Trails for everyone, forever

Home News Blog Throw Wide the Gates: Why Gatekeeping is Harmful to Hikers

Throw Wide the Gates: Why Gatekeeping is Harmful to Hikers

Posted by Erika Haugen-Goodman at Oct 01, 2019 01:04 PM |

Trails are for everyone, but not everyone feels welcome. Here are tips to be a more inclusive hiker.

The first time I remember seeing gatekeeping for myself, I was playing an online roleplaying game. I was told my character could “never be a real adventurer” because she wore sandals. (What, has no one heard of Chacos?) Now, mind you, this was in a game that had dragons, elves and all sorts of fantastical creatures, but apparently sandals were pushing the bounds of reality.

wilkie_Lincoln park.jpg
A hiker wanders the trails of Lincoln Park with a stroller. Photo by Jenica Wilkie.

In regard to hiking, this same mentality is pervasive. Wearing jeans? You’re not a real hiker. Don’t have a featherweight tent that weighs less than a pound? You’re not a backpacker. You haven’t done Mailbox Peak? Then you haven’t done a challenging trail. You get the idea. It’s an issue I see compounded a thousand times over on social media, where anonymity and elitism intersect. It makes people feel unwelcome and creates an us-versus-them schism.

Whether you hike to the top of Mailbox Peak or from your mailbox at home to a local park, you’re part of a collective of people who enjoy the outdoors. We can all be hikers if we want to be, and having top-of-the-line gear or stuff borrowed from a friend doesn’t change that. Instead of gatekeeping, we should throw the gates open. After all, the more people who enjoy our trails, the more people who can advocate for them and ensure they’ll be here in 20 years. Don’t we all want that?

So, you might be asking, how can I be less of a gatekeeper and more inclusive (other than not saying you can’t wear sandals when slaying dragons)? First, don’t go out of your way to offer unsolicited advice to other hikers or folks who are enjoying the outdoors, especially if it’s negatively framed. People experience the outdoors in different ways, and our personal preferences might not always be the best way to do something. If they do ask for advice, try saying how you do things, and why it works for you rather than saying they should do it a certain way. How you frame the help you offer can make a big difference in how it’s received. And speaking of the word “should,” make a mental note when you start a sentence with it. Is the thing you’re saying “should” be done actually your own preference or bias?

The difference between negative and positive conversations around the outdoors comes down to shifting our perceptions of what a hiker is. Hint: You can’t tell just by looking at them. Just because someone isn’t using the latest tactical water filter doesn’t mean they don’t know how to filter water. The way we welcome people to the hiking community can have a major impact on their hiking journey, and at a time when trails and trail funding need more advocates than ever, every hiker counts. So let’s throw those gates open together.

And yes, for those of you wondering, my character went on to slay the dragon and win the day in her sandals. Take that.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.


barefoot jon on Throw Wide the Gates: Why Gatekeeping is Harmful to Hikers

Excellent advice. Thanks.

I did get some comments of concern going up to Camp Muir in thongs but it was easy walking on a nice sunny, warm day on packed snow. The weather changes fast up there, though, so I had complete winter wear ready, just in case, in my pack sack.

Otherwise, probably by not venturing any further than the morning-or-afternoon convenience of the popular I-90 Corridor trails where, it seems, anything goes (even umbrellas!), I’ve had no adverse comments on hiking Mt. Si, the Poo Poo and Chirico Trails, Mailbox Peak, and, so far, to the Rattlesnake Ledges in (a) my trusty Merrill Bahria Trail Thongs or sturdy Chacos, (b) Japanese Marathon Monk waraji sandals and zori from Mt. Hiei near Kyoto, (c) geta sandals from the Tengu Shrine on Mt. Fuji and (d) even barefoot (except, so far, on the sharp, golf-to-baseball size rocks of the Mt. Si trail).

ps - in addition to all his hiking, my friend's son won’t even take off his Chacos during any of the three legs in our annual triathlons. Yep, he swims in them too.

