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Outdoor Participation Springs Back in Wake of COVID-19

Outdoor participation has declined in recent years, with screen-time taking priority over outside time for Americans. The Outdoor Foundation’s 2019 Outdoor Participation Report indicated that just over half of Americans recreated outside at least once in 2018, however, that left nearly half of the population choosing to stay inside, exclusively. With the advent of new digital technologies and the rise of distractions like smartphones, streaming services, and social media, Americans embarked on 1 billion fewer outdoor outings in 2018 than they did in 2008. The number of children ages six to 12 recreating outdoors has dropped four years straight, totaling a three-percent decline since 2007. The total number of participants who engaged in moderate outdoor recreation at least once per week sits at only 18 percent. 

While the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the outdoor industry, it comes with a silver lining, as more and more Americans have taken to the outdoors to escape quarantine time within their own homes. In Colorado, outdoor recreation was deemed an essential activity under the stay-at-home order, and residents took full advantage. Colorado Parks and Wildlife reported a 30-percent increase in visitation in April at its state parks. Trailheads operated by open space agencies along Colorado’s Front Range were also overwhelmed with an increase in visitation, leading to rolling closures and restrictions implemented by Boulder County Park & Open Space, City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks, Denver Parks and Recreation Mountain Parks, and Jefferson County Open Space. In Clear Creek County, local officials even went so far as to close county roads to non-residents as a result of increased use by urban recreationists fleeing Denver. California State Parks received record visitation in late March, just after stay-at-home orders were put in place. Public lands in Utah, specifically in canyon country, saw a huge influx in visitation, too.

As opposed to the decline in outdoor participation over the past decade-plus, the onslaught of the COVID 19 pandemic has caused an increase in people heading outside. The current demand is high, and that demand is likely to continue as the population navigates the future lifting of stay-at-home orders. While the outdoor industry took a hit from the initial ramifications of the pandemic, the increased demand for outdoor recreation, specifically warm-weather activities, presents a large opportunity for retailers and manufacturers within the outdoor space. Approachable activities with products at lower price points, like hiking, are sure to lure new participants out of their homes and onto local trails. A poll by CivicScience revealed that 43-percent of Americans over the age of 13 planned to embark on more outdoor activities due to COVID19, with 15-percent of Americans planning to hike more. 

In a May 21, 2020, press release, Outdoor Industry Association executive director Lise Aangeenbrug, noted, “during this public health crisis, spending time in outdoor spaces has become so important for many, and we anticipate this trend will continue. People are drawn to the outdoors for fresh air, stress relief, and the freedom it provides. This is positive news for outdoor businesses and for the health and well-being of Americans.”

The resiliency of the outdoor industry and increase in people going outside provides a glimmer of hope that it will survive the current economic downturn, and hopefully see a continued increase in demand and subsequent creation of more outdoor industry jobs. 

In response to the anticipated increase in outdoor participation, a national coalition of nonprofits, outdoor businesses, and land managers formed the #RecreateResponsibly campaign, in order to encourage citizens to participate in outdoor recreation safely during the pandemic. Read more about the #RecreateResponsibly campaign, here.