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Washington Trails Association’s Gear Library Puts Community First

When Krista Dooley at Washington Trails Association(Opens in a new window) (WTA) was approached by some funders in 2012, she knew exactly where she’d allocate their donations: to the youth. She’d been having conversations with youth-centered organizations about the barriers to getting more students to trailheads, and hangups included transportation, education, experience, and gear.

“Several times I would be talking to partners or potential partners to collaborate and bring the students that they worked with into the outdoors,” Dooley said. “I would hear, ‘Oh, we don’t have transportation to the trailhead,’ or ‘We’d love to, but our kids have never been hiking before,’ or ‘Our kids just don’t have the gear to get outside and volunteer.’”

During her research, Dooley came across the Outdoors Empowered Network (OEN), which was just starting out at the time. This new organization’s goal was (and still is) to evolve into a national network of youth-centered and community-led groups across the country working to increase access and diversity in the outdoors through gear libraries and educational programming. 

A group of students in backpacking gear walking across a log on a trail
Coast backpacking trip; youth are walking across a log. Image via All Saint's Catholic School

The partnership between WTA and the network was born, and a decade later, they’re still working together to make the outdoors accessible to all. OEN now has more than 25 members operating gear libraries across the country to serve historically and systematically marginalized communities. This gear- and knowledge-sharing model lowers the barrier of entry for folks who have been kept out of outdoor spaces so that they can experience nature-based transformation.

And since 1966, WTA has created access to the outdoors and public lands for the state’s community of hikers. The advocacy arm works at the local, state, and federal levels to reduce barriers to green spaces, while the trails program activates volunteers to build and maintain routes across all regions of the state. The organization also communicates with its community of hikers, offering trip reports and trail guides, maintenance updates and other educational resources.

Backpacks along a WTA gear library wall. Image via WTA

That funding back in 2012 helped WTA kickstart new programs for youth, and now the organization offers educator workshops for hiking, camping, snowshoeing, and backpacking. Once leaders are trained through an orientation, they can freely access the WTA’s two gear lending libraries(Opens in a new window) located in Seattle and South Puget Sound—and then they share that access with students, expand programs and go on to start their own, and spread the word.

“We call it the multiplier effect,” said Dooley, who serves as the director of Community Partnerships and Leadership Development. “The number of outdoor experiences for both youth and adults that we have been able to serve is over 18,000. There's no way that just WTA could have done that alone.”

Educators across the state can make requests to borrow gear for a trip they’re leading, and WTA has the capacity to organize the gear and turn it over for the next group. 

The Seattle gear library has its own storefront with tall ceilings, storing 150 sets of gear. Either backpacks or snowshoes hang from dowels on the walls depending on the season, and another wall displays 300 pairs of boots. In a loft they keep sleeping bags and camping necessities.

Osprey Packs along a WTA gear library wall. Image via WTA

The South Puget Sound gear library is quickly catching up to Seattle’s inventory with their 90 sets of gear. It’s housed in the basement of a Pierce County parks building, with ample parking and a park right outside, an ideal setting for picking up gear for a weekend of camping.

When the second gear library opened in 2021, Dooley said, it met an immediate need. As an example, a volunteer-led organization in Olympia used to drive to Seattle to access WTA’s only gear library at the time. But with the new library close by, they could expand their programs from a few backpacking workshops to year-round programming including day hikes, backpacking trips, and family camps.

A group of students and a group leader on a backpacking trip, standing in a field together
North Cascades backpacking trip; youth and leader standing in a field. Image via Highline High School

Even communities not within reach of the gear libraries have benefitted from WTA’s training workshops. Just this spring, when Latino Outdoors(Opens in a new window) opened a Yakima chapter, those leaders attended WTA’s leadership workshops to apply the education to their summer programming.

The multiplier effect is one that OEN is also familiar with. The network’s members are encouraged to collaborate, in addition to receiving support through gear donations, grant writing, professional community, and thought leadership. Monthly skills-sharing meetings give them a space to problem solve and stay connected so they don’t feel isolated in their work. 

“I feel like everybody wants to support each other and help the other affiliates within the network be successful,” Dooley says. “And so I think there's this sense of openness and if you're successful, the network's successful and trying to really help and encourage each other.”

Whether someone from the network traveling to Washington or a new local organization reaches out to see the gear library, Dooley’s answer will be the same: “Of course, come on by.” 

Learn more about the Washington Trails Association, from their programs to their trip guides to trail updates, on their website(Opens in a new window). Connect with them on Instagram (Opens in a new window)and Facebook(Opens in a new window).

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. 


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