OutdoorFest: 10 Days of Non-Stop Sporty Fun in NYC

The Big Apple may be packed with sky­scrap­ers, but look close­ly and you’ll find parks, water­ways, hik­ing trails, even some unex­pect­ed hills.

New York­ers have always made the most of their out­door spaces, but now there’s an annu­al fes­ti­val in “The City That Nev­er Sleeps” for those who want a bit more adven­ture. We talked to Sarah Knapp, founder of Out­door­Fest, to find out what the fes­ti­val is all about and why 2015 will be the year to expe­ri­ence it.

The Clymb: What’s your back­ground in out­door sports/activities? 

Sarah Knapp: I actu­al­ly did­n’t grow up in a very “out­doorsy” fam­i­ly. My par­ents acci­den­tal­ly intro­duced me to ski­ing and I was hooked from there. In high school, I joined the ski team and the hik­ing club and slow­ly began to dis­cov­er the breadth of the out­door world.

Then in col­lege, I found climb­ing and camp­ing and from there have slow­ly been build­ing my reper­toire — explor­ing new ways to engage with the great out­doors. After grad­u­at­ing from col­lege, I moved to Utah and expe­ri­enced the glo­ry of liv­ing on the side of a moun­tain. It was there that I real­ized the com­pli­cat­ed need for both a city and the moun­tains. I moved back to New York City deter­mined to find both.

Clymb: Can you explain what Out­door­Fest is all about? 

SK: Out­door­Fest is a 10-day out­door adven­ture fes­ti­val. It’s not a fes­ti­val in the tra­di­tion­al “music fes­ti­val” sense as there is no main cen­tral loca­tion where all of the events take place. Instead, the events take place all over New York City, in com­mu­ni­ties rang­ing from Harlem to Soho to Rock­away. We con­scious­ly con­struct­ed a fes­ti­val that would have events in all five bor­oughs so we could show off the resources of each place.

For exam­ple, did you know Queens has a vibrant surf­ing com­mu­ni­ty? Or that Stat­en Island is a haven for local trail run­ners? As for the types of events, about half of the events were actu­al adven­ture events—kayaking, climb­ing, bik­ing, hik­ing, trail run­ning, surfing—and half were split between vol­un­teer, social, and edu­ca­tion events. All of the events, whether phys­i­cal­ly demand­ing or not, con­nect­ed to the out­door com­mu­ni­ty and aimed to inspire peo­ple to get outdoors. 

Photo by Andrew Darling
Pho­to by Andrew Darling

Clymb: What inspired you to cre­ate Out­door­Fest? Can you give us an idea of how the project was born?

SK: I felt that it was some­thing my com­mu­ni­ty in New York City need­ed. Over years of liv­ing here, I’ve come to meet many out­door enthu­si­asts who use words like “trapped” and “escape” to describe their rela­tion­ship with the city and the out­doors. I too, have felt the chal­lenges of liv­ing in an intense­ly urban place while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly feel­ing the pull of adven­ture and the mountains.

I knew there was a way we could find a bal­ance and con­tin­ue liv­ing in a place that fed our cre­ativ­i­ty, careers, and every­thing else this city offers with our pas­sion for the wilder­ness. The goal behind Out­door­Fest is to cre­ate an event and a com­mu­ni­ty that shows how this is pos­si­ble and inspires oth­ers to find that bal­ance and live healthy, active­ly and adven­tur­ous­ly with­in the metropolis. 

Clymb: Can you tell us a bit about some of the hiking/running events that are part of the festival?

SK: Our most pop­u­lar hik­ing event was on the final week­end of the fes­ti­val, when we teamed up with NYC Wild and went to Stat­en Island to go hik­ing. Not only was it a beau­ti­ful day, but the group got to hike on trails, past beach­es, and near lakes that most peo­ple nev­er thought exist­ed on “that oth­er bor­ough.” Anoth­er great hike was a vol­un­teer hike with local non-prof­it Sier­ra Club ICO, where we sent vol­un­teers to hike with inner city stu­dents from a local high school in Van Cort­landt Park in the Bronx. It was a won­der­ful day out for both the stu­dents and adults and a few peo­ple even signed up to be vol­un­teers for ICO after the event!

We also did a few dif­fer­ent types of run­ning events dur­ing Out­door­Fest. One was a nor­mal street run (though we did explore the Hud­son Riv­er Green­way, aka West Side High­way Path) which is won­der­ful­ly car-free. That run was spe­cial because it was led by pro­fes­sion­al run­ner Eli­ud Ngetich—a Kenyan ath­lete. He ran slow­ly so every­one could keep up and then spoke to the group after the run at local gear store Tent & Trails.

We also went to Stat­en Island to run on the Green­belt for a “twi­light trail run”.

Clymb: The Fes­ti­val includes some very inter­est­ing workshops/clinics on urban for­ag­ing, sur­vival and bird­ing… Can you talk a bit about these and why you think they’re such an impor­tant part of the Festival?

