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.
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.