wonder if they were influenced by the subtle racism that permeated their childhoods. Under colonialism, they had been made to feel uncivilized and backward by their white rulers; they spent their lives trying to escape those labels. All this meant that I rarely spent time in nature growing up. Our holidays consisted of flying to cities like Singapore and Paris, away from trees and wildlife. I now wonder whether I missed out on something important as a child.

As a person of color, I am far from alone in feeling uncomfortable in the great outdoors. For decades, camping in the United States has been an overwhelmingly white pastime: As recently as 2012, 88% of campers were white, according to research from KOA, the largest system of campgrounds in North America. But we’re at a turning point. For the first time, the representation of campers is beginning to align with the demographics of the United States. In 2020, 63% of campers were white; 12% were Black, 13% were Hispanic, and 7% were Asian. Crucially, KOA found that 60% of first-time campers in 2020 were non-white.

How did this happen? The answer is complex. The pandemic is part of it. Camping is a safe, socially distanced way to travel: People who would never have considered sleeping outdoors under normal circumstances gave it a go last year. But even before COVID-19 hit the U.S., outdoor brands and organizations had been under pressure to become more inclusive and market to broader audiences. This year, finally, their efforts bore fruit.

THE MYTH OF THE “GREAT OUTDOORS”
It’s a strange irony that people of color have felt so excluded from camping, says sociologist Marya T. Mtshali, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. After all, historically, Black and brown people have had strong ties to the land. Mtshali points out that both Native Americans and enslaved Africans had ancestral knowledge about the natural world, including how to hunt and use herbs. For African Americans in bondage, the outdoors was a rare space for socializing; and later, free African Americans relied on the land for their survival and financial independence.

But European settlement in North America—which involved forcibly taking land from some people while forcing outdoor labor on others—made the outdoors dangerous for people of color. In the late 1800s, this colonization was framed as a brave act of conquering the wilderness—along with the Native Americans who inhabited it. Frederick Jackson Turner, a historian at the time, developed the concept of the frontier as “the meeting point between savagery and civilization,” along with the mythos of Americans as tough individuals who prized freedom and individualism. The myth of the frontiersman permeated pop culture at the time, embodied in figures like “Buffalo Bill” Cody and Kit Carson, who appeared in dime novels, comic books, and shows. In these stories, Native Americans were portrayed as villains who were often violently killed.

In the early 1900s, President Theodore Roosevelt used the wilderness as a backdrop for speeches and photo ops (often wearing Stetson hats) to promote his persona as a rugged cowboy and counter the image of him as an effete Harvard graduate. According to Dan White, author of Under the Stars: How America Fell in Love with Camping, Roosevelt took widely publicized hikes and camping trips, which associated him with a “fantasy version of an idealized pioneer past.”

When Roosevelt went on to establish five national parks and 150 national forests, these spaces seemed designed for white men who were “roughing it” in order to find deeper meaning in nature. And indeed, over the following decades, the national parks explicitly excluded people of color: Until 1964, many national parks in the United States did not admit people of color, while others were segregated.

The legacy of this racism endures. As recently as 2018, only 2% of national park visitors were Black. “For centuries people who looked like me were not welcome in outdoor spaces, whether by law or because it was coded through Jim Crow,” says Danielle Williams, founder of the blogs Melanin Base Camp and Diversify Outdoors, which help people of color start hiking and camping and push outdoor brands to recognize them. “So we just did not go.”

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My Indian father and Chinese mother thought the concept of camping was absurd. Born in the British colony of Malaya in the 1950s—living in simple wooden homes on stilts and showering outdoors among bullfrogs and snakes—they could imagine nothing worse than sleeping in a tent in the forest. Looking back, I wonder if they were…

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