Let’s Hike TO is a thriving Toronto organization that intentionally extends a warm invitation to people of colour, newcomers and young adults to join in engaging group hikes. Take note: The hiking group’s name is not just Hike TO, but Let’s Hike TO. The Let’s in the organization’s name signals both the group’s warm and welcoming nature and its core ethos that getting comfortable walking outdoors is best done in a safe and engaging community setting. While anyone can attend their walks regardless of their age or identity, the group has made an intentional effort since its inception in July 2021 to become the city’s diversity-focused hiking group.
In her latest book, Michelle Obama says: “For every door that’s been opened to me, I’ve tried to open my door to others. And here is what I have to say, finally: Let’s invite one another in.”
Speaking to Camara Chambers, one of the four Founders of Let’s Hike TO, it’s clear that her group’s commitment to inviting others into nature underlies the group’s success. To date, Let’s Hike TO has led over 100 hikes attended by 1,300+ attendees. The hikes regularly fill beyond capacity, a phenomenon that’s been fuelled by widespread media attention in outlets ranging from BlogTO to the Guardian UK.
Park People played an important role in the group’s early success by providing funding and training through our InTO the Ravines and Sparking Change programs. Now, with the group having recently secured non-profit status, we spoke to Camara to dig deeper into what it really means to invite communities into nature.
Growing up in London, Camara had a decidedly urban upbringing. Nature-based activities like camping, fishing, skiing and hiking were not, as Camara shared, in her family’s wheelhouse. Just to put a fine point on the subject, she tells me, “I definitely did not in any way identify as an outdoorsy person”.
In fact, Camara moved to Toronto as an adult to find a slower pace of life. And, while it may seem surprising that someone would turn to a big city like Toronto for a sense of calm, Camara assures me that the Canadian city is much slower-paced and less intensely urban than her bustling home city of 9 million residents.
As Camara was settling into her new home and career, an older colleague invited her to join her for a hike at a local hiking club. Camara had never heard of the club and had never hiked before. But, that initial invitation led Camara to “immediately fall in love” with hiking:
“It was calm, it was relaxing. I felt at peace with myself, I was immediately addicted.”
On that very first hike, Camara was so smitten that she made the decision to become a volunteer hike leader. Right away she started designing and leading hikes that reflected her own interests and the kind of hikes she’d be keen to join.
“We’d start at a TTC station and we’d end up at a craft brewery,” she tells me. “But, all along the way, we’d hike through lush ravines and green spaces. And, more and more people started coming out.”
Even though her hikes were well attended, Camara noticed that the people attending the club’s hikes tended to be older, long-time hikers and established Canadians. “The demographic was just not anywhere near as diverse as the city,” says Camara.
At the time, Camara was enrolled in a community organizing leadership course at Harvard. She thought the course’s practicum would provide a perfect opportunity to address the hiking club’s lack of diversity. Camara started small, writing a proposal to help the club attract young adults to their hikes. Ultimately, her proposal was rejected by the board.
Speaking of the hiking club, Camara shares: “There was a strong resistance to change and a general feeling that enough was being done already, but I could see so many untapped opportunities and ways to involve more diverse people.”.”
As academic and outdoor enthusiast Jacqueline L. Scott said in a recent article:
“Many people see nature as a neutral space that’s open to everyone. And while it’s true there isn’t usually any barbed wire preventing racialized people from accessing it, our findings show there are quite a few societal barriers they face.”
Frustrated by the inertia and keen to kickstart a practical solution, Camara decided to work with the three people who became her Co-Founders to create a new grassroots organization focused on inviting new communities into hiking in Toronto. “My colleague invited me to join on a hike, that’s how I got started,” says Camara.
“It’s important to invite people and welcome them into nature. Without that invitation, some people just don’t see themselves there. I know I didn’t.”.
By establishing Let’s Hike T.O., the three Founders set out to invite-in communities that had been systemically left off the hiking invitation list. In so doing, Let’s Hike T.O. sought to redress the embedded racism and exclusion in the hiking community and deliberately connect communities to the benefits of nature.
The iconic phrase ‘build it and they will come” proved to be true for Let’s Hike T.O. When the group extended an invitation to join hikes, a diverse community of hikers showed up.
“To be honest, the barriers didn’t really exist,” says Camara. “People just needed someone to show them that they could hike. To make it feel safe and accessible to them. It’s just that no one had asked them directly.”
How did Let’s Hike T.O. do it? Here are some of the strategies they use to extend the invitation to a new and eager community of Toronto hikers.
Like Camara, not everyone who eventually falls in love with hiking identifies as an “outdoorsy person.”As Camara freely confesses:, “I don’t know that much about like the flora and the fauna and I don’t know if I’m that interested to know that much about it.”
This may sound shocking to a die-hard naturalist, but Let’s Hike T.O,’s approach is:
“There are many ways to hook people on hiking, so why not be creative? There is nothing you can’t pair with hiking. Literally, you can do hiking plus anything.”
