I first learned to camp as a Girl Scout at Patapsco State Park, just outside my hometown of Baltimore, Md. I enjoyed learning to pitch a tent, hiking, birdwatching and sitting around the campfire roasting marshmallows for s’mores. But I hated having to dig a latrine in the dirt.
In my early teens, my mother’s side of the family made camping at Elk Neck State Park an annual summer vacation. But today, I don’t have that same love for camping. I need more comfort, fewer bugs and less fear about my safety out in the woods. That’s an issue for many Blacks who make up only seven percent of visitors to national parks. But Earl B. Hunter, Jr. is on a mission to change that narrative through his company, Black Folks Camp Too.
We Own This Land Too
The 44-year-old Columbia, S.C. native, who now lives in the mountains of North Carolina near more than 1,000 waterfalls, has become an influencer in the $870 billion outdoor industry. He says working as one of only a handful of Black sales and marketing executives in the industry, where he sold pop-up tents to RV dealers, made him see that Blacks were missing out on visiting state and national parks that our tax dollars are paying for.
He launched Black Folks Camp Too in October 2019 at the Second Annual Outdoor Economy Conference in Asheville, N.C. “I was the MC and when I looked out into the crowd, I saw only four Black people. So I broke out into song with “A Change Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke saying we’re gonna change the look of this audience and the industry,” says Hunter. He continues, “I told them, ‘This is an outdoor economy conference, you don’t want Black folks money? You must not because you haven’t gone after it. And you can’t get our money by just posting us on billboards, because it’s deeper than that. There are fears that we have to get over and you’re gonna have to help us change those fears because you’re the ones who started them.’”
Though Hunter was working in the industry, he had never camped himself. “I was a Louis Vuitton, Gucci wearing, sports car driving executive,” he says. It wasn’t until he decided to do a three-month trip across the U.S. and Canada with his then seven-year-old son Dillon that they both camped for the very first time. They visited 49 campgrounds in 20 states and provinces and only saw one other Black family. That’s when Hunter knew he had to start his company. “Our mission is to remove generational fear of the outdoors for Black folks, particularly in the South,” says Hunter. “We give knowledge and we get the industry to invite us because the industry has not really done that. Most people in the industry don’t really know why Black folks don’t camp,” he reveals.
Education and Invitation Wipe Out Fear
Hunter got confirmation on the answers to that question when he took a team with him to the CIAA in Charlotte, N.C. and asked people on the street whether they’d ever been camping and if not, why. “The number one reason Black folks don’t camp is generational fear, ‘My mother, grandmother told us don’t go in the woods because the boogie man was out there.’ And we know who the boogie man was, it wasn’t bears, it was White folks,” Hunter says.
“The second reason is that when you don’t go outdoors, you don’t have any knowledge or interest in it. Some would say, ‘I’m not sleeping in no tent, in no woods,’ or ‘In the movies, Black folks are the first to die in the woods.’ So the industry just passed us by,” he laments. “And the third reason is that the industry has not invited us. And I don’t think it’s a race issue, I think it’s a cultural issue. They don’t know how to reach us.”
So Hunter and his team are training companies on how to reach out to the Black traveler, as well as educating Black people about all aspects of camping. Along with speaking at industry events, training companies on diversity and inclusion, posting information on places to visit, tips on what to bring and even recipes for campfire cooking, Hunter and his team of five also offer short trips for first-time campers. The trips are sponsored by partners and supporters.
Attorney Angela Jones, Esq. considers herself a queen-sized woman who walks and does Zumba but has never camped before. She says it’s because it was never on her radar. Camping with Black Folks Camp Too was harder than the many challenges she had getting through law school. She gets choked up when she declares, “I was the oldest one there. And my physical abilities were the lowest of the three other women in the group. It was like going up a flight of stairs with no handrails and missing steps. But they didn’t make me feel like I was the weakest link. They waited on me and they helped me,” she tears up. “It was really beautiful! And I felt like if I could do this, there’s nothing I can’t do!” she says with excitement.
