There are many ways that people are deterred from enjoying the outdoors. The high cost of adventure gear is only one factor—feeling like you belong is the true bottom-line.
The outdoors is for everyone. Some low-cost adventure sports, like hiking, can get you outside with little more than boots, a backpack and a water bottle. But others, such as canoeing, camping and alpine skiing, can limit people from accessing the outdoors due to the cost of the associated gear.
Life is getting more expensive. In June of 2022, Statistics Canada released an infographic revealing nearly three in four Canadians reported rising prices have affected their ability to meet day-to-day expenses. To cope, 50 per cent have sought sales and promotions; 47 per cent have purchased cheaper alternatives, brands or items; and 45 per cent have delayed making a purchase.
Financial gatekeeping in the outdoors isn’t simply about the gear. There’s also the price of storage for your gear, the cost (and ability) to take those days off work, entrance fees for parks and the price of transportation to get there. And that’s still only part of the picture—for many, outdoor gatekeeping goes well beyond the financial and into deeper concepts of belonging, community and access.
There are many other ways people are restricted from accessing outdoor adventure. If the outdoors is for everyone, why isn’t it affordable and welcoming for all?
Ryan Stuart, field editor of explore, hasn’t noticed a massive increase in gear prices, but he says premium products, like airbag backpacks for avalanches, will never get cheaper.
He believes you usually get what you pay for. “I think it’s worth spending a little more because it’s going to last longer. You’re going to get a performance benefit and notice the difference when it counts. It comes down to technology and craftsmanship. You’re paying full premium in the beginning, but you won’t be repeat buying.”
However, you don’t always have to purchase your own gear. “You don’t really have to buy a tent or a pair of skis—they’re very easy to rent and not as personal as a jacket or a sleeping bag,” Stuart says. “Think, ‘What is the stuff that’s going to be touching me?’ For the rest, look at rental options and borrow from friends.”
For people living with disabilities, gear prices can be prohibitive. “The Bowhead [adaptive mountain bike] is $10,000,” Stuart says. “So, for anyone, that’s a huge cost to getting out there. Eddie Bauer just came out with a ski outfit for people who use sit skis. It’s designed specifically to be comfortable and fit properly. And there are programs, such as Rocky Mountain Adaptive, working to help people with disabilities get into the outdoors.
“I think the gear industry is working really hard on [inclusivity],” continues Stuart. “I see brands like Outdoor Research putting a lot of energy into inclusive sizing . . . breaking down this barrier of the outdoors being hardcore, super fit, doing really difficult things—which is how it was marketed— into how it can just be fun. It can be going for a walk in the park in the city. I think you see it changing in the branding.”
When it comes to gear, Stuart says safety is crucial. “The right gear does matter,” he says. “You don’t need to have the world’s best, but you shouldn’t be hiking on [Vancouver’s] North Shore in slip-on sandals. There’s a certain level that needs to be met. You could buy super fancy $300 hiking boots, or you could go in a pair of trail runners. Both are going to do the job, but one will have certain benefits that the other doesn’t.
"It’s important to be as welcoming as we can, and to include messaging of what you need to be safe out there.”
For explore staffer and mom of three Jennifer Hubbert, growing up in British Columbia’s Comox Valley—home of Mount Washington Alpine Resort—didn’t mean she participated in snow sports. She says the economics and scheduling of being raised in a single-parent family limited her exposure to outdoor experiences.
“My first time on [cross-country] skis was in grade six,” Hubbert says. “It was wild. It was a totally foreign experience. Here I was, on a mountain with a village where people had chalets and condos and embraced the season in a way I didn’t at all. That was pretty eye-opening.
“Many years later, in university, I was invited to visit Whistler. When I got to the village, I was a little bit mortified. I was in a world-class setting, right in my backyard, and I had no ability to ski or snowboard. So, I fibbed: I told people that I had torn my ACL and couldn’t get on skis. Everybody felt so much pity for me. I was holding onto this secret . . . I was born in BC, Canada and didn’t know how to ski.”
Hubbert felt like she’d failed, based on stigma and expectations. Her barriers to adventure included socio-economic obstacles, such as not having a car (or tire chains to get up the mountain) and the gear. “Psychologically, it’s a big commitment to get set up, especially when you don’t have the confidence because you don’t have the skills,” she says.
On the flip side, Hubbert says the high price of accommodation when travelling brought her family closer to the outdoors. “Car-camping was the only option,” she says. “It was the most affordable way for us to see places.”
If her circumstances were different, Hubbert thinks she would’ve said yes to a lot more opportunities. “There’s this idea that if you haven’t done something by the time you’re eight [years old], it never comes naturally to you. If you grow up seeing your parents skiing, and they take you, you will probably have a much more relaxed attitude to picking up a new skill.”
