New York City is known for cultivating diversity, inspiration, and industry, but mostly in the realms of fashion, finance, and entertainment.
However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, interest in outdoor activities skyrocketed in the biggest metropolitan region in the U.S.
Many New Yorkers began to think locally and found the inspiration to try something new, including making outdoor products and designing spaces for people to get outside.
The five New York City boroughs spread across 300 square miles. Approximately 47 of those square miles are deemed urban green space – the 1,700 areas managed by city and state government, which includes parks, playgrounds, pools, gardens, athletic fields and courts, recreational areas, greenways, open streets, wetlands, and wildlife sanctuaries.
In recent years, the city has made tremendous efforts to increase its green space. Prime examples include huge expansions along the Hudson River, both sides of the East River, and the new 220-acre park in Staten Island. The city is in the process of completing the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway Loop, which will circumnavigate the island, committing $1.3 billion to the project.
Retail development is also on the rise. Arc’Teryx, Fjällräven, Filson, Norrøna, Outerknown, Rivian, and Herschel Supply Co. have opened retail storefronts in Manhattan’s familiar shopping districts, while Patagonia, Snow Peak, and Blundstone have expanded across the East River in Brooklyn.
REI saw the potential in NYC years ago and opened a 39,000-square-foot flagship store in SoHo. The retailer has scheduled two more openings in the suburbs by 2024.
Historically, the metro area has housed very few independent outdoor retailers. Some may remember Tents & Trails, a family-owned Manhattan institution which operated in the Financial District from 1959-2018. Although seemingly out of place, this little gem strategically aimed its business at those working in finance with disposable income to spend on gear and expeditions.
Then there was Brooklyn’s Gear To Go Outfitters, which built a strong following from small sidewalk sales to a large storefront that included rentals. After an 8-year run, owner Kevin Rosenberg, who also runs adventure travel trips, decided to close its doors, but still manages an online business.
Meanwhile, Paragon Sports, an iconic sporting goods store since 1908, just reinvigorated its entire camping and footwear department in response to the outdoor growth spurt.
The outdoor industry has recently made huge leaps in positioning fashion as important alongside function in how goods are designed, merchandised, and sold.
Two retailers keyed into this trend: New York City-based Hatchet Outdoor Supply Co and Westerlind Outdoor. Both stores took ideas from Europe and Asia to develop product assortments and edgy visual content.
Since 2013, Hatchet Outdoor Supply Co has been at the forefront of showcasing rising tastemakers. Based in Brooklyn Heights, the company focuses on the modern urban-dwelling adventurer who appreciates nature, style, and performance.
“We’ve always thought of ourselves as being an introducer, introducing new or emerging brands in the space – whether they are local or international – often before they become mainstream,” said founder Gene Han. “This comes in the form of curation and experimentation.”
Hatchet has also been highly influenced by Japan’s vintage collector scene, glamping, and outfit styling. Han believes that evolving from Gorpcore to a nostalgic exploration vibe will be the trend.
Han also brought on a creative director to carefully curate content and visual displays. The content shows how a stylish New Yorker would wear or use their products, using local models and locations, shot like a fashion editorial spread.
A recent addition is a Chop Talk interview series which highlights creatives forging a path in the outdoors.
Han is also a huge supporter of pop-up events.
“We want to constantly evolve, try new things, and continue forming partnerships that become friends,” he said. “But (we want to) be purposeful, try not to overbuy. The pop-ups are a great way to have consumers meet founders and vice versa. Currently, we’re featuring all of these new NYC brands. It’s been a blast to see all the local talent.”
A few neighborhoods over, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, sits Outlandish. Opening in early 2023, the store has established itself as one of only a handful of Black-owned independent outdoor retailers in the U.S.
Co-founders Benje Williams and Ken Bernard brought experience from the retail, forest restoration, and venture capital industries and blended it with enthusiasm for building community in a grassroots way.
“’Hiking For The People’ is our tagline, as it truly is about people over profit,” Williams said. “One of the main goals with opening the store and offering hiking trips is so that people can simply get outside, enjoy the experience, as well as learn for themselves to appreciate nature and the land they are on.”
Outlandish’s soft opening brought out well-known local industry folks Kareemah Batts of Adaptive Climbing Group, Brittney Leavitt of Brown Girls Climb, and Pete Ward of the American Alpine Club to see what was brewing in their neck of the woods.
