For the glass-half-full crowd that makes up the outdoor industry, the results of the latest outdoor participation survey are sobering.
Outdoor businesses need people to get outside, but almost half of Americans don’t venture outdoors to play. The steady decline in participation threatens not just the bottom line but the outdoor industry’s mission to collectively steer policy on critical issues like climate change, environmental protection and public lands.
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.
“It’s not just the outdoor industry that should care about this,” said Lise Aangeenbrug, the executive director of the Outdoor Foundation. “Study after study indicates that time spent outdoors, particularly active time outdoors, can help us improve our mental health, physical health, academic outcomes and more. We should really be concerned as a nation that we are becoming an indoor nation.”
The Outdoor Foundation will officially release details of the participation survey Wednesday at the Outdoor Retailer Snow Show in Denver. For the past decade, the Outdoor Foundation — the nonprofit arm of the Outdoor Industry Association that supports programs to get more people outside — has measured participation using online surveys of more than 20,000 Americans. The annual reports reveal details of who is playing outside and what they are doing.
Competing with screens
Reversing the trend of outdoor participation and sparking an outdoor habit will take collective efforts involving philanthropy, nonprofits and policies at the local and federal level, said Aangeenbrug, who previously led Great Outdoors Colorado and the National Parks Foundation.
“It’s going to take a village, quite literally,” she said. “It’s going to take other industries and collaboration with tech and health care and local, state and federal governments, and nonprofit organizations, all of which maybe aren’t thinking about the outdoors as a way to achieve their goals.”
The survey results are critical glimpses of the outdoor users who drive the $878 billion outdoor industry. And while the industry is tackling big issues surrounding environmental protections, climate change and public lands, its push to grow the number of people who play outside is flagging as more Americans are mesmerized by screens.
“I think the outdoors could spark joy in a way that can compete with the lure of the indoors. It’s getting people off the couch, off their screens and out the door to experience that joy, wonder, learning and skill building,” Aangeenbrug said. “We are really focused at the foundation on how we can make the outdoors a habit again. It really happens at the community level. People need to have positive, repeat experiences in the outdoors.”
While the decline in participation is disconcerting for the industry, there were some highlights. Female participation rates are up 3.2% over last year. Hispanics are getting outside twice as often as they were a decade ago, with the strongest growth of any ethnicity. And some sports, like BMX cycling and sailing, are seeing surges in numbers.
Most people’s outdoor activities are close to home, with more than 63% of Americans recreating within 10 miles of their houses. Less than 19% traveled 25 miles or more to play outside. So the Outdoor Foundation is in a mission to bolster participation in outdoor play near homes, in urban areas where residents might not have as many opportunities to get outside.
At the federal level, outdoor leaders are pushing hard for the full $900 million funding for the recently reauthorized Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has never happened in the fund’s 50-year history of directing offshore oil and gas royalties to conservation and recreation projects. The Transit to Trails Act would help connect communities with public lands and open spaces.
At a local level, the Outdoor Foundation has funded projects in Atlanta, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Oklahoma City and San Diego that joined nonprofits, community groups and federal and regional efforts to create new places for outdoor recreation and develop programs to encourage locals to use them.
Those programs and networks are modeled on programs developed by Great Outdoors Colorado, said Aangeenbrug, who helped create GOCO’s Inspire Initiative. The program has evolved into the Generation Wild campaign and delivered more than $25 million in grants to 15 Colorado communities for programs connecting kids and their families with the outdoors.
Since June 2017, Generation Wild has grown to 475 programs from 60 programs working to get kids outdoors. A recent evaluation of the program and its “100 Things to Do Before You’re 12” checklist, showed more youth in Colorado are getting outside.
Get Outdoors Leadville is one of the first programs to receive funding under the GOCO initiative. The city and Lake County in 2016 received a $3 million Inspire grant that has been used to introduce hundreds of Lake County kids to outdoor activities through camps, clubs, workshops and a unique gear library that provides tools for outdoor play.
Summer camps are at capacity. Partnerships with the Lake County School District are getting students outside regularly. Kids are using a gear library stocked with bikes and camping equipment and exploring on their own. High schoolers are shepherding younger kids through programs.
The impacts are evident, said Beth Helmke, the director of Get Outdoors Leadville.
“This is such an important part of how we build up healthy individuals, healthy community, healthy families,” she said. “The holistic benefits to physical and mental health, to academic performance and career opportunities … are abundant. We are so fortunate to have the outdoor experience as a conduit for that growth.”
Shanelle Smith Whigham, the Ohio state director of the Trust for Public Land, came to Denver on Tuesday to share her insights into how various interests — corporations, nonprofits and state and federal agencies — can work together to connect overlooked communities with outdoor recreation. She was on her way to see a climbing wall built with funding from The North Face in Denver’s Montbello Open Space Park, where GOCO is supporting a sweeping restoration.
This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
Those kinds of public-private collaborations have buoyed communities in her home state, where last fall Clevelanders celebrated the 50th anniversary of the last time the Cuyahoga River caught fire, a pivotal event in the history of the country’s environmental movement that spurred the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Water Act.
“Back then the river was all about industry. Today, you stare out across the Cuyahoga and you see freighters bringing in products for the local steel plant, but you also see people out recreating on and around the river,” Smith Whigham said.
Most recently Smith Whigham has tapped outdoor brands like The North Face, L.L. Bean and REI to help build trails and a new basketball court at the Lakeview Terrace housing community near the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie. The first federally funded housing complex in the country — opened by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1937 — has languished for decades, but support from a combination of corporations, community groups, the Trust for Public Land and state and federal governments is helping connect the neighborhood’s residents with the outdoors.
“When people have these meaningful experiences outdoors, then they are better connected with each other and they are better both physically and mentally,” Smith Whigham said.