Travel

How to Get Outside in a Way That Serves You

Outdoor equity activists weigh in on finding representation and community in Mother Nature.

Image by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Image by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Image by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

I get a special sort of feeling when I see a fellow Black person in a place I didn’t expect. Sometimes, that’s at a concert. Other times, it’s in Nordic countries. More recently, it’s been in nature-where thin, white, able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual, male adventurers tend to prevail.

The feeling is a mixture of many things: surprise, because, despite all expectations, there we are. Safety, knowing somebody who gets it is nearby if any bullshit goes down, as it often does. There’s also a fair bit of giddiness, a sense of instant connection (acknowledged via the nod). And there’s a tinge of bittersweetness, knowing it’s because it so rarely happens that the moment is cause for celebration.

If you’re from any group that falls outside of what we typically think of as the “outdoorsy type,” you almost definitely know the feeling. 

As we collectively unfurl from the fetal position and crawl out of the pandemic, the Great Outdoors seems like the ideal place to seek some much-needed relief and grounding. But for marginalized communities-who have been disproportionately impacted by the past year and a half, whether by the coronavirus or the climax of the United States’ long struggle with social inequalities-that reemergence comes with a litany of questions about who can comfortably enjoy and see themselves represented in outdoor culture.

Until recently, the visibility of plus-sized and queer people in the outdoors industry has been virtually non-existent. More than 25% of Americans (about one in four) live with a disability-and yet, holistic accessibility is extremely limited. And while people of color are expected to make up the majority of the US population within the next two decades, we are still noticeably absent in national parks; according to National Park Service data, just 23% of visitors identify as people of color.

Yet despite a culture of outdoorsmanship that often gatekeeps, a new generation of advocates and activists-including trailblazing (pun intended) collectives like Diversify Outdoors, Unlikely Hikers, Hello Ranger, Latinxhikers, and Disabled Hikers, among others-are uniting marginalized outdoorspeople for a common cause: spending time with Mother Nature in a way that embraces and uplifts their communities.

While it’s difficult to summarize the complex needs of dozens of disenfranchised communities in as many words, there are ways to make outdoor culture more inclusive for everyone. Whether you’re new to hiking and camping and don’t know where to start, or you’re an experienced nature-lover looking for a community of like-minded adventurers, here are a few ways to make the Great Outdoors a part of your life.

Photo by Henry Mullins
Photo by Henry Mullins
Photo by Henry Mullins

Don’t feel like you have to compromise comfort and safety to get outdoors

“All the things you fear when you’re going into a remote place are a sort of roadmap for your privilege,” says Ambreen Tariq, founder of Brown People Camping and author of Fatima’s Great Outdoors. “My biggest fear when I’m outdoors is not a snake. It is not a bear. It’s not a spider in my tent. All I’m trying to avoid is a white man attacking me.”

One of the most prominent limitations of marginalized outdoorspeople comes down to concerns about personal safety. Past experiences with harassment and bigotry-as well as widespread violence against marginalized people-are always in the back of Tariq’s mind, even when she’s trying to de-stress in nature. “There isn’t, like, a gate you pass through where you can leave all your baggage,” she says.

Brad and Matt Kirouac, the husband duo and co-founders of Hello Ranger, experienced similar anxieties during their years traveling the US in an RV. “We didn’t hold hands as much when we were on the road because we didn’t know [what to expect in] certain areas,” Brad says. Negative experiences, like harassment from a group of homophobic strangers during a trip to Wyoming, only reinforced those fears.

Photo courtesy of Hello Ranger
Photo courtesy of Hello Ranger
Photo courtesy of Hello Ranger

It’s shitty, but it’s true: people in some places will be more accepting of marginalized identities than others. And while that’s not okay, it is okay if you stick to your comfort zone in order to feel safe while you enjoy the outdoors

“The thing that gives me the most confidence and comfort in life is familiarity,” Tariq shares. “The more familiar I am with a space or setting or community, the more at ease I am. So that does dictate where I end up in life. That does dictate where I go, and the types of risks I choose to take.”

Know that your concerns are valid, and never be afraid to set boundaries. If the thought of a solo camping trip out in the wilderness makes you uncomfortable, start small and close to home. Many people don’t realize there are plenty of alternatives in their area-state parks, national forests, and national monuments, for example-where they can enjoy nature without worrying non-stop about placing themselves in harm’s way.

Matt Kirouac’s advice if and when you do decide to venture into the wilds? Try not to let your fear run the show. “There’s a balance of going in with mindfulness and self-awareness without suffocating yourself,” he says. “[You might need to take] that kind of precaution, but don’t let it deter you or make you afraid to be open to adventure and experiences in whatever way you’re comfortable with, in whatever way makes you feel safe.”

