How outdoor adventure is creating digital community.
BY AMANDA LOUDIN
Kim Myers is a two-time veteran of Run Wild Retreats, an all-female running and wellness group that hosts events at various locales around the world. The 45-year old from Missouri found them helpful to her running, but also to her connectedness to other like-minded women. While she maintained contact with some of her fellow attendees after the events, when the pandemic hit she wanted more. Luckily, “more” was in the works.
Run Wild Retreats is owned and operated by Carbondale, Colorado- based Elinor Fish. In March, as the pandemic took hold and ground many outdoor events to a halt, Fish found the very essence of her business model in jeopardy. She pivoted, hoping to not only keep her company operating, but also to continue providing the sense of community her clients desired. The result—a robust online platform called the Healthy Runners’ Community—has exceeded her expectations.
“We were getting messages from clients that with all kinds of events having to cancel, they were feeling cut off from the greater running community,” Fish explains. “This opened the door for us to create something online. While we couldn’t replicate the retreat experience virtually, we could create a space for people to connect.”
Run Wild is among several companies that, when faced with the stark reality that communal sharing of the outdoors is off the table for now, created an alternative. While none of these businesses suggests that virtual communities are on par with the real thing, in a time when nothing seems dependable, they are at least serving up viable options.
Myers says the platform is much deeper than a run-of-the-mill Facebook group, and is providing a valuable experience. “This is much more supportive, plus Elinor has brought in really knowledgeable speakers for us, too,” she says.
A GOOD ALTERNATIVE
Danielle Stamford, a 31-year-old marketing professional from the Boston area, has always been active in the outdoors. She and her husband Ross have long hiked, backpacked and camped. But once their son was born, they found themselves stymied: How to get outside with a baby in tow?
“We didn’t know which carrier to use, which tent might be safe or what gear we might need,” Stamford says. “With the pandemic, we couldn’t get out with other parents and young children to learn and ask these questions, so we were excited when we found WildKind.”
Created by Brooke Froelich Murray and Healther Balogh Rochfort, WildKind is an online community designed with adventurous families in mind. Its mission: “To educate and empower families to find their wild.”
While WildKind is off and running at nearly 300 members strong in just a few months, its original plan looked different than the iteration available today. “We wanted to build an outdoor community for families and offer in- person events, lessons and education,” says Rochfort. “Our plan was to launch in March, but obviously live events are no longer in play for the time being.”
Rochfort and Murray, like Fish, got creative and launched their plan B in the summer. At the moment, that includes six main components: helping member families
deal with the expense of gear by offering exclusive brand discounts; a community forum that allows parents to connect and ask questions; a private gear swap; a monthly online event covering a variety of topics; an online video course library; and access to a member directory.
WildKind struck a chord with families seeking not just information, but a sense of community. “Our dream goal had been 100 members in the first month, but we quickly exceeded that and had to close doors to new members in September,” says Rochfort. “We’ll reopen in late November and hope to eventually grow to a community of 1,000.”
Stamford says WildKind has been a lifeline while in-person connections aren’t available. “It’s been so nice to connect to like-minded people,” she says. “We feel very supported by this community.”
COMMUNITY FOR NOW AND LATER
In an effort to bring more women into the sports of trail running and hiking, Gina Lucrezi founded the Trail Sisters community in 2016. Her approach was multipronged and included women-only retreats, local communities, road tours and other live events. An interactive website has always been a part of the plan, but the pandemic has given Lucrezi the incentive to beef up that side of the community.
Currently with 3,000 members, Lucrezi says that when the pandemic began, her team migrated its platform and grew its community. “Virtual connection is so important right now,” she says. “We created a space where women can connect over their runs, send positive thoughts to each other and simply strengthen their camaraderie in the absence of live gatherings.”
Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge, a licensed professional counselor in Connecticut, says virtual communities are essential right now and serve an important purpose. “You can absolutely build connections and engage with others in the virtual world,” she says. “Just like in person, if you are engaged and enthusiastic, others will see, hear and feel that.”
Key to finding real community in these sites, says Capanna-Hodge, is drilling down to the specificity you need. “Find that niche group so you can really find other people who like the same things,” she says.
The price range for joining these communities varies, from free in the case of Trail Sisters, which turns a profit from retreats, brand partnerships and a Patreon subscription model, to $29.99 a month for the Healthy Running Community, and a founders’ launch fee of $70 annually or $7 a month for WildKind, as of this report in mid-October.
When things eventually reach “normal” again and outdoor groups start returning in person, it’s unknown if these virtual communities will see the same success they currently enjoy. Run Wild has already begun a return to live retreats in a much smaller and more local way in Colorado. But Fish says the online options will remain as well.
“This isn’t like going to an online exercise class,” she says. “The value is in the true connection you make with people who understand you and your passions.”
Amanda Loudin is a Maryland-based freelancer who frequently covers her area of passion, the outdoors, and her work appears regularly in The Washington Post and Outside magazine. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her out on the trails running or hiking with two-legged and four-legged friends.