A recent article in High Country News was titled The Death of Backpacking. Hyperbole? No basis in fact? My own .05 worth…
TL;DR – Backpacking is not dead or even dying. But the overall amount of people pursuing overnight outdoor activities is indeed declining while “done-in-a-day” activities have shown a healthy increase in participation.
UPDATE MARCH 2018:
I update this article every year or so because every time the article is linked, I get told the stats are old, or NPS stats are suspect, anecdotes (?!) say otherwise, etc. etc. etc. .. 🙂 But the 2017 stats from various sources beyond NPS, show the same trends consistent over the years:
* Be it raw numbers or as a percentage of a population, overall backcountry use is indeed going down esp from the peak of the 1970s or even the 1980s.
* Yes, thru-hiking numbers are up, but that is a drop in the statistical bucket. Also, thru-hiking is much different from backpacking. The allure is often the journey itself or the cultural aspects esp among the more well-known trails. How many thru-hikers backpack beyond thru-hikes? How many do the AT or PCT, call it good, and don’t pick up a pack all that often after?
* Day use activities are increasing. More variety of activities to choose from (day hiking, trail running, mountain biking, etc), they are more accessible versus years past, and the activities seem to fit in better with the busy lifestyle we now have for various reasons.
UPDATED JANUARY 2020:
While the Outdoor Foundation’s 2019 Outdoor Participation Report showed that while a bit more than half of Americans went outside to play at least once in 2018, nearly half did not go outside for recreation at all. Americans went on 1 billion fewer outdoor outings in 2018 than they did in 2008. The number of adolescents ages 6 to 12 who recreate outdoors has fallen four years in a row, dropping more than 3% since 2007.
The number of outings for kids has fallen 15% since 2012. The number of moderate outdoor recreation participants declined, and only 18% of Americans played outside at least once a week.
Upon posting this link by myself and others, there were some interesting conversations.
A few thought the article was interesting and thought-provoking. Others thought the article was crap.
People brought up that the “evidence” cited in the article was anecdotal. That the people interviewed sounded curmudgeonly. And some of the statements such as people buying more trail runners vs boots as just plain out-of-whack with most modern backpackers.
All correct in many ways. The article does have the flavor of an old man, sitting in his rocking chair and yelling “DAMN KIDS! GET OFF MY LAWN!!!!”
But the questions and discussions raised by the article do seem to be valid. Backcountry use is declining. “Done-in-a-day” activities are on the rise. And, more importantly, what does all this mean?
Statistics seem to indicate this assertion is true.
National Park Service statistics, for example, show an overall decrease in overnight backpacking (and overnight activities in general).
As shown in this article, NPS statistics are a good standard as any. If similar statistics were available for USFS, BLM and state parks, I suspect there would be similar results.
The NPS report embedded in the article is no longer working, but some internet sleuthing brought up an interesting link with some enlightening statistics.
The take away from all these stats I found?
There was a 200k+ person decline in backcountry use in 2013 vs 2000. Compare the use from 1979 vs 2013 and the difference is a 700k+ person difference As a side note, OVERALL overnight use (car camping, lodging such as huts, etc) has declined by two-million in the NPS since 1979 vs 2013. Keep in mind the country’s population in 1979 was 225 million. Now (2014) the US population is 316 million. In other words, adjusted for the percentage of the population, the difference is rather dramatic.
Other reports show an overall increase (though I wonder about the statistics) in backpacking and overnight activities but do not take in the 90+ million person population increase between 1979 and 2012 when the report was done.
And even this report shows a decrease, overall, for people ages 6 -24. I’d be curious what the overall stats are for 40 years old and younger? Probably similar. Which is what I believe the HCN editorial was asserting.
For those who question the NPS statistics, consider this 2013 report sponsored by Coleman (people who MAKE money when people do overnight activities)
• Thirty-eight million Americans went camping in 2012 for a total of 516.6 million days. Participation is down from 42.5 million campers and 534.9 million days in 2011.
• Young adults lost the largest percentage of participants, down from 17 percent in 2011 to 13 percent in 2012.
• Camping lost a net of 4.5 million participants from 2011 to 2012 due to a high churn rate of 32 percent.
UPDATED FOR 2017: Newer reports only validate these findings. Even when out of the recession for most (esp the higher income earners who tend to be outdoor enthusiasts), the decline was “only” (!) 425,000 vs the previous year.
Camping lost a net of 423,955 participants from 2012 to 2013, which is a significant improvement over the 4.2 million participant loss from 2011 to 2012.
