On the Trails: Pay Attention to the Hidden Power of the Outdoors


As a sophomore in college, I’ve often felt the acute, if mostly untrue, fear that the choices I make now will have lasting impacts on the rest of my life. To make decisions such as choosing a major or job, I search for the intersection of what I love and where I can make the most positive impact.

I always come back to the outdoors, not just because they are fun to explore, but because layered in outdoor experiences are possible solutions for health, empowerment and connection that should be available to everybody.

In the spring of 2020, biking was my reason to leave the house. Watching the landscape turn from a gloomy March gray to the dazzling green of May was a reminder of life and hope in an otherwise difficult time.

I was not alone in turning to the outdoors for stress relief; a study by the University of Vermont found large increases in the number of people who engaged in walking and hiking during the pandemic. This trend is not surprising given that research has shown that nature contact can improve nearly every aspect of mental and physical health imaginable.

Outdoor experiences also build community. Some of my best memories are of completing outdoor challenges with my peers that seemed impossible at the time, from climbing Mount Washington in the winter to a full day of paddling down the Saco River. Other favorite moments include relaxing around a campfire and sharing stories; I’ve made many of my best friends through these experiences.

While all of us might benefit tremendously from more time in the outdoors, these benefits are not currently accessible to all. Large swaths of the population are inhibited from accessing what is otherwise the most widely available and least expensive tool for self and community care.

Just a few examples include recent occurrences of racial violence against people in outdoor spaces, disrespect for Indigenous lands and sacred sites, and the difficulty women face breaking into outdoor sports and the outdoor industry. I personally feel this barrier in the skeptical looks I receive as a young woman selling road bikes and boats at REI or on a trail crew when I am one of few women. In my many outdoor communities, the majority of participants are white and of a high socio-economic status.

Fortunately, simply being present and visible in the outdoors can help reshape cultural and historical narratives. Park ranger Shelton Johnson wrote in 2014 that “when we as African-Americans explore deep caverns, or raft wild rivers, or climb big mountains, we extend the civil rights movement vertically and horizontally and encompass all that’s wild in America. And we claim our full inheritance as citizens of this country.”

Too much of the American landscape has been shaped by the exploitation of BIPOC people, and outdoor recreation now provides a way of physically and visibly reclaiming those landscapes.

The outdoors can also be used directly for activism. Erin Parisi is a transgender athlete hiking the highest summit on each continent. Her journey is inspiring and has sparked international awareness of trans issues and accomplishments. We have all faced inclement weather or challenging outdoor obstacles, whether that means a blizzard on a tall peak or thunderstorm outside our house; seeing people take on outdoor challenges for a cause fosters empathy through shared experience.

We need to pay attention to the outdoors because nature sustains, connects and provides us with the opportunity to visibly manifest our vision for a more equitable future. You can engage directly by educating yourself on the Indigenous history of the land you recreate on and how you can respect it and by taking steps to make the communities you recreate with more inclusive. You can magnify your impact by supporting organizations that make the outdoors more equitable and inclusive.

One of the ways I’m doing this work is by interning with the Upper Valley Trails Alliance, a local organization dedicated to increasing access to trails and outdoor recreation. The website diversifyoutdoors.com/get-connected also features one subset of the many organizations across the country doing this work.

I hope my story of how one indecisive college student came to be inspired by the outdoors can help inspire you.

Abigail Johnson is a member of Dartmouth College’s Class of 2023 and is an intern with the Upper Valley Trail Alliance.