“People don’t just want to get outside, they want to connect” – 4 tips from Muslim Hikers' Haroon Mota to help get everybody outdoors

A hiker in a green shirt looks at the view
We hit the trail with the founder of Muslim Hikers to find out how he created the world's largest online community for Muslims outdoors (Image credit: Julia Clarke)

“I didn’t have opportunities like this growing up, it just wasn’t tradition for us,” muses Haroon Mota, as we climb up a steep, rocky trail in the Lake District one Friday morning. For the moment, the sun is out, revealing the lush Great Langdale Valley spread out below us with rugged peaks hugging the edges of glittering lakes.

Soft-spoken and thoughtful, Mota is the founder of Muslim Hikers. We’re here  to attend the Arc’teryx Climb Academy but while we’re both keen hikers and runners, it’s taken a certain amount of kismet for the two of us to end up on this trail together. After all, I’m white and most people on the trail look like me; Mota is a British Asian Muslim and for a long time, hiking was quite a lonely experience for him.

“Ethnic minority communities usually have a lack of awareness and confidence in outdoors spaces, and that’s primarily because they don’t have the outdoors embedded in their cultural lifestyle norms,” he explains.

Interestingly, we both received our initiation to hiking through the same channel – hiking trips organized during a time when there was more government funding available for getting high school kids outdoors in Europe. While I traveled he short distance to the Scottish Highlands from my school in Glasgow to ignite my love of the mountains, Mota grew up in Coventry, a city in the Midlands of England near Birmingham known for its diverse population, but not for abundant access to the hills. 

Aged 15, however, he went on a school trip to Snowdonia in North Wales and like myself, got bitten by the hiking bug.

“If I didn’t go on that school trip, I don’t think I’d be here right now,” he admits. 

A group of hikers make their way uphill

Aged 15, Mota went on a school trip to Snowdonia in North Wales and got bitten by the hiking bug (Image credit: Julia Clarke)

To cut a long story short, Mota took to the trails and never looked back. He graduated from Coventry University with a degree in Sport and Exercise Science in 2008. Four years later, he started running marathons. This year he completed the World Marathon Majors and ran his 10th London Marathon. Personally, the outdoors offers him a place for retreat and introspection.

“One of the things I appreciate the most about the outdoors is the mental space to process emotions, thoughts, feelings.”

However, he quickly learned to use the outdoors as a tool for good, becoming an avid charity hiker. He channeled his education and passion into a fundraising career leading challenge events for humanitarian charities that involved him in treks to Mount Everest and Kilimanjaro. In 2021, he received the Spirit of the London Marathon Award for his fundraising efforts at the event. Then the pandemic hit and events stalled.

In the fall of 2020, however, he was approached by Arc’teryx to become an ambassador for the brand, known for its high-end climbing and hiking gear. At that point, he admits now, he’d been hiking for 15 years and hadn’t heard of them, but when he saw their reach, he thought they might be able to help him in his quest to get more people like him outdoors.

“We know there's a distinct lack of representation in the outdoors but also in media,” says Mota.

“When I joined as an ambassador, I thought, ‘What’s the one thing I’m passionate about? Getting people outside. How can they help me? What can I do more of?’”

A hiker in a green shirt looks at the view

Despite having hiked all over the world, Mota was still lacking a sense of community (Image credit: Julia Clarke)

What Mota realized was that, despite having hiked all over the world, he was still lacking a sense of community. So he started the Muslim Hikers page on Instagram initially to create online community, normalize the outdoors and encourage people to free themselves from isolation. 

“Becoming an ambassador was an incredibly empowering experience for me. It made me feel like I could – I should – do more.”

Today, Muslim Hikers is the largest outdoor community for Muslims in the world, managed under an umbrella community interest company that also oversees Muslim Runners and Muslim Cyclists. The page has 46,000 followers and runs two or three hiking events each month in the UK designed to instill safety and confidence in the outdoors, open to anyone but targeting people who wouldn’t usually get outside. Every event sells out, drawing 150 people from all over the country, while Mota says he’s seen people travel from as far away as Europe and the US to join Muslim Hiker for a day hike, with many sharing stories of the group helping them to manage anxiety and depression.

“There’s a lot of power in community, and that’s what we’re seeing. People don’t just want to get outside, they want to connect with others,” says Mota.

A group hiking down after a climbing session

Today, Muslim Hikers is the largest outdoor community for Muslims in the world (Image credit: Future)

Haroon Mota’s 4 tips for getting outside

It’s no secret that many minority populations face obstacles to getting outdoors, from not owning hiking boots or a waterproof jacket to not knowing where to go. However, the biggest barrier is within ourselves, according to Mota, who has the following advice for anyone seeking to spend more time in nature.

1. Be prepared to get out of your comfort zone

The key to taking the plunge in the first place, says Mota, lies in being willing to be a bit uncomfortable. That’s good advice for an activity where you’re bound to get sore feet and encounter less-than-ideal conditions. 

“The outdoors is for everybody,” says Mota.

This doesn’t have to mean walking 20 miles with blisters, but it does mean exposing yourself to experiences and surroundings that are unfamiliar. Begin with a short drive into the countryside to see some unknown territory, suggests Mota, then work your way up to some Type 2 fun

A couple takes a selfie while hiking

Not all of us feel thrilled at the idea of hiking with hundreds of people but it can be a good way to gain confidence (Image credit: Jasmin Merdan)

2. Join a hiking group

The truth is, not all of us feel thrilled at the idea of hiking with hundreds of people, but Mota says starting with a group – even if it’s not Muslim Hikers – is a great place to hone your skills before branching out alone.

“You can build your confidence in a group and that will give you independence and empowerment to go and do it alone.”

Use social media to search for groups in your geographical area, or that share similar values, and take the opportunity to ask questions and learn from other hikers.

3. Arm yourself with knowledge

If you didn’t grow up with mountaineers for parents, the chances are you’ll have lots of questions on what kit you need and how to use it, but the answers to those questions are no longer a safely guarded secret. In fact, you can usually find the answers to your hiking questions for free, online. 

“If you’ve got a burning question, the likelihood is that someone’s already asked it.”

Check out our guide to how to start hiking for tips on things like gear, navigation, wildlife and weather.

head and shoulders of man hiking

Don’t think that getting outside has to mean a gruelling climb to the rugged summit of a rocky peak (Image credit: Getty)

4. Don’t assume you have to climb a mountain

Finally, Mota advises, even though Snowdonia remains one of his favorite hiking spots, don’t think that getting outside has to mean a gruelling climb to the rugged summit of a rocky peak. 

“You don’t necessarily have to climb a hill to get into the countryside.”

He recommends using hiking apps like AllTrails, Komoot and Strava to find trails near you – you might be surprised to discover that many are a lot closer, and more accessible than you think. 

Julia Clarke

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.