Now, with her own kids, Hubbert turns to online communities to find gear. “The sharing economy helps shift the burden of cost,” she says. “Some resourcefulness [goes] a long way. It’s really about the human connection—your parents, brother, the outdoor rec program at your school, or whoever can make the introduction to adventure.”
“We definitely saw an increase in gear prices, especially over the last year-and-a-half,” says Graeme Stewart, MEC’s Toronto general manager. “A lot of things like shortages in aluminum made it hard for people to get parts for stoves, so they couldn’t produce it at the rate they needed, so we started to see prices go up.”
When MEC transitioned from a co-op to a company, the pricing structure didn’t change—except for the introduction of new discounts. There is still a membership, though it’s no longer required, and now it’s free.
The Rocksolid gear guarantee hasn’t changed either. “If you buy something and it doesn’t work, you can bring it back. For most things, we don’t have a timeline on it,” Stewart says. “We want to keep the member happy, get them good gear and make sure they’re having a good time.”
Don’t despair—your return isn’t likely to end up in a landfill. “Some items will be returned to the manufacturer, some will be resold and some will be donated to places like women’s shelters.”
In-store sessions are available for people to learn how to camp, take care of their bikes, etc. “Our staff is very well-diversified and always available,” Stewart says. “We’ve all been a first-time camper, climber or cyclist. We know how important it is to find good support and help.”
MEC staff can suggest alternative activities to fit your budget. “Outside can be a lot of different things,” Stewart says. “Don’t be scared to ask. Maybe we can find a better solution for you that’s more cost-effective. Don’t think you have to rush out and spend thousands of dollars to go camping. You don’t.”
And if you come into the store, you’ll find a gender-neutral washroom. “Inclusivity is a very big thing for us. Right now, within our clothing, we’re opening the sizing curve up to 6X by bringing in specialty brands, like alder [outdoor recreation apparel for women], and we’re doing it with the MEC label, too.”
Interest in the outdoors climbed exponentially during the pandemic, and a shortage of supply affected adventurers. “I do think manufacturers are taking advantage of the demand,” says explore contributor Frank Wolf. “This can make being in the outdoors—which should be the simplest thing in the world, you step out your backdoor—into an elitist thing. When it should be the opposite: it should be accessible to everyone.”
Similar to the adoption-and-return of pets post-pandemic, Wolf predicts thrift stores and online marketplaces like Facebook and Kijiji will be good places to pick up used gear. “I bought my inReach [satellite communicator] on Craigslist for $150,” he says.
“I think people have this idea that you need all this ‘stuff’ to do a trip. . . It’s almost a paradox of choice: people can get lost in the gear, instead of thinking ‘what’s the least amount I need to take?’ If you find a canoe for $200, you can travel across Canada. It floats, it moves forward. Think about things in the simplest possible way."
“A 30-day or a 60-day expedition is just like a weekend trip, with more food,” Wolf continues. “You use the same tent, sleeping bag, pack and clothing… and you have to carry it all. Keep it lean. Having less gear is having a more effective trip.”
Wolf suggests fixing your gear, DIY, bartering and borrowing. The gear is out there—probably sitting in someone’s garage—so don’t be afraid to ask. Connect with people in the local adventure community. “You’re going to find people who want to help you out.”
Wolf says sometimes you get what you pay for, but “if you [read] reviews, the most expensive thing isn’t necessarily the best thing. You can get highly rated, well-built gear from a reputable company that’s going to be fabulous. If you’re on a budget, you can get away with the more basic model. It’s good value, and it works.
“Ultimately, your mental attitude and your passion for the outdoors is way more important than all the bells and whistles. The gear isn’t going to propel you through. The key thing is to take care of your body and make sure you’re mentally and physically prepared to do it. The gear is just that extra five per cent. It’s the icing on the cake.”
If all you look at is the financial restrictions, you’re missing something, says Meg Kelly from Adventure Report. “Reducing the financial barrier is key, but I think if that’s the sole focus, that effort would be severely lacking. There are a lot of people who have the means to go camping and spend time outdoors, and still don’t feel safe or welcome or confident enough to get out there,” she says.
Kelly started her blog, Adventure Report, about five years ago as an information source. The community has grown to include a gear library (called the Camp Kit Program) and by-donation events. All events are located near bus stops, and a volunteer can drive attendees if transportation is an issue. Folks can donate as much or as little as they want, all the gear is provided and proceeds go towards the Camp Kit Program. Events such as intro to backpacking courses and canoe paddling clinics decrease the intimidation factor and the high cost of associated gear.
Kelly was inspired to lend out her own gear after seeing Indigenous Women Hike’s outdoor gear library. “I was lucky and privileged enough to have gear to put two full kits together and loan them out to my friends on the Internet.” Kelly says the Internet is a great place for making friends and finding a community of outdoorsy folks.
