Camping While Black

Camping While Black

I camp (and glamp). I hike. I kayak. I chase waterfalls. It’s my thing and I love that I’ve been introduced to this wonderful world of outdoor recreation. I’m still learning and becoming more immersed into this world and loving every opportunity I get, but there is one glaring element that can’t be ignored.

I’m often the only black person in a group or a conversation or space related to the outdoors or adventure travel.  Because of that, my experience and concerns are drastically different from those of my counterparts. No one wants to talk about it but we should. Without acknowledging the difference in experiences how can we ever hope to evolve and grow?

I came across an article about a Sacramento family that had a horrific experience at a campground in Nevada.  According to news reports, they were verbally assaulted with racial slurs and harassed by a group of white campers that did not like their presence there.  Things escalated and it is alleged that one of the white campers threatened the staff of the campground when they tried to intervene.

Allegedly, he then threatened the family, brandishing a shovel!  It sounds like scenes from a movie set in the Jim Crow days right?  Surely something like this wouldn’t occur to a black family camping in 2015?  Black Family Victims of Hate Crime

It can and it did.

As a black woman who is an avid supporter and advocate for encouraging African-Americans to experience the great outdoors, this one hits home for me.  My frustration, anger, outrage, and hurt abounds.  Having someone attack me or assault my family is a very real fear that weighs on me every single time I decide to go for a hike, or plan a camping trip with my son, or travel to a new destination.  However, I’m always cautious and I do take measures to protect myself and my family as much as possible wherever we venture.

As a woman, I’m often fearful about doing certain things alone and I take as many precautions as I can. However, as a black woman I have yet another set of circumstances to consider. I have to reconcile that as much as I love being in nature and seeing the world, there are those who whole heartedly believe someone like me has no right to be there — simply because I am black.

Fortunately I have never had an instance of mistreatment or racism at all when “camping while black”. (See Solo Camping Trip) We have gotten the occasional stare that may have lasted a bit longer than necessary but nothing beyond that, and certainly nothing that made me fearful or uncomfortable. For the most part my interactions with the outdoor community have been friendly and helpful.

Ok let’s be candid, maybe too helpful at times. You know, it’s the unsolicited help with a hint of disbelief or assumption that I couldn’t possibly know what I’m doing and it must be my first time. Saying hello and small talk is fine, but lingering to probe and question why I’m there is where friendliness becomes microagression and bias.

I’ve been around long enough to know that they mean well so while it may annoy me sometimes I generally accept their advice and go on about my journey.  Generally speaking, we just want to be treated like anyone else you ecnounter and not treated like you’ve spotted a rare game on safari.

An incident like what happened to the Sacramento family makes it very hard to persuade people of color to step out of their comfort zones to try a new outdoor activity, especially during this time where we are fighting to have black lives valued like everyone elses.

Even the circumstances of this event caused me to immediately question why the Nevada County Sheriff officers that responded to the distressed calls of the family found that brandishing a shovel as a weapon at women and children was not cause for an immediate arrest.  I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t pretend to know every law, however I’ve seen others be arrested for far less than that.

I can’t help but ask, if the roles had been reversed and this was a white family being harassed,  would an arrest have been made?  We can’t say for sure. However, I am happy to know that after further investigation criminal charges will be brought against the alleged perpetrator.

The effects of an incident like this can be even more far-reaching and damaging than just the immediate damage done to this family. One of the most disappointing things I read on the various online articles about the incident were comments that overwhelmingly questioned why this family would go camping in the first place.

black girl kayaking
Kayaking Myakka River State Park

This sentiment was expressed from readers of all races, including other black people.  People said things like, “See that’s why we don’t do outdoor stuff” or “Black people don’t camp anyway”. This negative stereotype that certain activities are not for us or off-limits to us is the very thing I’m fighting against.

Camping while black shouldn’t be this anomaly or strange occurrence.  Enjoying nature or traveling to a lesser known destination shouldn’t produce admonition and insulting commentary or worse, question your perceived blackness. No really, it has happened to me. I was told traveling to find waterfalls was a “white people thing” and I must not be a real black girl.  Needless to say, I had to set them straight.

I have found that one of the many reasons for this lack of diversity in outdoor recreation is simply fear.  We fear being the only one that looks like us and in my experience we usually are when it comes to doing outdoorsy activities. We fear how we will be treated by others who may think we don’t belong. We fear trying something when we don’t have friends to do it with.  We fear trying an activity or a sport where we have no experience.

Those fears plagued me through all of my 20s.  There’s just something about the clarity you get in your 30s and I decided that I would not miss out on doing things that interest me simply because it’s not common for someone like me to do them.

