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Outdoor Participation Holding Onto Pandemic Gains

By Thomas J. Ryan 

The 2023 Outdoor Participation Trends Report from the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) and Outdoor Foundation (OF) showed that participation rates declined for the first time since the pandemic. However, overall, participants grew for the eighth consecutive year, with the industry retaining U.S. consumers who participated in outdoor activities during the pandemic.

The U.S. outdoor recreation participant base grew 2.3 percent in 2022 to 168.1 million, or 55 percent of the U.S. population ages six and older, and added 14.5 million over the pandemic since January 2020.

“We saw continued growth in the number of Americans who participated in outdoor recreation, even as pre-pandemic routines were reestablished, indicating that outdoor recreation is effectively engaging participants gained over the past three years, but they participate less frequently than earlier cohorts did,” the report states.

Fastest Growing Outdoor Sports
Eighty percent of outdoor activity categories showed participation growth in 2022, including camping and fishing and smaller categories like sport climbing and skateboarding.

The fastest growing categories in outdoor participation included snowshoeing, up 20.7 percent in 2022 year-over-year; camping, up 12 percent; skiing (cross-country) up 8.5 percent; bicycling (BMX), 8.3 percent; boardsailing/windsurfing and scuba diving, both up 7.3 percent; birdwatching (more than one-quarter mile from home/vehicle) increased 6.8 percent; climbing (sport/boulder) and surfing, both up 6.6 percent; bicycling (road/mountain/BMX) were up 6.5 percent; rafting, 6.3 percent; and trail running increased 5.9 percent.

Outdoor recreation categories that declined in participation in 2022 included trap and skeet shooting, overnight backpacking, road running, and adventure racing, losing 3.1 million participants in 2022 and year-over-year declines since 2020.

Among gateway activities, typically the first or one of the first outdoor recreation activities consumers participate in that help drive participation in more niche outdoor activities, hiking remained the most popular, followed by running, bicycling, fishing, and camping.

Ninety-four percent of campers and 83 percent of hikers participated in at least one other outdoor recreation activity. Running had the highest average outings per runner at 54 per year versus the average hiker who hikes a trail six times a year.

The outdoor activity categories with the highest growth rates among kids in 2022 included backpacking, snowshoeing, canoeing, climbing, and off-road triathlon.

Outdoor Participants Slowly Diversify
The study found that ethnic/racial groups continue to be underrepresented in outdoor participation, but new and younger outdoor enthusiasts are more diverse, and the overall U.S. demographic is accelerating.

The participation rate for Hispanics increased from 34 percent in 2015 to 56 percent in 2022—the average annual growth rate for demographic participants of any group at 5.5 percent over the past five years.

The participation rate for Black consumers increased by more than 5 percent in 2022 to 40.7 percent. The demographic continues to have the lowest overall participation rate in outdoor recreation but has increased in each of the past five years. Among other racial/ethnic groups, Black participants engaged in the highest number of outings on average, at 80.9 outings per participant.

LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual plus) were found to participate in outdoor recreation at higher rates than heterosexual cisgender (people who retain the gender presumed at birth) Americans. In 2022, 61 percent of LGBTQIA+ people of all genders participated in outdoor recreation.

A significantly higher percentage of seniors also participated in outdoor recreation. At 35 percent of the base, seniors represent one in every five outdoor participants.

Outdoor Participation Rates Decline
On the participation rate decline, the study found the average number of outings per participant declined for the first time since the pandemic began in 2020, with the average number of outdoor activities per participant at 71.8 in 2022, down from 75.6 in 2021 and 71.2 in 2020. The rate is below the average number of outings per participant of 84.6 in 2013. The erosion is also reflected in the decline in “core” participants participating in outdoor recreation 51 times or more each year. The percentage of participants who met the criteria for “core” dipped below 30 percent for the first time in 2022, a long-term trend that has persisted for over a decade despite a short and small pandemic-driven bump.

Outings for families with children (people 17 and younger) also declined. The statistic dropped from 85 outdoor outings in 2012 to 66 in 2022. Families with young children tend to be more active than older ones. The rate drops off in the teenage years.

The report noted that gender, ethnicity, income, and education levels somewhat predict participation rates. For instance, white males with higher incomes correspond to higher participation rates. Younger generations, including Gen Alpha (2013-present) and Gen Z (1997-2012), participated slightly less in outdoor recreation in 2022, while Gen X (1965-1980) and the Baby Boomers (1946-1964) participated more frequently.

The report noted that opportunities exist to increase frequency across growing and emerging activities for seniors, families, youth, and BIPOC individuals, as well as better to meet the needs of the more casual outdoor consumer.

“The casual outdoor consumer is in,” the study concluded, “This data tells us that more casual participants are going to be seeking out experiences outdoors and will be shopping for products that are a little less technical and sell at lower price points. Additionally, it shows us that the new participants who showed up in outdoor recreation because of disruptions related to the pandemic did not leave outdoor recreation in droves as the inside world re-opened, and they could once again dine out, go to movies and shows, etc. Messaging tailored to casual participants searching for notable outdoor experiences is likely to bring in the highest engagement.”

“For any business that wants to succeed in today’s competitive marketplace, understanding the evolving consumer base and how they choose to spend their time outdoors is essential knowledge,” said Kent Ebersole, OIA president, in a press release. “Industry growth is dependent on attracting and retaining the ‘core’ and increasingly diverse ‘casual’ participant through innovation, valued sustainability practices and pursuing policies for increasing equitable access to the outdoors for everyone.”

For over 15 years, the joint report has provided insights and narratives about the what, when and how consumers participate in the outdoors. The Outdoor Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the OIA, funds the research and publishes the report in partnership with OIA. The 2023 report reflects data the association gathered during the 2022 calendar year, with 18,000 online interviews from ages six and older. 

Photo courtesy OIA/Outdoor Foundation

Thomas Ryan is a writer for SGB Media.

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