Hiking is for Everyone – or is it?

Ever since I went on my first long-distance walk, the Hadrian’s Wall Path in England, I have been wondering: “Why am I only bumping into other white folks?” In most British cities, there was a vibrant and colorful diversity of ethnicities and origins, yet out on the famous trail, everyone was Anglo-Saxon (and me German).

I have since had similar experiences on other long-distance paths or in national parks in the UK, the US and in Europe.

This could be put down to coincidence, if there weren’t many other hikers asking the same question. I was reminded of my own observations when I listened to an interview with Rahawa Haile on NPR. She had hiked the Appalachian Trail – and encountered a disproportionately low number of fellow African-Americans.

But her explanations didn’t satisfy me. I don’t think that memories of slavery and Jim Crow laws plague many people when they have to make a decision about where and how to vacation in 2017. In any case, this wouldn’t explain the absence of Turkish hikers in Germany or of Indian hikers in Scotland compared to their share of the population. Not all global phenomena can be explained by US-American history.

Nor can most things be explained by one cause alone.

Economic disparity certainly plays a role. Although hiking itself is free and the equipment costs less than a mobile phone, people struggling with several minimum-wage jobs and living in constant worry about being evicted won’t take off a few months to wander through the wilderness. Ethnic minorities are over-represented among the poor, so this may account for some of the lack of Latino and African hikers. But I am not even talking about these long hikes of the Pacific Crest Trail or such, I am more concerned with shorter adventures of one or a few days.

Although I am generally big on economic factors, I wouldn’t discount cultural factors either. Olaleye Akintola, a Nigerian journalist who moved to Germany in 2014, recently wrote that he doesn’t understand why Germans go camping and hiking. “Why do people leave their clean and safe houses and sleep in their cars, in tents or in drafty mountain huts as if they were vagabonds?” For him, sleeping outside is a step down, not something to aspire to.

This goes hand in hand with the economic situation. Maybe one needs the secure middle-class background to find a lack of comfort exciting and not perceive it as a threatening memory of the past, whether it is one’s own or one’s family’s. Also, if you already live in a leafy suburb, you are emotionally closer to the outdoors than if you live in an inner city. Just as suburbans would be afraid of going to downtown, inner-city kids may be more afraid of bears.

Speaking of bears, I remember an anecdote that perfectly illustrates different perceptions of danger. As any hiker knows, bears are no real danger and definitely less of a danger than humans. It is rather rare that you see them. I have tried and I only managed it once, in Romania. Also in Romania, I met a refugee from Syria who hosted me on Couchsurfing. When I asked him if he had been out to explore the beautiful mountains and forests of Romania, he replied: “No way! There are bears.” Here was a guy who had escaped war, bombings, oppression and dictatorship, but he associated the peaceful forests of Europe with danger and death.

Particularly with first-generation immigrants, I often sense that they feel under pressure to lead a life that they can show off to those left in their home country, thus justifying the emigration. Apparently, photos of fancy apartments, big TVs and cars or huge weddings are more impressive in India or Turkey than a photo of the son freezing in a sleeping bag. (“If all you wanted to do was freeze your ass off, you could have stayed outside in the garden,” you can hear the nasty grandmother bitching.)

Maybe cultural heritage plays a role, too. White Americans have cowboys and trappers as role models, Australians worship escaped bandits living in the wilderness and Germans have read the books by Karl May. Latinos on the other hand, and overly stereotyping, have telenovelas, Indians have Bollywood and Persians have wine-drinking poets. (I don’t know anything about Asian cultures, but I have repeatedly read that they are the second-largest group on hiking trails in the US.) And maybe some non-white groups are not quite as big on individualism and value family, friends and community higher than proving to oneself the ability to walk 1,000 miles through the desert?

Another contributing factor may be advertisement. In almost all ads for outdoor equipment, everybody is white. There is even more advertisement directed at seniors, children and dogs than at ethnic minorities.

JW UK.JPG

Actually, come to think of it, the only TV ads showing black people with outdoor equipment are those asking them to sign up to die “for their country”.

Now, I don’t think that everybody should go hiking. But I do think that hiking is such a wonderful, uncomplicated and affordable way to escape one’s daily routine, to get away from the stress, to build confidence that it’s sad if certain parts of the population were excluded, felt excluded or were to exclude their children from it based on race or class.

Particularly for recent immigrants and refugees, many of them with traumatic experiences, I would think that spending a week or two in nature will help to foster calm and confidence better than staying in overcrowded shelters. US military veterans are using hiking to overcome post-deployment stress. I think it would do some good to someone who escaped war and survived a boat ride through the Mediterranean, too.

Hiking through the wonderful nature of one’s new home may even lead to a greater sense of belonging than an integration course in which people have to learn all 50 state capitals. (As always when I have a good idea, some research reveals that it has already been done: two Afghan refugees walked 1,000 km through Switzerland.)

Lastly, I should caution that all my observations are unrepresentative. That’s why I am curious to hear about your experience. And of course there are always exceptions, and nothing can be generalized, as my Iranian hiking partner on the West Highland Way in Scotland demonstrated.

