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Embracing the outsider: Imposter syndrome in the outdoors

Embracing the outsider: Imposter syndrome in the outdoors

How outdoorsy do you have to be for it to “count?”

I started turning this question over in my mind after chatting with a backpacker at a local brewery. They made an offhand comment about an acquaintance who likes to hike. “Well, not real hikes,” they qualified. “They just go to the park.”

Does someone have to hit a certain mileage or milestone before they’re considered a “real outdoorsperson?” I don’t think this person meant harm, but it was a wake-up call that this exclusionary attitude is pervasive in outdoor spaces – and, perhaps unintentionally, we can shame folks for not being “extreme” or “fit” or “skilled” enough to feel they belong.

The feeling of paddling my kayak down a misty river on a hot day, smelling crushed pine needles under my hiking boots or even the burn in my legs and lungs as I climb a tough hill on a hike – we all deserve to experience the outdoors in ways that energize us. Just like we all deserve the mental health benefits that time spent in nature can bring.

Michigan’s newest Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan, a strategy that dives into outdoor trends, says the No. 1 outdoor activity in Michigan isn’t hunting, running or boating.

It’s walking. Simply walking outside on a trail, sidewalk or beach.

And that’s as basic as it needs to be. Are you intentionally outside? Congratulations, you are a person outdoors. An outdoorsperson.

This interpretation may seem flippant, but it’s true that even the simplest of outdoor activities like walking under the sky and trees have real benefits and are a way to engage with the natural world.

That nagging “compare and despair” feeling you might have when lining up your walk in the park against an ultramarathoner’s feat? That leads to imposter syndrome in the outdoors, an anxiety or frustration that what you’re doing isn’t real or good enough.

This feeling may manifest when someone feels like they shouldn't join in an activity – say, a group hike – because they feel like they don't belong or don't deserve to be there.

Women, people with disabilities and older individuals can face this especially. This challenge shows up before people even make it outside, particularly when it comes to finding the right tools and gear. Finding quality women’s gear, adaptive equipment for those with disabilities and sporting gear for larger bodies can be a nightmare fueled by empty shelves and FedEx return labels.

Even if you find the right gear (and thankfully, there are far better offerings today than in the past), in an era of “fitspo,” every influencer on social media seems to have the newest, most expensive, name-brand items. It can be intimidating and make the barrier to entry for the outdoors seem too costly, or fan the flames of that not-belonging imposter syndrome.

But you really don’t need much beyond the 10 essentials, especially if you’re just trying out a new activity. Gear rental, purchasing refurbished or thrifted items and borrowing from friends or family are all good options. Just don’t skimp on safety gear – a helmet that protects your noggin should be new and in good condition.

Since my job usually has me at a desk and not in the outdoors like many of my DNR colleagues, I’ve experienced being underestimated outside. But that’s rare – I’ve also encountered a fantastic community of skilled people who take the time to teach, share and inspire.

For those interested in getting started, join a hiking group, sign up for an Outdoor Skills Academy workshop to learn something new, visit Recreation Search for a new favorite spot, or view the DNR’s outdoor accessibility webpage to find places to explore that meet your needs.

It’s not your ability, knowledge or experience that makes an outdoorsperson – it’s passion. You have a right to experience the outdoors in your own way and at your own pace. Need a hiking pole in the park to keep you steady, or a paved trail for wheelchair navigation? Get outdoors in the way that works best for you.

Are you one of the experts? The marathoners, cliff-climbers or cold-weather surfers? Take the time to share your passion and knowledge by welcoming someone new into your sport and community. We were all new once, and there’s always more to learn. 

In the end, the only thing separating you from the outdoors should be your door