JEEPS, SAFARI VESTS, CAMOUFLAGE, HIKING BOOTS, AND CLIMBING WALLS DON’T ADD UP TO RUGGED OUTDOORS PARTICIPATION, STUDY FINDS
In the last few decades, consumer marketing has stalked this development, inventing and saturating us with “Rugged Chic” — a staggering commercialization of the Outdoors theme that persuades beyond any doubt of an “Outdoors Revolution.” But the so-called revolution is merely a state of mind, largely unrelated to rigorous participation in Outdoors activities. This conclusion was derived in part from the 15th annual SUPERSTUDY® of Sports Participation, conducted in January 2002 among 14,276 Americans nationwide, by American Sports Data, Inc. (ASD).
The proliferation of highly visible cultural symbols that have little to do with Rugged Outdoors participation — Jeeps, Hummers, Parkas, Ski Jackets, Cargo Pants, Hiking Boots, Camouflage, Backpacks and Climbing Walls — has elevated this fuzzy notion to dogma, almost beyond our ability to deny a Great Outdoors revival. On the other hand, abundant statistics document our passive bond with nature and the environment, but these only muddy the waters — promoting the misconception that Americans are flocking to the outdoors.
While the number has declined from a decade earlier, in 1999, exactly one-half of all Americans (50%) considered themselves “environmentalists”. According to the 2001 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife conducted by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, in 2001 more than 66 million adults participated in feeding, observing and photographing wildlife — up from 62.9 million in 1996. Since 1980, total recreational visits at national parks have increased by 27%… not a huge gain in view of population growth, but — against the backdrop of declining overnight visits by Campers and Hikers — suggestive of a healthy (if passive) interest in the Outdoors. A less salient (and perhaps less relevant) indicator of our growing Outdoors consciousness may be do-it-yourself home gardening among Americans — which, according to the 2001 National Gardening Survey — is at its highest level in five years.
But under higher magnification, the monolithic view breaks down — revealing that over the past few years, the quintessential Outdoors activities of Hiking and Camping have either stagnated or declined. From 1998 – 2001, the number of Day Hikers in the U.S. dropped by 4% to 36.9 million, while Overnight Hiking/Backpacking fell from 6.8 million to 6.0 million participants, a drop of 12%.
During the same three-year period, Tent Camping — the most popular Outdoors activity, grew by only 2%, to 43.5 million participants. The 19.1 million R.V. Campers projected in 2001 represent an increase of 5% over the 18.2 million measurement of 1998, but 16% below the 1987 estimate of 22.7 million. From 1980 – 2001, overnight R.V. Camping visits at national parks plunged from 4.4 million to 2.4 million. On the other hand, Tent Camping — according to ASD survey research — claims a 23% rise since 1987, but most of this growth can be attributed to population expansion. Over this 14-year period, real (per capita) gain for the activity would be about 7%. In 2001, overnight Tent Camping visits at national parks numbered only 3.3 million — down from 3.9 million in 1980. During the same period, “Backcountry” overnight visits declined from 2.4 million to 2.0 million.
From 1990 – 2001, the number of “active” Outdoors enthusiasts (those who participated at least 15 days per year in at least one of the more rigorous activities — excluding Camping) declined from 15.8 million to 15.3 million. Since 1998, the number of Mountain Bikers has plunged by 28% to 6.2 million, while the contingent of technical (rope and harness) Mountain/Rock Climbers has dropped 9% — a statistically flat trend.
For example, by the late 1990’s, after nearly two decades of the traditional “white shoe” look in athletic footwear, Americans were primed (if not desperate) for novelty. As a consequence, Hiking shoes, athletic leisure styles, sandals and brown casuals easily infiltrated the non-performance niche of athletic footwear, capturing the allegiance of bored consumers who had absolutely no intention of ever sweating in these new fashion offerings. As industry parlance studiously (or innocently) avoided the distinction between Hiking participation and Hiking shoe purchases, “Hiking” was soon decreed a trend.
In addition, record sales of backpacks had far more to do with schoolbooks and lunches than the Great Outdoors; and to a lesser extent, sleeping bags were purchased for sleepovers. But these artificial indicators of an Outdoors Revolution have been dwarfed by a colossal fashion statement provided by the Rugged Outdoor Apparel industry. While offering the same functionality that could have been satisfied by any number of mundane street styles — heavy parkas, ski jackets, safari vests, cargo pants, farm overalls and camouflage transport the urban high-rise dweller to the tundra, jungle, desert, farm or any other natural habitat of his or her vicarious selection.
And in poetic affirmation of this ersatz Outdoors Revolution, Artificial Wall Climbing — a decidedly indoor activity performed in climbing studios and upscale health clubs (where it is also mistaken for a fitness pursuit) — has, as previously noted, registered a 57% participation gain from 1998 – 2001.
However, industry claims to record-selling sales of high-performance products — such as frigid-weather sleeping bags — must be acknowledged; it is possible that a tiny, but flourishing “barkeater” segment of core Outdoors participants has simply gone undetected by the radar of large-scale population surveys. But even if this is true, survey research offers no comfort for those who cling to the myth of booming Outdoors participation trends.
The major disconnect between the new eco-consciousness and Outdoors participation is somewhat analogous to what has been observed of American attitudes toward physical fitness. Attitude and values change in the national psyche can be swift; but corresponding changes in behavior can be far less dramatic — even glacial. ASD research has consistently shown that the vast majority of Americans (80%+) have already been persuaded of the virtues of physical fitness; yet only 20% are active fitness enthusiasts. Quite simply, our collective fitness behavior has kept pace with neither enlightened attitudes about the health benefits of fitness, nor symbolic identification with the fitness lifestyle. One is reminded of the decidedly overweight “Velour Runners” of the 1980’s who donned elegant running suits with matching headbands, and expensive running shoes — as they smoked incessantly on the sidelines of the New York City Marathon. Fitness folklore assures us that a good number of these emulators joined the growing army of fitness Walkers in the late 1980’s; some later became joggers — or in a few rare instances, marathoners.