Maryam and Andreas lake.JPG

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About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a journalist, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in Germany, Military, Romania, Statistics, Travel, UK, USA and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Hiking is for Everyone – or is it?

  1. gabe says:

    My mom, a German from Russia, told me that she never survived Siberia so that her daughter could freeze in Canada (I hiked daily, delivering mail for some years in spite, or maybe because, of having 3 degrees). I don’t think she ever forgave me for my interest in literature…Brotlose Kunst, (bread-less art) she called it. She frowned upon physical labour, especially for a woman, while I loved it. My youngest daughter just finished hiking on Vancouver Island…solo…for a number of days and I encourage her treks. I’ll have to ask her if she saw non-whites hiking.

    • Thank you very much, especially for that personal history! Apparently, people who underwent real physical hardship don’t want to do it again “for fun”, even if only for a few days, which is understandable.

      I am also curious to hear about your daughter’s trek, particularly because Vancouver itself is quite multi-ethnic, I believe.

  2. As an Indian who occasionally walks in the mountains in India, but almost never in Europe I guess I could add a perspective. When I plan a holiday in India I look for something different from my daily life: this takes me to jungles, mountains and islands as often as monuments, museums and cities. When I go to Europe the visits are short and already different enough from my everyday life. Last month in Spain I had to decide at one point whether to visit the homes of Garcia Lorca or cycle through the Sierra Nevada, and I decided on Lorca, and didn’t regret it. I can cycle through mountains elsewhere, and I won’t do it when the temperature is 40 degrees (as it was that day).

    • But in Europe you could see bears! ;-)

      More seriously, thank you for that input! That’s a good point about visiting something which is more different from home, although I was less thinking about tourists and travelers in my article, more about people who take some time off to explore their own country/region.
      I guess I personally always have so much time and simply such a strong preference for nature that I try to go into the mountains or on other walks wherever I go. (I would definitely do that in India where the cities would probably be too crowded and loud for me. ;-) )

      But your comment also brought another thought to my mind: in the US, many people only have two weeks of holidays per year. In that case it’s understandable to want to do something more “special”. But then, on the other hand, I don’t know why many people just sit by the beach for these two years (not only in the US).

  3. Diana says:

    Andreas I hope I am not reading to far into your question and I hope noone is offended by my view but here is my perspective… As a southern black woman raised in Germany for 20+ years on and off (and now living here permanently) I have become conditioned to not really seeing other people of color (not just black) when I do certain things. When I am stateside I mostly live below the Mason Dixon, so wherever I go I see people who look like me. I grew up as a military brat so I was used to being in schools with kids from all backgrounds. It was not until I was an adult, my blackness was constantly questioned by both other black people and white people. It was then that I realized I had to create my own lane in life. Not as a black woman, but rather simply as A STRONG, INDEPENDENT, EDUCATED WOMAN.

    I think the world is so conditioned to see things as what white people do and things black people do. Or, believing white people talk a certain way and black people talk a certain way. Somehow some way everything comes down to race. If I am sitting in a pub watching a soccer game, I am normally the only black person in the room. If I go to a Schlager party I am definitely one of few people of color. Because I was raised in Germany these things are normal things I enjoy. I never had to question why, because I knew not to expect anything different.

    I am not sure that I agree the absence of black people in certain environment has anything to do with Jim Crow or slavery. I believe it has more to do with cultural norms. If you are a black person only exposed to being around other black people or only in environments where black people are the majority this becomes your norm. If you are exposed to a more global perspective you are more likely to try thing outside of “supposed” cultural norms.

    Some of my activities I thoroughly enjoy have been questioned by other black people because for them whatever I was doing was “a white thing.” On the other hand, I have had comments from white people that seemed so odd to me such as
    “I have a friend from Africa. Where in Africa are you from?”
    (My typical answer is “Have you ever heard of a country in Africa called Texas?” Can you imagine the look of confusion on their face. After the confusion I am normally able to take away their embarrassment by laughing it off. I used to be offended but I came to realize it is just is not worth being offended.)
    “You don’t speak like other black people I know”
    “You like soccer? WOW I didn’t know black people watched soccer”
    “You like Helene Fischer? WOW I am surprised”
    The even crazier part is, they really do not think it is offensive to ask such things.But in their minds these are “white things.”

    When society takes the element of color out of the equation I believe you will see a more diverse society. As you noted, most advertisements for hiking or hiking gear have white actors. Well if black people actually saw themselves in the advertisements it would be more appealing and therefore more black people’s interest would be peaked. People are products of their environment. When your environment is all you know anything outside seems foreign. Thereby making it less appealing to try.

    As long as there is a mentality of “this is a black thing” or “this is a white thing” there will always be a societal segregation based on race.

    …just my perspective

    • Thank you very much for that input!

      I also had the impression there are things which for many people are “white things” (like hiking, camping, fishing) or “black things” (maybe basketball?), sadly.

      Like you, I think of myself more as an individual, doing the things that I enjoy. But then, I don’t know how much of it is influenced by the country, class and race in which I grew up and how much is really my own choice.

      Good point also about the more global perspective when you live abroad or maybe also in a cosmopolitan place. Although the many questions that you get are still shocking.

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