Why Hoofer Ambassadors Matters!

Hoofer Ambassadors strives to bring people into a conversation about diversity and inclusion in the outdoors and collaborate with local campus and community organizations to bring an array of voices to the table in order to create change through collective initiative. This is so important to us because we have noticed how Hoofers as an outdoor recreation program fails to be accessible, inclusive, and welcoming to all identities. Racial demographics are changing, and climate change is progressing. We need to broaden and diversify the conversation and representation concerning the outdoors by including people of color, LGBTQIA+ folks, folks of varying socio-economic backgrounds, etc into the conversation. Experiential outdoor recreation/education is a paramount necessity in order to preserve, protect, and care for the Earth. By framing these conservation practices through a social justice lens, concrete action and responsibility can be developed.

What is "Wilderness"?

Historic (overwhelmingly white) narratives of the outdoors have been constructed around colonial innocence, uninhibited wilderness, and the Great Outdoors. The use of the sublime and romanticization of the “wilderness” has also been used to create a western version of outdoor education and recreation, and is sharply contrasted with city life and society.1What is not acknowledged by dominant narratives of the outdoors is the historic displacement of Indigenous folks from their lands, which is rooted in colonial violence. Fortress conservation, which is the formation of national parks and protected wilderness spaces that are designed to ensure “primitivity” and pristine nature is used to justify environmental racism and injustice. Fortress conservation is also used as an erasure of Indigenous peoples from these discourses of nature, excluding traditional ecological knowledge, and reproducing white supremacist understandings of nature and conservation practices.2

Whose Stories are Being Told?

Outdoor recreation representation has been framed as primarily white, masculine, able-bodied, and affluent due to the large and expensive amount of gear needed to do backcountry adventures, such as backpacking, rock climbing, and mountaineering. This representation is also reinforced through popular outdoor magazines, such as Backpacker, Climbing, and Rock and Ice. In the study conducted by R. Lee Frazer and Kelsey Anderson, they analyze the photo content of human and nonhuman images in these magazines. In their findings, they discovered that only 1.43 percent of the images depicted people of color and 97.57 of the people represented were white individuals. The images were overwhelmingly able-bodied and only 25 percent of the images in the rock climbing and mountaineering (considered “higher risk”) articles included women.3 Gender disparities are often seen within outdoor leadership as well.4 Only 1 percent of the images in the Backpacker appeared to represent a trans or non-binary individual, which speaks volumes when adventurous young people are looking at these magazines and do not see themselves represented.3

Instead of placing adventures in this hierarchy of high risk and low risk adventures, there should be a stronger emphasis on connecting more locally and participating in “microadventures” that do not require much gear or time. This makes outdoor recreation more accessible and inclusive to individuals that may need to work, take care of their family, or are not interested in putting their bodies and minds up to increased challenges or struggles. This invests individuals in the health, safety, and protection of the natural spaces in their own communities and leads to a level of care and connection to these spaces.

Re-Centering Representations of People of Color in the Outdoors

Changing representatives of who is getting outside for educational or recreational purposes means acknowledging those who have been getting outside, but have not been placed into mainstream understandings of what it means to be an outdoor enthusiast. Feminist ideology can also be practiced through the centering of people who are and have been historically marginalized in order to produce an understanding of outdoor recreation that is equitable to all. James Edward Mills’ The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors, tells the story of a team of Black climbers ascending Denali following the footsteps of Charles Madison Crenchaw, who was the first Black person to summit Denali.5 The ascent was made in order to “extend an invitation, particularly to minority youth, to experience true freedom, to get outside and explore the divide between mediocrity and excellence”. A 2010 Outdoor Recreation Participation Survey conducted by the Outdoor Foundation reported that 137.8 million US citizens engaged in outdoor recreation, and 80 percent of these respondents were white. While African Americans make up 12.6 percent of the nation, only 5-6 percent of national park visitors are African Americans.5

Mills integrates untold stories of Black folks who were the real backbone to establishing US conservation practices on national parks, such as the Buffalo Soldiers. He also highlights famous Black climbers who are not necessarily recognized as a representation of outdoor recreation or celebrated by the outdoor industry for their accomplishments. The Buffalo Soldiers were a group of African American soldiers during the civil war that were tasked with protecting Yosemite National Park, and were the first official stewards of the park. Mills emphasizes that these men were “always fighting on two fronts,” reflecting the intersections between being soldiers, but also Black men living in a country dominated by white supremacy and structures embedded in racist ideologies.5 Recognizing, centralizing, and illuminating these adventure and conservation stories about people of color and giving credit where credit is due is something that Mills does exceedingly well throughout his book. While Mills writes of far off adventures, he also teaches a summer course at UW-Madison called “Outdoors for All,” which explores the role of diversity and inclusion in outdoor recreation and conservation.

