Looking for Campers of Color Across America’s National Parks

Why are there so few people of color hiking and camping in our national parks?

The author (top right) and her photographs of the American West | Photos by Sam Isom, Design by Grace Han for Thrillist
The author (top right) and her photographs of the American West | Photos by Sam Isom, Design by Grace Han for Thrillist
NOTE: This is an adapted version of an original essay from the author’s website, BrownPassport, which aims to inspire people of color to get outdoors and travel.

Fresh air, clear skies, the smell of grass, wind blowing through the trees: These are tempting invitations to sleep out among the stars, listening to an orchestra of night sounds, far away from any city that might pollute that music.

I love to camp. I’ve driven across the country six times, camping in America’s beautiful national parks along the way. 

But as a kid, growing up in a mixed race household, camping was not on my radar. Among our friends there were no Boy Scouts, no Girl Scouts, no summer camp experiences. The thought of sleeping in a tent outside with animals (or worse, bugs) was just short of a nightmare. Scenes from Deliverance flashed through my mind—who else was waiting out there in those empty woods? 

For some, camping is pure heaven. For others it's just the opposite. That can hold true for anyone, regardless of race or culture or creed. But when you look at the overall number of Black people visiting US National Parks, let alone camping in them, it’s staggeringly low: According to a 2018 report, less than 2% of national park visitors are Black.

The author (top left) and her photographs of the American West | Photos by Sam Isom, Design by Grace Han for Thrillist

The first time I ever set up a tent was in the middle of a dust storm, at night, in the Black Rock desert at Burning Man 1999. In the morning I rode my bike around, stopping to help people build their art and set up camp. After several hours, I saw no Black or even slightly brown people.

Later, Burning Man founder Larry Harvey addressed the lack of diversity, saying “I don’t think Black folks like to camp as much as white folks.” He took a lot of heat for that comment, but honestly, he's got a point. Even when I do see people of color out on hiking trails, rarely are they camping overnight. On a visit to Yellowstone, I was thrilled to see two Black women at the rest area near my campsite. But when I stopped to chat, it turns out they were just passing through and staying in a hotel.

Why are there so few people of color at the campground? Where does the stereotype that “Black people aren’t outdoorsy” come from? 

I speculate that many Black Americans (and this is not to say all) did not grow up with parents who took them camping. It’s safe to say that if you aren’t exposed to an activity at an early age—whether that’s camping, playing tennis, anything— it’s a lot less likely to make the top of your list later in life. Dealing with bugs, and all the gear and preparation involved, may also be a deterrent to getting outdoors.

The author (bottom right) and her photographs of the American West | Photos by Sam Isom, Design by Grace Han for Thrillist

Perhaps more significant is that for many Black people, the idea of being exposed in the remote outdoors does not paint a picture of safety and comfort. For much of the 20th century, traveling while Black could be dangerous, even deadly. Public parks, campgrounds, hotels, and rest stops were often exclusionary and unwelcoming—an entire travel guide, the Green Book, existed to help Black travelers find safe spaces on the road. 

Today, the residual trauma from this time is quite real, and the overwhelming whiteness of both national park visitors and employees (85% of park rangers are white, according to NPS) doesn’t help Black visitors feel welcome or comfortable camping overnight.

Things are improving, but there’s still a long way to go. In 2017 President Obama called upon the NPS to improve diversity and inclusion in our national parks. And this summer, in the wake of nationwide protests against systemic racism, the NPS also stated their commitment to bringing about change.

It sounds simple, but perhaps the best way to empower people of color to get outdoors is to increase the number of people on the campground who look like them. 

I remember that very first camping trip in 1999 when, after a week out in the desert, I finally saw one other Black person. Returning to Burning Man year after year until 2015, those numbers started to rise. Every time I ran into another POC we would give each other a head nod, or stop in the street to exchange names and say hello. 

One afternoon at Burning Man a few years later, I walked into a saloon, where not one but TWO biracial women at the bar stopped everything and pointed at me: "Hey, you there… yeah, we ‘know’ you! Get in here!" I didn't actually know them. But they made sure I knew I wasn’t alone.

Samantha Isom is an NYC-based image-maker who has lived and worked all over the world, including Chicago, New Orleans, Miami, Hawaii, and Indonesia. In 2015 she began training to shoot underwater and received her PADI divemaster certificate in 2018. Her current work and travel docu-series can be found at BrownPassport.com.