Art of the invite: Brevard business aims to increase Black participation outdoors
Earl B. Hunter Jr. describes his younger self as a “Good Times kid,” growing up on free lunch and government assistance in Columbia, South Carolina. He wasn’t great at school — he didn’t even learn to read fluently until he was a teenager — but he had a quality about him. And he had a mentor.
His name was Marion Cooper “Fuzzy” Thompson, he was a guidance counselor, and he changed Hunter’s life.
“What he would tell me was, ‘Don’t be a woulda, coulda, shoulda kid,” said Hunter. “Don’t be that kid that perpetuates the stereotype that folks have of you.”
Teenage Hunter hung on those words, the words of somebody who believed that he could leave the neighborhood and make something of himself. And he did. He went to Georgia Military College, and then to Appalachian State, where he played football. He graduated and went on to become vice president of a $25 million company, traveling the world as he sought and closed deal after deal.
“My tagline is I was a Gucci, Louis Vitton-wearing, sports-car driving, Italian-suit wearing, private plane flying executive,” he said.
And then, in 2014, everything changed.
At the time, Hunter was on his way back to Columbia, scheduled to make a memorable appearance in his old neighborhood after landing in the private plane he was so proud of. But first, he made a pit stop in Brevard for a business meeting with adventure trailer makers SylvanSport. What he’d expected to be a 45-minute meeting lasted four hours as he checked out the company’s GO Camper — “one of the greatest products I’ve seen in my life,” he said — and was amazed to discover they were having a tough time selling it. By the end of the meeting, Hunter found himself agreeing to leave his $25 million company to come work for a business that had never eclipsed $850,000 in sales, despite being around for 10 years.
Earl Hunter and his son Dillon, then 7, explore the U.S. during a three-month trip in 2017.
All this happened despite the fact that Hunter had never been camping before and had little interest in trying. He just thought SylvanSport had a great product, and within six months he’d moved his wife and kids to Brevard and was traveling North America, driving more than 300,000 miles with the camper in tow to sell to dealers and attend industry conferences.
Hunter soon noticed that he stood out in a very particular way.
“I was the only Black executive, pretty much, in the RV industry — which is a $144 billion industry,” he said.
Reasons for absence
Hunter started camping because he had to. As SylvanSport’s new vice president of sales, it was his job to sell their campers, and to do that he had to know how they worked. Quickly, though, he began to enjoy it. In 2017, he took his then 7-year-old son Dillon on a three-month-long tour of the United States, visiting 49 campgrounds in 20 states and provinces as he drove between business deals. The entire time, they saw exactly one other Black family camping.
Hunter knew why Black people were such a rare sight at campgrounds and in the backcountry, because not too long ago he’d been absent from those places too.
“My great-grandmother told my grandmother, told my mother, told me, ‘Don’t go in the woods. The boogeyman in those woods. That’s what white folks do. That’s not something we do,’” he said.
The admonition came from a generational fear of what it meant to be in the forest. The woods were a place of vulnerability and isolation, where horrible violence could be unleashed while the victim’s screams disappeared into silence.
“These places become places of reckoning,” he said. “It’s not a place for recreation. It’s a place for ‘don’t go in there.’ I knew what my grandmother was talking about. I knew what they were feeling.”
Fear wasn’t the only reason he’d stayed away. Lack of knowledge was a big driver. Hunter didn’t know anything about the outdoors until he found himself working as an outdoor industry executive. He had no clue about how to choose a sleeping bag, where to find trail maps, what trail blazes meant or how to practice Leave No Trace.
“And then the third thing is the industry never really invited us to enjoy it,” said Hunter.
Billboards, magazines, ads — they were all “pretty much 35 to 49-year-old white males hanging off a cliff.” To Hunter, outdoor adventure was never really billed as thing that Black people could and should do.
Research backs up Hunter’s observations about low Black participation outdoors. While the Outdoor Foundation’s 2019 Outdoor Participation report showed that African American respondents were slightly more likely to go running or jogging than whites, their participation lagged far behind that of other ethnic groups when it came to camping and hiking, with only 5.9 percent of Black respondents saying they’d gone camping in the past year and 5.5 percent saying they’d gone hiking. By contrast, 16.3 percent of whites said they’d gone camping and 20 percent said they hiked.
Birth of Black Folks Camp Too
Hunter knew why Black people weren’t camping, but increasingly, he nurtured the conviction that they should. Outdoor recreation had made him happier, healthier and generally more excited about life. Everyone else was missing out, and they didn’t have to be — after all, their tax dollars paid for public lands too.
