Why we need greater diversity in the outdoors, by a South Asian woman who found a new lease of life through hiking

Until one evening, years ago in my mid-twenties, when I randomly settled in to watch “Wild”. A biographical adventure drama starring Reese Witherspoon, based on the bestselling 2012 book by Cheryl Strayed, where she takes a solo backpacking trip on the Pacific Crest Trail – a 2,650-mile route stretching the entirety of America’s west coast.

I thought, “Wow, there’s no way people actually do this?” And like clockwork, a few days later, a video of a tall, athletic, blonde white woman with legs made out of steel nicknamed “Homemade Wanderlust” was recommended to me on YouTube (Google is so scary sometimes!). “Episode 1: First Steps (PCT 2017)”, the video was captioned, following her journey on the trail with daily videos.

I quickly branched out, watching videos of other women hiking on trails in the US and here in the UK. “Yes, people do actually hike a lot, and they seem… so happy,” I thought.

The parallel between hiking and mental health was suddenly evident. After all, you didn’t need the rigours and social confidence of the gym or the stamina of a running track. With hiking, you walk, you think about life, and you get fit. It was all about the simple things in life. And as someone struggling with my mental health at the time and having not yet found an appropriate outlet to soothe myself, I thought I could hike too. Until I looked down at my brown skin and saw my black hair and brown eyes in the mirror.

Something meant to be all about enjoying the simple things in life only appeared to be simple for the white community. I realised that the only representations of hikers I had ever seen were athletic white women with huge, pricey backpacks whose small smattering of dust across their faces only accentuated their “rough and tough” beauty in the outdoors space. In recent years, there was also a rise of fitness influencers preaching the idea of a sunrise hike, clad in skin-tight athleisure wear with a green juice in hand. I just couldn’t relate.

Honestly, the hiking community appeared so white-dominated that the lack of diversity frightened me. Would I be unwelcomed, laughed at, ridiculed back into hiding indoors?

It was only during the year before lockdown I finally took the plunge and signed onto a group hike. It was a terrifying thing to do – but, I’m glad to report, that I have not looked back! Since then, I have summited Australia’s highest mountain Kosciuszko, discovered more of the UK’s natural beauty and from the quiet sandy trails overlooking the bustling glamour of Hollywood to the rainy lushness of Washington, I have experienced the romanticised trails of America’s west coast.

As I thought, my relationship with my mental health has significantly increased, as has my connection with my body. Not only have I become fitter, but I have been left in awe at what my body is capable of, because, let’s face it, hiking is actually no walk in the park!

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