More people are hitting the trail. How has the outdoor recreation industry responded?
BY JOSHUA BERMAN | This article was first published in Elevation Outdoors in March, 2022
The surge is real. There are more people out there than ever before, steepening the curve of an already growing interest in the outdoors, an ongoing trend that exploded in the summer of 2020 when COVID-19 distancing, closed gyms, and lockdowns drove hordes of new hikers and happy campers into the hills.
Lydia Davey of Hipcamp, the world’s largest provider of outdoor stays, says that during the last two years (prepandemic until now), the company has seen a 460% overall increase in demand (Colorado saw a 205% increase in demand in the same period). KOA’s 2021 North American Camping Report counted 94.5 million camper households throughout North America in 2020; of those, 10.1 million households in the U.S. went camping for the first time.
Meaghan Praznik, head of communications at AllTrails, says, “Since the pandemic began, AllTrails has noticed over 3 times the amount of trail traffic,” including more people hiking during the week, even in colder weather. AllTrails is a curated, crowdsourced trail map catalog. App users can browse trails through various filters, read reviews from community members, check weather and elevation, and download maps for offline use when the canyon walls block your cell signal.
Michael Scheinman, CEO of Campspot, an online marketplace of 140,000 campsites in the United States and Canada, says that in 2020, “demand went crazy. Now in 2022, travelers need to book earlier than ever if they want to go camping this year. We are seeing holiday weekends in 2022 booking up much faster than the previous year.”
As an outdoors journalist, I’ve responded to the surge with a slew of Camping 101 articles in various publications, informing newcomers about a little thing called the Leave No Trace (LNT) Seven Principles of minimum impact. At the same time, I’ve added sections to my guidebooks like “How to Avoid the Crowds” (pro tip: Start early enough to need a headlamp) and “Finding Less Trafficked Trails.”
Hipcamp has also taken this education approach to meet the newcomers. “We require every Hipcamper to adhere to our Hipcamper Standards, which include: leave no trace, practice fire safety, limit noise, dispose of waste responsibly, and more,” says Mason Smith, Hipcamp’s head of government and community relations. “We also educate our community with fire safety webinars and share best practices for responsible recreation with articles on Hipcamp Journal and our social media channels.”
This delicate dance of welcoming more folks into the forest while keeping it safe and sustainable is shared by many in the industry. Praznik says that it’s not just about increased trail traffic, “but also an increase in the number of new entrants. We firmly believe that everyone deserves the right to the outdoors; the key, however, is providing access, but in a way that still protects our public lands.”
At AllTrails, she says, they’ve added a few new features to their app to guide folks to less trafficked trails to “protect the most populated trails from overcrowding.” They’re also constructing a Parks Portal team “to help land managers and agencies leverage our technology to make informed and real-time decisions about how to manage the higher trail traffic.”
One welcome trend that has accompanied the surge is increased diversity among the newcomers. This was one of the findings of KOA’s report, and it was noticed by Liz Thomas, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Treeline Review, an outdoor gear review company with a focus on women- and BIPOC-written stories.
“Readers [now] ask for beginner-friendly ‘How to Get Started’ guides,” she says. “We’ve pivoted away from exclusively a gear review website to build out a new section with articles aimed at pandemic-friendly outdoor activities, including articles in Spanish. In 2022, we plan more hiking and camping guides to meet the demands of our readers.”
— Joshua Berman is the author of Moon Colorado Camping.