Outdoor Afro provides opportunities to hike and to heal

Rue Mapp sees nature as a vehicle to help African Americans address the violence in their past and present

By Mary Catherine O'Connor

December 12, 2016

Rue Mapp, founder of Outdoor Afro

Rue Mapp, founder of Outdoor Afro | Photo by Lori Eanes.

Growing up in Oakland, California, Rue Mapp learned to love the outdoors. She was an avid Girl Scout, and she spent her summers roaming the family ranch in nearby Lake County. As an adult, Mapp enthusiastically went on camping, hiking, and backpacking trips, but lamented that she was invariably the sole African American in the group. So in 2009 she founded Outdoor Afro, an organization dedicated to connecting African Americans to nature.  

Today, Outdoor Afro has 18,000 members in 28 states and more than 60 leaders who organize trips ranging from group bike rides to multiday treks. Last October, six members "blackpacked" the 40-mile Maryland portion of the Appalachian Trail in a tribute to Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad. 

Mapp, 45, has met heads of state and traveled the world spreading her message: It's time to bust the myth that black people don't like to camp or rough it in the wilderness. 

In her own quest to unpack this myth, she has had to confront some ugly truths.

"When I was young, I asked my dad—who grew up in East Texas—if he had ever known someone who had been lynched, and he said, 'Yes, lots of people.' So we've had generations of terror in the woods in our collective imagination. Until I asked my dad that question, I didn't realize the discomfort that the outdoors can have for us." 

Increasingly, Mapp sees nature as a vehicle to help black people address the violence in their past and present. In the wake of recent police-involved fatalities of African Americans, Outdoor Afro has sought to provide a forum to process the pain these events have caused. 

Following the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, Outdoor Afro hosted a "healing hike" in a redwood forest near Oakland. "We expressed ourselves, and the forest absorbed it. We did not all agree with each other, but we were safe in that redwood bowl," Mapp says. "That's when I realized that nature is a healer. This is my calling in life."

Click here for a video profile of Rue Mapp and Outdoor Afro.

This article appeared in the January/February 2017 edition with the headline "Healing Through Hikes."

By the Numbers According to a report conducted by the Outdoor Foundation, African Americans make up only 9 percent of outdoor enthusiasts. Whites make up 74 percent, Hispanics 8 percent, and Asian and Pacific Islanders 7 percent.