Outdoor participation down – Some thoughts

Nearly half of Americans didn’t go outside to recreate in 2018. That has the outdoor industry worried.

Sobering statistics in the Outdoor Participation Report show even kids are staying inside. “We should really be concerned as a nation that we are becoming an indoor nation,” Outdoor Foundation boss Lise Aangeenbrug says.    –From The Colorado Sun

The well-known Mesa Arch. Many might know this photo as Windows 7 wallpaper.

The news report from The Colorado Sun, using statistics from the lastest Outdoor Industry Association report, ends up being sobering news for any person who loves the wild places.

And if you look at the paper further, only 33% of the country is considered moderate users, or participating in ten days a year, of outdoor recreation.

Few outdoor participants mean easier poaching of wild places, able to push for-profit motives easier, and something as less tangible as a connection to the outdoors, among other reasons.

This report is intriguing to me for a few different reasons.

Per many reports and statistics, overnight use has been declining for years, be it by raw numbers or as a percentage of the population.

However, what I find interesting is that overall outings, even done-in-a-day activities, have shown a noticeable decline since 2008:

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. 

Let that sink in.  In a decade, ONE BILLION fewer outings in 2018 vs. 2008.

And that means on any level, be it 100 days a year, ten days a year, or one day a year.

Bike path photo from “Visit Rhode Island.”

The OIA report has an expansive definition of outdoor activities.

The activities run the gamut from traditional outdoor activities such as camping, hunting, fishing, hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, etc. but also more urban-focused activities such as triathlons, road running/jogging, and skateboarding.  Furthermore,  anything 1/4 mile from the car “counts” as wildlife viewing, bird watching, camping, etc.   And though the report omits off-roading or ATV use, most off-roaders and ATVers combine these activities with what people think of as traditional outdoor activities, be it hiking, hunting, fishing, camping, etc.

In other words, the OIA has a very inclusive definition of what is considered an outdoor activity.

And I think that is an excellent thing. There are many different ways to enjoy the outdoors. During my childhood, our outdoor activity invariably meant going to a local park or beach in Rhode Island with very few “traditional” outdoor activities.  But my brothers, cousins, and I were outside with our families and enjoyed being outside — a way for a family with modest economic means could enjoy some form of the outdoors.

Then as now.

However, it is not the outdoor participation numbers I find interesting per se. There are various reasons why the overall numbers dramatically dipped over the decade;  I’m curious about the WHY of what brought us to this point. Meaning the numbers reflect financial, cultural, and technology trends we have seen for decades now.

Generic clip art.

Here are some thoughts I have about the WHY rather than the WHAT of the numbers declining:

TL;DR – Americans work more than workers in other countries, we take fewer vacations. Those with money lack time. And both money and time are becoming more and more scarce resources.
Outdoor recreation is becoming a luxury.

  • Technology, or rather the increased expectation for connectivity, may account for this shift in numbers

Stolen long ago via GIS

An expectation for connectivity, and the expectation you will be available, is something continually ingrained into our culture.

However, I don’t think it is because people want to Instagram or post their YouTube videos of #EPIC hiking.

It is because societal and work obligations expect this connectivity.

Whether you are on a neighborhood jog or a five-day backpacking trip, not checking your email, text messages, or another form of electronic communication seems out of the norm. And in many places of employment, or even in non-work daily life, not responding to electronic communication quickly, gets frowned upon.

This expectation leads to a lack of time due to obligation enabled by the technology itself.

  •  I don’t think it is a generational “thing” overall.  I believe it is many people don’t have the timebank funds.

The Simpsons continue to deliver with their past glory. 🙂

A gut reaction of many people is to say “those darn kids” don’t want to be outside vs. previous generations.

I think that attitude is bunk.

Let’s put aside that Boomers and the “Silent Generation” for that matter are aging and have more difficulty getting out more to some extent. I’ve hiked with enough people of previous generations to know that aging may slow people down; it does not rule out outdoor activities.  The OIA has a very inclusive definition of outdoor activities as well.

