According to The Outdoor Foundation, 2008 was marked by encouraging participation growth in important segments of core outdoor activities. However, youth participation continued to decline – albeit at a less dramatic rate than in years past.

After the financial markets nearly collapsed in September of 2008, many trend analysts predicted that the outdoor industry would benefit from the economic down-turn as the American people looked to find inexpensive, close-to-home recreation opportunities. This new research report, which was conducted in January and February of 2009, lends some hard statistics to support this theory.

“In today’s economy, people are returning to simpler lifestyles – the ‘less is more’ ethic,” Christine Fanning, executive director of The Outdoor Foundation, said in a release. “Historically economic downturns have resulted in increased participation in outdoor recreation. Nature-based activities provide fun, affordable recreation and vacation opportunities for individuals and families. In the resurgence of several core outdoor activities in 2008, we hopefully see Americans beginning to reconnect with nature. With the impacts of the obesity and inactivity crisis felt nationwide – particularly among our kids – a return to a healthier outdoor lifestyle is an encouraging development and important trend.”

The report found that in 2008, 48.6% of Americans ages 6 and older participated in at least one outdoor recreation activity. Americans made an estimated 11.16 billion outdoor excursions in 2008 – either close-to-home, in a nearby park or on an overnight trip. In the 2007 edition of the same report, over 50% of Americans participated in outdoor recreation in 2007, getting outside 11.36 billion times.

Much of this decline was caused by participation in outdoor recreation among youth ages 6 to 17. In this age, group participation dropped 6%, resulting in a combined 16.7% drop over the last three years.


Participation fell most precipitously among the youngest age group measured, ages 6 to 12, which decreased 9%. The highly-structured and over-scheduled lives of today’s kids are causing them to forego outdoor pursuits in favor of other competing priorities. Among outdoor participants ages 6 to 17, a lack of time is the primary reason they don’t get outdoors more often.

While these numbers for overall participation illustrate several challenges, many core outdoor and gateway activities showed significant growth year-to-year. Backpacking, mountain biking and trail running showed double-digit increases in participation, and hiking and camping showed 9% and 7% increases, respectively.

Perhaps the most promising numbers for the outdoor industry come from two of the core outdoor activities of the industry – backpacking and camping.

After several years of declining participation in backpacking, Americans seem to have fallen in love with backcountry travel again. Backpacking participation increased 18.5% from 2007 to 2008 with a 15.7% increase coming from the 6- to 17-year-old age group. Camping – whether car camping, in a campground or in the backyard – saw nice mid-single digit increases across the entire population and among the younger generation.

Hiking, the gateway activity that is most closely related to the core outdoor activities, saw participation increase 8.5% among the general population and it increased over 4% among the 6- to 17-year-old age group.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the outdoor industry is in attracting the college-age generation, or Gen Y. Out of the 41 different outdoor activities tracked in this study, among the 18- to 24-year-old age group there were only 14 activities that showed any increase in participation year-over-year. Many activities showed considerable declines over the three-year trend.

Bird watching, Boardsailing/Windsurfing, Fly Fishing, Sailing, Scuba Diving, Snowboarding, Snowshoeing, Trail Running, and Wildlife Viewing were some of the categories to show increases. Off-Road Triathlons, and more traditional Triathlons were also very popular among this age group as were all three types of Kayaking: Recreational Kayaking, Sea/Touring Kayaking, and Whitewater Kayaking.

The challenges in luring this generation outside are multi-faceted. In the survey, the number one reason for not participating was lack of time – with 48% of respondents giving this reason. However, 47% of respondents said they were simply not interested. The third most prominent reason for not participating was “I don’t want to spend money on equipment.”

On the positive side the top three factors that motivate Gen Y to get outside include, “It’s relaxing,” “It’s a great way to exercise,” and “it’s fun.”

The 2009 Outdoor Recreation Participation Report outlines many more transformational trends spurred by the slowing economy in 2008. It outlines potential opportunities and challenges from several different demographic profiles, focusing on age, gender and race. It also compares outdoor activity participation trends to broader market trends in team sports and other recreation opportunities.