Thanks again.

Posted by:

barefoot jon on Oct 02, 2019 05:35 AM

alexlim on Throw Wide the Gates: Why Gatekeeping is Harmful to Hikers

My mind immediately goes to thinking less about elite-ism and gatekeeping and more about responding to either un-safe (clearly inexperienced/underprepared people) or bad behavior (making wilderness less enjoyable for others/abusing the environment). That might not be the core idea of your article, but I think they overlap in practice, or at least in perception/intent.

If the goal should be to avoid unsolicited advice, that's easy. But when it wanders from newbies just wearing city clothes or less-typical footwear to negative behavior, I struggle to see how to have a non-'judgmental' unsolicited positive conversation.

I think we can tell Some things just by looking at people, no? Otherwise what's the point of learning and cumulative experience if at the end of the day it counts for nothing...

Posted by:

alexlim on Oct 02, 2019 09:45 AM

TsuKata on Throw Wide the Gates: Why Gatekeeping is Harmful to Hikers

Thank you for posting this to let folks know that they need to check their biases at the trailhead. You truly can't tell about person's experience, plans, goals, or challenges by looking at them. Our goals should be to encourage participation, not tell people directly or indirectly that they're not meeting our personal expectations.

As a short and fat hiker, I experience a fair amount of gatekeeping. It's incredibly frustrating and disheartening. In addition to the things you mention, there's the problem that good outdoors gear is rarely made in true plus sizes for women, much less plus petite. I'm often stuck with men's versions (with sleeves/legs too long and no accommodation for breasts) in order to get a fit. There have been outdoor activities I simply wasn't able to do solely due to a lack of appropriately sized gear.

Posted by:

TsuKata on Oct 02, 2019 02:26 PM

Muledeer on Throw Wide the Gates: Why Gatekeeping is Harmful to Hikers

I agree with Alexlim, there is a difference between hiking your own hike and being totally unprepared for the weather conditions, engaging in dangerous behavior (clue in Ice Caves)or disregard for the fragile wilderness environment. Then, I think, something must be said.

Posted by:

Muledeer on Oct 02, 2019 05:04 PM

Sarzo on Throw Wide the Gates: Why Gatekeeping is Harmful to Hikers

Valid article. However, you haven’t seen real equipment/experience/conditioning bias until you are start mixing with the PCT crowd. They deride local day hikers yet depend on local “Trail Angels” for everything from rides to beer. Jeez

Posted by:

Sarzo on Oct 08, 2019 08:07 AM

Posted by:

chrisburke on Oct 08, 2019 10:32 AM

amy on Throw Wide the Gates: Why Gatekeeping is Harmful to Hikers

There is absolutely gatekeeping. I'm in the same boat as TsuKata. While I've only had two objectively negative comments about my physique over my many years of hiking, I do wish that well-intentioned folks would just treat me like anyone else they run into. Well-meaning atta girls are usually accompanied by warm and enthusiastic but wrong and negative assumptions - that I couldn't have possibly hiked this trail before, that this must be my first time hiking, that if I keep it up I'll get skinny in no time, that I'm pretty strong or doing really well "for my size", that my husband must be cruelly dragging me up the trail against my will and beyond my ability. I used to be more bothered by it, but over the years I've become resigned to it and just try to be nice about it and move on. But honestly, "Hello! Beautiful day! Have a great hike!" is just so much more inclusive and welcoming trail conversation for anyone you meet.

Posted by:

amy on Oct 09, 2019 12:52 PM

Beangod3 on Throw Wide the Gates: Why Gatekeeping is Harmful to Hikers

I’d like to bring up a form of gate keeping i’ve experienced that some might not think of which is people commenting on me hiking solo as a female. I’ve been asked by people I don’t know on the trail if I have a weapon, been told by other females that I shouldn’t hike solo, and once I had two men on a trail ask where my dog was? That if I was a solo backpacker I must have a dog. These constant statements make it more intimidating to hike solo as a female. You see a dude solo and it’s not a big deal but me as a female is crazy.

