The outdoors is often referred to as a haven or paradise, a place that you can escape to for a vacation and reconnecting with nature. But these references don’t take into account that being in these environments comes with a lot of unknowns. Not everyone feels safe getting outside or has the skills or training to mitigate real challenges and dangers, both from the natural world and from other people.
Considerations that ought to be discussed more openly include: Is this a place I feel safe bringing my family and friends? Will I be discriminated against by workers and other visitors there? Do I have access to gear that fits my body? Do I know what to do if that gear fails?
These are some of the questions that the Outdoors Empowered Network (OEN) is helping to answer.
This national collective of community-led, youth-centered outdoor education groups, is increasing outdoor access and diversity through two main programming channels: gear libraries and outdoor leadership training. The gear- and knowledge-sharing model lowers the barrier of entry for folks who have historically and systemically been kept out of outdoor spaces so that they can experience nature-based transformation in these havens.
OEN helps its 27 members—located in all regions of the U.S., from Oakland, CA to Portland, Maine—seed and support their collections of outdoor gear through fundraising, mentoring and consulting, and building a professional community.
“By being a network, there’s a lot that we’re able to do collectively that each group on their own wouldn’t be able to do,” says Seraph White, executive director of OEN. “We’re working with our communities, our friends and families in a very reciprocal power-with way.”
Over the next few months, Osprey will feature five OEN members that are providing access to gear and leadership training in their regional communities. You can expect to learn more about the OEN program, its unique members, and their shared vision for a more equitable future for the outdoors. Here are the five members we’ll feature in this six-part series:
- Washington Trails Association in Seattle
- Indigenous Cultural Concepts in Northern Arizona
- Outdoor Inclusion Coalition in Pennsylvania
- Kindling Collective in Portland, Maine
- River City Outdoors in St. Louis, Missouri
If you’re new to camping, hiking, or any other outdoor pursuit,it can be really expensive to buy new gear, especially if you are not sure you enjoy it. Are you able toborrow a sleeping bag or a backpack from a friend or family member. Is there a friendly local rental shop withing your budget? Eventually, you’ll have to return the loaned items and decide if getting your own gear is a worthwhile investment.
But what if you don’t have access to rentals? What if your friends or family don’t have gear to lend out? What if you need gear for your whole family of six? What if you’re a teacher wanting to introduce students to outdoor experiences? Then where do you get gear?
In the outdoor industry, gear libraries have become a fix-all buzzword lately, White says. But establishing one isn’t as simple as acquiring gear and stocking shelves in a space.
It is not a “build it and they come” situation—gear libraries must be safe and trusted resources within the community to truly serve those who are repeatedly and systematically excluded from accessing outdoor recreation experiences. “Otherwise, gear libraries become another transactional retail shop,” White says.
Firstly, they require significant financing. When building out a gear library, White says they estimate a retail purchase price of about $1,000 per person.
“If I wasn’t raised camping, if I didn’t have the gear, and someone said it’s going to cost thousands of dollars for your family, there’s a lot of things that I can do with that money,” White says. “As much as I absolutely love camping now,I don’t know that I would choose to spend it on such an unknown.”
By partnering with brands, OEN accesses gear discounts and donations to share with members. So far in 2023, the network has distributed to groups more than 10,000 items, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Operated individually by the outdoor education groups within OEN, gear libraries help reduce barriers to accessing equipment through their gear lending practices. The equipment is available to communities for free or reduced costs through gear libraries, and depending on the program and community needs, everyone from families to students can access the resource.
“If it’s that expensive to build a library for your family, it’s a lot more expensive to build a library that can support 30 kids in a classroom having everything they need,” White adds.
Then, once a gear library has the gear, upkeep is required. Staff must wash the sleeping bags, make sure the helmets are still safe to use, dry tents after a rainstorm, and check items back into inventory. OEN helps members plan these operational details.
Gear is a gateway to outdoor experiences. When a student has a warm and clean sleeping bag for their first camping trip, they’re more likely to have a comfortable experience and want to do it again.
Gear’s high price tag is not the only intimidating factor when it comes to getting outdoors. Knowledge for using the gear and confidence for safely navigating outdoor spaces is the next important piece to empowering folks to get outside.
“Once you have gear, it opens up this whole conversation,” White says.
Each OEN member offers training based on their community’s needs. Training can range from highly curated, two- or three-day outdoor leadership programs to informal tent assembly sessions. Curriculum also often covers topics that other outdoor training programs don’t address, such as dealing with racism and misogyny on public lands.
“There’s not a lot of resources around racialized policing in the outdoors,” White says. “It’s the human predatory danger that’s so much more ubiquitous and potentially fatal, traumatizing at the very least, than any wildlife attack.”
White says they don’t shy away from the tough or “taboo” topics; they can’t tell someone they’re going to have a wonderful and safe time outdoors without first addressing these topics, whether they’re talking about financing or policing. Part of OEN’s mission is to overcome the widespread challenge that there’s no general best practices for these kinds of conversations—making it all the more important to listen to members rather than prescribe traditional models that can be exclusionary.
Interested in building a gear library program in your community? Learn more about the Outdoors Empowered Network on their website(Opens in a new window), where you can become a member or a supporter.
Images via Outdoors Empowered Network