Meet Dayton’s trail master who has connected almost 6,000 outdoor enthusiasts

Credit: Andy Niekamp

Credit: Andy Niekamp

If you’re a Daytonian who enjoys hitting the trails, you’ve likely heard of Andy. If you haven’t, you probably have still benefited from his work.

Founder and organizer of Dayton Hikers and Chief Adventure Officer at Outdoor Adventure Connection, Andy Niekamp has paved a lifestyle where his biggest passion is intertwined with bettering Dayton. After a 27-year information technology career at Packard came to an end, Niekamp decided to "semi-retire." This semi-retirement ended up being anything but a slowdown.

Niekamp’s organization, Dayton Hikers, is celebrating 10 years this year. It boasts some 5,700 members, 7,000 past events on the calendar and 32,000 photos in the organization’s photo album — all in just 10 years. According to Niekamp, Dayton Hikers is the most active hiking meetup group in Ohio.

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Outdoor Adventure Connection, Niekamp's other brainchild, is a small business he began a few years after Dayton Hikers. Groups are taken on guided expeditions that can last just one day or much longer.

Credit: Andy Niekamp

Credit: Andy Niekamp

When he’s not organizing outdoor exploration for Dayton’s outdoor enthusiasts, he spends his free time working on trail maintenance and working with state legislators to make sure they understand how precious Dayton’s trails and parks are.

“A lot of people think trails are what you do when you’re bored,” Niekamp said. “But trails are our quality of life here in Dayton. Whether it’s hiking, cycling, mountain biking or water trails — this is what we do instead of going to the gym. It’s allowing us to live a healthier lifestyle.”

Andy Niekamp is our Daytonian of the Week.

🌲You attended Bowling Green State University for finance. How did you end up becoming so involved with outdoor recreation? 

“For me, growing up in the Dayton area, I was a generation of a child that played outside. So that’s probably where I got my love for being in the outdoors. Then along the way, I was a Boy Scout and an Eagle Scout and got the opportunity to do some backpacking there. Even my high school, Kettering Fairmont, had a summer backpacking program. I didn’t know what I wanted to be out of high school, so I went to be a park ranger and I came out as a computer programmer. Pretty different career, and it turned out to be a good one. It was a great time to be in information technology. Along the way, I got an MBA in Finance at Wright State University.

My corporate journey came to an end at the Great Recession and instead of looking for another job within my company or outside the company I said, ‘You know, I’m going to call myself retired or semi-retired and pursue my passion of the outdoors.’”

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🌲In your opinion, what has made Dayton such a prosperous hub for outdoor enthusiasts like yourself?

“Dayton is a great place to grow up, and Dayton is a great place to live. It’s affordable and for me, it makes a great home base for a lot of the adventures I like to do. Plus there is so much happening with the outdoor recreation scene in Dayton that there are just plenty of things to do. And Dayton Hikers has become part of that.

If you want to take a 10-mile hike in the Dayton-area, you have a lot of choices. If you live in Cincinnati or Columbus and want to take a hike, you don’t have a lot of choices. We’ve had people move here for our outdoor recreation community. It’s the parks, the people and the culture too. Dayton is the Outdoor Adventure Capital of the Midwest. We self claim that title. What I like to say is that everyone has a hand in making that happen; it’s not just Five Rivers MetroParks. It’s all our park districts, our clubs, our organizations, our businesses, our citizens. We all have a hand in making Dayton the Outdoor Adventure Capital of the Midwest.”

🌲Can you tell me about what it has been like to be so involved with both Outdoor Adventure Connection AND Dayton Hikers? 

“With Dayton Hikers, I saw the power of social media and how it connected people with similar interests, particularly the meetup platform.

The thing with Dayton Hikers, we are a social networking group where everything is internet based. We don’t have any officers, we don’t have any dues. People just meet (and go hiking.)

Credit: Andy Niekamp

Credit: Andy Niekamp

Ten years ago, I was kind of getting frustrated with the local outdoor club and some of the bureaucracy because they had officers, a board and procedures they had to follow to be able to schedule a hike, and I just said ‘Oh phooey. I think there's a better way of doing this, and I think there’s a lot more people in the Dayton-area that would love to go hiking.’ I knew there were people in Dayton who wanted to go hiking. I knew there were places to go hiking. I just did not realize at the time how successful Dayton Hikers would be. I knew there was potential, but it’s far exceeded what I thought it would do.”

I was forming a hiking group to bring the hiking community together in Dayton, and then I realized we are a lot more than a hiking group. Number one, we’re about getting exercise and hiking is a very healthy activity. Then we’re about exploring nature. We’re kind of blessed here in Dayton with a lot of natural areas. When I say that, it’s not just Five Rivers MetroParks. We have Miami County Parks, we have Greene County Parks, City Parks, Centerville-Washington Park District, Bellbrook Sugarcreek Park District … it’s a mix of private, city, county and state parks that we have here in the Dayton-area and then the crown jewel of that is our Five Rivers MetroParks.

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Then I quickly realized with Dayton Hikers that people were making friends. One of the biggest benefits of joining Dayton Hikers these days is the ability to meet and network with other hikers and make friends. … We all know that exercise is good for us, but studies have shown that exercise with nature involved has additional benefits and actually, hiking in a group has benefits than just hiking alone. I like to say that Dayton Hikers is really about making our community a better place to live, that’s what we’re doing today.”

Credit: Lisa Powell

Credit: Lisa Powell

🌲What are a couple of your favorite projects and/ or trips you’ve done with these groups?

“With Dayton Hikers, one of the projects that I’m proud of that is going on right now is we created what we call the Passport to Adventure Program. Basically you get a booklet and you earn stickers for hiking in different parks. There are 32 stickers you can earn. … The goal is to get people to visit different parks and trails and to visit some of these different areas in Ohio and Dayton that they may not otherwise go to. We’ve had many fill their book already … it’s kind of modeled after the National Park passport program. ... Some park districts might do something similar but it only features the parks within their own district.

Also, a couple years ago, we were involved in a Google Trekker project. That was a great project for us when we carried a 60-pound backpack to help Five Rivers get a 360-degree view of all their trails. If you go to a Google Map, it’s kind of like Street View for our parks. You can take a virtual tour of the trails and see what the parks look like before you go. Outdoor Adventure Connection served as the liaison between Google and Five Rivers MetroParks and then Dayton Hikers pitched in to help carry the big heavy backpack.”

🌲What do you think is the most underrated outdoor rec spot in the Dayton-area and why?

"For me, it's the Centerville-Washington Park District and the Bellbrook Sugarcreek Park District. They have some parks that are hiker destinations that most people don't know about. Sweet Arrow ReserveThe Morris Reserve; they're both former farms turned into parks. … I take people there all the time and they say 'Well I grew up here in Dayton, and I didn't know this park was here, or that there was so much to it.'"

🌲When you're not keeping Dayton adventurous in the outdoors, what else do you enjoy doing in your free time?

“I am a trails guy. … I’ve hiked the entire Appalachian Trail end to end four times, I’ve got about 15,000 miles of long distance backpacking experience in the last 30 years. This past winter I was on the Florida Trail from mid-December to late February, I did 1,100 miles on the Florida National Scenic Trail. I was in swamps, I hiked by alligators … I’ve hiked the entire Buckeye Trail. I have a book called Captain Blue on the Blue Blazes it’s about my journey around Ohio on the Buckeye Trail. … My passion is long-distance hiking and through Dayton Hikers and through Outdoor Adventure Connection, I can share my passion with others.”

Credit: Andy Niekamp

Credit: Andy Niekamp

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