Lending Some Adventure

Gear libraries are making it easier for more kids to get outdoors

By Allison Torres Burtka

July 3, 2017

Andrew Pringle of the Washington Trails Association poses in a Seattle gear library space that the organization recently outgrew, due to demand. 

Andrew Pringle of the Washington Trails Association poses in a Seattle gear library space that the organization recently outgrew, due to demand. | Photo courtesy of Outdoors Empowered Network

Kids who spend  time in wild nature reap all kinds of benefits, including improved physical and mental health, lower stress, and higher confidence. Yet many kids and their families have never camped nor hiked. The biggest  barrier to getting in the woods? The significant cost of outdoor gear. Now, “gear libraries” across the United States are addressing this challenge by enabling many organizations serving youths to use borrowed gear—for free.

The concept of lending gear isn’t new—universities and other organizations have been doing it for years. “What’s unique is that we’re empowering youth workers and teachers—these really important people within communities—by training them and then linking them with local gear libraries,” says Kyle Macdonald, founder of the Outdoors Empowered Network. His organization trains youth development leaders to take their groups on outdoor excursions. Once they complete the training, they can check out gear and get out on the trail.

“Enabling leaders who already know the kids is key,” says Macdonald, who founded the network after leading groups with the Appalachian Mountain Club—which pioneered the model with its Youth Opportunities Program in 1968—and later founding Bay Area Wilderness Training (BAWT). “The kids really got a lot out of it, they bonded with each other,” Macdonald says, recalling the excursions he led with the Appalachian Mountain Club. “But, they were going to go right back to their communities, and I thought, ‘This is something that’s just not quite as good as it could be.’”

One day, at a hut along the Appalachian Trail, he saw a group of youth workers and teachers finishing their training through the Youth Opportunities Program, which provides outdoor leadership training to urban youth development professionals in the Northeast. That’s when it clicked. “I thought, ‘They know the kids—they should be the ones taking them out.’” With the Appalachian Mountain Club’s blessing, Macdonald took that notion to California and in 1999 created BAWT, with a stated mission “to affect a generation by connecting youth to nature by breaking down the barriers to access—fear, expensive equipment, transportation, and trained adults to take them on immersive outdoor trips.”

Today, that model of training-the-trainer and lending the gear is on the rise, both within and beyond the Outdoors Empowered Network, says Macdonald, who notes that he's heard of at least five gear library programs poised to open in Colorado alone. Other Network members include Los Angeles Wilderness Training, Forest Preserves of Cook County Camping, Chicago Park District, Families in Nature, and the Washington Trails Association.

Of the kids served by Outdoors Empowered Network programs, 85 to 90 percent are people of color, and most are from disadvantaged communities. Often, they are already connected to community-based organizations offering after-school programs, refugee nonprofits, or churches that have some kind of recreation programs. “It’s generally the schools and the communities that don’t have the resources to have a teacher hand the parent a gear list and say, ‘We’re going on a camping trip, and we need all this gear—please go buy it.’” About a third of the gear within the Network’s libraries has been purchased, and the rest has been donated by companies such as Osprey Packs, Keen, North Face, and GSI outdoors.

The average Outdoors Empowered Network outing is a three-night camping trip, but some are longer, and some are day hikes. Usually groups stay close to home, though  others drive several hours to get to their destinations, sometimes  crossing state lines. Teachers and group leaders, Macdonald says, bring a mix of outdoor experience to the Network. Some have never camped before; others are veteran backpackers.  “The one thing that they all feel passionately about is that they see the kids that they work with aren’t getting these opportunities,” he says. “They want to help the kids understand that public lands are for them.”

Often, kids’ lack of outdoor experience is eye-opening. Macdonald recalls taking a group of kids to the beach in San Francisco, during which one third grader looked really tentative. “He walked down toward the wet sand, asked what happens where the sand changes color, and eventually, got into it and then just played for hours.” Afterward, Macdonald learned it was the first time the student had touched wet sand. “He lived less than seven miles away from the Pacific Ocean.”

“Gear libraries are generally for the schools and the communities that don’t have the resources to have a teacher hand the parent a gear list and say, ‘We’re going on a camping trip, and we need all this gear—please go buy it.’”

Detroit Inspiring Connections Outdoors (ICO), a Sierra Club outreach program that offers wilderness experiences and environmental education, also  maintains a gear library, now in its third summer in operation. The gear library  was born when REI stopped renting out gear from its stores in southeastern Michigan, and donated much of its rental equipment to Detroit ICO. Says program chair Garrett Dempsey, “We suddenly had way more capacity of gear than we had volunteers and youth to take out on trips.” Partly because Dempsey had seen the benefits of a gear library first-hand while volunteering with BAWT, Detroit ICO decided to make the gear available to other local organizations serving youth.

A high school outdoors club and a zoological society’s youth leadership program are among the many groups that use Detroit ICO’s gear to take kids camping. The library also helped the local Girl Scouts resurrect its backpacking program. “The sites the troops once used had not been visited for many years, so they borrowed backpacks to get out there again,” Dempsey says. “They were blazing trails and rediscovering these old backcountry camps—and rediscovering a backpacking culture in the regional Girl Scouts program, too.”

Detroit ICO is currently working with the Outdoors Empowered Network, the City of Detroit, and other groups to rehabilitate a once-popular campground in a Detroit city park. The idea is that Detroit ICO’s gear library will serve as the campground’s initial source of gear, allowing local groups to take kids camping and enjoy nature—“right there in the city,” Dempsey says.

One Outdoors Empowered Network member, the Austin-based Families in Nature, works with families rather than youth groups—aiming to connect family members to nature, and one another, through time spent outdoors.  Although its gear library is a little over a year old, it’s already stocked with camping gear as well as field lenses , binoculars, compasses, and fishing poles.

“The gear library allows us to expand our reach and fulfill our mission without having to raise huge amounts of money to support a large staff of instructors,” says founder and director Heather Kulhken. “It also enables diverse communities to bring children and families into nature—for example, when transportation is a barrier, we can help schools or communities host camping trips on their own land. We also loan gear to schools and train teachers to take their classes out into nature to learn for the day.”

Getting kids engaged in the outdoors, Macdonald maintains, offers “long-term benefits [in terms of] health, graduation rates, and just stress levels, alone. For a kid who comes back from a wilderness experience, those lessons reaped are ones that start to come out weeks later, months later, maybe even years later.”