Other even more recent (2016) reports show mainly static but, again, not factoring in the percentage of the population vs earlier years. We have more people in 2016 when the report was made vs the 1970s at the height of the backpacking boom. But far fewer people as a PERCENTAGE OF THE POPULATION actually backpack. Be it raw numbers, or overall percentage, backpacking is not as popular versus previous years.
And since people enjoy using anecdotes to support their views, here are some of my own that I found… 🙂
Anecdotal, but with admittedly with no hard facts, a comment from a former REI employee was interesting:
This trend has been with us for some time. I worked part time for the outdoor, hiking, camping store Recreational Equipment Incorporated, (REI.com) about 13 years ago and I learned this drop off in off-road camping and visitations was the subject of some discussion amongst the marketing people at the company. Even then they knew the trend was away from backpacking and towards day trips and perhaps car camping trips and this was bothersome since REI was into more of the traditional mountaineering sports. There was talk of picking up more family camping gear, more snow sports, more jogging and other fitness related gear, while easing up a bit on the hard core backpacking stuff.
Another anecdote that I find to be interesting. Observations that fewer people are out and fewer stores sell backpacking gear vs the peak of the backpacking boom. Emphasis mine:
When I am out bushwhacking in the whites I encounter old campsites way off from any major trails usually near a stream, waterfall or other attraction . They usually consist of an old fire ring some flat spots made by moving rocks and more often than not old beer cans from the seventies/early eighties. Around popular areas there may be 100s of old campsites radiating out into the woods. They haven’t been used for years but the soil was compacted and are slowly growing in or covered with blowdowns but the fire rings and occasional hacked trees remain. Most of these areas were usually a half a day to day in from a trailhead. In general the evidence in the field is that there was whole lot more overnight backcountry usage in the past. I think a lot of the LNT principles were developed as result of that era as the woods were a mess. The Whites tried a permit system in at least one local wilderness area for few years at the tail end of the boom but the drop in usage in the mid eighties was fairly steep and they dropped them. I heard the comment that “yuppies didn’t hike”. I know of many folks who would establish semi permanent seasonal campsites, they would return weekend after weekend to head out in the woods to get stoned and party. Frequently they left their tents and other gear at the end of the season and occasionally we encounter it.
I was in high school for the tail end of the boom and basic backpacking gear could be bought in most department stores, I picked up a primus stove and lantern set at a WT Grant store when it was closing down and nylon Camel brand tents were sold at many stores. There were fewer outdoor retailers, the choice was basic catalog like campmor or REI. We used to make occasional trips to EMS in North Conway for the high end stuff and eventually there was store in my town. Beans had some backpacking gear but it was pricey and in general they really were not the supplier of choice for most backpackers. Frostline kits were popular, I know many folks who borrowed moms sewing machine and sewed their own.
Now, naturally, a few responses have already come up against the HCN article.
- Showing boots versus trail runners sales as a barometer for backcountry activity is nonsense!
To a certain degree. Yes. Many backpackers eschew heavy packs for light packs and trail runners are used by many. However, there is still a large percentage of people who use boots and heavy packs when backpacking. I see it myself on weekend trips! 🙂 Also, I would not go by the fringe long-distance hiking/lightweight backpacking community as to what is the norm. Which brings me to…
- What about all those people who hike the Appalachian/Pacific Crest/Colorado/John Muir/Whatever Trails? Those numbers are increasing!
I can not argue with that assertion. The amount of long-distance hikers is indeed increasing as shown by trail organizations. Be it the effect from such books as A Walk in the Woods or Wild, people who want to make a pilgrimage in the mountains or the same people who may have backpacked in Europe during an earlier generation now choosing to hike long distances, the use of long trails IS increasing.
But long-distance hikers are a small minority (very!) of the outdoor community. Not indicative of a trend in the overall scheme of things.
Furthermore, the people who do long hikes are not the same as weekend backpackers.
For many people hiking the long trails, the allure is as much the culture and the society they find themselves in as much as being out in the woods. In many ways, planning a hike on something such as the JMT, AT, PCT or other popular trails is easier versus a self-planned solo trip in the Wind River Range for a week as one example. The popular trails have many guidebooks, trail-specific maps, a huge community for logistics, physical and emotional support and so on.
Or, to put it another way, how many former thru-hikers will regularly backpack, say once or twice a year, once the thru-hike is over? The answer is smaller than a person would initially think from what I’ve seen.
Perhaps the pilgrimage path is the allure. Being out in the mountains for only a weekend or so at a time does not cut it.
However, if a person has sporadically backpacked since their thru-hike 5, 10 or more years ago, I don’t think the person “counts” as a backpacker in terms of yearly statistics.
Dad took me to lure fishing fairly often when I was about ten years old. Thirty years later, I would not call myself an angler.
- How come it is so hard for me to get permits then if numbers are declining?
If I had to guess, and I admit this is a guess, with 90+ million more people the US since 1979, there are probably more restrictions in the backcountry and the use of the backcountry areas vs earlier times.
The Indian Peaks Wilderness near Boulder, CO did not use to require permits for example. With the population growth of the Front Range of Colorado, more people are using the same limited resources. The allure of backpacking may have gone down overall, but government restrictions have gone up.
To put a harsher spin on it, Ed Abbey perhaps puts it best: “A crowded society is a restrictive society”
Then there is a population shift. People are moving more to Colorado, California, Arizona, etc where the outdoors is part of the lifestyle. In other words, a concentrated amount of people who enjoy backcountry activities (among other activities) are all moving to the same places.
However, see above. Especially as measured by population growth, the overall percentage of people involved in backcountry overnight activities is down.
- Fine. Let’s say this is all true. The fewer people in the backcountry the better! Who needs the crowds!
Unfortunately, if people do not have a vested interest in maintaining backcountry resources, the resources will go away. In our national parks and forests, backcountry patrol rangers are becoming less common. Trail maintenance is going by the way-side. And money for the protection of our wildlands may dwindle.
“Done in a day” activities, such as hiking, trail running, rock climbing, etc. are popular indeed. And what is maintained is reflected in the overall interest. Improved visitor centers and roads, and more front country amenities such as interpretive displays. All good things in many ways. But a budget is finite. And less money goes into backcountry resources.
If there is no interest in the backcountry, who will fight to preserve our wildlands? Do we really want the wilderness experience to be strictly a diorama about the mountains, wildlife and the natural world that is no longer accessible to most?
The bigger question, I think, raised by this article is “So why are fewer people backpacking, camping, hunting and so on? Why are fewer people going into the deep backcountry?”
I think there are many reasons. Gear at mainstream retailers is rather expensive (not that it has to be the only choice!), fuel costs have gone up, and in some circles, there is the correlation that a backcountry person is somehow related to a “prepper.” (?!) Often negative associations go with this designation for those who associate being off the grid for a few days with camo and ammo. 🙂
There are also other outdoor recreational choices. More people are choosing to do activities that were not as popular, as accessible or even non-existent, in previous years.
And, quite frankly, backpacking will never have the adrenalin allure of other outdoor recreational activities. Backpacking is perceived to be boring, blah and easy by many other outdoor enthusiasts. “Why bother?” is a thought expressed by many.
However, I think the main culprit is the increasingly 24/7 culture we live in.
Twenty years ago or so, a mid-level manager may have stuck around a bit longer in the office more so than a grunt like me. But I would otherwise be free on weekends and evenings for the most part.
Now? The same mid-level manager is on their iPhone or work-issued laptop even on weekends keeping on top of things (or at least APPEARING to 😉 ). Even the more ambitious grunts do this too:
“Whether it’s with a smartphone, a tablet or home computer, a recent survey by Opinion Matters on behalf of GFI Software found that more than four out of five employees of small-or medium-size businesses checked work email on weekends. Nearly six out of 10 kept up on vacation. “
If a person is expected to check in with work, family, and others on a regular basis, very hard to get into the backcountry for an extended time or even overnight.
And even if people do take these pseudo-vacations, they are in the minority. One study has only 15% of Americans taking a traditional summer vacation. And collectively Americans do not take a half BILLION vacation days. Any wonder why backpacking, and other leisure activities, are declining?
For people who grew up with connectivity being part of their daily routine, the idea of willingly going without may be an even odder concept. Going off the grid has no allure when going from a 4G to a 3G connection is considered a major inconvenience.
So is backpacking dying?
Probably a bit of hyperbole on the author’s part. But backpacking and overnight backcountry activities overall are declining.
We can question this article itself and similar ones..but I think the overall point is this: People are spending less time on overnight outdoor activities.
In similar online conversations, I’ve seen people blame video games, others also blame connectivity, some blame that we are not John Wayne types anymore (?!), others blame our busy schedules and demands, etc.
But, it is obvious backcountry use is declining overall.
And in twenty years or more, the backcountry experience will be very different for better or worse.