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Essential Tips for LGBTQ Travelers in the Great Outdoors

By Maggie Fuller

Jun 12, 2020

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Photo by Frances Gunn/Unsplash

LGBTQ leaders in the outdoor space weigh in on how to plan a safe and successful adventure when you’re “out” hitting the trails, navigating national parks, or sleeping under the stars.

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For many, the great outdoors can inspire a profound sense of freedom, wonder, and healing. But communing with nature isn’t always a walk in the park. Anyone venturing into the wilderness risks injury, animal encounters, getting lost, and more. For LGBTQ outdoorsfolk, there can be challenges to accessing the physical and mental health benefits of outdoor recreation that go beyond the standard concerns. Some involve overly inquisitive fellow hikers who ask intrusive questions; others present more serious safety risks, such as with discrimination in remote areas. 

In the past half decade, a number of queer outdoor communities have been working to create a safer and more inclusive environment. They’ve organized LGBTQ hikes in cities across the country, facilitated queer backpacking trips, launched podcasts about their experiences, and created robust online groups. 

The idea? “Everybody gets to feel like they don’t have to fit in, like they just belong there,” says Mercy M’fon Shammah, executive director and founder of Wild Diversity, an organization that hosts outdoor adventures and outdoor education for the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) and LGBTQ communities. In other words, the outdoors should be for all.

We talked with a few leaders of these communities to get advice for LGBTQ folks looking to tap into their “wild” sides this summer. Read on for information on how to pick a safe place to recreate, where to find allies on the trail and off, and more, as well as a few general tips for anyone looking to set out for the first time.

Portland-based Wild Diversity hosts day hikes for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) and LGBTQ communities.

Find your allies before you hit the trail

Being a queer outdoorsperson can be a lonely thing. Mikah Meyer, an LGBTQ activist who completed a record-breaking tour of all 419 national park sites last year, wrote in an opinion piece for Colorado’s High Country News about the rampant discrimination in the outdoor community that takes place, even though outdoor lovers like to pretend that nature doesn’t care who you are. And M’fon Shammah seconds that thought: “As much as people say they don’t see color or they don’t perceive or see people’s orientations, they do. You can tell by the way they treat you and talk to you and ask you questions. And the way they want you to expose your trauma for their education.” Furthermore, the outdoor industry often isn’t representative of the LGBTQ community, and there are very few easy-to-find, LGBTQ-specific resources available to outdoor adventurers.

Hiking groups and adventure organizations can provide much needed camaraderie for outdoorsy people off the trails, as well as on the trails. Wild Diversity is one such organization, as is the New England–based Venture Out Project, a nonprofit that designs and organizes backpacking and wilderness trips for the queer and trans community. Get Out and Trek (GOAT) facilitates multiday trips, and the National Outdoors Leadership School also hosts some LGBTQ-specific trips.

“Going in a group feels safer than doing something solo, which does take a lot of bravery already to do,” says M’fon Shammah. She says a group of friends can not only provide strength in numbers but may also bring outdoor skills and knowledge in other areas, like wilderness medicine, trail expertise, or safe places to find support. (“That’s not always a person wearing a badge or a park ranger,” M’fon Shammah adds.)

Travis Clough, director of trip operations for the Venture Out Project, has similar sentiments: “It’s always safer [for anyone] to travel with at least one other person.”

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M’fon Shammah also notes that folks who identify with both the BIPOC and LGBTQ communities should seek out intersectional outdoor groups: “As open as the LGBTQ community is, not every white person in [it] is an amazing ally. . . . You can find yourself really struggling to find an outdoor community.”

Where to look for LGBTQ hiking groups in your area

When looking for your hiking buddies, be honest with yourself about what you want out of the adventure. “Understand what your comfort level is in the outdoors,” says M’fon Shammah. “Don’t feel pressured to go out and be at the top level. You don’t have to do something competitive or vigorous to be an outdoor person.”