Jermaine McCain, a business education teacher at North Carolina A&T in Greensboro, says he was never invited to camp before. But this experience was also life-changing for him. “It was challenging but rewarding. You start as an individual, but as you go on the journey, you become a unit with the other guys,” says McCain. He continues, “We hiked three different trails and on our last trail we found a campsite that we all agreed upon and set up our tents and a campfire and shared what camping meant to us. Becoming one with nature is a spiritual experience. It made me think of our African roots where young men were taken out into the jungle and they had to make their own way back as a rite of passage. They had to overcome the unknown and be able to conquer their fear and discomfort. We even got our ‘pack names.’ The guys gave me the name “The Truth” because I always wanted to focus on the facts,” he laughs.
Steven Reinhold, an Italian American, is one of the guides for Black Folks Camp Too as well as the “campfire cook” and photographer. He was impressed with Earl’s enthusiasm for his mission and decided to partner with him through his own company, The Appalachian Adventure Company. “I’ve supported several organizations in the outdoor industry in the past to get people of color into the outdoors. But Earl just seems to be a shining star in that realm,” says Reinhold. “So I wanted to work with him. In fact, I was the first person to buy a Black Folks Camp Too t-shirt from him,” he laughs.
The Waynesville, N.C. resident grew up camping and believes that part of the experience is good food. “I’m a foodie and consider myself to be an outdoor chef. And food is the very first thing I think of logistically,” says Reinhold. “We have to eat for the energy we’re going to put out on these adventures, so I cook really hearty meals. On one of the last trips we did, I cooked Tex/Mex chicken tacos and chicken fajitas with peppers and onions. But you have to carry everything you’re going to cook, so you can’t necessarily have all fresh ingredients. You also have to carry your stove, fuel canister and pasta pan and something to clean those pans, so it’s a very huge logistical challenge. And we kind of cook tailgate style. When it’s time for dinner, we drive to a nice overlook and I’ll cook out of my truck with a propane stove with two burners.”
“The meals were outta sight,” says McCain. “I was thinking we were going to have cheese sandwiches or something. But the first meal was pasta with chicken and sausage in it. It was delicious. And then for breakfast we had bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches.”
Empowerment & Enlightenment
Hunter says first-timers don’t have to try to do what veteran campers do. Go at your own pace or “hike your own hike” as they say in the industry. It’s not even necessary to leave your home. If you have the space, you can learn how to camp in your own backyard. That’s something Hunter and his wife and children demonstrate on their YouTube channel
“There are many different levels of camping, from your backyard to backpacking to traveling in an RV. Camping has evolved so much that motorhomes today look better than most people’s houses,” exclaims Hunter. But no matter what type of camping is chosen, the benefits are invaluable. Reinhold says, “Hiking and camping is where I find my best self, and so I want to help other people find their best selves and experience the healing properties and the awe and joy that can be found in nature.” Hunter adds, “That’s another reason why we need to get Black folks camping. Not only to remove the fear but to remove the clutter from our minds.”
Jones agrees. “It’s like a magic pill because health is your wealth. It certainly opened up a new world for me. And I feel great! My batteries were recharged! I’ll be 49 this year and this trip helped give me a renewed sense of purpose for what I want to do with the rest of my life.”
McCain adds, “You wouldn’t know that these trails and waterfalls and overlooks and horizons exist unless you get out and adventure beyond your fears. And that’s not just for camping and hiking but for life in general. I’ve been spreading the word and wear my Black Folks Camp Too hat everywhere I go.”
“Some people have said, ‘I feel so relaxed sitting by this creek’ or ‘I have an incredible sense of awe when I’m standing on top of this mountain,’” says Reinhold. “And then it usually wraps up at the end of the night around the campfire talking about the experience of the day and discussing life lessons and life skills we’ve learned. So these campfire conversations are a beautiful thing.”
Hunter says that’s what the campfire in his logo represents. People of all backgrounds coming together to have conversations around the campfire, with no walls to separate us. McCain adds, “And Black Folks Camp Too is also a great conversation piece while you’re out there on the trail with a predominantly White population. They’ll see the logo on your hat and ask what it’s about and that offers a good opportunity for conversation. Also, one day when we were hiking, Earl began to sing, and there was a White couple that was walking by and the husband began to sing along with Earl. That was a very cool, organic experience.”
Hunter says he wants camping to look more like the melting pot of America. “I want camping to look like the diversity of flowers in the outdoors, they’re all different shapes, they have different fragrances, they bloom differently in different climates, some of them are bad for you, like poison ivy, but most of them are good. That’s camping.”