Online Communities Head Offline and Into Nature

By Crystal Simmons

 

When Sloane “Texas” Wadsworth found herself without friends or extended family in a new city last August, she did what many modern adults do: she consulted the internet. 

Sloane “Texas” Wadsworth poses along a trail. Courtesy Sloane “Texas” Wadsworth

What she found was a growing group of female hikers eager to show off their city. Members of the Houston Women’s Hiking Group on Facebook meet at parks and trails across the Greater Houston region, share photos of beautiful hiking locations, and plan camping trips.

 

For Wadsworth, it was a perfect fit.

 

“As a nature photographer, I wanted to know where all the pretty trails were and connect with like-minded people,” she says. 

 

A native of Arlington, Texas, Wadsworth moved to Colorado in the late 2000s and fell in love with the land. By 2011, she had fully embraced hiking and the outdoors.

 

“I could spend every day on a hiking trail,” she says. “In Colorado, I hiked at an elevation of 11,000 feet. It took a lot out of me, but I realized that’s what I wanted to do my entire life.” 

 

Her life changed drastically after she and her husband moved to Massachusetts so he could complete his master’s degree. They lived there a year before her husband received a job offer in Houston. Happy to return to Texas, Wadsworth spent the next two months making connections.

 

“I wish I had done that in Massachusetts,” she says. “I hardly met anyone – and then COVID-19 happened. I felt isolated. I was there a year, and I only did two hikes.”

 

Wadsworth is one of many Texans finding fulfillment in online communities.

 

Despite concerns a decade ago about social media contributing to isolation and depression, many online communities exist to bring people together. According to a 2020 study by Global Web Index, the percentage of internet users who engage with online communities on vlogs, blogs, and platforms like Reddit, Nextdoor, Meetup.com, and Facebook has grown from 72% in 2017 to 76% in 2019. Groups are also more diverse, with interests ranging from Christmas decorations and dogs to poker and plants.  

 

Findings from Global Web Index also showed that 66% of online community users join groups to connect with others who have similar interests. 

 

Such is the case for Wadsworth. Houston Women’s Hiking Group not only helped her meet fellow hikers, but it also helped her meet hikers who hiked at her pace.

 

“I hike a little slower than most people,” she explains. 

 

Wadsworth takes photos along the trail. Courtesy Sloane “Texas” Wadsworth

Early on, Wadsworth made the mistake of hiking with the wrong group.

 

“They hiked so fast. I was looking at my feet the whole time,” says Wadsworth. “It’s not enjoyable. I felt bad. Not only is it intimidating, I felt like I was holding them back and frustrating them.”

 

The experience prompted her to begin looking for hikes that fit her needs. She eventually stumbled upon a post from Christy Jones, the volunteer and education coordinator assistant at Mercer Botanic Gardens, recruiting leaders for the Women’s Restorative Hike. The program immediately captured her interest.

 

Designed for those new to hiking or recovering, the hikes focus on reflection and the enjoyment of nature rather than rigor.

 

“I figured I’d do these slower hikes and cap them at 5 miles so more people who are just beginning can enjoy the outdoors without feeling intimidated,” says Wadsworth.

 

Already familiar with Mercer’s terrain, Wadsworth was eager to explore more of the gardens.

 

“I was one of the first people to volunteer and ended up leading the first Women’s Restorative Hike,” she says. “It was a way for me to connect with the community because I’m so new. Houston is such a huge city. I didn’t want to feel so isolated.”

 

With more than 2,000 members, Houston Women’s Hiking Group is one of the most active hiking groups, with new adventures almost every day. 

 

If Wadsworth can’t find an event, she creates her own. She says other members are now doing the same.

 

“These groups are the perfect way to stay involved in the community and get to know people that live near you,” she says. “I tell beginners to get out and hike at their own pace. Find those ladies that hike at your pace and get together and enjoy yourself.”