The groups’ “hiking + anything” approach has resulted in sold-out hikes on topics ranging from foraging to photography.
Hikes often feature an issue expert who leads the hike alongside the volunteer guide. That means that volunteer hike leaders don’t need to be experts on every topic under the sun and that the hikes always feature fresh content.
Using this approach, Let’s Hike T.O, has hosted hikes that feature equity groups, including hikes on Indigenous knowledge, Jewish history, and Black history. Camara has found this to be a great way to encourage equity-deserving groups to attend hikes.
For example, Park People’s InTO the Ravines program supported a hike in and around Toronto’s Little Jamaica neighbourhood. The hike was called “Walk Good”: after the Jamaican patois expression used to wish a departing traveller good fortune before a trip. The 5km hike led by two Black Torontonian hike leaders introduced participants to Little Jamaica’s Black history, featured Caribbean snacks like plantain chips, and engaged hikers in a 30-minute facilitated discussion about how racial identity impacts experiences in the ravines.
“A lot of people think they have to buy a lot of gear to go hiking and a lot of clubs insist that you need to have hiking boots. Particularly if you’re hiking in Toronto in the summer, you can get away with hiking in running shoes, or whatever shoes you feel comfortable walking in.”
As Camara points out, if people think they need to invest in expensive equipment to participate, they are much more likely to be intimidated and opt-out. Also, equipment costs can be a significant barrier to participation.
If the goal is to encourage people to opt-in, then it’s important to prioritize showing up over gearing up. While Camara emphasizes that people may eventually want to invest in simple gear like crampons during icy winter days, it’s best to solidify buy-in first.
Every Let’s Hike T.O. hike begins and ends at a TTC station or bus stop. The built-in assumption that participants have access to cars not only favours those with the greatest economic privilege but inadvertently punishes people who are choosing a more sustainable mode of transportation. Finally, making all the hikes TTC accessible helps people recognize that they don’t need to have a car to participate in hiking.
Also, as Camara points out, if you organize an event at 2 pm on a Tuesday, anyone who works typical office hours or a day job is automatically unable to attend. So, to reach a broader base of young prospective hikers, Let’s Hike T.O. schedules most of their hikes on weekends. Hikes start at 10 am or later, a time that says “we get it, you want to sleep in on the weekend.”
And, after hikers get their much deserved beauty rest, they don’t need to worry about falling behind because a number of Let’s Hike T.O.’s hikes happen at the comfortable pace of 3-4km per hour. This pace is slightly slower than the average adult walking speed. That means that participants of different ages or beginners don’t need to struggle to keep up. Instead of feeling bad about lagging behind, participants can focus on the positive experience of being in nature together, at any speed.
From the get-go, Let’s Hike T.O. has exclusively used familiar social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook to attract new hikers.
Rather than relying on people finding them on the web, Let’s Hike T.O. spends its time where their audience is already hanging. Using a visual platform like Instagram allows the group to profile diverse participants having fun in nature. Pictures help curious types see themselves as potential hikers. It seems to be working as they’ve already secured over 2,000 followers.
Once they’ve been invited into hiking, Camara wants Let’s Hike T.O. participants to get hooked on the benefits of spending time outdoors.
“We’re definitely not the gatekeepers of nature. I always hope that people leave our hikes with an understanding of how they could do it themselves.”
The hikes are designed to build participants’ confidence in several key areas.
First, Camara emphasizes that through hiking, many new hikers build up their confidence in their body’s ability to carry distances. Hiking outdoor terrains gives people the opportunity to explore their body’s capacity and limits, and get hooked on the endorphins produced through physical fitness and activity.
Hiking also helps participants see their city differently. Toronto ravines, in particular, can be hidden in plain sight.
“The hikes give people an opportunity to learn about the natural spaces around them. Particularly if you live in a very urban part of Toronto, you might not have access to natural spaces like the ravines.”
Finally, the hikes provide an opportunity for participants to experience the benefits that come from spending time in nature. As highlighted in Park People’s 2022 Canadian City Parks Report feature on nature connectedness: “When we tune ourselves into the natural world, we feel more positive emotions, like vitality. We also ruminate less and act kinder and more generous to those around us.”
Camara’s own experience of becoming “totally addicted” to hiking happened because her time in nature provided her with the sense of calm she had been craving. She’s watched gleefully as she’s been able to spread this sense of calm and wonder to a new community of hiking participants since the group started only 18 months ago.
While it was a serendipitous invitation that inspired Camara to start Let’s Hike T.O., this inviting spirit underpins everything the organization does. By employing a strategy deliberately designed to invite people of colour, newcomers and young adults into hiking and reduce the barriers to participation, Let’s Hike T.O. has succeeded in connecting new communities to the benefits of spending time in nature. They’ve not only succeeded in redefining what it means to live in the city, they’ve redefined what it means to be an ‘outdoorsy person.”