Building community is a top priority for Outlandish, and so is sharing history. The store logo incorporates an icon inspired by Batts, including the legendary hog depicted in a quilt crafted by Harriet Powers, a former slave who became an influential quilter known for capturing scenes of nature in the late 1800s.
A replica of the Pictorial quilt hangs proudly in the store. And, in August 2023, Outlandish launched a collab hat with performance headwear brand Ciele Athletics based on the famous quilt.
Although Outlandish primarily sells hiking apparel and equipment, it also houses an array of travel and nature books by Black and Brown authors. And a sizable backyard hosts book clubs, demos, and other gatherings.
“We want this space to serve as a community hub and base camp for activities near and far away,” Bernard said.
Demonstrating a commitment to community, Outlandish connects with local hiking clubs, trail running groups, and brands in the Tri-state area by co-organizing adventures and hosting pop-up events. Weekday hikes cater to creative freelancers and retail shift workers who typically work weekends.
During Outlandish’s grand opening trail run event, Salomon dedicated all the profits from any co-branded merchandise to fund future trips.
The New York City metro area has seen a boom of mission-driven groups (for-profit and nonprofit) that are providing places for every age, identity, and ability—safe spaces to meet like-minded folks, introductions to new sports, transportation and gear, conservation efforts, and resources for individuals with physical or financial limitations.
Outerthere and Mappy Hour are two organizations developing a network of city-dwelling outdoor enthusiasts. Instead of competing, they’ve found ways to celebrate each other by co-hosting mixer events to get people together to plan adventures.
Outerthere focuses on beginners and locals. Founder Al Berrios points out that the industry has relied on messaging from experts – shop owners, guides, brands, and publications. “But many often forget what it’s like to be a beginner or (not know) where to even start, let alone (find others that) look or speak like them,” he said.
Berrios emphasizes that representing all types of people across social channels goes a long way to making others feel comfortable.
He expanded from the outfitter to the B2B side with the launch of the List My Trip app. This offers guides a place to advertise services, leaning into the fact that locals know the land best. His model is a very comprehensive one – grow the community, provide recreational resources, support local guides, and uplift underrepresented voices, all while scaling up his business.
“When starting out, I couldn’t find an approachable or inclusive platform for becoming a recreation guide, or where or how to advertise my services, so I created one,” Berrios said.
Mappy Hour began with a simple premise – show up with a six pack and a map. Then came guest speakers, itineraries, guided trips, packing lists, and gear recommendations. For many living in big cities, transportation can be a major barrier. By offering either shuttle service or coordinating a popular Public Transit Series, booking activities became easier.
Mappy Hour recently introduced an online Maker Series. “For years we’ve been showcasing the ‘how’ to get outdoors,” said founder Sarah Knapp. “Now we’re including the ‘who’ and giving them a space to speak to their ‘why.’ These makers get to share their journey in the outdoors and their process for what they create.”
Mappy Hour’s Maker Series has included events with New York-based startups that emerged out of the pandemic and found encouragement among one another.
These brands bonded through product collaboration and social sharing, and they’ve broken the mold by creating two of the first all-local outdoor brand selling events in New York City.
In December of 2022, Brooklyn-based clothing brand Hikerkind was first to initiate one of the collaborative events.
“It started out as a holiday dinner party which then turned into an event where we decided to invite others. Generating brand awareness and sale purchases were a bonus,” said co-founders Allison Levy and Chelsea Rizzo.
The brand was born with a dual purpose – to start a hike club and to create an apparel collection for women to feel good in and go anywhere in.
By homing in on their fashion styling backgrounds, Levy and Rizzo craft silhouettes, fabrics, and colors with an emphasis on how pieces work together as a functional layering system and total look.
“We’ve put a lot of thought into each piece and the whole collection so that it’s easy for our consumer,” Rizzo said. “She really wants it to be multi-functional for her hybrid lifestyle, yet effortless.”
One logistical advantage in New York City is close access to the garment district. Starting the brand during the pandemic, they found pattern makers and sewers hungry for work along with city dwellers itching to get outside.
One of Hikerkind’s first collab partners on a water bottle holder was the Bronx-based gear brand Allmansright. The name is inspired by Allemansrätten, a Swedish principle known as “The Right of Public Access,” signifying the right of everyone to freely roam and explore the outdoors.
Husband and wife duo Livio Melo and Jen Jacobssen-Melo combine skill sets to hand-make and ship every Allmansright item. They manufacture ultralight backpacks and bags from recycled materials, mostly bio-based Dyneema, ensuring functionality, sustainability, and efficiency.