SK: Yes, those events were impor­tant because they are part of the out­doors in New York City. The leader of the for­ag­ing event is an author who learned how to for­age with­in the five bor­oughs, and the bird­ing was led by the New York City Audubon, which does incred­i­ble work research­ing, advo­cat­ing and edu­cat­ing on birds here. NYC is also the home of the Nation­al Audubon Soci­ety so bird­ers are def­i­nite­ly an impor­tant part of the com­mu­ni­ty here.

The sur­vival clin­ics were led by local guid­ing out­fit­ters who offer oppor­tu­ni­ties for new­er out­door enthu­si­asts to get out on the week­ends. As I said, all of these part­ners are impor­tant to the com­mu­ni­ty here. Addi­tion­al­ly, many of our workshops/clinics hap­pened dur­ing the week. We were excit­ed to be able to pro­vide pro­gram­ming that fit with peo­ple’s sched­ules after work and weren’t as time/gear inten­sive as the adven­ture events.

Clymb: What would you say is the most “unex­pect­ed” event includ­ed in the Festival? 

SK:  We had a huge slack­lin­ing event, which was actu­al­ly one of our most pop­u­lar events of the entire fes­ti­val. Slack­lin­ing start­ed as an activ­i­ty that climbers did in between climb­ing and has evolved into a sport of its own. In New York City, there is a small and high­ly ener­getic com­mu­ni­ty of tal­ent­ed slack­lin­ers and they came to the Out­door­Fest Empire State of Climb to share their pas­sion for the sport and teach new­bies the basics to get­ting start­ed. It was awesome!

As for “unexpected”—people were prob­a­bly most sur­prised by the option tocamp in Brook­lyn and surf in Queens. Those are def­i­nite­ly two sports peo­ple did­n’t expect to see on the schedule. 

Clymb: Did you have a favorite event/activity in the 2014 Festival? 

SK: The slack­line event was pret­ty awe­some, as was our Skype ses­sion with ocean explor­er Fabi­en Cousteau, Jacques Cousteau’s grand­son. Fabi­en Cousteau did a 31-day expe­di­tion this sum­mer where he dived down to an aquat­ic lab­o­ra­to­ry 60+ feet deep in the ocean and then was set up with wifi so he could Skype class­rooms all over the world to teach and advo­cate for ocean conservation.

That event was per­son­al­ly the most reward­ing and excit­ing because I had worked for months try­ing to get in touch with the expe­di­tion and sched­ule a Skype ses­sion with the explor­er. We got to see the inside of the lab­o­ra­to­ry and the kids got to ask tons of ques­tions about food, fish and more. It was amaz­ing to be able to do this in real time dur­ing the festival—especially because the expe­di­tion is so his­toric! Addi­tion­al­ly, it was an hon­or to be able to host an event with the Explor­ers Club.

Clymb: Can you tell us a bit about the non-sporty events includ­ed in the Fes­ti­val and why these are an impor­tant part of the festival?

SK: There were a few dif­fer­ent types of non-sporty events so I’ll break it down:

Social: We did have some social events, which were an impor­tant place for peo­ple to come togeth­er and unwind and con­nect. Every­one would be out kayak­ing, run­ning and doing their thing dur­ing the days, but hav­ing cen­tral­ized social events allowed peo­ple to relax and debrief togeth­er. Addi­tion­al­ly, we used our social events as a space for out­doors non-prof­its in the city to come and share their work with the larg­er community.

Edu­ca­tion: I spoke a bit about the edu­ca­tion above but I think it was impor­tant to show off the myr­i­ad resources in the city, as well as pro­vide pro­gram­ming that fit in with peo­ple’s every­day lifestyle (aka after work dur­ing the week!) Plus, if you’re going to go out­side you do need to spend time learn­ing and prepar­ing. Some of the events were very prac­ti­cal­ly mind­ed like knot tying or “hik­ing near NYC”  but my hope is that the infor­ma­tion was effec­tive in help­ing peo­ple go out­side long term.

Vol­un­teer: Though I know vol­un­teer­ing isn’t as “excit­ing” as the action sports, it’s an inte­gral part of being part of the NYC out­doors com­mu­ni­ty. Clean­ing up our beach­es, restor­ing piers, and main­tain­ing trails ensured that we weren’t just using resources but con­tribut­ing man­pow­er and ener­gy to cre­ate trails and beach­es that oth­er peo­ple could use to recre­ate. I also want­ed to con­nect peo­ple to these local groups that are doing such amaz­ing work so that hope­ful­ly they will con­tin­ue being mem­bers and giv­ing back long term. 

Clymb: Any spe­cial thing planned for the 2015 festival? 

SK: Oh yes! We can’t give away all of the secrets but we will say we’re launch­ing Out­door­Fest next sum­mer with a mas­sive camp­ing event com­plete with Mid­night Hike, folk music, firepits, and s’mores—plus lots more, includ­ing some very spe­cial guests.