A recent article in High Country News was titled The Death of Backpacking. Hyperbole? No basis in fact? My own .05 worth…
Upon posting this link by myself and others, there was 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 on his rocking chair and yelling “DAMN KIDS! GET OF 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 it is 316 million. In other words, adjusted for percentage of the population, the difference is rather dramatic.
Other reports show an overall increase (though I wonder about the statistics) in backpacking and overnight activities but does 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 reports show mainly static but, again, not factoring in the percentage of the population vs earlier years.
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, (REI.com) 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.
Now, naturally, a few responses have already come up against the HCN article.
- 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 a 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/light weight 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 Wild, people who want to take 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 guide books, trail specific maps, a huge community for logistic, 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 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 used 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 interested 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 protection of our wild lands 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 wild lands? 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 is 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.
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 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, is 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 over all.
And in twenty years or more, the backcountry experience will be very different for better or worse.