Even if you’ve never camped; even if you’ve never wanted to camp, Rue Mapp is going to make you love it.

Rue Mapp
Rue Mapp and Outdoor Afro leader Clay Anderson. Photo by Thomas J. Story.

“This is out of my comfort zone,” Delane Sims says. “I don’t like bugs. And I’m afraid of the bogeyman.” 

Okay, all you non-campers out there. Do you identify with Ms. Sims? Or maybe you’re the camper, and you desperately want your spouse, significant other, or offspring to share your love of the great outdoors. 

Rue Mapp—who happens to be Delane Sims’s sister—is here to help you. 

Mapp is founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro. That’s an Oakland-based group that connects African Americans with the natural world through hikes, bike rides, camping trips, and other activities. 

Mapp herself grew up in Oakland. But her city upbringing was leavened by weekend visits to her family’s ranch in rural Lake County. In high school, she admits, she was mortified by her family’s rustic roots: “I felt like I was living with the Beverly Hillbillies.” But she came to value the exposure to the outdoors the ranch gave her. 

Then, at age 20, Mapp tested herself by taking Outward Bound mountaineer training in Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. The course culminated in a night climb up a Sierra peak. Halfway up, she became frozen with fear. “I was starfished on the side of a mountain, and I started breaking down,” she says. “I was in tears. The instructor said, ‘Rue, trust your feet,’ and when I heard that, something clicked. I made it to the top.” 

So when, after college and a stint at Morgan Stanley, a mentor advised her to do what she truly longed to do, Mapp decided to trust her feet again—and knew that they were leading her back into the outdoors. She founded Outdoor Afro in 2009. She started small, with hiking and biking trips in the San Francisco Bay Area, then expanded to more ambitious camping and river rafting excursions. 

Birding with a Spotting Scope
Don’t forget to make it fun for the kids.

Thomas J. Story

While Mapp works hard to make sure each Outdoor Afro trip goes smoothly—“There’s something about being the person responsible for everything”—she’s the first to admit that not all her own camping trips have been perfect. “I’ve made all the mistakes,” Mapp says. “I’ve been stuck in a rain with a leaky tent. I’ve forgotten can openers.” Her misadventures have helped her understand how to make camping appealing to newbies. 

Above all, Mapp says, you have to convince them they’re not about to flunk some horrible wilderness exam. “People are afraid they’re going to do things wrong,” she says. “And nobody wants to be embarrassed.” She also believes in camping comfortably. “People—and I’m going to say women especially—don’t want to give up things,” she says. “I explain you don’t have to give up comforts to be out in nature.” On Mapp’s trips, that means spreading your sleeping bag on a state-of-the-art self-inflating sleeping pad. And she sets campsite picnic tables with bud vases and cloth napkins, the latter of which, she notes, are elegant as well as environmentally friendly. 

She’s having an impact. Today Outdoor Afro has 60,000 participants in their network, and over 100 volunteer leaders worldwide. She has been honored with a Conservation Achievement Award from the National Wildlife Federation. Her children are growing up to be enthusiastic campers. And so, with a few trips under her belt, is her sister. “I was so doubtful,” Sims says. “I thought, Why go into the woods and get dirty? But now I see how it helps me recalibrate. Now it’s something I do for myself. Now I ask, Why wasn’t I doing this before?” 

Rue’s Beginner Tips

  • Car camping is not a sin. Hike-in camping has its pluses. But car camping lets you bring the gear that will make first-timers comfortable. 
  • Renting is your friend. Don’t buy expensive camping equipment before you’ve determined if you even like camping. REI and other outdoor outfitters have a wide selection of tents, sleeping bags, and stoves for rent. 
  • Glamp it up. A really comfy pillow, a cup of fresh-brewed coffee, and a superb grilled steak can turn camping carpers into camping converts.

This article originally appeared in our May 2014 issue.

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