Can Camping Get Rid Of Its ‘Sufferfest’ Image?

By David Clucas

Camping isn’t just for campsites anymore. “The outdoor industry is trying to come to grips with the other ways people camp and use the equipment,” said Eureka Product Manager Paul Leonard. And the alternative to traditional backcountry overnights isn’t just car camping, he said. It could be by bike or motorcycle, or at music festivals, sporting events or someone’s private farmland.

That has opened up a flood of opportunities for tent, sleeping bag and camp furniture designers to focus on the “user experience” beyond making next year’s gear just lighter.

“Being a product guy, it’s nice to see that refreshed focus — it’s not just ‘light to be light’ anymore,” Leonard said. At the summer shows we’re also seeing plenty of designs that will spur inspiration moments from consumers on the retail floor — ‘If I connect these two tents and vestibules, I can fit my bike in here, with a place to put the beer cooler over there and games table here…’ It’s a real estate deal waiting to be closed.

Still, lightweight remains an important selling point, and perhaps even more so, gear that packs down to a small size and is easily transportable for grab-and-go adventures. Core outdoor enthusiasts may have plenty of room in the Jeep, but urban millennials will have less space in the sub-compact, or may even be catching an Uber or Lyft to the trailhead or outdoor event.

And while all the party tents and fancy designs (including plenty of prints coming to camping hardgoods) are getting much fanfare, specialty retailers are telling brands that traditional tents are still their big sellers.

Versatile Gear for a New Outdoor Tribe
“The millennial market is moving in as the primary purchase power,” said Eric Greene, general manager of Exxel Outdoors’ Outdoor Performance Group, including Kelty and Sierra Designs. “And their purchases reflect the variety of experiences they seek.”

While baby boomers tended to find a few hobbies and stick with them, millennials tend to be doing something different every week, he said. “One week it’s a festival, the next SUP, the next a mud race,” Greene said. “They favor simple, everyday adventures, but doing a lot of them for a constant experience instead of just a couple big ones,” added Chris Grill, Kelty’s product design manager.

“With baby boomers, it was about testing limits and boundaries,” said Cam Brensinger, CEO of Nemo Equipment. “With millennials, it’s more about enjoying and sharing the experience. We want to support all kinds of adventure — you can be in a non-freestanding tent or a rectangular bag.”

This all means that today’s camping gear has to be versatile. A quick example from Kelty’s new “Built to Wander” collection is a rollup tote for one of its camping chairs that doubles as a firewood carrier or other gear. “It’s a super simple, well-built product that isn’t super gadgety or gimmicky,” Greene said.

Photo courtesy Kammock

Photo courtesy Kammok

Versatility also allows for adventures on the go, said Kammok Founder Greg McEvilly. “The outdoors are becoming more integrated in our daily life rather than just a weekend warrior. We’re fitting more activities from nine to five.”

“There’s also more aesthetic and style,” in camping gear these days, Greene said. “Consumers want that touch of cool that looks good, but should never question whether it will work.” Just like in apparel, heather tones and more muted colors are replacing the bright colors and sporty looks in outdoor gear. And prints are in for hardgoods — just check some of out Big Agnes’ new 2017 tents for a preview.

But are the Party Tents Selling?
No doubt there’s plenty of buzz surrounding the larger tents — or we’re seeing plenty of so-called modular tents that can connect together via oversized vestibules for a hotel suite effect — but are retailers and consumers buying?

“The industry could be out ahead of the market a bit,” Brensinger at Nemo admitted. “I don’t know if consumers are trained yet to go to REI or a specialty retailer for a fun/social camping experience. There’s been this paradox that if a tent is larger in size or your sleeping bag is rectangular, then it should be cheap and you buy it at a big-box store.”

That being said, Brensinger thinks the market is catching up, and for once, he added, it’s nice for the outdoor industry to be ahead of the curve.

And there are nuances. While sales data might suggest that backpacking tents are still outperforming larger social or family-camping tents, Leonard at Eureka pointed out that backpacking tents get in tariff-free, while those bigger car-camping tents do not.

Still, within backpacking tents, the latest figures seem to reflect the anecdotal trends — according to SSI Data*, all backpacking tents sales at retail are up over the past year, with four-and-more-person tents growing faster than three-person tents, which are outperforming two-person tents, which are doing better than solo models.

Photo courtesy Kelty and Fredrik Marmsater

Photo courtesy Kelty and Fredrik Marmsater

Comfort is… at Least a Queen-Sized Mattress
Perhaps the biggest challenge for today’s marketers in the camping category is to convince many consumers that camping no longer has to be a sufferfest.

We’re talking more car camping here — where a two-person tent should fit a queen-sized mattress, said Eureka’s Leonard — but don’t be surprised to see some of these creature comforts sneak into backpack camping gear, too. In sleeping bags, the rectangular bag is even making a comeback, with technical features to make it lighter and pack down smaller — you might not backpack with it, but you’ll carry it in a few hundred yards to camp further away from the road.

Rising sales of camp furniture, too, is a comfort story. Chairs with rockers and sun shades are meant to keep people around a little longer,” said Jeff Polke, founder and co-president of GCI Outdoor. Comfy festival seating beyond just a padded seat is another big seller. These have to be lower-to-the ground (not to block views of those sitting behind to meet the requirements for many concert venues).

And everything must pack in small and light for easy transport — for example, TravelChair’s Joey Chair “weighs less than two pounds and packs down to the size of a California burrito” said Daniel Roso, vice president of sales and marketing for the brand.

The small size isn’t just with hikers in mind, but for river rafters, motorcyclists, soccer games and impromptu after-work tailgating, said Greg Wozer, vice president of Leki USA, which debuts its entry into the space next summer with a chair and table right around two pounds each.

“Every car can and should have a couple of these chairs in the trunk, Wozer said, “just in case.”  This leads us to think that the millennials’ biggest fear is being unprepared for the next social gathering.

*SSI Data, powered by SportsOneSource, collects and analyzes POS data from more than 15,000 retail doors across nine channels of distribution. To learn more, call 303.997.7302 or email

Lead photo courtesy Kelty and Fredrik Marmsater