I love the outdoors. It’s a big reason I chose to attend MSU. There aren’t many college towns like Bozeman that provide access to elite skiing, top-tier rock and ice climbing, gorgeous rivers for fishing, white water rafting and kayaking and amazing mountains to explore in all seasons. When I came to Bozeman, I immediately fit into an outdoor tribe of people who find fuel and identity through outdoor sports. However, I’ve realized more and more that there is a dark, cult-like nature to my community as I continue to witness elitism dissuade beginners from participating in outdoor sports.
At MSU, 41% of students come from out of state. In Bozeman, they have the opportunity to get involved with outdoor sports but still face many other challenges. They have to put money and time into a sport and also broach potential gatekeeping for being a newbie. Although there are a variety of clubs on campus to get people interested in the outdoors like the Outdoors Club and the female-oriented Backcountry Squatters, newcomers in the outdoor community have a lot to learn if they ever want to break through the elitism of the larger community and truly feel a part of it.
To understand elitism in the outdoors, it is necessary to look at the background of people involved in outdoor sports. I am the epitome of these people. I was raised doing outdoor activities, I have the money to buy the expensive gear most outdoor sports require, I have had access to the mountains my entire life, and I have time to dedicate to recreational activities. These five parts of me scream privilege; however, they are only basic elements of getting into outdoor sports.
Elitism becomes truly apparent when it comes to inclusion in the community. Although getting into outdoor sports is a privilege, becoming part of the tribe depends on mentality. In my experiences, I’ve struggled to understand the laid-back nature that lives hand-in-hand with the hard-charging drive of people in the outdoor community. There is the expectation to do dangerous and exhausting things, but be cool and calm about it. To see this in action, all you have to do is watch a ski movie. Athletes are filmed gracefully hiking up mountains, then charging down them. There’s no mention of the sweat and hard work that going up the mountain took or the training and time athletes put into developing their downhill skills.
This casual skill and intensity is an unspoken expectation in the outdoor community. People, especially beginners, who don’t show it are often judged and shamed. Molly Beals, who works for MSU’s Outdoor Recreation Program, commented, “Climbing has been the most exclusive outdoor sport, along with skiing, because both require skill and time, but you can’t know what you don’t know and you can’t be good at everything on the first try.”
Skiers have even made this idea of an inexperienced beginner into a joke. “Jerry of the Day” is a popular Instagram account, followed by 1.7 million people, that posts videos and pictures of people looking like (stereotypical) beginners while doing outdoor sports. Although it might just be for a laugh, it demonstrates how the outdoor community, whether consciously or unconsciously, excludes people who have not reached a certain skill level.
Despite the seeming effortlessness outdoor culture promotes, there is a lot of training and learning that goes into outdoor sports. People who are dedicated to their sports often have to be selfish about their training and spend a lot of time doing it. Although it isn’t all bad, it propagates a “me-first” mentality, which makes it hard to integrate beginners. Most outdoor sports are easier to learn with the help of a mentor. If someone isn’t raised in the outdoor community, it can be very difficult to break into it without someone willing to give up their training time for the sake of teaching a beginner.
Although there is elitism in the outdoors, there is also a lot of inclusivity. On an individual level, people can make a concrete change through choosing to include newcomers rather than shunning them. There are also programs, like outdoor clubs and the Outdoor Recreation Program at MSU, that try to breach the divide between new and experienced recreationalists.
All it takes are people willing to help newcomers and share their knowledge to remove the cultism from the outdoors. Scrape the elitist snobbery. Be a mentor. Share what you know and remember the fears you felt when you were getting into outdoor sports. Offer old gear to people who can’t afford new gear. You can easily be the solution that makes the outdoor community a more inclusive tribe.