Listen to the Camping While Black Podcast Episode

However, since starting the Misadventures of an Outdoorsy Diva blog, I have found that the interest in the great outdoors DOES exist in our community after all. The more I shared, the more people expressed an interest in experiencing these activities with me.  I started to plan group outings with my local Facebook group, Adventure Is A Lifestyle, or offer suggestions for others trying to plan an activity.

Ironically, I found out that someone didn’t attend one of my events because she was worried about being the only white person. That’s really a shame because she missed out on a chance to not only have that experience but to meet some really great people and expand her view of the world.

I also joined other like-minded black outdoor communities like Outdoor Afro, Bucket List Beast, and Black Adventuristas and found black and brown folks of all ages, sizes, and backgrounds that share my love of the outdoors.

I would hate to see more black families deterred from experiencing outdoor recreation because of the fear of racism. In fact, I hope it has the opposite effect.  An ugly incident like the one that occurred in Nevada should be an impetuous for more of us to get out there and show everyone that we belong in this space too.

There isn’t a monopoly on the great outdoors. It is for all of us to enjoy.  I hope the family that had to endure this night of terror will not let this keep them from doing something they genuinely love and enjoy.  I pray they find the courage to press on anyway.

If hate and bigotry prevents people from experiencing all of the beauty and serenity and amazing experiences that await us in the world, that would indeed be a travesty.

lagoa do fogo
Hiking in Azores, Portugal / Photo Credit: Lauren Gay

Beginner’s Hiking Amazon Store

I know many of you will read this and think, wow I guess I never really considered how different the black experience doing things I take for granted as normal might be.  Here’s how you can be an ally:

1. Be friendly and welcoming when you see a brown face out doing an activity.  But try to withhold the unsolicited advice unless you see us doing something glaringly wrong or something that could harm us of course.

2. Invite your black friends out with you to try something new or just share about somewhere you’ve gone with them! If they say no, it’s ok but you tried. My love of kayaking and interest in visiting the National Parks is single handedly due to a former coworker of mine who showed me his pics and told me of his adventures and it really made me want to give it a try. He’s now one of my biggest supporters and readers and I really appreciate him for leaving that lasting impression on me.

If you don’t have any black friends then that’s a whole other posts. I can’t really help you with that. Broaden your circles!

3. Advocate for diversity in outdoor and travel advertising because both industries suck at that for the most part. Hey brands I’m looking at you!  I’d be a great kayak model!!!

4. Speak up and speak out if you see mistreatment of anyone at anytime. If you encounter someone being harassed stay with the person and try to bring them along with you if they are comfortable to get them to a safe place.

For those of you that frequent the outdoors what has your experience been when camping while black? Or frequent travelers of color, have you ever experienced discrimination because of your race, sexuality, or religion? Does an incident like this deter you or frighten you from continuing to go into those places where you are the only one that looks like you?

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22 Comments

  • Reply
    Kathy Dimont
    September 5, 2015 at 9:07 pm

    I hope that this incident inspires thousands of African Americans to go out into parks and forests and enjoy nature. The more common your visits become, the less likely it is that the occasional whiskey tango moron will feel justified in waving his racist attitudes around. You pay the taxes that support these places just like the white population; you deserve to enjoy it, to share it with your children, to make it a part of your routine recreation. Don’t let the fools win. Please.

    • Reply
      Lauren
      September 5, 2015 at 9:20 pm

      I agree with you 1000% Kathy. The more we are present the sooner the idiots have to come to acceptance. Thank you for reading.

  • Reply
    Danielle
    September 7, 2015 at 9:42 am

    When I met you I was amazed by the fact that you venture into the wild alone. I love the outdoors, but I’m not comfortable alone. Camping? I would sleep with one eye open! And the thought of running into psychos like the ones in that article… that was heartbreaking. I’d love to be as brave as you. Do you have any tips for staying safe?

    • Reply
      Lauren
      September 7, 2015 at 10:05 am

      Danielle that would actually make a really good follow up piece wouldn’t it?! Thank you for that idea. In general I always follow general rules of letting people know exactly where I’m going and checking in. I don’t bring attention to myself. I let the park ranger know that it’s me and my son and they usually check in on us more that hey normally would. I also have various tools to sound an alert and I always have a weapon on me.

  • Reply
    Nadeen
    September 18, 2015 at 11:09 am

    Excellent post Lauren! I am sad that this family experienced this and I agree there should have been an arrest. I hate stereotypes and I am glad there is your blog and other groups to dispel them and encourage our folks to get outdoors! I would love to return to Yosemite and visit other national parks to go “glamping” 😀

  • Reply
    Diane T. Wickles
    September 21, 2015 at 8:53 am

    It’s horrible, that family experienced such ignorance and stupidity! My family and I camp every summer and have luckily never seen any such incident. The only stupidity we run across is the people who camp only to party, get drunk, light off firecrackers at 3 am and swear at the top of their lungs. We no longer camp on the popular holiday weekends because of people like that.

