A quarter of people feel unwelcome or uncomfortable while participating in outdoor activities with 8 in 10 of those falling between the ages of 16-34, according to a new survey* conducted by outdoor brand Helly Hansen in partnership with AKA CIC.
The survey results make uncomfortable reading for the outdoor community. The main reasons given by respondents who feel unwelcome outdoors were “feeling like an outsider or not fitting in with the group” (35%); feeling intimidated by more experienced participants (33%); the perception of being judged by others (32%); negative encounters with other participants (20%); and a lack of diversity or representation (20%).
In the hills of Arrochar, Helly Hansen brought together volunteer members of the local Scottish Mountain Rescue team and their Open Mountain Month campaign partners, AKA CIC – a not-for-profit organisation that brings inner-city communities into the outdoors – to discuss what needs to be done within the outdoor community to help break down some of these barriers.
Main image: Members of AKA CIC and Arrochar Mountain Rescue team up with Helly Hansen on a practice search and rescue | Credit: Ed Smith supplied by Helly Hansen
It’s about a mentality, Anton Brown, one of the three friends and co-founders of Nottingham-based AKA CIC, told The Great Outdoors. “What you know is what you see,” he adds. So, being city-based, some of the people AKA CIC work with may not be aware of the green spaces of the close by Peak District National Park and the benefits of outdoor adventure. Likewise, some live in “survival mode” so going into the outdoors may simply cause further anxiety, co-founder Antwon Bonnick added.
Based in Nottingham, Antwon, Kevin Spriggs and Anton – whose initials make up the AKA acronym – were inspired to start their grassroots non-profit in 2020 to help make their city and its people happier, healthier and more unified. As we chatted at Arrochar Mountain Rescue HQ, the trio explained their own journey into the outdoors began with a single step thanks to a mentor and youth work manager, Neil.
Anton recalled: “He used to come into work dressed in hiking gear and we used to laugh at him! But he was always trying to get us out in the hills. He had an underlying heart issue and, in 2017, he suffered a heart attack on a ridge, falling and passing away. So, we decided to walk The Great Ridge from Mam Tor in his honour.”
Of that first hill walk, Anton added, “Physically, I felt good and mentally, I felt a calmness and stillness. I went back to the fast-paced city but took that calmness with me. We immediately all realised we wanted to share that with the community and youngsters we work with. People think [AKA CIC] is a ‘black’ thing but one of our main values is oneness – we’re about people and human connection.”
Coming full circle, Aton, Antwon and Kevin – all former semi-pro footballers in their mid-thirties who now work in the youth and public sector – are paving the way for the next generation of outdoors folk. They organise group walks, fitness camps, and meet ups in the outdoors to reconnect with nature and “offer a chance to share, unload or discuss life and all its mysteries.” With each walk, they see participants’ minds calm and their confidence develop, the fears of the unknown falling away when they are shared within a group.
Breaking down some of the barriers to participation, AKA CIC offers those who can’t afford transport into the outdoors or protective gear suitable for adventure both travel into the Peak District and items of clothing fitting for the walks and weather conditions. More than that, they offer a safe space to enjoy nature and, as Kevin puts it, aim to make people’s first experience outdoors a positive one in the hopes of inspiring more to get out there again and again for mental and physical fitness.
Kevin added, “We want to make the outdoors an accessible place for all communities, empowering others to gain skills, confidence and a sense of belonging in the outdoors, from moors to mountains. The results from this research show there is a lot more work to be done, and we hope our work and involvement on this project with Helly Hansen can help to bridge the gap.”
The research further revealed that almost 3 in 10 (29%) of the population have not participated in any outdoor activities in the past year, and one-fifth admit to not participating in outdoor activities such as hiking, camping, trail running, kayaking/canoeing, wild swimming, paddle boarding, scrambling or rock climbing at all.
As a nation, we are spoilt for choice when it comes to nature and open spaces. When questioned on the factors preventing the British public from venturing into the outdoors, the main reasons were lack of knowledge, confidence and safety concerns (38%), bad weather (27%) and being unable to afford it (21%). Almost half (47%) admitted to not knowing the right equipment to use, whilst 45% revealed they don’t know where to go and a third (33%) don’t know the basic safety precautions – such as preparing for a trip or calling Mountain Rescue for help.
During our time in Arrochar with the Mountain Rescue volunteers, the group was shown the latest innovations in drone search techniques and the painstaking practice of search and rescue. As the rain lashed down upon us, we trudged through the tussocky foothills on the hunt for a dummy ‘injured hillwalker’. The Cobbler (Ben Arthur) – a grade three scramble and local accident blackspot – loomed through the low cloud on the other side of Loch Long.
The highly-trained group of volunteers encouraged us novices to hold the line in the wet weather, poor visibility and uneven ground. The procedure took hours of volunteer time with the challenging work of stretcher carry requiring more than ten of us on rotation, highlighting just how vital the volunteers of Mountain Rescue are in their efforts to keep all hillwalkers safe on any given day in any weather.
Mike Park, Chief Executive Officer for Mountain Rescue England and Wales and a partner of Helly Hansen, says, “We are saddened by some of these results which reveal why the public isn’t embracing the outdoors. We live in a beautiful part of the world with lots of wonderful outdoor spaces, which everyone should feel empowered to enjoy.”
More than half of Brits (54%) said they would like to participate in outdoor activities more often and see the physical (46%) and mental health (37%) benefits. However, 4 in 10 acknowledge a lack of transportation is a barrier and 53% stated there are financial barriers to participation.
He added: “As an organisation, we want to ensure that everyone is kept safe and properly prepared for the activity they are encountering. Safety advice is often simple, such as checking the weather, telling someone where you are going and when you are expected home, and ensuring you have appropriate clothing and footwear on. If you do find yourself in trouble, we are always here to help – just dial 999, ask for the police and then mountain rescue.”
Emma Russell, Marketing Manager for Helly Hansen in the UK and Ireland, comments on the findings, “The research reveals something we have suspected for a while – that a large number of the population don’t feel they have the confidence and skillset to participate in outdoor pursuits. As an industry, there are many things we can do to overcome this. Each January and June, we actively encourage everyone into the outdoors for Helly Hansen’s Open Mountain Month, with the help of our professionals who will be providing expert advice on safety and what to pack, as well as tips and tricks to Stay Alive and Feel Alive.”
Helly Hansen and Mountain Rescue England and Wales have been partners since 2021 and are committed to making the outdoors inclusive for all. For more information on how to remain safe, please visit the Mountain Rescue England and Wales website.
Learn more about the work of AKA at www.akahwo.com.
*The research was conducted via Censuswide with a poll of 2,000 UK adults in September 2023.