Public Lands Trailblazer: Sally McCoy

A lifelong outdoorist and a career-long public land champion, Sally McCoy believes the only way to win at conservation is to grow the army of advocates.

By Tracy Ross February 20, 2018


Photo courtesy of Sally McCoy

A graduate of NOLS and then Dartmouth College near New Hampshire’s White Mountains, McCoy was an outdoorist from early childhood (her family went on frequent camping trips, including one on which “little bear cubs walked over us,” she says). She essentially flashed The North Face corporate ladder, moving from “low-level office job” to VP of marketing, sales and product in the span of seven years. As president of Sierra Designs in the 1990s, she built the first women’s specific sleeping bag—a gear revolution. In 1989, she became a founding member of the Conservation Alliance and the Outdoor Industry Association and has since served as board chair of each. Later she co-founded Silver Steep Partners—a financial advisory that worked primarily in the outdoor industry. In 2006, she became CEO of CamelBak, where she took the company’s valuation from underwater to $412 million in 2015 with innovations like the first bite valve in the water bottle category, the first BPA-free plastic bottle, and several innovations for the military.

In January of 2016, after Vista Outdoors bought CamelBak, McCoy stepped down as CEO. She currently serves as chair of the Outdoor Foundation board and as a director of several private and publicly held companies.

In 1986, the President’s Report on Americans Outdoors revealed that 66 percent of Americans considered themselves “outdoors people.” But according to the Foundation’s 2017 Outdoor Participation Report, numbers of outdoor users have remained mostly flat since 2007.  As our country has become more urbanized and more culturally diverse the outdoor industry needs to be more intentional about connecting people to their parks and public lands.

Public lands belong to all Americans.  How do we create a more personal attachment for the health of Americans and our public lands?

According to McCoy, our industry has generally shown outdoor participation as “something white people do.” It has not represented diverse participation to our industry’s own detriment. We’ve also assumed that the way that Baby Boomers experienced the outdoors is how the next generation wants to experience it. Both of those assumptions are problematic. No one knows how or how often a person has to engage with the outdoors to become a public land advocate and conservationist. What we do know is that we need to grow the pie in terms of total participants if we want to expand our conservation efforts.

“As urban populations grow and rural populations decline, we need to create a more intentional connection to land and nature. For years, many in the outdoor industry assumed people would find their way to public lands simply because of the activities our brands promote. But we now know that we need to work harder on access, on close-to-home initiatives, and on outreach to different communities. That’s key to maintaining longstanding bipartisan support for our public lands.” 

But we now know that we need to work harder on access, on close-to-home initiatives, and on outreach to different communities. That’s key to maintaining longstanding bipartisan support.


The early outdoor industry was primarily focused on hunting and fishing, a reflection of a more rural tradition. The modern outdoor industry grew out of the back-to-nature movement of the ’60s and ’70s, when many of the industry’s biggest brands, including The North Face, Patagonia, Marmot, and Eagle Creek, came onto the scene. But that gear—and the sports it facilitated—was largely marketed to white people, suggests McCoy.

Social entrepreneurs like Rue Mapp, the founder of Outdoor Afro, are leading the way to more diverse representation by speaking about the how the African American outdoor experience differs from other populations. Latino outdoor leaders are also exploring how to scale their efforts to a population that now reaches approximately 58.6 million.

Concurrently, actively engaging youth will be essential. “We form our affinities in childhood. Each generation has its ideas of how to engage with the outdoors. We need youth leading youth to build on-ramps with different activities.”

The question we now face is how to make a movement that reflects the needs of these and other demographics, and inspires the largest two generations in history (Millennials, at approximately 79.8 million, and Generation Z, at approximately 84.4 million). How do we get them to spend time outside?”


McCoy admits that neither she nor the other Foundation board members have the only answers to the above questions, but a lot of local groups are doing great work on this effort. The question, says McCoy, is how the Foundation can increase participation and outdoor experiences by adding leverage and capacity to the work already being done in different geographies and with different communities.

“There are many people across the country already interested in increasing outdoor participation, whether it’s for health, environmental, or social justice reasons, including foundations and funders. Our thought is if we as an industry can be a unified catalyst, we can create real change. I think we are at the beginning of a major backlash to addictive technologies especially in younger kids. It is already happening, and we as an industry should seize the impulse to reconnect people back to the natural world. Participation is an important long game for conservation—it is hard to protect what you do not know.