Instead, let’s look at the current workforce.

Let’s say the workforce is post-college and pre-retirement, or about 25-65 years old overall.  That means younger Boomers looking at retirement, Gen X-ers like myself mid-career, and Millenials getting established. Or about 157 million people in the US workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor statistics.   And there are about 74 million people under the age of 18 in the US.   That means approx. 231 million out of 327 million, or 71%, Americans as of 2018  end up intrinsically tied into the workforce, and the demands it makes on family, social, or recreation time.  The numbers, no doubt, skew even higher for the number of workers in the workforce in 2020 vs. 2018.

Meaning, I don’t think it is a generational thing at all why numbers are declining. I honestly think it is a closely intertwined cultural and financial dance.  When you work many hours and don’t make full use of your vacation time, time outdoors (and disconnected) is a lower priority overall.

Time clock from Acroprint

American’s work more hours than other counties per week, with less vacation time and a more significant blur between so-called free time and work time.

To put it bluntly, American’s are too tired, overworked, and don’t have the time to recreate.  Recreation is more about “recharging the batteries” to well, work more.

An article on 20 Something Finance summarizes all these trends quite well.  Including that the days of the one parent being a primary caregiver are gone. Seventy percent of US households have both parents working full time, which means those bucolic days where my Mom and my aunts would bring us outdoors for a day in the 1980s? Well, my Mom and aunts, or my Dad and uncles in our more progressive days, would not have had that free time. Weekends would mean running errands more often than not or simply resting. Assuming you have weekends open, of course.

I found one comment on the article to resonate with its emotional, but, in my opinion, factual appeal:

For many, a 40 hour work week is padded with 1 hour for lunch, who knows how long to commute (for this exercise, I’m going with the average of 30-45 minutes), and up to an hour for the morning drill of getting ready for work including breakfast (if you’re not me – I’m super fast in the morning).

Also, most people get to work early, and leave late because we are told “if you’re on time, you’re late” and we never want to be seen leaving right at clock out time. So in urban settings, a 40 hour work week can often mean 60 hours of your week devoted to preparing for, getting to or attending to your job. A week has 168 hours. If you subtract that 60 hours devoted to your job, the 8 hours you’re supposed to sleep every night (40 hours), and your weekend (48 hours) you have 20 hours left. That’s 2 hours a day. 2 hours to cook, clean, exercise, take kids to/from sports or lessons, catch up with your loved ones and unwind enough to recharge your mind and get a good night’s sleep.

And that’s if your week goes perfectly smooth – no traffic delays, no crazy person jumping in front of a commuter train to stuff up your journey home, no unexpected late night at work, wardrobe malfunction or family/household issue that needs attention. It’s not enough. No wonder people aren’t sleeping, eating or exercising appropriately. No wonder we’re unhealthy.

To further sum it up, our so-called “work-life balance” is outta whack.

  • But while timebank funds matter, the timebank funds are closely related to monetary funds when recreating outdoors

Another photo from the archives via GIS

It takes money to recreate outdoors. Even with the simple 1/4 mile walks or outdoor time at a local park, you need cash and stability to go outside and recreate.

Let’s cut to the chase, as of 2018, 44% of the US Workforce earns $18,000 or less per year.  And few of those jobs are traditional full-time jobs.  People are increasingly cobbling together jobs to pay the bills.  And nearly 80% live paycheck to paycheck with these already meager funds.  When you work odd hours and a low-paying, but demanding job, outdoor recreation, or any active recreation, ends up being a less desirable activity.

So, of the roughly 50% of Americans who outdoor recreate on some level (be it camping, backpacking, RVing, urban jogging, bird watching. etc. ), we are looking at an overwhelming middle to upper-middle-class demographic the leans to Caucasian and college-educated:

Per the Outdoor Participation Report, 2018 by the OIA

But in my area the trails are popular! And look at thru-hiking numbers! And look at National Park visitation!