Livio wants everyone to find a relationship with the products just as they would with nature.
“We want people to appreciate what that gear holds for them, does for them, how it protects them and their possessions,” he said. “In some cultures, there’s only one spoon or bowl that’s allowed and engraved per person. They make the most out of it because that’s all they have their entire life. What if we can have that with all of the products we possess?”
He’s most proud of their Stake Sacks, featuring attention to detail for a simple use.
He describes the urban outdoor consumer as always in transit and reliant on several modes of transportation. The distance, steps or stairs involved, transfer connections, and what is packed along is all meaningful.
“Ultralight forces us to carry less, therefore making it more accessible for all types of people to carry regardless of size, strength, or ability,” he said. “We’re all cramped into small spaces and generally try to have less stuff, so it’s got to last.”
Another Allmansright collaboration introduced the Tote Bag & Bear Bag alongside Brooklyn-based William Ellery. The ultralight, waterproof tote prevents bears from discovering human meals and deters them from returning to where food is stored. This innovative mindset is also seen across William Ellery’s Brushtail Possum Socks and iridescent June Bug collection.
William Ellery founder Trevor Davis treats each product like a purposeful science experiment, conducting research and field testing while dropping new versions as he makes improvements. The real-time feedback has served as a nimble way to connect with consumers as well as produce less waste.
In his previous career as a touring chef, Davis tested ingredients and cooking methods. Now, he applies this art and science combo to each piece he creates. The key is having solid partnerships with factories to continue manufacturing until a product becomes its best version.
Although William Ellery stemmed from a family name, Davis cleverly uses W and E branding as west and east directional coordinates. He pulls from a cross section of influences – nature, expedition, military, and workwear – and products are designed for anyone living or working outside.
His muses are astronomers, environmentalists, conservationists, oceanographers, primatologists, and even postal workers braving the elements.
“Nature is all around New York City and so are the varying weather conditions,” Davis said. “This plus having little storage capacity pushes the search for versatile, packable, and transportable products that transition seamlessly from one part of our lives to another.”
A nostalgic narrative is at the center of Brooklyn-based ITA-Leisure and its branded content. ITA’s vibe includes 1970s film cinematics meshed with an African background in gathering, eating, and playing outdoors.
Founder Jade Akintola draws upon her Nigerian heritage as well as working in experiential marketing and spatial design to nurture meaningful experiences for those she terms as “leisure seekers” by offering a thoughtful selection of functional furniture, bags, and accessories.
“Each piece is culturally inspired, telling a story of ancestry and tradition,” she said. “From the motifs and prints on our blankets to the style of our beach chairs.”
ITA originates from WA S’ITA, meaning “Come Outside” in the Yoruba language, which speaks to a mission encouraging intentional time outdoors.
As a pioneering Black woman-owned outdoor furniture and goods brand, ITA champions diversity within the outdoors.
“What sets us apart is our focus on leisure being the activity. (Leisure is) considered the opposite of the New York City hustle culture, but it should exist as a moment for every day and everybody,” Akintola said. “We all have a need to rest and be present.”
She believes spending time outside provides a sense of comfort, connection, and confidence which can be found at the park, trail, beach, or garden – and New York City boasts more than 500 community gardens where neighbors are farming and forming connections.
Customer Connections and Vintage Collections
FSP Outdoors is also taking design cues from vintage styling while minimizing environmental impact. Founder Blair Kemp started making bags for friends as a hobby until those friends convinced him to build a viable business. He now hand-makes every backpack, waistpack, and chalkbag in his Brooklyn studio.
Kemp draws on his experience growing up outdoors climbing and woodworking in Maine to build and mend items. As a more holistic approach to sustainability, he offers a lifetime repair service and constructs some of his bags out of fabric scraps, creating fun color combinations.
“By repurposing, we maintain the life of each piece and get people back outside sooner so they can continue using that piece while creating more memories with it,” Kemp said. “All of those stories attached to the gear can also stay with the gear.”
Although he typically sells online, he enjoys live pop-ups at Hatchet as a more intimate way to communicate with consumers.
The loft Kemp shares with a photography studio, where he also works as an assistant, gave him the tools to follow his other passion – an outdoor fashion editorial magazine.
Heavily inspired by publications that have been circulating for years in Japan and Korea, he saw an opportunity to do something similar in the U.S. Amateurs’ issue 1 was released in June 2023.
