Want to get outdoors? New program offers free gear rentals and training to explore county parks

Two women in uniform speak to a group of children in the shade of large trees
Senior Park Ranger Allison Lee, left, explains backpacking to a group of 7- and 8-year-old girls with Outpost Summer Camp at Los Penasquitos Canyon County Preserve in San Diego on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022.
(Adriana Heldiz/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

If you’re curious to try mountain biking or need tips on pitching a tent, San Diego County will help you get started and provide the gear you need to explore the county‘s parks.

On Wednesday, Aug. 10, county officials launched Experience the Outdoors, a program that offers free outdoor activities, training, equipment loans and even transportation to help San Diegans get to know natural spaces in their community.

“The goal of this program is simple: It is to get more San Diegans out into the incredible resources that are available to you, often resources that people are completely unaware exist in their own backyards,” San Diego County Board of Supervisors Chair Nathan Fletcher said at a press conference at Los Penasquitos Canyon County Preserve Wednesday morning, Aug. 10.

The program will include an introduction to parks, guided mountain biking and youth nature hikes. These events are open to anyone but target people who haven’t participated in outdoor recreation and lack the resources to do so.

The “Parks 101” series of activities provides hands-on training in hiking, camping, birdwatching and other outdoor activities, with events ranging from a few hours to overnight campouts.

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The sessions start with basics, such as how to choose proper footwear, safely scale slopes and respond to rattlesnakes and other local wildlife, said Jessica Geiszler, marketing and public outreach manager for the San Diego Department of Parks and Recreation.

Campers will learn how to put up a tent, use lanterns and light a camp stove. And participants will interact with ambassador animals including hawks or owls, she said. Capacity will range from about 20 people for a backpacking trip to 50 to 75 for a campground event, Geiszler said

“We provide all the materials and transportation,” including loaner tents, sleeping bags, cookware and other gear, she said.

A September event at Lake Morena County Park will introduce participants to fishing and kayaking, with all fishing gear and boats loaned out for free, said parks director Brian Albright. Other sessions will focus on specialized topics including astronomy and stargazing, backpacking for women, rock climbing and gardening.

Another initiative, Rad Regional Parks, will highlight each of the county’s 23 regional parks over a two-year period, offering free parking, events and activities all month at the featured park.

The “Ride On” program will teach cyclists how to handle mountain bikes and navigate county trails. Guided rides will take place on the second Saturday of every month and accommodate up to 18 people, ages 8 and older.

Participants must register in advance and can book free rentals appropriate for their height, said Peter Hulbert, bike rental program lead for REI, a partner in the county program along with the San Diego Mountain Biking Association.

“If you’re a single mom with three kids and you want to go mountain biking, but you don’t have bikes, how are you going to go mountain biking?” Fletcher asked. “Now we will give you the mountain bikes, we will give you the helmets. You want to learn to rock climb? We will show you.”

A man stands outdoors at a podium that says "Experience the Outdoors," with three people and vegetation behind him.
Supervisor Nathan Fletcher speaks at a press conference announcing a new program that aims to make outdoor activities available to all San Diegans.
(Adriana Heldiz/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The loaners remove a cost barrier to outdoor sports, Hulbert said, noting that a mountain bike can cost as much as $3,000. Other gear, such as rock climbing equipment, can be hundreds of dollars.

Removing those startup costs can enable people to explore their interests and form healthy habits, organizers said.

“The real mission is closing the access gap between people and the outdoors, to get them connected to the outdoors and to help with their mental health and fitness,” said Chantel Clark, a sales manager for REI.

Fletcher said the idea for the parks programs, which he previewed in his State of the County speech in March, came from the gap between the county’s extensive park system and its visitation patterns.

There are 156 county parks in San Diego spanning 60,000 acres, Albright said. But many people weren’t using them, so the next step was clearing the path to greater participation.

“Our county over the last decade has made a massive investment to build these incredible treasures,” Fletcher said. “Now we need to invest in making sure people have access to them.”