Well, for various reasons, more affluent and educated people tend to move to where outdoor recreation of any sort is more readily available. Boulder, CO, Bend, OR, or Burlington, VT, is hardly representative of the country as a whole. 

Even as a region, the American West has a perfect storm of being areas with expanding growth and have more affluence than the country as a whole. Utah, for example, has a household income of $8,000 higher than the national median.   Colorado?  $10,000 higher.   You now have a larger population base, that skews younger,  of affluence to take advantage of these areas vs twenty years ago.

However, again going with the trend of less time and more money for an overall affluent, but overworked, group the sales of apparel and “lifestyle” clothing far outstrip hard good sales:

From a 2018 Outdoor Industry Association presentation.

In plain words, people buy more sporting and outdoor clothes than use them for outdoor activities. Consumerism to cope with stress, lack of time, and a need to feel an affinity for the aspired activity, does not come as a surprise. 

A favorite video, though funny, illustrates the point beyond numbers.

As for long trail use, that demographic is more skewed towards people who have the financial or cultural capital resources to hike for a few weeks or even months at a time. And, as always, people who walk the long trails are a small (tiny) subset of overall outdoor use:

From “Halfway Anywhere.” Other reports from such organizations at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, in conjunction with the NPS, showed similar stats. However, this pie chart is easy to read.

As for NPS or similar unit visitation? That directly ties into finances and the closely related timebank resources as well:

From the OIA

To quote the OIA report:

Research continued to confirm that the making of an outdoor participant began with convenient, close-to-home outdoor recreation opportunities. Most participants, 63.3 percent, traveled only ten miles from their homes to their outdoor activities. A much smaller 18.9 percent of participants ventured 25 miles or more to their destinations.

So, of the 157 million participating in the outdoors, those traveling more than twenty-five miles to their location number ~30 million.  Not said, but evident from the stats is that about 16 million people overall go more than fifty miles to get to their places for outdoor recreation.

Meaning?  It takes time and money to get to most “big ticket” recreation areas unless you are lucky enough to live close by such an area.

No surprise, an uptick in certain places is no doubt because of the drop in airline prices vs. the 1970s. Meaning, more of the middle and the upper-middle-class can regularly afford to book travel,  get lodging, and rent cars, to otherwise previously remote places such as the Grand Canyon or Moab.

And places near outdoor recreation typically means longer drives. Even in Denver, it is nearly seventy-miles to Rocky Mountain National Park. 

Want to go to a close 14er? That still 50+ miles. 

Being able to take off for over 100 miles round trip, or even ~50 miles round trip to a more local park, is a privilege of time, money, and a set schedule available to people in specific socioeconomic demographics.

Going with my family past, I only remember a handful of trips that left Rhode Island, even into nearby Massachusetts or Connecticut, for recreation. Part of it is culture (RIers don’t like to go far! :D). Still, I suspect traveling that far outside of Rhode Island did not fit a family’s time or monetary budget when Dad worked many Saturdays for overtime pay, and Mom worked a variety of jobs with non-standard hours.

Obviously, for something like the lightly visited (ha!) Arches National Park here in Moab, which is nearly fifty miles from the interstate, will skew even more to people with financial and time assets.

And, again on a personal level, only when I moved to Boulder, CO  and found myself in the so-called professional world in my mid-20s, did I have the financial and time assets (along with no family obligations) to outdoor recreate on regular basis.  Esp for the many overnight trips I did over the years. Of course, as my career became more established and we reached our current (lack of) work-life balance, the time to recreate became less as with many so-called “professionals.”

  • In the end?

From “Mostly Bright Ideas.”

Outdoor recreation, of any sort, is becoming more a luxury item for those with the time and financial resources to recreate. Even more so with any backcountry recreation.

There will be outliers, of course, but outdoor recreation is sadly becoming something challenging to obtain for fewer and fewer people.  Those with what we would call middle-class, or better, jobs often feel the need to work harder and more to make sure they have a job; and increasingly, more people are working equally hard for less money.

