It was somewhere near the end of the Colorado Trail (CT), with hundreds of miles of trekking behind her, that Patricia Cameron, finally felt like a thru-hiker, one of those hardy backpackers who undertakes a long trail from end to end for weeks or even months straight. Blackpacker, her trail name, had camped at a water source with a group of other thru-hikers. She hadn’t spent a lot of time with other people during her 486-mile journey from Denver to Durango. She was usually lagging behind. “I was one of the slowest people on the trail,” Cameron says.
So she enjoyed the company of this trail family, aka tramily in thru-hiking lingo, but figured it was short lived. The group was on a 22-mile stretch without water, so the backpackers had to carry even more water—and its weight—than usual. As they hit the trail in the morning, the hikers said their goodbyes and “hope to see you at the next water source’s.” Cameron didn’t expect to see them again. It would take a 16-mile day to reach water—unheard of for her. But by 10 a.m., she had covered 4.5 miles. “I remember saying to myself, ‘This is the day; this is it,’” she says.
By 4 p.m., Cameron reached the water and reconnected with her newfound tramily. “It was the first time I felt like I was really a part of the trail, or I was really a thru-hiker,” she says. “During that four-day period, I stayed with the same people, and it kind of changed my life. I guess it gave me the confidence I could do these things. I finally believed I could thru-hike it at the end.”
Cameron’s journey was life changing personally, but she undertook the challenge for a broader purpose: to raise awareness for people of color in the outdoors and for her nonprofit group Blackpackers, which aims to create racial and economic equity in outdoor recreation by hosting outings and providing subsidized gear. You could say Cameron thru-hiked the CT to expand and diversify the greater outdoors tramily. “I wanted to change the way people thought about thru-hiking, maybe in Colorado at the very least,” Camerons says. “If someone thinks about thru-hiking or the Colorado Trail, maybe my face will come up—and a black woman’s face coming up, as opposed to a white man’s face, is a huge shift for the narrative.”
Where Are the Blackpackers?
Cameron, 37, is an avid outdoors woman and diversity advocate based in Colorado Springs. Her CT hike is the culmination of 26 years of contributing to jobs that serve the local community. Cameron has worked as an EMT, served as a volunteer firefighter and worked in the ICU at Memorial Hospital Central since graduating from UCCS. Currently, she works at Mountain Equipment Recyclers and is a freelance writer and photographer, published in The Denver Post, Colorado Sun, Backpacker and other publications. Cameron is also a single mother and the founder and executive director of Blackpackers.
Hiking and enjoying outdoor pursuits have been part of Cameron’s life for years. She got her first taste during middle school at the YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region’s Camp Shady Brook, thanks to a program for at-risk youth. But outdoor recreation in the United States is well documented to be predominantly white. In 2019, 73.7% of outdoor participants were Caucasian, compared with 12.6% African American participants, according to the 2019 Outdoor Participation Report by the Outdoor Industry Association. When it comes to thru-hiking, theTrek.co, a website that connects thru-hikers, reports that users of the Appalachian Trail are 94% to 96% white.
“I’m very used to being the only black person in a space,” Cameron says. “When I say ‘used to,’ it doesn’t mean I like it. It is something that’s become a part of my reality from growing up here, going to college here.”
And Cameron wants to see that change, especially in the Colorado outdoors. She says that having the opportunity to try outdoor experiences with people who look like you and share the same culture makes a more comfortable, better learning environment.
Cameron has encountered racism in Colorado Springs. The first time she was called the N-word was in front of Chapel Hills Mall during college. But she also has seen strong support for people of color in the outdoors. “Overwhelmingly, the outdoor community in Colorado has been—if not already diverse, which they typically aren’t—they’ve been willing to reflect on what that means for people that don’t look like them,” she says.
Cameron received an abundance of support for her CT hike. Prior to the thru-hike, the longest she had camped out was two nights and three days. Preparing for seven weeks on the trail required much planning. Equipment, timing, money and volunteers all needed to be orchestrated. Sponsors provided donations and gear, from socks to stoves, to make it possible for three novice backpackers of color to join Cameron for short stretches of the CT.
“When I got back, it was just amazing how much support I had,” Cameron says.
Cameron wrote weekly trip journals for Backpacker magazine along the way. She could file them as she passed through town but wasn’t able to follow them on the trail. And after an interview with Denver’s 9News from Lake City, the TV station aired “Where’s Patricia?” updates about her progress. Once she was done, Cameron was able to see the outpouring of responses. “I was just blown away by how people had been rooting me on,” she says. “I didn’t know how much people were invested in me. It was so emotional.”
Sharing the Outdoors
Cameron wants other Black and people of color to be able to experience the wonders and healing power of nature. It doesn’t take a 500-mile thru-hike. Blackpackers has hosted camping and ice fishing trips, and the group has hosted multigenerational trips to Camp Shady Brook. The organization received its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status earlier this year.
“One of the reasons why Blackpackers focuses on getting people free or subsidized gear or adventures is because the generational wealth gap between black families and nonwhite families is widening,” Cameron says. “Because of that, I’ve noticed that it’s harder to get into recreation when you’re still struggling with your necessities.”
The racial wealth gap does persist in the United States. Data from the Federal Reserve shows that in 2016, the typical black family held only 1/10 of the net worth of the typical white family.
“The outdoors have been commodified,” Cameron says. “And anytime you put a price tag on it, it will leave some people trouble accessing it.”
But until all Coloradans are able to safely and comfortably experience the outdoors, they don’t know it’s their birthright too, she says.
“The outdoors are for everybody, period,” Cameron says. “It doesn’t have to look like the person who’s wearing Patagonia or whatever. It can look like however you identify with the outdoors.”
She says a tent from Walmart can work just as well as a pricier one.
“I don’t want people to feel like because of how Coloradans have turned the outdoors into a personality trait, they can’t be just as much an outdoors person who looks different or has a different experience level,” she says. “What I try to explain to people is there are ways of making it affordable for people who have no resources, and you don’t have to hop into a Subaru with a roof rack on top.”
Cameron laughs on the phone, admitting she does own a Subaru with a roof rack.
But she suggests allies can help make the outdoors more inclusive overall by examining how the outdoor community explicitly or implicitly makes people feel welcome. “You might not be startled when you see a black family outdoors, and that’s great, we’re glad you are there,” she says. “But maybe you perpetuate some of the class issues with the outdoors by how you present yourself and the gear you wear or the gear you won’t wear.”
The Door Is Open
So Cameron walked. From a rough start on a blistering hot July day in Denver’s Waterton Canyon, across the majestic heights of the Continental Divide, through the roadless, isolated San Juan Mountains, she walked, propelled by her mission to create opportunities for others, gaining strength as she went. On Aug. 27, nearly 500 miles later, Cameron reached the Durango trailhead and stopped walking. A few fellow hikers she had encountered on the trail clapped for her, but finishing the Colorado Trail was largely anticlimactic. After seven weeks of walking and rationing water and dodging thunderstorms and finding shelter, Cameron simply stopped. She would soon discover she had a stress fracture in her ankle. And the ripple effect of her journey continue to spread—for Blackpackers, for people of color, for lovers of the outdoors and for Cameron personally.
“I completed the Colorado Trail. When I stepped on the trail, I could barely make it through a few miles a day,” Cameron says. “That confidence, I’ll probably carry with me forever.”
She’ll continue spreading it to others in the outdoors.