Outdoor Gatekeeping: What is it and What Can We Do?
The activity of trying to control who gets particular resources, power, or opportunities, and who does not.
Related words and phrases:
Chain, infringe, limiting, muzzle, debilitating
Gatekeeping at its core
Gatekeeping can take many forms, but the most common is to limit information on trails to an “inner circle”. Only if you are an established outdoorsperson, know the right people, or live in the right place – do you deserve to know the details of this particular trail, park, or open space. Well, this doesn’t sound good - right? So, what is behind the push for gatekeeping in the outdoors, especially when those who are most excluded are historically underrepresented?
With social media platforms, particularly Instagram, bringing increased attention to parks, trails and open spaces in a beautifully artistic way, many are finding themselves anxious to recreate the adventures of outdoor influencers. Most North American park visitation has increased significantly. In 2019 parks in British Columbia saw five million more times the visitation than in 2014. Yeah – that’s a big number. Social media has made it easier than ever to discover exquisite outdoor spaces with some negative side effects to go along with it.
One dramatic example was seen in Lake Elsinore, California when a few Instagrammers with massive followings posed among the town’s poppy bloom. Within days, crowds formed to capture the same photo not only trampling the delicate flowers but causing traffic jams so bad locals in the small town couldn’t access their homes. In such a short time, the beauty that had drawn the crowds was demolished by those same individuals.
Another example comes from Max Patch Bald on the Appalachian Trail where campers left behind toilet paper, beer cans, and abandoned tents. During 2020 I bet they wished they could get that toilet paper back. In addition, so many new hikers found themselves in need of a backcountry rescue that teams found it hard to keep up. Locally at each of my last three trips to Hunter Creek Trail there has been a rescue in progress for someone not prepared for the exposed hike. As visitation increases, our beloved outdoor spaces take the toll from inappropriate use. This is where gatekeeping gets its claim. By limiting information for outdoor treasures to only those who know how to respect and care for our open spaces, we can protect those spaces.
What about everyone else?
Being outdoors is imperative to our health and well-being. Participating in outdoor activities can increase vitamin D levels, lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation, and boost life satisfaction. Shouldn’t everyone have access to this?
Surveys show that only about 2 percent of visitors to parks identify as Black or African American. Tourism scholars propose a few explanations for the limited numbers of minorities visiting parks including: limited economic resources, differing cultural priorities, and geographic proximity to the outdoors. According to Danielle Williams, founder of the outdoor diversity blog: Melanin Basecamp, the practice of gatekeeping contributes to the desire to keep public lands the purview of the usually white, wealthy enthusiasts who have historically been most able to access the outdoorsy life. Williams says the act of monitoring each other’s behavior in the outdoors is “participating in a system whereby Black, Brown and Indigenous bodies get over-policed in the outdoors, even though we suffer the most from environmental racism”
Is there a solution?
Creating access to the outdoors is the name of the game at the Parks Foundation. One of our members once told me our Trails Challenge program was like a starter kit to hiking. The outdoors and the benefits we gain is for everyone, not just those who are lucky enough to have been integrated into the community already. Introducing the community to the outdoors must be done in a thoughtful way that protects the land. Finding a balance between welcoming new outdoorspeople without destroying the very thing that brings us out.
I believe the more people we get into outdoor spaces, the more inspired they will be to steward those same spaces. As we spend time outside, we create a bond to the outdoors that makes us not only learn about but care for the environment. There are many things we have to consider at the Parks Foundation before bringing a group on a hike - such as - is the ecosystem sensitive, whose Indigenous land is the trail on, the length and difficulty of the rout. Providing a safe experience for both the people and the land while also respecting Indigenous customs and traditions is a top priority. This includes understanding that protecting sacred spaces is different than denying access to spaces due to privilege.
It is easy to just blame social media for destroying our outdoors through selfies and geo-tagging (adding geographical coordinates to media such as a photo, video, or website). However, social media can play a role in stewarding our lands while creating a positive impact – especially in encouraging diversity among adventurers. Groups like @UnlikelyHikers, a community of hikers who are “people of size, Black, Indigenous, People of Color, queer, trans and non-binary, disabled, neurodivergent and beyond” are working to change the definition of who is “outdoorsy” in the media. Vibe Tribe Adventures offers global outdoor recreation and adventure sports opportunities for Black, Indigenous, People of Color and Allies. Leave No Trace even established social media guidance on responsible posting. Finding a balance between protecting our open spaces while also encouraging access and diversity is challenging but oh so worth it.
Maggie Slepian (2021, April 4) The Internet-Age Struggle: How Can We Protect the Outdoors Without Gatekeeping?. Backpacker. https://www.backpacker.com/stories/essays/the-internet-age-struggle-how-can-we-protect-the-outdoors-without-gatekeeping/?fbclid=IwAR2EbeVwcrJcTYgsNzssZttxzUH-caQmvIUzqGKBP9M5FLon7Z_mVyg0-UU
Adrienne Matei (2020, June 11) Social Media, Overtourism and Gatekeeping: How Does it All Connect?. Explore https://www.explore-mag.com/Social-Media-Overtourism-and-Gatekeeping-How-Does-it-All-Connect
Unlikely Hikers. About. https://unlikelyhikers.org/about/ Accessed 2022, January 28
Leave No Trace. (2020, September 8) Social Media Guidance. https://lnt.org/social-media-guidance/
Tyler Moss (2019, November 18) The Geotagging Debate is Really About Gatekeeping in the Outdoors. Conde Nast Traveler https://www.cntraveler.com/story/the-geotagging-debate-is-really-about-gatekeeping-in-the-outdoors
Shaena Montanari (2019, December 5) Why Don’t You See More Hikers of Color in America’s Great Outdoors. The Hill https://thehill.com/changing-america/respect/diversity-inclusion/473069-why-dont-you-see-more-hikers-of-color-in-americas-great
About the Author: Heidi Anderson, Executive Director
Heidi has five years of non-profit and programming experience serving as Executive Director of the Children’s Museum of Eastern Oregon and the Panhandle Humane Society. She's incredibly passionate about TMPF's mission and her experience in managing educational programming helped the Students Stewards Program flourish since she began working here as AmeriCorps Program Director.