Time and money are becoming scarce resources for recreation overall.

An Empire Wilderness by Robert D. Kaplan makes for an interesting read. Written in 1998, many of the thoughts written in the book proved to be prophetic about our world in 2020:

But I had crossed a real border, back into middle-class America. The passengers I left behind on the [Greyhound] bus inhabited another country. I wondered what would become of them and all of them and all of those left behind in this ruthless, albeit efficient, global economy.


…further proof that there are two Americas: the people who own stocks and mutual funds and have seen their assets rise dramatically in the 1990’s and those who are completely dependent on wages, which have risen far less if at all.

Kaplan further laments about “a society whose basic instincts are tranquilized by pharmaceuticals, masturbatory gambling, and the voyeurism of coliseum sports” as people become overworked and tired as well.

Perhaps things will change, and we’ll have more of a balance between work and life, consumerism and outdoor use, and a middle ground between near-poverty and more affluent aspirations.  

Only time will tell.

The optimist in me takes the long term view that history ebbs and flows. Working many hours for the sake of working is not a sustainable model in the long term.

In the meantime, get out; however, you can whenever you can. The outdoors is more than just multi-day trips, and #EPIC climbs. A walk in the woods, some time by the local pond, or even a walk within your neighborhood will help immeasurably. In our increasingly busy and demanding lives, we need some quiet, simple, and rewarding time in the outdoors more than ever.

Be independent, but not impudent. See all you can and make the most of your time; “time is money,” and, when you grow older, you may find it even more difficult to command time than money.”How to Camp Out by John Mead Gould


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4 years ago

Time and money…. in my experience I have had one or the other at different phases of my life. I have yet to find myself with a sufficient amount of both. The desire to get outside away from everything else, the time spent alone to reflect on the wonders of nature, being “disconnected” and able to soak in the silence is my personal reset. Life for me would be hollow without these times. I think it boils down to what people really want to do with the ever shrinking time bank. Time is the currency, spend it wisely. When we… Read more »

4 years ago

I’ve read this reported in a few different outlets, and I must admit I’m skeptical. I know my observations are anecdotal, but without exception every place I visit regularly has so many more people now than it did twenty years ago. Backpacking in the Uintas, remote places in the Wind Rivers, anywhere in the Utah desert, backcountry permits for National Parks, canyoneering, mountain biking or hiking in the Wasatch, trying to camp on public lands anywhere near Moab, applying for a permitted river trip – every single one of them has seen (in my observation) huge increases in numbers. Perhaps… Read more »

Jon in NYC
Jon in NYC
4 years ago

Excellent meditation on this, thanks. Appreciate the material concerns that underscore why people are staying indoors – not just some conservative blaming of “lazy millenials” or other nonsense based on cultural phrenology. I’d only add that another big part of why we don’t see more local outdoorsing is the crushing despair of car culture; not just that you need a car to get many places, but that so many streets are built for cars and cars only, not for humans – and that people who aren’t the “right” people who try to be outdoors (eg black folks, among other vulnerable… Read more »

John Miller
John Miller
4 years ago

I live next to a state park with about 38 miles of trails I hike quite regularly. Often I see families and other groups with small children on the trails, it pleases me greatly. Always I thank the adults for taking the time and effort getting the gang outside and the worth of it. If possible I try to interact with the young, asking what they have seen, have the found any bugs or pretty rocks. A complement on their hat, water bottle sometimes brings a big grin but mostly they’re pretty shy though. I hope it helps in some… Read more »

4 years ago

It would be interesting to see a comparison of current outdoor recreation rates versus indoor recreation rates (movies, restaurants, concerts, etc.) Maybe a better way to say that would be to compare how people use their available free time. Certainly there are many people who do not have a lot of free time for many of the reasons you listed. And there are also those who when they do have free time are simply too tired. I’ve been there! I can’t really speak to people who are living in areas where just getting outside is difficult because of distance, etc.… Read more »