  • Reply
    Nat
    June 6, 2018 at 2:29 am

    Great article! It took a lot of Googling and Re-Googling to find this! I am a black woman with a white partner and a dual heritage little boy! We love camping and the outdoorsy! Here in the UK there are so many beautiful places to enjoy!

    We do get stared at lots. I get stared at so much, with a look of confusion. I smile and say hi, and most people smile and say hi back. I accept that they are surprised to see a black face. Some don’t smile back. On a beautiful campsite in Wales, many would stare then give me a dirty look and turn away. Like I had invaded their haven. The most heart breaking thing was that not one of the children on the camp site would play with my boy. We loved that camp site but won’t return. (Nicholaston Farm.)

    Happy to say tha a holiday park in Devon called Cofton proved to be the most welcoming campsite. Within seconds more people had spoken to me the during my whole stay in Wales. The kids came and played with my boy instantly!

    I have left them a glowing review on trip advisor, but asked them to show the wonderful diversity of their Park in their brochure. The were honest and said they never really thought of it! We are returning this year!

    • Reply
      Lauren
      June 6, 2018 at 9:41 pm

      Thank you Nat for sharing your experience. I’m honestly surprised to know that even in the UK diversity in outdoor recreation is not the norm. I’m so happy to hear that you didn’t let a negative experience deter you from doing something you love with your family and I’m happy you found somewhere that is more welcoming! The more they see our brown faces the better!!!

  • Reply
    Josh
    August 19, 2019 at 10:23 pm

    I don’t want to deter anybody from camping despite what I am about to share. But I had a recent experience and I wanted to share. I went camping in a cabin because I am not really am outdoorsy person. I like hiking and it’s something that I can do during the day and go back to civilization. My son had learned about camping in school, so we wanted to go camping. I wasn’t crazy about it but I did it from him, since I never went camping growing up.

    We stayed one night in a cabin. I figured it would be a waste of money to invest in a lot of gear because realistically I am not going to camp on the regular. In the middle of the night, we woke up to a noise. It sounded like it was hailing outside for a brief period. I thought that’s strange and I told my wife to not worry. It’s probably nothing. Later, I hear another noise like someone is walking on the porch of the cabin, and I peak through the window to see what is going on. I am brave but not stupid. I am not going outside in the middle of night when something seems off. I don’t see anything but a couple of people riding a golf cart in the dark. Not sure if they were walking on the porch or not.

    It never hailed that night. In the morning, my wife goes outside and she finds a rock painted like a watermelon. I was offended. Both of us got bad vibes from that. I explained the concern about the painted rock and noise in middle of the night. The camp managers tried to make me out as a paranoid, over-reactive, or crazy person. This was after initially calmly sharing the concerns. The camp managers couldn’t care less and made it seemed like I was crazy for thinking it was disconcerting. After expressing anger after being marginalized for sharing those facts, we had a deep conversation about race and religion after the manager said of number of stereotypical things that showed a lot of perceived notions about what it means to be a black person that feels they were potentially mistreated. I don’t get angry easily but when you have someone talking to you like you’re stupid, then you are basically asking for someone to call you out.

    Basically, they thought I was perhaps attempting to tee up a frivolous civil rights actions against their camp or get something for nothing. I don’t even think it even registered how terrible they sounded when they attempted to portray a patron as some common con artist after sharing that they felt unwelcome on their campground. If it weren’t for religion, I am not sure I could have had a civil conversation because the managers were so condescending because they assumed any black person that had expressed any concern about potential discrimination was a racist and liar. The lack of emotional intelligence was baffling, especially in a service industry.

    Ultimately, I was disillusioned about the lack empathy in addition to the patronizing attiude, and who would feel comfortable visiting an area where the presumption is you are liar if you bring something to their attention and they don’t even want to hear it.

    I may go camping again but not anytime soon and definitely not where we went. I am definitely glad we went with the cabin because if something happened I have zero confidence that camp ground would had an appropriate response. Honestly, the response from the camp ground was more demoralizing that what the rock possibly meant. I shared something that appeared to hurtful and there was zero compassion. I might have well been talking to a rock. No pun intended.

    • Reply
      Lauren
      August 22, 2019 at 11:00 pm

      Josh thank you so much for sharing your experience and I’m truly sorry that your family had to go through something like this. I’m curious if you were at a private campground or something that was run by a state park or national park? In any case the behavior of the camp managers was completely unprofessional and this is exactly one of the main things that has to change to truly bring about a feeling of belonging and diversity in the outdoors. I would hope that this won’t be the last time your family tries to enjoy camping. Maybe a state park would be a bit more strict and take more care to make sure every patron feels safe and welcomed.