The magazine illuminates old and new products with ethereal imagery that makes it hard to tell they’re decades apart. And to support this venture, friends from Hikerkind and William Ellery have each taken out full-page ads while Hatchet and Outlandish are selling copies.
One of the main spreads in Amateurs features the notable outdoor vintage collection Monroe Garden. The collection was created by Kiyotaka Shinoki, a restaurant curator with a longtime admiration for retro outdoor products.
Over the past 15 years, Shinoki has turned his fondness for collecting and archiving into reselling, starting out at flea markets then eventually moving into a basement showroom space where he schedules appointments for anyone to peruse his extensive library of 1970s-1990s vintage gear.
Born and raised in Japan, Shinoki was introduced to hiking, fishing, and snowboarding along with an appreciation of classic outdoor products common in the culture.
Many local brands and retailers visit him to be inspired by the nostalgic pieces from Sierra Designs, Mountainsmith, Caribou, Gregory Packs, Patagonia, LL Bean, and The North Face, along with classic volumes of Summit magazine.
They also come for his deep knowledge of the details of each product, which has influenced designs for modern outdoor lifestyle brands, including Battenwear.
While Shinoki is happy to sell on consignment at Outlandish, his true spirit shines through during yearly pop-ups at Pilgrim Surf Supply. The events bring together the surfing, climbing, and hiking communities to mingle with some of his Japanese culinary buddies. It’s in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, so artsy hipsters are also part of the mix.
Attendees enjoyed the party-like atmosphere, admiring the historic collection with vinyl records spinning and Yaki Onigiri bites cooking on grills provided by neighborhood friends at Snow Peak.
Shinoki compared the outdoor sector to the restaurant industry. “We all want and expect better quality, less mass-produced, more local and sustainable,” he said. “If all the little businesses come together to help and inspire each other, then bigger things will flourish. This will urge large companies to see what’s going on at the grassroots level and join the movement.”
The Hudson Valley Challenge, an unsanctioned multi-sport event developed by Chevaughn Dixon, program director at Hudson River Riders, offers free paddling programs for the local community. Dixon is also one of the first Black instructors in Level 4 Open Water Kayaking across the USA.
In a two-week trip, Dixon went out and back from New York City to Mount Marcy, the state’s 5,343-foot high point in the Adirondacks – all human-powered by foot, bike, or kayak. He persevered through bad air quality days and torrential rain.
The 680-mile distance wasn’t about a finishing time or winner, but simply about participating. Dixon invited others to join in any portion of his journey, especially encouraging novices and inner-city youth to get outside for local and sustainable adventures. Many of the surrounding running, cycling, hiking, and paddling communities Dixon trains with crossed paths on select miles.
It was meant to be an experience rather than an acquisition of accolades. Mappy Hour and Blundstone graciously invited Dixon to recap his mission at a social gathering. Hatchet showcased his background on the Chop Talk series. Outlandish co-hosted a hike with his hiking club.
Next year will mark the third edition of the Hudson Valley Challenge as it evolves from a self-made experience into an official event.
As heritage brands commemorate anniversaries and uncertain economics carry a yearning for simpler times, nostalgia remains an influential undertone. The latest innovations will continue to be noticed, and record-breaking athletes and impactful activists will make headlines.
Yet newcomers, startups, and first timers build the outdoor community. And organizations like Founded Outdoors are supporting the next wave of doers and thinkers by offering accessible resources in education, exposure, guidance, funding, networking, manufacturing, and collaborating.
In a Hatchet Chop Talk interview, Shelma Jun, an urban planner and founder of women’s climbing initiative Flash Foxy, discussed how cities are planned around people and transportation, separating them from surrounding nature, while many national parks are designed for humans to enter, observe, and photograph the landscape rather than be part of it.
Jun wondered how we can shift that thinking in planning, design, and ultimately, lifestyle by combining the developmental ideas of people-centric with nature-centric to be in touch with something much bigger.
Part of the work Jun did with the early concepts of New York City’s East River expansion was asking the people – the residents in connected neighborhoods – what they wanted to see for those outdoor spaces.
The ideation and architectural design centered around how humans play, rest, and reconnect with nature and with each other. That thought process fuels the fact that New York City is acknowledged as Lenapehoking, the native homeland of the Lenape, meaning “The People.”
Livio Melo sees the future as “hyper localized.” The result? An overall greater impact on efficiency, the environment, health, a sense of belonging, and an appreciation for nature.
Tracey Mammolito is a writer and photographer based out of New York City. Visit traceymammolito.com for more.