Disrupting the Narrative

Imagining and re-placing understandings of outdoor recreation and education by centering people of color’s voices and experiences is one way to disrupt this narrative. Latinx people are the largest growing minority group and it is predicted that by 2050, 28 percent of the population will be latinx people, and the majority of the nation’s population as a whole will be people of color. Latino Outdoors, founded by Jose Gonzalez, is a program that is “providing diverse and family focused outdoor recreation opportunities by using storytelling and cutting edge social networking technology to build avenues for access to public lands and a Latino centered message of environmental awareness and belonging”.6 Latino Outdoors allows a new narrative to be formed, but also spreads a message of environmental conservation and sustainability.

The single - story narrative is often reflected and perpetuated in outdoor recreation discourse, but Latino Outdoors is deconstructing that narrative “by inserting counter hegemonic Latino narratives, dominant notions of citizenship and outdoor experiences are disrupted, offering ‘new imaginative communal spaces that facilitate a rethinking of social relations’”.6 New imaginations of the outdoor community creates a wider representation that can be an influential factor when youth are looking for role models and leaders. Recreating this representation and “facilitating the development of broader narratives beyond solitude and rugged individualism, land management agencies can engage with a significant portion of the population that has yet to build a sense of identity with America’s public lands”.6 Representation is changed through programs, such as Latino Outdoors, NOLS, Outward Bound, Outdoor Afro, Unlikely Hikers, and Women Who Hike. These are all organizations that are focused on diversifying outdoor experiences, but while dominant projections of the white, lone male hiker is still perpetuated, it can be challenging to welcome and excite a diverse array of identities.

Narrowing Our Lens

While looking at these issues at a more nation-wide scale, it is also important and necessary to recognize how these inequalities are perpetuated here at UW Madison and within Hoofers. Hoofers is predominantly made up of white students, most being able to afford weekend trips at the least, which are usually around 40 - 60 dollars. Living in a city that only has a 7.9 percent African American population, and nearly 80 percent white, we would at least hope that the university would reflect that ratio. However, UW Madison only has a little over a 2 percent African American population. This staggering disproportionality reflects some of the ways in which this campus is discriminatory and exclusive, and Hoofers is not exempt from these practices, unconscious and conscious. If Hoofer Ambassadors can make the outdoor community and space more accessible at the small scale level, maybe there is hope for a larger ripple effect on this university and in the broader outdoor industry. By starting conversations and making concrete, intentional changes to the way Hoofers’ culture is constructed, we can begin to dismantle some of the institutional and individual discriminations within these programs.


  1. Roberts, J. W. (2018). Re-Placing Outdoor Education: Diversity, Inclusion, and the Microadventures of the Everyday. Journal of Outdoor Recreation, Education & Leadership, 10(1), 20–32.
  2. Gress, S., & Hall, T. (2017). Diversity in the Outdoors: National Outdoor Leadership School Students’ Attitudes About Wilderness. Journal of Experiential Education, 40(2), 114–134.
  3. Lee Frazer, R., & Anderson, K. (2018). Media Representations of Race, Ability, and Gender in Three Outdoor Magazines: A Content Analysis of Photographic Images. Journal of Outdoor Recreation, Education & Leadership, 10(3), 270–273.
  4. Little, D. E., & Wilson, E. (2005). ADVENTURE AND THE GENDER GAP: ACKNOWLEDGING DIVERSITY OF EXPERIENCE. Society & Leisure, 28(1), 185–208.
  5. Mills, J. E. (2014). The Adventure Gap: Changing the face of the outdoors. Seattle, WA: Mountaineers Books.
  6. Flores, D., & Kuhn, K. (2018). Latino Outdoors: Using Storytelling and Social Media to Increase Diversity on Public Lands. Journal of Park & Recreation Administration, 36(3), 47–62.