  • Reply
    Lorenzo Tyson Jr
    October 19, 2019 at 5:56 am

    I loved your artical, but i do have one question, which is your thoughts about hammock camping and have you or would you ever do it?

    • Reply
      Lauren
      October 19, 2019 at 10:27 am

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article Lorenzo! Thanks for reading. I have not tried hammock camping. I would definitely be willing to try but I’m not sure how I would feel about being that open to the outside. That part is a little intimidating to me.

  • Reply
    Lorenzo Tyson, Jr.
    October 19, 2019 at 10:56 am

    Oh ok, cool and thanks for your response. As for me, when I’m using a tarp, sleeping bag, under quilt, and bug net. I’m just as comfortable as sleeping in a tent if not more. An I think being off the ground is a bit of a plus. Only downside is that there not really made for two people to sleep in at the same time. An I do hope you give it a try.
    And again thanks.

    • Reply
      Lauren
      October 20, 2019 at 10:38 pm

      Ohhhh. With the tarp and the bug net I think I would be willing to give hammock camping a try.

  • Reply
    Lorenzo Tyson Jr
    October 20, 2019 at 11:50 pm

    Cool, and I think you will enjoy it, an now you just need to find somewhere to hang it up.

  • Reply
    Chrissie
    June 23, 2020 at 8:04 am

    I am on the verge of tears reading this. I am also a black single mom of boys and i LOVE being outdoors — camping, kayaking, hiking, the whole shebang. I have had a pit in m stomach trying to decide if it can venture out and really be the outdoorsy person that I want to be; the person I have been putting off being because it felt impossible. I’m over pretending and ready to get out there and live my best life.
    I’m looking forward to reading ALL of your work and following your adventures! Do you have other people in our community that you think would be helpful for me to know/follow/learn from?

    • Reply
      Lauren
      June 23, 2020 at 10:21 am

      Chrissie thank you for reading this and for sharing this! You absolutely can and should live the live you want. I look forward to see you live your best outdoorsy life. Send me an email and I’ll be glad to share some other resources for you. LaurenGay@outdoorsydiva.com

  • Reply
    Mahogany
    July 9, 2020 at 8:07 pm

    Lauren, my husband and I found your article just as we threw caution to the wind and got a camper. We are going all in and doing a cross country trip. Selling everything and taking the kids on the adventure of a lifetime. We were warry for obvious reasons, but you are confirmation. This is going to be awesome! I hope we cross paths one day. We are going from the DC area to Florida and then out west to Arizona. If you know of any cool spots please share!

    • Reply
      Lauren
      July 17, 2020 at 11:55 am

      That is amazing! Congratulations on this new adventure. Not sure if you have already come to Florida but definitely go to Crystal River area or some of the Florida springs in the north region. In Arizona, spend some time in Page, AZ and go see Horshoe Bend, Glen Canyon, and Antelope Canyon. If you are on IG please send me a message there so I can follow you and follow along your adventure. @Outdoorydiva

  • Reply
    Gary
    July 12, 2020 at 6:44 pm

    I loved coming across your website. You are so spot on with your insights and suggestions (and despite the idiots at that Nevada campground), you are the perfect spokesperson for AA wishing to experience more of the outdoors. Happy to help if I can. I’ll subscribe to the podcast as well. Thank you for sharing your passion with everyone – of all colors!

  • Reply
    Acer
    August 6, 2020 at 10:25 pm

    Thank you so much for writing this article. I am a young black woman about to embark on a trip out west (Coral Pink Sand Dunes, Antelope and Moab). My parents are not outdoorsy and are worried for obvious reasons. I was also acutely aware of my situation and how it differs from that of the white friends I will be traveling with. Your insight is incredibly helpful seeing as I have never done a trip like this, and have never been out west to that part of the country.

  • Reply
    Yale
    October 9, 2020 at 2:33 am

    I usually am overseas traveling solo and googling if it’s safe to go here as a black person or there…….. Now that C-19 has me stuck in the states I found myself becoming restless and needing to get out. I decided on a roadtrip and to do mostly camping as I had rented an SUV and made it nice and plush for me to snooze in. My first destination was Tucson and as I pulled up I remember that feeling of being aware of myself. It definitely hasn’t been easy navigating through this country as a solo black female. I have found more comfort while traveling overseas.

    I am currently searching campgrounds in UT with the emphasis on “Camping UT while black”, hence how I found your blog. This post that you wrote and me needing to google to find safe spaces def shows that it’s not an “us (you & I)” issue but a “U.S.”

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