Now in their third season, nine volunteers manage the camp kits, getting them out to people who need them. Half of the volunteers identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour). “We try to do what we can to invite people in from groups that have been historically excluded or underrepresented in the outdoors,” Kelly says.
The kits contain everything someone would need to go camping to alleviate the stress of forgetting anything. Split into car-camping and backcountry camping, there are also options for plus-size sleeping bags and Halal cookware. And it’s all free.
Kelly accepts gently used gear from the community and has partnered with a few brands. She’s open to more. “Frankly, it’s good business sense. If you use the gear, when it comes time for you to get your own, you’re going to be looking for a brand that you feel comfortable with.”
She hopes people realize that you don’t need the newest top-tier gear to get outside. “You can have a great experience on a sleeping pad that’s 20 years old and was a little dusty before you wiped it off,” she says.
“Belonging trumps gear,” says Demiesha Dennis, founder of Brown Girl Outdoor World (BGOW). “If you don’t feel like you belong in this space, there’s no reason that you’d go out and spend that money on gear.”
BGOW was established to challenge and change the narrative around what representation looks like in the outdoors and to create a space for access, opportunity, advocacy and adventure.
“We work with partners to reduce cost barriers for folks trying to get into outdoor spaces. Education is also a big piece of BGOW—ensuring we’re not just bringing folks into spaces that they will probably have no opportunity to enter again once they leave the event,” Dennis says.
BGOW hosts events that are specifically geared towards Black, Indigenous and racialized women. “We focus on that community to establish a space that feels and is safe for women of colour—not only physically, but psychologically—in the outdoors. What I’ve found with BGOW is that folks feel safer trying things where they see themselves represented.”
Demiesha Dennis. Photo by Dave Coulson
Officially launched in 2019 with a 12-person camping trip, BGOW has continued to seek out ways to diversify what adventure looks like to communities of colour finding their belonging in the outdoors.
“For a simple overnight camping trip, [it] can be close to $1,000 for a night outside. People say camping is easy, but having proper, safe, reliable, lasting gear is going to cost some money,” Dennis says.
“[Gear] doesn’t need to be high end, it just needs to be in good condition. If you’re renting or borrowing, make sure it’s going to keep you safe, dry and comfortable. The worst thing is to go camping and have the experience ruined the first night, and that become your impression of what camping is in its entirety.”
Dennis doesn’t think getting outside needs to be attached to a grandiose idea of conquering, summiting or bagging peaks.
“For me, nature is connection—not just to people but to self and the environment. It’s a gateway into knowing, loving and protecting nature. It creates a different sense of belonging,” Dennis says.
“Nature for me is simply looking out my balcony being able to see birds feeding on berries growing wild outside my apartment building. Being in nature doesn’t have to be the idea that is sold for marketing purposes. It is about your personal relationship and connection to nature in a way that feels good and right to you.”
Your confidence in outdoor adventure can be bolstered by the right gear, but top-notch equipment isn’t necessary. You can still get outside. Everyone I spoke to agreed that nature is about your connection to the world around you and, most importantly, yourself.
And these connections extend to the outdoors community at-large. People want to share their passion for the outdoors. There are so many enthusiasts working tirelessly—often as volunteers—to help others get outside. That’s beautiful. That’s what outdoor adventure is truly all about.
If you need help, here’s where you can go:
- Parks Canada offers Learn-to Camp programs. All the basics are covered in an inclusive, safe and fun way.
- Admission is free to national parks and marine conservation areas for new Canadian citizens. Admission is also free for all youth 17 and under.
- Park Ambassadors at 15 Ontario Parks offer free 30-minute workshops for specific camping skills.
- Montreal-based low-income new Canadians can try discounted outdoor sports through the Intercultural Outdoor Program.
- Underserved youth, veterans, women survivors of violence and/or abuse, Indigenous youth and adults, and others can access wilderness programs through Outward Bound Canada.
- Parkbus takes adventurers to parks at a low cost or even free.
- On Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Undercurrent Youth Centres runs programs throughout the year.
- Scouts Canada’s No One Left Behind program ensures that every youth is provided with the opportunity to join.
- Attend free and by-donation outdoor events in cities near you. Find details on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram or through your local news.
- Shop for used gear through trade-in programs, like ecologyst’s Second Life program.
- Take advantage of the sharing economy. Kijiji, Facebook marketplace and garage sales are great places to find new (used) gear.
If you can help, here’s where you can give:
- Donate to outdoor programs, such as Adventure Report’s Camp Kits and Outward Bound.
- Start a gear library in your community.
- Bring your used gear to thrift stores and donation centres.
- Sell gear you aren’t using anymore.
- Lend out your gear.
- Invite your friends and family on adventures.
- Volunteer with outdoor programs in your area.
- Learn about what it takes to create a welcoming space for people who have been historically underrepresented and left out of the outdoors.
iStockThis article originally appeared in the Fall 2022 print issue of explore magazine. Subscribe here.