It is widely known that the great outdoors has remarkable benefits for both our physical and mental health, not only because being outside can increase our vitamin D levels and lower stress but because being around nature can calm and recentre us, too. However, for many Black people across the UK, it's not always a welcoming space.
A report commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) highlighted that while people from ethnic minority backgrounds value the natural environment, they feel excluded and fear discrimination in what they perceive as an "exclusively English environment".
A report commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs found that people from ethnic minority backgrounds feel excluded and fear discrimination in what they perceive as an 'exclusively English environment'.
This would explain why the statistics show that only 26.2% of Black people spend time in the countryside compared with 44.2% of their white counterparts. Another stark report found that only 1% of visitors to UK national parks come from BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) backgrounds, while only 1% of summer mountain leaders and rock-climbing instructors in the UK are from ethnic minorities.
Thirty-three-year-old Rhiane Fatinikun from Greater Manchester wants to change this. She is the brains behind Black Girls Hike, a hiking group launched in 2019 as a space for Black women to enjoy the outdoors. The group is inclusive, welcoming Black women of all ages and backgrounds. "It's a sisterhood, you don't have to know anyone to turn up," she says. "We get aunties and mums come, we all learn from each other."
Rhiane is no veteran hiker, though. She tells me the idea randomly popped into her head in late 2019, before the pandemic started. "I was on the train travelling through the Peak District one day and that's when I decided to take up hiking," she says. "I needed a new hobby." Rhiane adds that the idea stemmed from the fact that she was single, living alone and was experiencing anxiety as a result of her job. "At the time I was working in the civil service, panicking, feeling anxious and experiencing imposter syndrome," she says. "Walking allowed me to quit my nine-to-five, it feels productive and now I'm living my dream life."
She purchased a pair of hiking boots and a waterproof jacket and set off for the South Pennine Water Trail in Rochdale with two of her friends, documenting their trip using the hashtag #BGH. As she arranged more hikes, she decided to create the Black Girls Hike Instagram account – and then the group took off.
Although the country has been in the grip of on-and-off lockdowns since March, the group has managed to arrange a number of socially distanced hikes across the country, appointing leaders in regional locations from Birmingham and Manchester to London. They are hoping to expand into further spots, such as Essex.
On Rhiane's second walk in 2019, the group grew to 15; after the first lockdown, 38 joined her walk in Manchester. Over 100 people attended the London walk last August and the final walks at Epping Forest and in Birmingham in December. "It was so overwhelming, I almost cried," Rhiane says. "It was such an amazing experience, watching everyone in the forest. People were like, 'Is this a protest?'" she laughs. "They were all staring." This is exactly the reason why so many Black people feel uncomfortable in these spaces.
I worked in an office for years and I was the only young Black woman. You're never really being yourself; you're stifling and code switching. I'm tired of being in those environments, everyone needs an outlet. I'm including us in the outdoor narrative, we are inclusive.
The group is clearly necessary but Rhiane faces criticism for it online. "I get trolled all the time by white people — you can go to any group you want but this is for Black women, it's a safe space for us," she tells me. "I think it's important because you need a space where you can just be a woman, you don't have to be the Black person."
She continues: "I worked in an office for years and I was the only young Black woman. You're never really being yourself; you're stifling and code switching. It's not that you can't get on with these people but it's that you don't have to pretend to be anyone else. I'm tired of being in those environments, everyone needs an outlet. I'm including us in the outdoor narrative, we are inclusive. People just don't understand us."
"When you think of Everest, you know how expensive it is," Rhiane adds. "The outdoor industry is not marketed to us. It's middle class. Black people often live in urban environments so we don't have much access to green spaces. People forget that having a hobby is a privilege."
Sport England research identified six barriers to participation in outdoor activities for people from ethnic minority backgrounds: language, awareness, safety, culture, confidence and perception of middle class stigma. But there are ways around this, Rhiane notes.
Providing safe access to the outdoors for Black women not only addresses the imbalance but encourages brands to embrace diversity; outdoor brand Berghaus has been supporting the group by donating kit for those who cannot afford to buy equipment. "While people bring their own stuff, we do have jackets and boots to lend out," Rhiane tells me. "At least we have the option there for those who need it."
Black Girls Hike has branched out into other outdoor sports such as caving and climbing and Rhiane says she is looking into hosting outdoor retreats in the future.
Those tempted to make their first foray into outdoor sports should not feel the need to buy all the gear. "It's important to do your research, you only really need a decent waterproof and boots, then build it from there," Rhiane says. "Some products are technical but I would literally pack a first aid kit, a paper map and a power bank for my walks."
Current lockdown restrictions mean that groups cannot congregate indoors or outdoors but that doesn't mean you can't explore hiking as a form of exercise. Rhiane advises that you start small. "You can build your mileage locally," she says. "An easy hike would be around 4-6 miles, it's important to get comfortable and confident — but most of all, enjoy it."
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