  • Facebook and Meetup are two popular online resources for finding local groups. 
  • While not a specifically LGBTQ-focused community, Unlikely Hikers is diverse and inclusive, and it hosts group hikes across the country. The Unlikely Hikers website offers recommended gear lists and outdoor adventure how-tos, such as important trail etiquette and tips for beginner-level hikers; there is also an Unlikely Hikers podcast that features stories of some of the Unlikely Hikers who appear on the Instagram community’s feed. 
  • Pride Outside—a very active Facebook group that posts event dates, resources, news, volunteer opportunities, jobs, and more for LGBTQ folks who love the outdoors—teamed up with the Wilderness Society, a nonprofit land conservation organization, to create an interactive map identifying LGBTQ outdoor groups across the country. 

Research local attitudes and laws

When it’s time to hit the trail, you’ll need to prepare not just for the park or wilderness area you want to explore but also for the area around it. Across the country, 28 states still don’t have laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in businesses such as restaurants and shops. In rural communities, which surround many outdoor and wilderness areas, prejudice can be not only more rampant but more visible and dangerous too, according to a recent study by the Movement Advancement Project (MAP)

Matt Kirouac and his husband Brad (pictured here) have been living in an RV and visiting national parks across the United States.

“From my experience, I’ve never had any hesitation or anxiety about navigating around a national park—it’s more so the surrounding communities that can be the intimidating factor,” says Matt Kirouac, who, together with his husband Brad, has lived full-time in an RV since 2018, visiting as many national parks as possible. The two host Parklandia, a podcast about their adventures, and founded the brand-new Hello Ranger online community for national parks enthusiasts of all sorts. Kirouac points to Wyoming parks, including Yellowstone and Grand Tetons, as well as Devil’s Tower National Monument, as good examples of this dynamic. “When I’ve been traveling through and staying in communities around [parks] or in other parts of the state, I have felt uncomfortable. I’ve had random people shout homophobic things at me.”

The Human Rights Campaign’s state maps of laws and policies can help give you an idea of the legal situation around the national park or area of your choosing, but it’s important to note that discrimination can differ widely within a state. Reaching out to local LGBTQ hiking groups is a good way to get local intel on trails and areas that feel safe, and Googling local LGBTQ organizations can often help you find other queer- and trans-friendly resources in the area. 

Locate LGBTQ-friendly accommodations and facilities

Kirouac and his husband spend a lot of time researching lodging before they arrive in a new destination, since there isn’t an official directory of queer-friendly campsites and RV parks. With some Googling, you can find some older attempts, which can be a good jumping off point for your research. And you can often find state- or region-specific lists of LGBTQ-friendly campgrounds, or look at popular spots in the area and do some research to determine whether they are safe, nondiscriminatory, inclusive places to stay. “You can find a lot about that from just web research and talking with employees on the phone,” says Kirouac. Although you might not always find a campground that’s explicitly LGBTQ-friendly, you should look for places that are safe, well-maintained, and welcoming. 

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Kirouac recommends looking for RV parks, campgrounds, and accommodations with customer view photos that provide many angles. That way, you can get a good idea of what to expect about how big the place is, how far apart campsites are, how clean it is, and so on. “It says a lot if an RV park has a Facebook account or Instagram account that they’re actually using and interacting with other users with,” Kirouac says. “That’s really useful; I can get a pretty good sense of a place by that.” When you call in, ask “What’s security like?” “What are your facilities, including bathrooms and shower areas, like?” Another good tip, if you’re RVing, is to avoid RV parks with year-round residents, even if it entails more driving. Kirouac says he’s more comfortable when the people around him are also staying for short periods of time and traveling around because then everyone is presumably on the same page about why they’re there.

Even if you’re camping in the backcountry and don’t need to worry about a campground, Clough points out that it’s important to know where safe facilities are situated en route to the trailhead or park, especially for bathroom stops. “We love Starbucks because they have single-stalled bathrooms,” he says. “The last thing we want is someone to feel uncomfortable or harassed on the way to our destination.” Refuge Restrooms is an important online resource that helps trans, intersex, and gender-nonconforming individuals locate safe restrooms globally. Users can search based on proximity to a location, even in remote areas.

