At a few minutes past 7 p.m., Jenny Bruso and Trevor McKee strode onto the stage. “Welcome to Queer Adventure Storytelling!” McKee told the packed one-room feminist bookstore-turned-community-center in Portland, Oregon. The space is home to a lending library; signs at the back read “Black Lives Matter”; “Stand with Standing Rock”; “Trans Rights Now.” Bruso explained the event’s new admission policy: Though no one will be turned away, donations of $3 to $5 are encouraged, while people of color pay nothing. “It might sound like kind of a strong statement,” she said, “but we know that spaces like this are often not inclusive.” She continued: “We’re looking at this event as an invitation for people of color — and all types of people — to participate in the version of what we see the outdoors as.”
Their vision appears online in the Instagram account Bruso created. Called Unlikely Hikers, it features photos and stories from underrepresented minorities in the outdoors. It’s part of a wave of social media accounts determined to broaden the notion of what outdoorspeople look like. In addition to reaching millions of Instagram users, the spotlight on diversity is galvanizing change in environmental policy as well as outdoor retail.
Bruso, a Portland resident who identifies as a fat, queer woman, was tired of seeing the same type of person in outdoorsy ads and social media. “The person is always white; if it’s a woman, her hair is cascading down her back, and they’re very young and thin,” Bruso said. “It’s always someone who looks like they’re effortlessly there, like they didn’t get their entire ass kicked by hiking.” Unlikely Hikers is an antidote to that: a climber perched on a rock gym, wearing a hijab and tape over her amputated right arm; a black Denali National Park ranger with his mom, who took her first plane ride to Alaska to go on her first hike; a selfie of Bruso in a rain jacket, drenched and unsmiling.
Though underrepresented minorities have always been active in the outdoors community, social media has amplified their voices and carried them into the mainstream. Two years after Bruso started it, Unlikely Hikers has over 40,000 followers, and nods from companies like REI and Columbia. Dozens of other new accounts have popped up, featuring queer and trans mountaineers, fat hikers, Indigenous boulderers and Latino/a ice climbers. Earlier this year, Unlikely Hikers and 23 other groups formed Diversify Outdoors, a coalition of social media influencers promoting diversity in the outdoors.
Collectively, the accounts command hundreds of thousands of online followers, along with in-person meet-ups and festivals. “Little by little, we’re doing the ongoing work of reframing the way we’re thinking about the outdoors: who it affects, where funding should be going, how to work towards policy,” said Michael Estrada, founder of the Brown Environmentalist Media Collective, which is part of Diversify Outdoors.
That reframing involves more than just showing that underrepresented minorities enjoy the outdoors; it’s also about challenging the values of the dominant outdoors culture. For instance, it’s common for outdoorspeople to share stories of “conquering” a mountain or “crushing” a boulder problem — language that makes Bruso uncomfortable. “We’re talking about the land like it’s our playground, but people were displaced for it,” she said. Bruso prefers to identify areas by their current names and as territories of the Indigenous people who lived there before colonizers displaced them. Hundreds of users have adopted the practice in their own posts, using hashtags like #thisisnativeland, #whoslandareweexploringon, and #publiclandisnativeland.
That shift extends to policy, too, with Indigenous voices getting more weight in the movement to restore the original boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument. “You see a lot of people asking the five Native American tribes who reside there for their perspective,” said Jaylyn Gough, founder of Native Women’s Wilderness, also part of Diversify Outdoors. “Patagonia waited until the tribes sued [President Donald] Trump, out of respect — like, ‘This is your land, and we understand that.’ ”
Online discussions have also spurred outdoor retailers to expand their offerings. Last year, REI committed to improving gear for women and people of all sizes; stores now offer plus-size options from companies like Columbia and Kuhl and may soon do so for their in-house line. “That can only be because of the outcry of people on social media finally being able to air their grievances in public places about not being able to find clothes that fit them, or how they can’t find clothes that aren’t pink or purple,” said Bruso.
Now, leaders like Bruso are looking to bring other voices to the forefront. At Queer Adventure Storytelling, a portion of the door fees goes towards outdoors leadership training for Mercy Shammah, founder of the group Wild Diversity, which helps people of color and queer people get outdoors. The night’s success means more money for that work. “And we need leaders like Mercy so bad,” Bruso said.
Jane C. Hu is an independent journalist who writes about science, identity and the outdoors. She lives in Seattle. This story was produced and published by High Country News. Photos (top): Lulu (@aviladanka) in Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah; Miguel (@mgutjr) at San Jacinto Peak, California.