Nearly two years into a global pandemic that made it difficult (and sometimes impossible) to do the activities that make us feel human, it only makes sense that participation in outdoor adventure is on the upswing. In 2021, Yellowstone National Park recorded a record number of visitors, and a study conducted by Penn State’s Department of Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management identified a 20 percent increase in outdoor recreation since the start of the pandemic.
But despite these all-time highs, many are still facing an uphill battle when it comes to inequity and persistent barriers to getting outside. According to a piece by North Carolina State’s College of Natural Resources, “research shows that people of color are far less likely to engage in nature-based outdoor recreation activities, with historic discrimination being a large underlying factor.” Experiencing the great outdoors requires an amount of gear, resources, and privilege that not everyone has access to.
And then there’s the learning curve when it comes to actually getting out there. The first time my boyfriend and I hiked together, we found ourselves halfway through the trail... and completely out of water and snacks. Though we made it back to the trailhead unharmed (albeit a bit dehydrated), I now know to do my research — about the trail itself, the terrain and elevation grade, and the weather — before embarking on a new adventure.
While it’s totally normal to make these kinds of newbie errors, setting out to experience the natural world can be intimidating, especially for those who may not feel safe or welcome in this territory. That’s why The North Face is continuing its mission to increase accessibility to the outdoors, operating from the firm belief that exploration has many physical and emotional benefits and everyone should have the opportunity to explore the world around them.
To spread the word about this much-needed boost in access, we’re spotlighting four ways The North Face’s Explore Fund is working toward making getting outside a more equitable experience all around.
1. They Provide Grants To Nonprofits.
Founded in 2010, the Explore Fund is the outdoor industry’s first outdoor-participation grantmaking program. With a focus on cultural relevance, the Fund has collaborated with hundreds of nonprofits over the last decade to create a path for all individuals to experience nature. In 2021 alone, the company dedicated $7 million to be spent over several years for diversifying the outdoors via the Explore Funds’ efforts.
The Fund’s partnerships varied from environmental work — like answering the call for new trails and forests — to coordinating actual connections between people and the adventures they seek (one of their grant recipients, Outdoor Afro, inspires Black youth through programs for everything from kayaking to biking). 2021-2022 grant recipients include Black Outside, Queer Nature, Justice Outside, and Native Women’s Wilderness — you can see the full list here.
2. They Amplify Activist Voices.
In 2020, The North Face launched the Explore Fund Council to build on their legacy of breaking barriers. The 2020-2021 Council was a group of Black, indigenous, and people of color who have proven experience in creating opportunities for more equitable systems. Led by such names as Emmy-winning screenwriter, producer, and actor Lena Waithe and Academy-winning director Jimmy Chin, the Council brought their shared experiences to help build a new approach to The North Face’s work.
Partnering with a group of individuals who have dedicated much of their lives to this cause allows The North Face to amplify the voices of people already making an impact. Take Council member Liz Kleinrock for example: She’s built a career facilitating anti-bias education workshops within schools and organizations, integrating her own experience as a transracial adoptee born in South Korea who was raised by a Jewish family.
“[My work] is not designed to yell at people and tell them what they should or shouldn’t be doing, but rather open up the conversation to what folks can do to engage in the learning and unlearning process,” Kleinrock says. “How can you shift the lens through which you communicate with people, and welcome them to outdoor spaces?”
3. They Identify Practices That Support Inclusivity.
To continue pushing the boundaries of accessibility, the Council has identified seven practices to help cultivate a deeper understanding of what ‘exploration’ can mean. ‘Embrace complexity’ encourages all people to lean into discomfort and prioritize open dialogue, whether it’s acknowledging your own privilege or taking action to dismantle longstanding harmful structures. “Honor community knowledge” emphasizes the importance of allyship and bringing experienced voices to the table, positioning them as key stakeholders in their areas of expertise.
By continually questioning what it means to make the outdoor experience truly inclusive, the Council has been able to identify a framework to uplift people of color and educate allies who want to help in respectful and productive ways. These practices are also a great reflection tool for individuals who’ve have had the privilege of being exposed to the outdoors at a young age. Acknowledging that this experience is far from universal is the first step to finding a solution.
4. They Stay Committed To Doing The Work.
All of these practices don’t exist in a vacuum — The North Face is also on the ground working to alleviate inaccessibility in real, tangible ways. In an effort to remedy the lack of climbing gyms, equipment, and safe outdoor spaces that many communities face, The North Face partnered with The Trust for Public Land to build free, public climbing boulders within city parks, putting the sport (literally) in reach for those who want to try it. You can see their first climbing boulder — designed by local youth! — in action at the Montbello Open Space Park in Denver, Colorado, and other boulders have been built in Chicago, Atlanta, New York, Tacoma, and Colorado Springs.
The last of the Explore Fund Council’s seven practices for inclusive exploration is ‘Commitment to action and follow through.’ This acknowledges the fact that an inclusive outdoor future requires real plans and structural changes to dismantle the longstanding discriminatory systems that perpetuate inequity. It also transcends to other areas of social justice, reminding us as individuals that fighting for change starts with personal action. You can get involved by educating yourself about systemic inequity, donating to outdoor causes you believe in, and learning more about The North Face’s legacy and the seven practices to power an inclusive future for exploration.