When I was growing up in New Jersey, my siblings and I typically spent our summers crammed in the back of my grandmother’s station wagon, heading to the Jersey Shore. With blankets and coolers in tow, we would start our days at sunrise and end them at sunset.
But one summer, when I was 11 years old, my grandmother wanted to do something different. I’m not sure why she singled me out, but to this day I’m glad she did.
My grandmother took me on a camping trip with her church group. Imagine a bunch of old ladies whose typical Sundays included their church fans and tithing buckets “roughing” it in the wilderness. It was a sight to behold.
These women knew what they were doing. Although my grandmother opted for a cabin that was equipped with a bunk bed, some of the other women stuck to the basics of pitching their tents and communing with nature.
Every night the women, some as old as 70, would tell stories about how their parents taught them to camp – not for recreation but because of a need to survive. They told tales of how black people were naturally one with nature and equipped with survival instincts. From stories about Native Americans to the Underground Railroad, the women with whom I camped shared everything they knew about getting in touch with nature and the history of the land.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized how valuable a lesson I’d been taught by my grandmother’s church group. But then I also realized how little some people actually know about camping.
Spreading the word
The camping bug hit me one fall, and I asked a couple of friends if they wanted to plan a weekend camping trip. I researched areas and even made a supply list, but the feedback from my friends went something like this:
“Black people don’t camp,” said one person.
“You really think I want to sleep outdoors?” said another.
“You’ve seen horror movies. You do know how this will end?” said a friend who had obviously seen one too many.
That pretty much put the kibosh on my camping trip.
But the truth is, black people do camp, and Rue Mapp’s mission as founder of the online community Outdoor Afro is not only to dispel the notion that we don’t but also to educate and encourage black people to venture outdoors and reconnect with nature.
Mapp, who grew up in Oakland, Calif., was first exposed to camping at the age of 10. “My parents had a ranch near Oakland, and I spent weekends and summertime at the ranch. That experience set the stage for me to not only engage in nature but to understand the value of connecting others with it,” she said.
Outdoor Afro reconnects African Americans with natural spaces, and one another, through recreational activities such as camping, hiking, biking, birding, fishing, gardening and skiing. For more than two decades, Mapp has used digital media as an important and practical tool to connect with other people of color who share her outdoor interests.
“African Americans have a strong connection to land. Outdoor activities can mean a lot of different things. Just because people don’t call it camping, black people spend a lot of time outdoors, from church services to family reunions. We have to change the way people talk about camping. Even tailgating can be considered camping,” Mapp told me.
How to get started
So what do you do when you want to venture out to camp but you have no experience? Sydney Morrow, a recent college graduate and camping aficionado from Seaside, Calif., recommends doing research on what exactly you’re looking for in a campsite.
“Finding the campsite that fits your lowest comfort level will ultimately determine how much you enjoy camping. For example, there are sites that come with functioning bathrooms or heated showers, barbecue pits, water spouts and electricity; sites that only have water spouts and a BIFFY (“Bathroom in forest for you” – a literal hole in the ground); and sites that don’t have anything at all. Honestly, camping isn’t for everyone, but those with the slightest interest owe it to themselves to give it a try,” Morrow suggested.
Mapp always suggests that people utilize the ReserveAmerica website because you can select the amenities you’re looking for in a campsite and make your reservation. Contrary to popular belief, you can’t just pop up at a campsite and expect an opening to be available. National parks like Yosemite typically have a yearlong waiting list, and the National Park Service advises people to reserve a year in advance.
Among the camping destinations Mapp suggests are Assateague State Park in Maryland, Badlands National Park in South Dakota, Arches National Park in Utah, and the ever-popular Grand Canyon in Arizona and Big Bend in Texas.
Once you have your location set, there are a few bare essentials you’ll need for your camping trip. TV executive Eric Easter, a longtime camper, suggested, “Water; multiple methods to start a fire—flint, magnifying glass, matches, lighter; a serious knife—not a Swiss Army knife but something that can slice cake or kill food, if it comes to that; baby wipes; and a very heavy flashlight that can double as a weapon. Because ... hillbillies.”
Mapp commonly utilizes outdoor retail giant REI, not only because of its great customer service but also because of its generous return policy. “You need to look out for clothing, hydration and food. If you don’t have the right clothes, water or food, you can forget it and just go home,” she advised. Mapp also recommended finding a camping mentor, someone who has in-depth camping experience: “They will know about what’s local and will be OK with you coming along with them on the next trip.”
It’s never too late
How do you get more black people involved with camping? Most of those I spoke with said their first exposure to camping came at an early age.
Amy Alexander, a journalist from Washington, D.C., appreciates her experiences. “It is good, for example, to challenge yourself in the context of nature, which really doesn’t care if you have a nice car or a fancy house or college degree,” she said. “You either figure out how to ford the freezing-cold river without putting yourself at risk or you don’t. In my case, being exposed to the awesome landscapes in California and other parts of the West really helped me expand my perceptions of the world and my place in it. It also felt terrific to hike 7,000 feet up and camp atop Half Dome.”
But that doesn’t mean you can’t start camping later in life. Alexander, a single parent of two children, is still looking forward to taking her son on his first camping adventure.
Mapp believes that if more black people share their camping experiences and stories, it’ll change the perception about the various activities involved in camping. “We have to tell a different story about camping by tapping into the ways we’re connected to the outdoors. Getting that story out there and helping to shift the representation about who camps will get more people involved,” she said.
So break away from your typical vacation. Get your supplies together, pack up the car, and explore the natural surroundings that exist in your state and national park systems.
Learn about the best places to camp and camping careers at these links:
By Tent, Trailer or an RV: Some of the Best Places to Camp
Career Spotlight: Park Ranger Shelton Johnson on Why Spending Time Outdoors Is About Civil Rights
(For more information and resources on camping, visit Outdoor Afro’s website, like it on Facebook, or follow it on Instagram and Twitter. Also check out Urban American Outdoors’ TV show, like its Facebook page or follow it on Twitter.)
(Yesha Callahan is editor of The Grapevine and a staff writer at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.)