Posted by:

KEBean on Oct 13, 2019 01:42 PM

Kaleeta on Throw Wide the Gates: Why Gatekeeping is Harmful to Hikers

While I agree with safety and environmental concerns expressed in comments, it's also clearly mean to say anything that makes another person feel bad if there is no reason other than excluding them from your group. I am grateful for comments here that help me learn more about things I might say with good intentions that actually might make someone feel bad. -- However, while commenting out loud might often not be necessary, I do think it is important, in communication in general, to maintain definitions of terms, and to try to have a clear shared sense of the boundaries of categories. Everyone can "sing," but not everyone is "a singer." If "hiking" means "moving forward outside in some way," then almost everyone is "a hiker." But taking the term to be that inclusive can, at the least, confuse communication between individuals. If by "I am a hiker" one person means they like to stroll slowly in the park for 15 minutes a few times a month, and another means they constantly take week-long off-trail minimalist trips in the North Cascades alone covering 30 miles a day in rugged terrain and nasty weather with 10,000 feet of gain some days (and have the propensity and knowledge, ability, and skill to do so), communication isn't helped by calling both "hikers." We would be better served to call them both "people who enjoy nature" and "people who like some things about the outdoors." --At any rate, I try to more gently discover where a new acquaintance fits on the hiking scale, so I can privately determine for myself whether we might be a good match for a hike and what things we both enjoy that we can talk about with feeling and/or knowledge. It's not mean to try to pin down where your areas of overlapping abilities, experiences, and interests might be. Conversely, it's not honest, and can even be dangerous, to pretend you really know what it's like on the extremely capable end of being "a hiker" if -- like me -- you don't. Carefully and considerately defined categories are useful. -- I'm mentioning extremes to make the point clear, but the same reasoning applies elsewhere when abilities and knowledge -- and their consequences and applications -- are clearly quite different. --All this is not at all to imply that not everyone is welcome. Of course everyone is welcome to enjoy nature appropriately for their level of ability on their own terms, and everyone is welcome to gain skill and learn even more, and hopefully we are all constantly expanding our ideas of who can participate and how we can help new people.

Posted by:

Neet on Oct 23, 2019 07:51 AM

Posted by:

alexlim on Oct 23, 2019 09:08 AM

DickA on Throw Wide the Gates: Why Gatekeeping is Harmful to Hikers

Absolutely! Making our passion for the wonderful outdoors and hiking as inclusive as possible is the goal we should all embrace. My first experience sharing this with others less experienced than me was as a junior in high school in Montana when I was able to share a hike into Glacier Park, Montana with a group of co-workers at a summer camp where I was the youngest of the group, but the most experienced hiker. That was 1968. Lessons learned in the years between have all led me to accept each hiker at whatever level they are, whatever amazes them and try to give them something new to amaze them with each experience in the out doors. As you so elegantly put it, "To open another gate."

Posted by:

DickA on Jun 17, 2020 07:30 PM

not2ez on Throw Wide the Gates: Why Gatekeeping is Harmful to Hikers

There are some trails that are thick in Pacific Poison Oak and the behaviors of other hikers indicate they don’t know how to identify it or do but it’s not a concern. I have brought this to the hikers’ attention, particularly if they have children that like to touch plants along the trail. My first question is, Do you know there’s a lot of poison oak along this trail? If they say YES then I offer no other information. If they say NO then I ask them if they know how to identify it. If they say NO then I show them. If it has not leafed out yet then the stems of the shrubs don’t make it obvious. I’ve found that there are some hikers that are new to the outdoors in a specific area and just don’t know how to remain safe. I don’t see this advice as being a gatekeeper.

Posted by:

not2ez on Apr 20, 2021 06:45 PM