A few weeks ago, Sarah Knapp and I met in Union Square, one of New York City’s busiest public spaces, to chat about her amazing new venture: OutdoorFest. Sitting on a bench surrounded by a park, a playground, a train station serving no fewer than seven different subway lines, and the hustle and bustle of people heading to and from work, school, home, and everywhere else, it was the perfect spot to chat about an organization that provides urbanites with the resources to reach the outdoors, and is growing a community of outdoors enthusiasts within New York City. OutdoorFest’s first-ever annual festival, which provided ten days of free outdoor activities to New Yorkers across every borough, was an enormous success, and had just wrapped up a few days before we spoke.

The Interview

What inspired you to start OutdoorFest?

I saw a need—there was a lack of an outdoors community in New York City. There are these great places to go outdoors and great ways to do it once you’re outside of the city, but we’re so busy in New York, and there’s not always a lot of time to get outside the five boroughs, so I think it’s important to find out what resources there are within. Both physical places where you can go and people. That need, along with my love for New York City, combined to create OutdoorFest.

Sarah Knapp

At Fjallraven

How did you start with this germ of an idea and turn it into a full-fledged thing?

There are a lot of pieces involved. The two main ones are the relationships with event partners and the relationships with sponsors. When you start with nothing, you have to create those relationships.I started reading blogs and reaching out to people and organizations that I thought were interesting. People responded, they were interested in talking, and when you start having conversations you hear about other people, and that becomes a whole network! I was doing that simultaneously with building the website and doing market research on how many people are outdoor enthusiasts in New York City, and why is that important, and is this market growing, and how do we know that? So doing my homework at the same time as trying to expand who I could connect with.

What did you find?

Lots of people! The numbers are pretty astounding. If you look at the number of CitiBike memberships, and the number of people who utilize free kayaking resources in the summer, or the fact that so many people frequent Gateway National Park, which is partially in Queens, you see that people are interested in going outdoors, and they are doing it, even if there isn’t one central community around doing it. Yet.

Knapp presenting on OutdoorFest before the launch.

Knapp presenting on OutdoorFest before the launch.

So what does OutdoorFest provide those people?

During the year we have our newsletter and our Mappy Hours. And we have the festival. One event that I really loved was camping. We had about 50 people out at Floyd Bennett Field, in Brooklyn, and everyone took a bus out. It’s two hours, kind of a commitment, and it rained, and there were mosquitoes, and it started out really bad. And then the rain stopped and everyone put on bug spray and everyone was grilling together, and we’re doing yoga in the middle of this field, and we got these people with telescopes, these huge telescopes, to come. It’s, you know, these really hip twenty and thirty-year-olds from New York, but getting them in front of a telescope, everyone just geeked out. It was such a great moment when this girl was like, “Oh my God, Saturn has two rings, it’s just like in the textbook!” Connecting people with a part of themselves that they haven’t been connected to in a really long time was really special.

My other favorite event was at The Explorers Club, this club on the Upper East Side. They provide a network of support, as well as education and resources, for people using exploration as a way to help the planet or further education or do really awesome things. The first person to the bottom of the ocean, or the first person to complete certain treks, anyone who’s done anything really significant in terms of exploration, has probably been invited to the Explorers Club or is connected to it. For me, they’re a really important organization that I’ve always been inspired by, so to be able to work with them on OutdoorFest was really special. What we did was Skype with Fabien Cousteau, who’s Jacques Cousteau’s grandson—

No way!

He’s on a mission right now, in the Florida Keys. He’s living in this aquatic laboratory for 31 days.

Did you Skype with him in the laboratory?

Yes! We Skyped with him and he gave us a tour and showed us fish outside his little window and we saw someone coming up out of the water into the lab, and he showed us his food…. It was a kids’ event, for families, so all about education and getting everyone excited about the sea and the fact that people are exploring it, and ultimately the event was about advocacy for the environment as well. So many layers of awesome! Even though that was not our most popular event in terms of numbers, it was the most unique, I think, and it’s part of history now. The Explorers Club has never hosted a Skype session during an expedition before, and we got to be part of it and bring people to it, so I really loved it.

Which events did you have the most turn-out for?

We actually capped registration on a lot of events, so we didn’t have any that were massive. That’s a resource question, too—you have to get permits. But the event with the biggest waitlist was definitely sailing. There were a few thousand people on that waitlist! After that, probably kayaking. I think that also has to do with timing, because it was the first week of June and starting to get hot and people were ready to get out on the water. But New York City is creating these new boat launches for kayaks in the next few years, so the city knows and is responding to the demand, and it’s exciting to see that people really are into it and are going to use them, and it’s going to be part of New York City culture. Being able to see the beginning of that, and I hope play a role in building support for that, is really cool.

And what would you say was the most challenging about launching OutdoorFest?

