Throw Wide the Gates: Why Gatekeeping is Harmful to Hikers
Trails are for everyone, but not everyone feels welcome. Here are tips to be a more inclusive hiker.
The first time I remember seeing gatekeeping for myself, I was playing an online roleplaying game. I was told my character could “never be a real adventurer” because she wore sandals. (What, has no one heard of Chacos?) Now, mind you, this was in a game that had dragons, elves and all sorts of fantastical creatures, but apparently sandals were pushing the bounds of reality.
In regard to hiking, this same mentality is pervasive. Wearing jeans? You’re not a real hiker. Don’t have a featherweight tent that weighs less than a pound? You’re not a backpacker. You haven’t done Mailbox Peak? Then you haven’t done a challenging trail. You get the idea. It’s an issue I see compounded a thousand times over on social media, where anonymity and elitism intersect. It makes people feel unwelcome and creates an us-versus-them schism.
Whether you hike to the top of Mailbox Peak or from your mailbox at home to a local park, you’re part of a collective of people who enjoy the outdoors. We can all be hikers if we want to be, and having top-of-the-line gear or stuff borrowed from a friend doesn’t change that. Instead of gatekeeping, we should throw the gates open. After all, the more people who enjoy our trails, the more people who can advocate for them and ensure they’ll be here in 20 years. Don’t we all want that?
So, you might be asking, how can I be less of a gatekeeper and more inclusive (other than not saying you can’t wear sandals when slaying dragons)? First, don’t go out of your way to offer unsolicited advice to other hikers or folks who are enjoying the outdoors, especially if it’s negatively framed. People experience the outdoors in different ways, and our personal preferences might not always be the best way to do something. If they do ask for advice, try saying how you do things, and why it works for you rather than saying they should do it a certain way. How you frame the help you offer can make a big difference in how it’s received. And speaking of the word “should,” make a mental note when you start a sentence with it. Is the thing you’re saying “should” be done actually your own preference or bias?
The difference between negative and positive conversations around the outdoors comes down to shifting our perceptions of what a hiker is. Hint: You can’t tell just by looking at them. Just because someone isn’t using the latest tactical water filter doesn’t mean they don’t know how to filter water. The way we welcome people to the hiking community can have a major impact on their hiking journey, and at a time when trails and trail funding need more advocates than ever, every hiker counts. So let’s throw those gates open together.
And yes, for those of you wondering, my character went on to slay the dragon and win the day in her sandals. Take that.