PHOTO BY CHERISA HAWKINS
PHOTO BY CHERISA HAWKINS
PHOTO BY CHERISA HAWKINS

Reconsider what it means to be ‘outdoorsy’

Social media and ad campaigns for outdoor gear may have us convinced that the consummate outdoorsperson should aspire to scale Mt. Kilimanjaro-but there are more realistic ways to frame “outdoorsiness” that don’t make anybody feel inadequate. If you’re struggling to overcome feelings of anxiety or intimidation, it may help to  reframe what qualifies as “getting outdoors.” Even things like an afternoon soaking up some Vitamin D in a local park or exploring a botanical garden count as enjoying what nature has to offer.

“For me, being outdoorsy is sitting outside with my family and having a carne asada barbecue by the lake,” says Adriana Garcia, co-founder of Latinxhikers.

“At the beginning, I wanted to do hardcore things. I would go on a five-day trek in Machu Picchu, or do intense backpacking every now and then,” adds fellow co-founder Luz Lituma. “But now, I’m like, ‘I’m outside, I’m grabbing my chair, and I’m sitting and enjoying the view.”

Photo by Elise Giordano
Photo by Elise Giordano
Photo by Elise Giordano

Due to their disabilities and chronic pain, Syren Nagakyrie has always had to take things slow when hiking. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. “I can’t go climb a 14k peak or go for long thru-hikes, so I have developed a skill at being able to appreciate what I can do, notice everything that’s around me, pay attention to the small things that I find on an outing, and draw meaning from that.”

Nagakyrie finds that one of the biggest barriers to entry for disabled outdoorspeople is a dangerous lack of information about accessibility. In fact, a related incident-in which they arrived at a trail only to encounter unexpected obstacles like steep stairs and drop-offs that left them frustrated and in pain-is what spurred them to launch Disabled Hikers.

“I’ve tried to talk to program managers or park rangers about my needs, and they just didn’t really understand. They thought, oh, well, then you just need a wheelchair-accessible trail. And that wasn’t what I was necessarily asking,” Nagakyrie says. Wheelchair accessibility as a blanket remedy doesn’t begin to cover the wide range of potential needs. 

“[We need to focus on] developing [guides] that take into consideration the broad variety of disabilities out there,” they add. Their upcoming book, The Disabled Hiker’s Guidebook, will be the first resource of its kind.

Instead of worrying about pulling off feats of strength and endurance, they encourage people-disabled or not-to appreciate quality over quantity: pay less attention to the number of miles hiked or peaks reached, and more attention to the small glimpses of beauty around you that you might otherwise miss.

Photo by Brie Jones
Photo by Brie Jones
Photo by Brie Jones

Find your people online

Jenny Bruso lived in Portland for eight years before she got around to visiting even the city’s most iconic natural sites, all of which were a short drive down the road-all because it seemed like there was no space for people like her.

“I had a disdain and an avoidance of exercise because I just associated [getting outdoors] with diet culture,” she says. “It was just always this young, cishet, white outdoor fantasy. And I really just needed to see everyday people getting outside in everyday ways.”

As a result, Bruso ended up spearheading Unlikely Hikers-an Instagram community that has united 120k outdoorspeople and counting, all of whom were after the same need. Social media’s also allowed inclusive groups like Latinxhikers, Brown People Camping, Disabled Hikers, and Hello Ranger to provide resources and support to thousands of marginalized adventurers.

While getting online might seem a little counterintuitive to getting outside, it may be just the confidence boost you need. Even if you’re just exchanging tips, stories, and questions in the comments box, having a sounding board with folks from your community and increasing your exposure to outdoorspeople who look like you can go a long way in making you feel welcome in the outdoors.

Find a hiking buddy-or two, or ten-who will meet you on your level

Bruso’s earliest forays into nature were demoralizing, to say the least. “I had a friend take me on a hike that was way too difficult for me. He thought that it was an easy hike, but it totally squashed my spirit and my body. So for a long time, I thought I didn’t like hiking.” 

It wasn’t until a few years later that she was able to rediscover her connection to nature alongside somebody who didn’t push her beyond her limits. “I was finally invited on a hike by somebody who was fully ready to meet me where I was-someone who just wanted to take me out into nature and not, you know, get ‘crushed’ by the outdoors, somebody who just wanted to be reverential in nature and show me what that was like.”

Now, that philosophy of meeting people where they are is the backbone of Unlikely Hikers group outings. The groups only move as fast as the slowest hiker. That way, nobody gets left behind or is made to feel bad about their skill on the trail, and everybody can instead focus on enjoying their time outside.

Bribe your friend group into a weekend camping trip, snag a close pal for a local hike or picnic, or seek out local hiking groups in your area on social media. And if there aren’t any existing meetup groups in your area, Jenny Bruso suggests taking matters into your own hands. “Make the thing that you want to see, if you have the ability. And if you don’t have the personal bandwidth to do it, there is somebody who does.”

“Whatever community that you want, they are there,” adds Bruso. “If you feel like you need it, there are other people who absolutely need it, too.”

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Tiana Attride is Thrillist’s associate travel editor. Please invite her on your camping trip, she’ll bring stuff for s’mores!

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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