OIA’s 2024 Outdoor Participation Trends Report outlines that outdoor participation grew to record levels in 2023, extending above pre-pandemic levels; however, the number of outings remained relatively flat over the past decade, and both the count and the average percentage of core (Very Frequent) participants continued its spiraling decline.

OIA concluded in its data that “currently, very few participants who are new to outdoor recreation are converted to core participants.”

The association’s report outlines that the average number of outings per participant in 2023 fell 11.4 percent from 70.5 per participant in 2022 to 62.5 outings per participant in 2023. “This data provides us with a leg of the triangle explaining why retail sales are down even though the number of participants increased materially,” wrote OIA in the report.

Outdoor Participation Reaches Record Levels
On the upside, OIA pointed out in the report that outdoor participation among Americans six and older grew 4.1 percent to a record 175.8 million in 2023 and is running up 14.4 percent from 153.6 million outdoor participants in 2019. “The growth that began in 2016 and accelerated during the COVID pandemic is showing few signs of slowing. Engaging these new, more diverse, more casual participants to participate more frequently is the key opportunity for the outdoor industry today,” wrote OIA.

According to the OIA report, a bright spot is that over one-half of women in America are participating in outdoor activities, with the female participation rate reaching 51.9 percent in 2023, up from 50 percent in 2022. U.S. males also reached a new level of participation, reaching a record high of 62.9 percent in 2023.

Seniors continue to drive participation rates, with participation among Americans ages 55 to 64 increasing from 41.2 percent in 2019 to 49.7 percent in 2023. Those Americans 65 and older increased from 28.8 percent in 2019 to 39.5 percent in 2023. The participation rate for Americans aged 65 and older grew 11.5 percent between 2022 and 2023 alone.

Members of the LGBTQ+ community made up 11.3 percent of the outdoor participant base (19.9 million) and continue to be the most active adult cohort in outdoor recreation, with total participation rates above 60 percent. At 65.6 percent, people who identify as Bisexual had the highest participation rate of any adult cohort.

OIA’s report also outlines that the number and percentage of Hispanic and Black people as core participants has increased, although at a slower rate than the overall participant base growth.

The association also noted that at a 57.1 percent participation rate, a larger share of Americans participate in outdoor recreation than go to see a movie in a theater (43 percent), possess at least an Associate’s degree (52.5 percent), or eat breakfast daily (35 percent). “Outdoor recreation can shoot for participation rates as high as the percentage who follow professional and/or college sports (62 percent), are on social media (68 percent), or drink coffee every day (73 percent),” wrote OIA.

Frequency of Outdoor Outings Continues Eroding
The average number of outdoor outings was 62.5 per year in 2023, down 25.6 percent from 84 percent ten years ago. Relatedly, 88.4 million outdoor participants were Core Participants in at least one activity in 2023, down from a recent peak in 2019 of 99.4 million Core Participants. The average percentage of Core Participants in each outdoor recreation activity measured was 28.8 percent in 2023, down from a recent peak of 33.2 percent in 2018.

“Some of the precipitous drop in the average percentage of core participants in outdoor activities between 2020 and 2023 is explained by an influx of new participants, but the actual count of core participants is dropping. When the drop in the actual number of core participants is coupled with significant growth in the number of total participants, we know that new participants are participating less frequently,” wrote OIA.

OIA said the declining frequency of participation in its findings points to “significant opportunities to engage millions of new participants and even incentivize them to participate more frequently.”

The association’s report noted that a more diverse group of Americans are casual participants in the most accessible activities, driving the strong growth in the most popular outdoor activities (hiking, camping, fishing, bicycling, and running).

The report also identifies the Top 5 outdoor recreation activities by participation rate as hiking (day), participated in by 20.0 percent of surveyed respondents, followed by fishing (fly/salt/fresh), 18.2 percent; running, jogging, trail running, 17.9 percent; camping (car, backyard and RV), 17.7 percent; and bicycling (road, mountain, BMX), 17.2 percent.

However, OIA reported a sharp drop in the frequency of participation marks, “a flashing red warning light for the outdoor industry and a call to opportunity.” The organization said the industry has to understand better the motivations of the “more casual base” of the new participants who “approach outdoor recreation with more relaxed attitudes and expectations” than the traditional outdoor enthusiast.

“The traditional hard-core, high-frequency participants, who are most often male and white, will make up a smaller share of the participant base year-over-year into the indefinite future,” OIA concluded in the study. “Efforts to build core participation in a more diverse market will be key to growing outdoor participation in depth as well as breadth.”

Methodology: All participation statistics are from a nationwide study conducted during the 2023 calendar year by Sports Marketing Surveys USA (SMS) under the guidance of the Outdoor Foundation, the Sports and Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), and six other sports industry associations that make up the Physical Activity Council (PAC). During 2023, a total of 18,000 online interviews were conducted nationwide.