LGBTQ hiking group or sports team? Travis Clough (second from left, back row) notes that Venture Out Project groups don’t always out themselves to fellow hikers on the trail.

Decide how much—or how little—you want to “out” yourself to strangers

Clough points out that groups, whether that’s a collection of friends or an organized trip, tend to draw more attention from passersby. There’s always general chitchat on the trail, and people ask about who you are and what you’re doing. At the beginning of Venture Out Project trips, the group gets together before they embark to decide how to answer those types of questions. “We always have a conversation before we go out and ask, ‘How do we want to deal with this? Do we want to out ourselves?’” says Clough. Sometimes, his groups decide not to tell the hikers they meet that they are queer. In fact, that sports team you ran into on the Appalachian Trail just may have been a Venture Out Project group. 

Trust your instincts

What feels most comfortable in the outdoors is ultimately a matter of personal opinion. “Sometimes it feels better when you’re in a popular area,” says M’fon Shammah, “because you have more people to stand up for injustices. . . . For some people, it feels better to be around no one and not see a single face.”

Most of the trips that the Venture Out Project organizes head into the backcountry, where groups don’t often see rangers or have other means of support. Once or twice, Clough’s groups have had to decamp to another spot at night because a nearby camper made everyone uncomfortable. “If you’re a queer person and something doesn’t feel safe, really trust those instincts,” cautions Clough. “Our instincts are really strong and they’re usually right. And if they were wrong, oh well; you’re out of potential danger.” 

Make sure your outdoor wear works for you

A big barrier to entry for anyone interested in exploring the great outdoors is the gear. Should you buy fancy hiking boots before becoming a hiker? What kind of tent is a good one? M’fon Shammah recommends you try before you buy. “Get your toes wet first. See if you can borrow gear from friends, or go on trips with them to experience [their] gear, to see if you like the activity that you’re going on.” Wild Diversity even has a gear library that people who travel with it can use. M’fon Shammah also emphasizes that it’s important to find the gear that’s right for you, since all bodies are different. So don’t take anyone’s word when it comes to the boots to buy or the sleeping bag to invest in. Try it out! Many outdoor retailers, such as REI, will walk you through and let you test gear you’re interested in. 

“Everybody should get to feel like themselves in the outdoors,” says Wild Diversity’s Mercy M’fon Shammah.

Get inspired with LGBTQ outdoor adventure communities and leaders

Just as important as finding a good outdoor community is staying engaged with it. Once you’ve found a love for nature, foster it! Follow LGBTQ outdoor groups on their social media pages for inspiration as well as information. In addition to the Venture Out Project, Wild Diversity, and the aforementioned online hiking groups, here are a few other communities to check out:

  • Hello Ranger—Under the tagline “United by Nature,” this new online community founded by Matt and Brad Kirouac is for national park lovers of all types. It’s led by a team of ambassadors from many different communities—families, van-lifers, full-timers, retired travelers, educators, artists, diverse groups, solo travelers, couples, pet owners, and so much more—and features articles and resources for anyone traveling through the parks, some specific, some more general. A new Hello Ranger podcast, with episodes that focus on individual parks, is available on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or anywhere you listen to podcasts. 
  • Queer Nature—An education-focused Instagram community for nonbinary indigenous individuals, Queer Nature focuses on place-based skills, including naturalist studies, handcrafts, survival skills, as well as the recognition of colonial and indigenous histories of land through events and workshops.
  • Pattie Gonia—The drag queen alter ego of photographer Wyn Wiley first became known for her photos and videos of hiking in patent-leather boots with six-inch heels. Since then, Pattie (and Wiley) has become a vocal advocate for diversity in the outdoors as well as an environmental activist—and does it all in kick-ass heels. 
  • Nikki Smith—A photographer, writer, and climber, Nikki Smith also happens to be transgender. Both her personal and professional Instagram accounts are filled with shots of herself and others scaling ice floes and red rock walls in stunning outdoor spaces.  

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