There were 75 events and thousands of people registering and dozens of community partners and a lot of people involved. For me that organization was fun, but the hardest moment was the day before it started, just trying to wrap my head around everything that was about to happen and all the different pieces. Having confidence in myself that I did a good job and that it was going to work. But I never really stopped and thought about all of that until the day before the festival, and even though I knew everything was set up, having a moment of doubt, of thinking, “This is really happening!” and then thinking, “Okay, let’s do this!”

Did you ever feel, as a woman planning this massive outdoor festival, that you were overcoming any stereotypes or barriers?

It’s interesting! Because start-ups are extremely male-dominated, the workforce is male-dominated, and the outdoor industry is male-dominated. So when you look at it statistically, the odds are stacked against women. But I think I was lucky to be in New York City, because no one is looking at you that way. If I was in a different city it would have probably been an issue, but I think in New York, it’s very “do your thing.” I also think I was lucky to have already had connections with women-supportive groups, like SheJumps.

There wasn’t any moment when I felt that if I was a guy it would have been easier. I was aware that my approach was sometimes different, and I definitely had a couple months when I needed to learn to be more aggressive. That’s a stereotype, that women aren’t as aggressive and men are, but when you’re trying to pitch sponsorship mostly to men, you have to be very conscious of the words you’re using, the verbs in your emails, not backpedaling. All these things that I’m not sure are informed by my gender, but at least for me personally—I have a customer service background, and I try to be nice, and that kind of thing. Being more aggressive was something I had to work through.

I saw on the website that your team is mostly made up of women! Was that a conscious decision?

Yeah, that’s a really interesting thing, right? I’m not going to make any sweeping generalizations about women, but I will say: those are the people who stepped up. There were a lot of people who said they wanted to volunteer, both male and female, but they were the people who actually followed through and were excited and wanted to see this happen. I never decided I wanted it to be a female team, I wanted good people who were excited and motivated and psyched about this, but the women were the ones who were ready to put their time in and create this, so it’s an interesting thing. For sure.

And actually, the OutdoorFest demographic is heavier on the male than female. 52% of our participants were men, versus 48% women. Pretty close, but it shows that men are just as interested and often more involved in outdoor sports, but the women were the ones, in this case, that were ready to take a leadership role. All the women I worked with inspired me, and I have to say that it’s really important to have people on your team who make you feel that way. Otherwise it’s like, “Why are we doing this?” I could talk a lot about the women on the team, because they’re awesome and badass. For example, one woman who just really got behind it and worked with me every week and helped me get a lot of press is named Camille. She’s from France and grew up going to Mont Blanc every weekend and is a ski mountaineer and a slackliner and all these things, and also loves NYC, and has five million things going on. She’s one of those people you’re inspired by the second you meet her.

Well, I’m sure you’re a huge inspiration to everyone on your team. Can you tell me about where your interest in the outdoors comes from?

That’s a great question! I actually did not grow up going outside at all. Our family vacations were generally to DisneyWorld and that kind of thing. But by going to summer camp and joining the hiking club in high school I started to follow a small interest that opened up a bigger world. I really grew that interest in the outdoors when I went to college in Atlanta and during a stint in Utah as a ski bum, before coming back to New York.

Sarah Hiking

And what’s one of the best adventures you’ve ever been on?

I went to Kilimanjaro with my dad and my brother. It was a really beautiful mountain, and cool to be able to climb it—all that adventure stuff. But, like I said, I didn’t grow up outdoors. My dad and my brother ended up doing outdoor things because I forced them on millions of hikes. So to have them actually agree to do this trek and be excited about it—to stay in tents for a week!—was really special. Being able to summit a mountain with my dad and my brother, two of my favorite people in the world…. I’ve been on a lot of adventures, with a friend, or even by myself, and that’s awesome and it feels good, but when you’re there with people you really care about and you see them succeed, it’s just a totally different game. That was the first time I really experienced that, and it was awesome, exciting, really powerful. And my dad kicked our asses, by the way!

Knapp and family on Kilimanjaro.

Knapp and family on Kilimanjaro.

So what’s next for you, adventure-wise? And what’s next for OutdoorFest?

I actually sprained my ankle….

I see that! What happened?

I was doing a fitness class. It was so lame. It was a lesson to me to never work out indoors. So that’s put a blip in my summer plans, which heavily relied on climbing outside and learning how to slackline. My big goal—probably a five-year goal—is to be able to do a highline, which is a slackline across a place where you can fall and die. Except you’re tethered on. Last summer I thought I’d be able to do it at the end of the summer and then I was started slacklining and was like, holy shit, this is going to take way longer! You have to start with a short line, then a long line, then a higher line, and then an actual highline.

For OutdoorFest, the two things we’re focusing on now are continuing to nurture the community in New York and provide a space for people to meet, through Mappy Hours, and creating a system where Mappy Hours can go to other cities. I’ve heard from lots of other people who are interested. And then having OutdoorFest again next year. Definitely in New York City and possibly in a second city as well!