Community Q&A with Blackdog Outdoors

Blackdog outdoors is a platform for re-connecting people with the great outdoors. Run by a small group of volunteers, it promotes positive mental health through sport and outdoor activities such as walking, climbing, and paddle sports.
We caught up with Andy Higson, Director of Blackdog Outdoors, to find out more about this brilliant charity and how it was formed…

How did Blackdog Outdoors first come about?

I’m a civil engineer and I’ve always used outdoors as therapy. When my job is getting to me, I’ll go out for a walk. I’ll get out into the mountains.

I had a bit of an early midlife crisis and got into high altitude mountaineering, which took me to Russia to climb Mount Elbrus! Everyone there was there for similar reasons – to escape work or the pressures of life. It got me thinking about the clear link between mental health and the outdoors.

When I came back I went on a Mental Health first aid course and decided to do something about it. I had a look online and found that there were established charities promoting good mental health, and private companies offering outdoor activities for a lot of money – but there was no one saying, come out with us and we’ll look after you for the day. We won’t charge you the earth and you’ll feel the benefits.

We started in 2019 and did 9 events. In 2020, we added paddle sports, and of course were hit by the global pandemic…but we still managed to run 24 events throughout mainland UK. We continued to grow in 2021, running 72 events and introducing rock climbing as part of our offer.

Last year was a huge gamechanger for us. People had lost confidence in themselves and lost connections since the pandemic and were keen to socialise again. We ran 148 events last year operating up and down mainland UK, all free to attend, fully insured, and managed by qualified outdoor professionals with Mental Health First Aid support volunteers.

What are your aims and regular activities?

We run introductory walks and other outdoor activities across mainland UK, which are open to anybody. The events are completely free – this is important to us – we don’t want any barriers to getting outside. We also run targeted events with community support organisations who refer their service users to us.

We work with organisations like the LGBT Foundation in Manchester, neuro divergent charities, and NHS early intervention and psychosis teams…we love doing these community events as you can clearly see the impact on those that take part.

As well as the event leaders, we have Mental Health First Aiders that support our sessions. This allows us to signpost people to support networks or give them ideas for who they could go to if affected by poor mental health – whether it’s talking to Samaritans, or a local support group, or going to see their GP. But, a lot of the time we find that most people just want to talk to somebody without being judged. They just want that comfort that they’re not on their own.

People start to come along to the walks regularly, they join our Facebook group and you start to see these little groups forming. They start to go out locally on their own and planning their own things and that’s really what it’s all about. Our work is done at that point!

What are some of the challenges you face?

Raising funding can be a challenge. We have help from some fundraisers, and a couple of Trusts support us. We also ran a fundraising trip to Everest Base Camp last year, but it’s hard. There’s so much competition, but we’ve got clear evidence that what we’re doing is having an impact, so we hope this will help us to raise more funds in the future.

What more can be done to help connect people to nature for their wellbeing?

Connecting to nature can mean many things. It doesn’t have to be going for walks, paddling, or climbing. It could be getting down to your local allotment, litter picks in your local village and having pride in where you live. It could be going down to your local park for 15 minutes of vitamin D every day. I think it’s important to get the message out there that you can start small and move big.

Education is an important part of our work. We aim to give people the awareness and confidence to get outside and do it safely and responsibly.

People are not always aware of environmental issues, not aware of risk of moor fires, littering and erosion. We talk about local flora and fauna and local heritage on our walks. This piques people’s interests and gives them a reason to go back out again.

Nowadays we’re all on our phones or sat in meetings all day. We help people get back to something that they’re hardwired to do and that’s being out in the fresh air!

How can people get involved with Blackdog Outdoors?

Check out our website to book onto our events. And keep your eyes peeled for future walks in the South Pennines!