In 2019, that conviction prompted him to leave his job with SylvanSport, which had gone from $1 million to $17.5 million in sales in the four years he’d been there, and start his own business — called Black Folks Camp Too. He launched it from the stage of the 2019 Outdoor Economy Conference in Asheville. He chose that venue because as a career business executive, Hunter saw the issue as an economic one as much as a social one.
“I knew that Black folks’ spending power was $1.2 trillion per year, and I knew we make up 14 percent of the population, and I simply asked the folks, ‘If this is the outdoor economy conference, why aren’t you asking for Black folks’ money?” he said.
“What I quickly found out is that they didn’t know how to ask,” said Hunter. “They didn’t know the reasons why we didn’t camp.”
Black Folks Camp Too is not a charity or a 501c3. It’s a business, and through it Hunter contracts with companies, industries, government agencies — any organization that’s looking to increase minority participation outdoors, especially Black participation. Black Folks Camp Too creates the copy and marketing content to make it happen.
“Our one job is to remove fear, add knowledge and invite more Black folks to camp and enjoy the outdoor lifestyle with any and everyone,” said Hunter. “While we’re doing that, we create unity around the campfire.”
A man pours coffee during a recent Black Folks Camp Too trip to Falls Lake State Park. Black Folks Camp Too photos
Positive changes are taking place, though slowly. According to the 2019 North American Camping Report from Kampgrounds of America, the percentage of new campers from multicultural groups edged that of white campers, 51 to 49 percent. The 2018 KOA report showed that the percent of Black American campers rose from 6 to 8 percent between 2012 and 2017 and that 14 percent of new campers in 2018 were Black. In the past few years, 34 percent of non-white millennials said they had recently started camping, compared to 18 percent of white millennials. Campers under the age of 25 are the most ethnically diverse, according to the report.
The power of invitation
Growing up in Columbia, Hunter and his family would often do cookouts at the state park nearby. There was a campground there, but staying the night was never even a consideration. It was the same story at the city parks where he’d play baseball. There were trails all around, but he never set foot on them.
Culturally, such things were never on his radar. But if somebody had invited him — he may well have gone.
That’s why, for Black Folks Camp Too, “invitation” is the operative word. Hunter sees personal invitations from camping enthusiasts as the key to boost Black participation, but to be successful those invitations must be accompanied by knowledge and understanding.
“You can’t just invite folks to something without telling them exactly what they’re going to find, and I don’t think you can invite folks also not knowing if they even want to come, and why they don’t want to come,” he said.
Hunter has a recent, personal example of this principle. Though he’s been camping countless times since arriving in Western North Carolina, he’d never been backpacking until about a year ago. Some guys he met at the Outdoor Economy Conference invited him out to Panthertown Valley, and they executed the invitation flawlessly. They hosted multiple pre-trip Zoom calls to make sure Hunter knew what to bring and what to expect, arranged a rendezvous prior to the trail head so he could follow them there without getting lost out of cell range, brought extra food and supplies in case he came up short, and taught him the on-trail skills he’d need to go again in the future.
“Now I’m addicted to backpacking,” he said. “I did 130 miles last year.”
Black Folks Camp Too is now in its second year, and things are moving fast. The business has partnerships going with the state parks systems in both North and South Carolina, as well as with a variety of local and national businesses, including GSI Outdoors, Backcountry.com and many more. The partnership with North Carolina, Parks and Trails for Health Initiative, was announced just a month ago and is a marketing effort combining physical activity in parks, greenways and other outdoor spaces with educational opportunities.
The barriers to Black outdoor participation are real, and Hunter knows that overcoming them will be more like a marathon than like a sprint. However, he also knows the key to running that race, and it’s the same key that Marion Thompson handed him all those years ago when he was just a high school student in Columbia, South Carolina.
“He didn’t force me to do anything. He didn’t twist my arm,” said Hunter. “He did the same thing I’m telling you we have to do in regards to the outdoors. We have to twist folks’ hearts. He twisted my heart enough to make me realize I was more than where I was.”
Sometimes, outdoor newbies are looking for a signal that their questions and presence on the trail are welcome, and Earl Hunter of Black Folks Camp Too hopes to see the Unity Blaze become that symbol. A simple emblem showing crossed logs and a flame, it’s a symbol that the wearer is willing and able to help folks who are new to the outdoors.
Buy a blaze and learn more about Black Folks Camp Too at www.blackfolkscamptoo.com — and if you camp, find someone who has never been and invite them to go with you.