Kelly Davis, Director of Research, Outdoor Industry Association
I like to claim to be a digital nomad ahead of my time, using the flexibility I had with online school as a youngster to curb the privilege of my father’s frequent travel and wanderlust for life. I turned in my chemistry homework in the mornings over the dodgy Wi-Fi at the Grand Canyon’s North Rim Camp Shop, Snowboard Mt. Hood (spectacularly bad) and wrote my college application essay by a Best Western lamp at night. I walked Zion three times before I was 19.
But I will probably never be able to walk this path of adventure so easily again. The times of rolling into a national park and seeing the sights are from a bygone era. If you’re hoping to see the sweeping 360 degrees of Angels Landing now, you’ll need to enter a permit lottery up to three months in advance. Eight of America’s national parks have opted for this ticketing system in 2022, particularly for their most popular hiking trails. The limits aim to reduce congestion, protect premises and maintain safety, all of which have become meteorically difficult during the pandemic.
Because of a COVID-related bump, 160.7 million Americans participated in at least one outdoor activity in 2020 — 7.1 million more people than in 2019. That’s about 54% of the US population older than six years.
Despite the boom, outdoor recreation has been in decline for nearly a decade, according to the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), which collected data from more than 18,000 people for its research last year. From 2012 to 2020, the average number of field trips Americans took each year fell from 87 to 71. This includes all outdoor activities, from fishing and camping to swimming and even basketball. OIA Research Director Kelly Davis believes it may have been declining long before the research began.
OIA’s 2021 Outdoor Participation Trends Report found that people are looking for fewer and fewer outdoor experiences every week. Organization leaders fear up to a quarter of new entrants will stop participating over the next year as they return to their pre-pandemic hobbies, habits and air conditioning. Davis speculates on the role social media played in the downfall. People are looking for more unique experiences and status symbols and no longer identify with the sport itself.
She asked me to close my eyes and imagine a wanderer. “Who do you see?” I described to her a woman with a backpack and high calf socks. My first picture of a wanderer was young and white. She laughed, “Are you describing yourself?” It was only slightly embarrassing.
But she said what I was describing was a popular archetype of activity, an archetype informed of who the “core” members of the sport were for decades. Core Members are people who do the activity with intensity, maybe almost every day, and maybe just that activity specifically. It’s her lifestyle. Think of the Alex Honnolds of the world.
They are becoming increasingly rare. And that’s okay.
What’s happening is that more and more people and more types of people are getting into outdoor recreation. Participants are more diverse in terms of race, income, age, location, and interests. They try a range of activities and don’t commit to any particular one. Davis believes the outdoor industry also needs to diversify from employers down. “In the market economy, those brands that adapt to the needs of their audiences will survive and thrive. And those who do it first will thrive even more,” she says. “Those who don’t adapt will die.”
Top outdoor activities by age group
Data courtesy of the Outdoor Industry Association
She described how companies have already hired their core audience, which is often the people who spent the most money on gear, excursions, travel, passports and so on. But there are other steps. “There are more ways to be diverse than just having a variety of colors in your workforce,” she says. She pointed out that the population aged 55 and over will grow by 45 million over the next two decades and has accounted for 15% of participants in the last two years. This demographic and its interests need to be considered, as well as the growing younger audience.
Who wants to hike and who can?
The future is getting clearer. Yes, there are more people spending more money, but that wasn’t the case in 2020. The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) reported that the economy of the outdoor leisure industry contracted 17.4% from 2019 to 2020.
The BEA attributed the industry’s decline from 2019 to stay-at-home orders. In 2020, 37.4% of nominal value added came from “traditional outdoor recreation,” i.e. doing the activity. About 45.8% came from “outdoor recreation support,” which brings in the most money for the industry but was down about 4% from 2019. Things like outdoor concerts, amusement parks, lodging and film screenings, as well as gift shops and groceries fall under this category. This has already risen again in 2022.
The decline also appears to be a confluence of changing demographics and geographies and organizations following old trends.
The OIA, in its 2021 Outdoor Participation Report, found that the participants who increased their activity in 2020 were under the age of 25, lived in southern states and had incomes above the national average. The activities that ranked highest in the 18-24 age group were 1) running, 2) yoga, 3) hiking, 4) weights, 5) cardio fitness. The 25-34 age group had the same interests, but ranked hiking higher than cardio and yoga, and weights significantly lower. Hiking was particularly popular among the 35-64 year olds, and this age group also listed fishing and camping among their interests over running or yoga. (See grafic.)
Due to a COVID-related bump, 160.7 million Americans participated in at least one outdoor activity in 2020 — 7.1 million more people than in 2019.
Businesses experience interest and location misalignment and miss their location choices. Take the state of Florida, which has almost every outdoor recreation you could seek out in the south, and you can do them year-round. In 2020, Florida was among the top seven states where outdoor recreation contributed the most to state GDP at as much as 3%. Some states that ranked above were, understandably, Hawaii, Montana, Maine and Alaska by a hair’s breadth. In fact, the entire West Coast and Four Corners region ranks worse than Florida, sometimes by as much as 1.5 percentage points.
According to Conway Data, Site Selection’s parent company, as of 2020, most outdoor recreation company projects are in states with moderate to low outdoor recreation revenue. The projects include production or distribution centers, headquarters and offices. States like California and Illinois that have two or more projects in the outdoor industry still had outdoor industry GDP below the US average at 1.5% and 1.6%, respectively. That may not come as a surprise. States like Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota are known for their manufacturing power, but of course their outdoor activities are limited by the weather.
While Southern participants may not be the “core” that many think of, they make up a large portion of the market. They are states with great racial, income and age diversity and constitute not only a diverse consumer audience but also a potential workforce. Of the companies surveyed by the OIA, only two are headquartered in Florida. Only one was in Tennessee and only one was in Georgia.
For outdoor recreation manufacturers, this may seem trivial. You can build a kayak in Colorado and ship it to Florida with no hiccups. However, manufacturing only accounted for about 14.1% of that $374.3 billion in 2020, which leaves a lot to be desired. It also bypasses passionate, educated talent in southern states with lower production costs.
The OIA, in its 2021 Outdoor Participation Report, found that the participants who increased their activity in 2020 were under the age of 25, lived in southern states and had incomes above the national average.
The southern states are somewhat underdeveloped in the outdoor industry, as companies like Kelly Davis have described and hired their key players in Oregon, Colorado or California, often people who embrace the active lifestyles they are promoting. She described to me a paradox where workers in the outdoor industry are underpaid because it’s assumed they can pursue their outdoor passion through their job or location. But the more you work in the outdoor industry, the less time you spend outdoors.
“They’re only about 20% of your target audience,” says Davis. “Unfortunately, they’re probably going to make up about 50% of your sales. But if we can expand the audience, if you can get more people to try things, sales will go up.”
Lake Ouachita is a popular Arkansas destination for Aloha pontoon maker Waco Manufacturing CEO Tom Cox, who told the Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette in April that the growing company’s recent expansion in North Little Rock will soon see a new facility in Florida will follow.
Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism