Death of Backpacking – A response

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.


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.


From The Colorado Sun showing a continuation of this trend as the years progress: But with even fewer people going on day-use activities.

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. 


One of the many old cemeteries in the park

Old graveyard in a holler on the Benton MacKaye Trail

A recent article in High Country News was titled “The Death of Backpacking?”

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.

Even day use is declining, overall, at national parks among certain demographics.

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, ( 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.

In brief:

  • 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 Wildpeople 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.

Technology is blurring the line between work and leisure time.

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.



33 Replies to “Death of Backpacking – A response”

  1. The family size might be considered. Perhaps the same number of families visit parks and camp etc. But the fact that that people have less than two kids instead of three might just appear to be less interest. I agree with much else you say. Especially LD Hikers. I meet the same people over and over again no matter where I go. We wish we could be enhanced and promoted up to “fringe group” as of of now I think we’re classified as inconsequential asterisk *

  2. For the last several years, it has been very difficult for me to get outdoors. I used to try to take a spring trip and a fall trip, but lately I have only been able to get a couple of weekends for deer season. I always seemed to find reasons why I couldn’t get away. I have always walked and have put many miles on my shoes, but I get older and can’t walk as easily as I used to. I got away from heavy boots for most hiking years ago, without being told that I needed to. I just enjoyed the walking more. Since I am no longer working, I hope to get out more and spend more nights in the woods, but I’m afraid that long hikes are not going to be possible for me. I’d like to get out and explore, but I want to walk where there is some historical significance. I like the idea of walking the C & O Canal with maybe a side trip to the Antietam battlefield. The CDT sounds interesting, but I can’t get too excited about walking the crests of a mountain range and missing the things that happened on the sides of the mountains. I’ve got a few years left and I hope to see a few more things before I have to quit.

  3. Everyone is so used to having things on demand (information, food, etc.) that I feel like people aren’t taking to backpacking like they used to. Unfortunately, the comforts of home are winning over the beauty of nature.

  4. It’s interesting how every year the gear only gets better and allows us to be more comfortable for less weight (or more if that’s your thing) but the numbers are dropping.

    Doing day hikes with the Appalachian Mountain Club always amazes me at how few serious hikers actually backpack. Even with driving 3 hours from Boston to the White’s in NH you’d think over nighting would be more popular. The answer always seems to be either fear of being uncomfortable or carrying all the extra gear. I do think the UL movement has helped get some people, especially older people, back out there, but it’s still fringe to most people.

  5. First, thank you for such a thoughtful and helpful site.

    I suspect fewer and fewer are getting out because they spend more time in front of their devices. Why suffer from mosquitoes, the weather, and other unpleasantness when the outdoors are just a click or two away?

    Naturally, I have no data and this is just surmise. Nevertheless, I would bet the effect is significant.

  6. Geez people, the hiking community can debate these potential issues ad nauseum but, perhaps, consider possible SOLUTIONS have already been offered! From Mr Ketcham’s article he concludes by offering:

    “The best action we can take to keep our kind of outdoor rec alive: Go backpacking. Demonstrate it and celebrate it, “not as a mere sport or plaything excursion,” but as John Muir advised, “to find the law that governs the relations subsisting between humans and nature.”

    Celebrate and demonstrate( and not just by words but also by your convictions and behavior!), “the radical encounter with the non-human: the visceral experience of days in wilderness alone, in vast and complex natural systems not controlled by humans, not arranged entirely for human convenience, not plagued by human noise. This matters more than ever at a time when our natural systems, on a planetary scale, appear to be in full rebellion against human convenience.” That was beautiful Mr Ketcham!

    CELEBRATE and DEMONSTRATE! Recognize that we can, AND MUST, individually and collectively, have a hand in shaping the future of backpacking and outdoor experiences. None of us live in a backpacking bubble isolated from everything else. When we recognize and cherish that humans are part of Nature and the Environment, NOT separate from it, above it, nor viewed as something to be subdued, conquered, managed solely for humanities so called “good” or in the quest for “progress”, or irrationally fearful of, that humans are but one strand in the “web of LIFE”, that “when one tugs at a single thing in Nature, he find’s it attached to the rest of the Universe” -John Muir, that all of Nature is our relative, and see Nature(land) as Aldo Leopold stated “…a community to which we belong, not as a commodity belonging to us, that endows us with the right to abuse, ignore, marginalize, and human centrically exploit”(paraphrased), this possible issue is minimized or goes away or, at the least, is approached from a very different perspective.

    Is it possible this connection, this kinship to all of nature, that John Muir and many others refer to goes beyond what humanity currently understands, or that elements of humanity have chosen to try to forget and ignore, that it goes beyond just a physical, mental, and emotional connection and hence the incorruptible candle light in all of us that yearns to “go home to the mountains and forests, to Nature?” Was Muir really onto something quite literally “far reaching” when he said, “the clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness?” Perhaps, there’s more pulling humans and the rest of Nature, the rest of the Universe, together connecting US? Perhaps, we ALL come from the same substance?

    Look around you. Look around at the world. Stand back and examine the dominant attitudes toward Nature and the Environment that prevail in different cultures. Cultures that have this deep living connection with Nature and the Environment, where this CONNECTION this LIVING AWARENESS hasn’t been replaced with or is prioritized over by a mind numbing connection to the economy(money!) or human centric comfort and convenience there seems to be less self imposed human species destruction overall to Nature and the Environment.

    It’s my contention that a culture a nation a people that recognizes this living connection to the rest of Nature that humanity is Nature will cherish Nature and not only have a greater respect for “it” but also ALL of LIFE in it’s many forms. And, it’s my illusion that a people that cherishes this living connection with Nature will further foster it by likely spending more time in the back country! “The thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people will begin to find out that going to the mountains and to the forests is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.

    1. I think there are a couple of reasons that come to mind.
      1. Environmental groups like the Wilderness Society and Sierra Club have gone from encouraging human involvement to viewing human use as a threat to the environment. They are happy to see trails go unmaintained and disappear. John Muir would not be allowed in his own club. The JMT would not be built if it were proposed today and the cables would be removed from Half Dome that were originally placed there by the Sierra Club.
      2. At age 70, I am more fit than my sons. The rigors of backpacking are too arduous for many young people today. Those who are fit are ‘gym fit’ or doing yuppie sports like triathlons.
      There is a new crop of trail runners who will (like me) ‘age out’ of 50 mile trail runs to multi day backpacking.

      1. Hell yes I say! Poor Muir would certainly not be allowed in (just like Jesus couldnt run as a Republican today; healing the poor, for free? Sounds like Obamacare). One of my heroes, Ed Abbey, would absolutely wretch at seeing his name and writings slapped all over Arches and Canyonlands visitor centers, when in Canyonlands, it costs $30 for a simple backcountry permit. Be it one night or fourteen, they make you pay $30. Right. Very Abbey like.

      2. I cant agree with you about the cables though. They definitely dont belong. Cant climb Half Dome on the rock’s own terms? Then dont go. There are a gajillion other rock formations you CAN walk up, so why do you have to conquer each and every one by your own means? Go to nature on nature’s own terms, not your own.

  7. I’d like to offer up two more factors that I think help explain the trend.

    First, the relative affordability of air travel. These days it’s within reach for many in the middle class to fly somewhere for vacation. People are a lot more likely to jump on a plane to the Bahamas or something than they are to hike into the woods. Sure, it’s still a lot more expensive than camping (especially when you already have all the gear), but it’s a lot cheaper than it was a generation ago. This is a gradual thing that is still playing itself out in our culture. For instance, at my age (30) people often spend four or five weekends a summer flying around the country for friends’ weddings. That’s a lot of coin, and a lot of time, and I bet it was a lot less common thirty years ago.

    Second, air conditioning. The mountains used to be a refuge for people fleeing summer heat. Nowadays many people would rather go to the beach instead. The general trend has been that people in this country want to spend summer on the beach and not in the woods and this has been playing itself out for a generation.

    As a young lawyer, I can also attest to the need to stay plugged in. There is definitely an expectation that you’ll be “offline” for no more than a few hours at most, and it’s hard for people to stomach the idea that you’ll be completely and totally inaccessible for days on end.

  8. Has anyone mentioned that perhaps the decline is due to the massive explosion that preceded it? When will silly homo sapiens learn that growth is not infinite?

    And I dont know when this was written, but gas prices are not up as of the last year. In fact I saw $1.85 just today.

  9. Greg Petliski,
    “Can’t climb Half Dome on the rock’s own terms? Then don’t go.” I guess you’ve just ruled out anyone who uses ropes etc. too. There are even “purists” who are upset about solo unassisted free climbers using chalk. Wilderness for humans is a balance between access and environmental preservation. Would you remove the roads and bridges in Yosemite too? Not me. However, I am glad that Yosemite, unlike Yellowstone, does not allow snowmobiles in the winter.
    P,S. “Jesus couldn’t run as a Republican today.” Since you want to get political too, Jesus would probably not run as a Democrat either, He would probably run as an independent if He ran for political office at all.

  10. so this is anchored in natl park system stats? maybe natl park backpacking is down and non-NPS backpacking is up? thanks to the interwebs i know of every trail in my neck of the woods, what its like, and whether its worth it, and when open-invite groups are going. side note- i havent been to places like yosemite in decades

    1. Other stats as well from the Outdoor Association which also show an overall decline. Feel free to write them for their methodology.

      HEre’s a more recent one from 2016:

      Static vs recent years, sharp decline vs earlier years, an overall decline in youth participation, factor in 90+ million people since the 1970s and the decline is even more pronounced as a factor of the population. And the upswing from thru-hiking is a very small, insignificant drop in the outdoor bucket.

      Camping specific from 2014 (using 2013 stats when most Americans were out of the recession) show an overall decline continuing

      I am not sure why people are surprised. Go to a typical corporate environment. People check their email at all hours, think nothing of working 12hr days, and getting off grid for even a night almost is impossible for even the very bottom of middle management..or for people who hope to claw their way to said position.

      Since we continue to bring up anecdotal data on this subject with figures ignored, I’ll bring up my own: Go to an outdoor store. WHat do they sell? Lifestyle clothing and gear to facilitate done-in-a-day activities.

      We are busy society. Or want to be perceived that way. And the simple act of sleeping outside does not fit in the lifestyles for most people.

      1. While the trail permit process has some merit restricting trail volume. Overall, I believe it discourages folks from applying in advance. Many of the folks my age can’t navigate the process of applying. I have been frustrated many times over even when applying only for myself. For example, A day hike of Mt. Whitney requires you to show up before noon the day before. If the weather turns bad. There is no rain check process. By the way, I caught a phrase, “…people buying more trail runners vs boots. I use trail running shoes for lightweight backpacking and guess many other do also.

        1. Again, people look at the fringe lightweight backpacking community and assume it is the norm. Most people still use boots. As far as dat hiking, that has shown a healthy increase if anything. You can be home at time to check your work email and let the your boss’ boss know how diligent you are about your job. 😉

          1. “… fringe lightweight backpacking community” That depends on what you call “lightweight”. I am not talking about the ultralight folks. I don’t see myself as a “fringe” backpacker. Lightweight to me means 35-45 pounds of gear vs old school 65-70 pounds. Old school is Norman Clyde with his 70 pound pack which included a cast iron skillet. Added to this number are the younger to middle aged climber/backpackers which I see more often in the Sierra Nevada than 10 years ago. I’ll bet if you look at the outdoor backpack companies offerings, 20 years ago vs today, you will see lots more <50 liter backpacks than before.

  11. This is really interesting for me to read, because I’m a young-ish person just getting in to backpacking and I see lots of people my age out on the trails. But I think you’re right about the increased need for connectivity for work and pleasure. The limited vacation time you get also not only means it’s harder to backpack, but it also means that when you do get time off, you want to cram in a lot of stuff. Many people I know are interested in backpacking, but if they can swing a whole week off of work they’re going to go on a roadtrip or something where they can see multiple places and do multiple things, not spend their whole week “just” walking. I think a lot of it is down to such easy access to information – whenever I have a chunk of time off and want to plan a trip, I can easily find hundreds of things to do and find myself worrying about whether I’ve optimized my fun. Seeing pictures on social media of all the other fun things your friends were doing that you could have been doing doesn’t make it any better.

    tldr – not only is work and life more frantic now, but apparently recreation is as well.

  12. “tldr – not only is work and life more frantic now, but apparently recreation is as well.”

    Yep. Ain’t that the truth. As you said, people “just” don’t want to walk on their rare time off.

    I don’t think it is age related. I believe it is just a reflection of our busier work lives and (perceived) need to be connected.

    1. Indeed the amount and duration of walking in general in the US has seen a significant decline.

      However, I’d estimate the decline is not as significant for those who conveniently walk like for grocery shopping, running on tracks, to/from the car/fridge/ATM,..

  13. I dragged my old bones to the AT in WV last month. My first day on the trail I was going SOBO and I met 58 ! people heading North. It’s pretty busy out there on the big three trails. I’ve been sticking to the shorter trails this year and it’s rare to see more than 1-2 parties.

  14. I live in the Adirondacks of NY State and the population here is pretty spread out. We have an abundance of back-country areas to hike in, but the “High Peaks” of Adirondack Park get the most use. I don’t even hike on the weekends in summer, if possible, in the High Peaks due to large numbers of people from out of town that are day hiking. What I do notice is that there are always tent sites that are available, and there is always room in the lean-to’s that dot the Adirondack back-country. Only once have I got to my lean-to destination to find it was completely filled (9 souls). Mostly I sleep in lean-to’s by myself when doing overnights.
    I will say that the appeal of day hiking when peak-bagging (Adirondack 46er’s) can sometimes be great. Lately, I have spent less time doing overnights while working on the 46 High Peaks of the Adirondacks. I can hike longer distances due to better fitness and better lightweight gear. I take only the ten essentials and a few comfort items mostly. I do still get out for overnight trips, just less frequently as I did when I started seriously hiking. I mostly solo hike unless I can con someone from work to come out and enjoy nature with me. I know of only two or three people at my workplace (small, community hospital near the High Peaks) who are serious hikers. Most people up here have “Camps” that they go to on the weekends to drink beer, ride 4-wheelers, fish, hunt, etc…I was amazed when I moved up here from Buffalo, NY that more people aren’t out hiking in the enormous back-country of the Adirondacks. It truly is expansive, and access is great. If your skill set allows you to bushwack, there is a lifetime of places to hike here. Most of the hikers/backpackers that I meet on trail are driving from cities like NYC, Albany, Buffalo, Rochester, or many from New Jersey and Massachusetts. There are many properties up here that are seasonal, and their occupants only come up a few times per summer. The summer season is short, but sweet. I recently started snowshoeing more in winter, probably because I am more comfortable out in the wilderness solo. The cold up here can get downright dangerous, especially on the summits. I have had to break trail on less popular routes quite often, which is a workout for sure. I have been hiking here in the “Daks since 2010, and I haven’t noticed less people on the trails, especially the most popular ones (VanHovenburg to Mt. Marcy). Just my two cents….Get out there and enjoy nature!

  15. As “connectivity” to devices becomes a universal guarantee we may see a slight uptick in backcountry use. Sadly, humanity values things like connectivity through and to a device more highly than profound connectivity to Nature or even to each other on a face to face basis. To get profound Nature increasingly we have to shed a high degree of convenience and familiarity.

    I would not heavily rely on NPS backcountry use data in equating backpacking being dead. The NPS approach has been for decades allocating more of the budget to expanding, improving, and maintaining the front country. There is not just greater accessibility but an increasing rate of much higher level of convenience in the front country. That’s what people want convenience, familarity, and perceived greater safety. These wants have been instilled through marketing and increased standards of living that demand it continually. The front country offers that. It’s also why the TC trails as well as the JMT and LT are so popular. They are known.

    Lots of folks in the U.S. especially are fearful of the unknown, the unfamilar. Backcountry is more perceived as being something to fear rather than for embracing adventure, exploration, and needed solitude connecting to Nature – the natural environment.

    1. I would not heavily rely on NPS backcountry use data in equating backpacking being dead

      Which is why I linked newer statistics from different sources (mainly industry, i.e.those who make money off outdoor pursuits) showing the same conclusion.

      EDIT: And, as mentioned, I do not consider backpacking dead or dying. It is declining, however, in terms of overall outdoor use.

  16. It seems we’re mixing two different topics. 1) backcountry use is on the decline 2) given it is on the decline why that is

  17. Thanks for writing the interesting article.

    I backpack a lot in Guadalupe Mountains National Park (TX), and from the NPS Stats web site, I noticed that backcountry campsite use there peaked in 1994 (4115 nights). In 2018, it was 3509. Backcountry use varies year-by-year, but never has again reached the 1994 peak.

    This is despite a huge population increase in the area owing to the fracking boom in the Permian Basin.

    And in Big Bend National Park (Texas most popular NP), backcountry campsite use also peaked in 1994 (54110), versus 23858 in 2018.

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