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Combating toxicity in trail culture

'The outdoor adventure community can do so much better'

Holly and Caden Martin make their way along the Pacific Crest Trail on July 13
Holly and Caden Martin make their way along the Pacific Crest Trail on July 13
By Jason D. Martin CDN Contributor

Over the last several years, my family and I have been section hiking the Washington portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. 

The PCT is a 2,653-mile trail that starts on the Mexico border, travels up through California along the spine of the Sierra-Nevada mountains, then cuts up through Oregon and Washington via the Cascades and finally concludes at the Canadian border.

Some people — like us — do sections of the trail, taking short periods away from our lives to be in the wilderness. We are referred to as “section hikers.” Others take up to five months to do the entire trail in one long adventure. They are referred to as “thru-hikers.”

Trail culture is fascinating. It is not uncommon for thru-hikers to start with limited backcountry experience, only to gain it over weeks and months. Some people take on trail names, identifying as anything from a geological feature, a piece of equipment, a tree, a plant, an action, an activity or even a movie character. 

Hikers challenge each other to eat five 1-pound pancakes in two hours at a Northern California café for a free breakfast. And courteous strangers — known as trail angels — often feed you, provide libations or leave treats at certain points on the trail.

But, unfortunately, some trail culture isn’t so friendly.

During the height of the pandemic, our family elected to hike through the Goat Rocks Wilderness on the trail. A short section of the PCT takes you across a long, loose and exposed ridge line. The terrain doesn’t exactly require mountaineering skills, but it comes close to it.

I inquired on a PCT-specific Facebook forum about current conditions. I wanted to know what kinds of snow conditions we’d encounter to make some determinations about the equipment we would bring.

This resulted in a tremendous number of attacks about how I shouldn’t be on the trail because I didn’t know anything about it. Some of them were moderated and went away, while others stayed. I was really surprised at the level of toxicity I found on a hiking page.

photo  Caden Martin takes in the view of Mount Adams on July 16, 2020 in the Goat Rocks Wilderness along the Pacific Crest Trail. (Photo by Jason D. Martin)  

I’ve been an outdoor professional for 23 years. I’m an American Mountain Guides Association certified climbing and mountaineering guide; a guide service owner, managing 60-plus mountain guides; and a mountain rescue volunteer. If I’m getting this static for a simple conditions question, what are others getting?

Though most of the people on the trail are awesome, we’ve encountered some passive aggressiveness. 

“That’s a mighty big pack,” can be code for “I’m so much better at this. Look how small and light my pack is.” 

“How many miles did you do today?” could be a simple conversation starter or a way to say, “You’re not as good as me.” A thru-hiker asking, “Are you going all the way to Canada?” could be another conversation starter, or a way of saying, “I am. And that’s why I’m better than you.”

In 1995, Cheryl Strayed hiked a large portion of the trail. Twelve years later she wrote a memoir of her journey entitled, “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.” In 2014, Reese Witherspoon starred in a film adaptation of the book.

Strayed’s best-selling memoir is an exceptional piece of writing. She uses the trail as a form of self-imposed wilderness therapy and takes us through both her physical and mental journey on the trek.

The problems?

The book inspired countless people to visit the trail. For some, the new hikers the book brought were an issue. For others, Strayed’s skills arc (a beginner at the start, to an advanced level backpacker later) was a problem. And for others, it was simply the fact the story was told from an inspirational female perspective.

And there’s the rub.

For a long time, outdoor adventure sports were only for those who were male, white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, fit and able-bodied. But even within that group, there’s toxicity in the competition between one another.

Now, imagine how those who don’t fit within this group feel. Imagine the young woman, inspired by “Wild,” new to backpacking, making her way along the trail. Imagine a person of color. Imagine a queer person. Imagine someone who checks several boxes that don’t fit the historic norm.

The outdoors can be a space where we challenge ourselves against ourselves and nature. The outdoors can be a place where we go to heal from the ills of the world, and the outdoors can be a place where we go to find inspiration. But it can also be a place where nature isn’t the only thing that can hurt you.

The outdoor adventure community can do so much better. And those of us who see this kind of behavior need to call it out. People should not have to manage toxicity along with all of the other hazards in a backcountry environment.

Jason Martin’s outdoors column appears monthly. Email: Twitter: @OutdoorPolitics.

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