How Adventure-Seeker Missy Wilson Is Empowering Others to Explore the Outdoors

The 35-year-old member of the nonprofit Black Women Who Kayak+ is proving that the outdoors — from lakes to mountain ranges — is for everybody.

Sweat Equity: Missy Wilson
Photo: Courtesy of Missy Wilson

Missy Wilson has long described herself as outdoorsy. Back when she was just five-ish years old, she braved the wilderness and went on her very first camping trip with her aunt, a camp counselor. "That was my first introduction to nature and just being outdoors," she tells Shape. "I've just been in love with it ever since." She later picked up canoeing while at a summer camp, then learned how to kayak as a high schooler nearly two decades ago. "I just loved being out on the water, even at that early age," she says.

But as she grew older, Wilson missed the uplifting community aspect of outdoor recreation, and her mom wasn't too keen on her risky solo escapades out on the water, she recalls. So in 2021, Wilson decided to do a quick Google search for "Black women who kayak" to fill in that missing piece of the puzzle. The first result to pop up? A link for Black Women Who Kayak+, a Texas-based nonprofit dedicated to empowering women of color to explore the outdoors and breaking down barriers that prevent them from engaging in outdoor activities — including kayaking.

Just days after learning about the organization, Wilson drove from her home in Houston to Austin to attend Black Women Who Kayak+'s paddleboarding event at Lady Bird Lake. "It was life-changing," recalls Wilson. "It was just such an overwhelming feeling of positivity. People who I had never met before came together as a community, and it felt like we had known each other for a very long time."

Missy Wilson and Black Women Who Kayak+ Members
Courtesy of Missy Wilson

This community isn't just for experienced water-sport athletes, either. Black Women Who Kayak+ has hosted caving excursions, camping trips, kayaking tours, obstacle course events, hikes, and more for folks of all experience levels, says Wilson, who's now the chapter admin for the nonprofit's Houston chapter. "We have a lot of members that come and have never done anything like that [activity] before," she adds. "One of our main goals is to educate and empower them that they can try something new."

Even though she's a longstanding member, Wilson's still experiencing the organization's confidence-boosting effects herself. Earlier this month, Wilson and another member of Black Women Who Kayak+, Kim Fields, ventured on a week-long, all-women backpacking trip through the Talkeetna Mountains in Alaska. It was an excursion Wilson had dreamed of tackling for years, but a lack of funds — and, well, guts, she admits — held her back, she says. Thankfully, Black Women Who Kayak+ had built up her self-assurance over the last year. And in honor of its 125th anniversary, cereal brand Grape-Nuts donated $12,500 to support Wilson's adventure, including the cost of tuition, airfare, lodging, and gear. (Grape-Nuts also covered additional expenses for Fields, who had been awarded a scholarship from NOLS to cover her tuition for the trip.) [Ed note: To be clear, this story is not sponsored by any brand.]

Throughout the excursion, Wilson and eight other female hikers, plus two instructors, traversed an average of five to eight miles a day in the shiver-inducing cold and rain. They bushwacked through bear country, scrambled down slick, rocky drainages, and stayed warm at night by cuddling Nalgene bottles filled with hot water, she says. And along the way, they all became close friends, she adds. "You know the little chart you see at the doctor's office that's like, 'Are you feeling happy? Are you sad? Are you excited?' I experienced literally every single one of those emotions during the week," she jokes.

Missy Wilson and Kim Fields of Black Women Who Kayak+
Courtesy of Missy Wilson

By the end of the trek, Wilson felt "invincible," she says. "I learned that fear and doubt are such powerful tools in our lives, and I didn't let them win on this trip — though there were times when I thought they would," says Wilson. (ICYWW, that descent through the slippery drainage and the hike into bear territory were two of those times.) "But you look back and see how much terrain you've covered and you're just like, 'I did that?!'…This was probably one of the most challenging experiences of my life, but it was also the most incredible and magical — outside of giving birth to my son."

Missy wilson

This was probably one of the most challenging experiences of my life, but it was also the most incredible and magical — outside of giving birth to my son.

— Missy wilson

What's more, Wilson picked up must-have skills — how to tie knots, read a topographic map, pack a backpack, and cook in the wilderness, for instance — that she plans on passing along to other members of Black Women Who Kayak+. But don't expect her to lead a group out into the woods just yet; Wilson plans on taking a course on first aid before she guides any backpacking newbies, she says.

As the tale of her triumph makes its rounds, Wilson hopes to inspire other people of color to give backpacking a shot and, in time, help break down barriers to the outdoors for the next generation. "I know when I was little, seeing adults do certain things encouraged me and empowered me to know that I could do it too," she says. "The biggest thing is sharing this with others…[and] I think with all the work we're doing now, it'll be easier when the next generation comes along. When my son and his friends want to go backpacking or camping, it won't be an issue — because the outdoors is for everybody."

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