Death of Backpacking – A response

A recent article in High Country News was titled The Death of Backpacking. Hyperbole? No basis in fact? My own .05 worth…

 

One of the many old cemeteries in the park
Old graveyard in a holler on the Benton MacKaye Trail

A recent article in High Country News was titled “The Death of Backpacking?”

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!!!!”

old-man

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.

Even day use is declining, overall, at national parks.

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.

In brief:

  • 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 Wildpeople 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.

 

21 thoughts on “Death of Backpacking – A response

  1. The family size might be considered. Perhaps the same number of families visit parks and camp etc. But the fact that that people have less than two kids instead of three might just appear to be less interest. I agree with much else you say. Especially LD Hikers. I meet the same people over and over again no matter where I go. We wish we could be enhanced and promoted up to “fringe group” as of of now I think we’re classified as inconsequential asterisk *

  2. For the last several years, it has been very difficult for me to get outdoors. I used to try to take a spring trip and a fall trip, but lately I have only been able to get a couple of weekends for deer season. I always seemed to find reasons why I couldn’t get away. I have always walked and have put many miles on my shoes, but I get older and can’t walk as easily as I used to. I got away from heavy boots for most hiking years ago, without being told that I needed to. I just enjoyed the walking more. Since I am no longer working, I hope to get out more and spend more nights in the woods, but I’m afraid that long hikes are not going to be possible for me. I’d like to get out and explore, but I want to walk where there is some historical significance. I like the idea of walking the C & O Canal with maybe a side trip to the Antietam battlefield. The CDT sounds interesting, but I can’t get too excited about walking the crests of a mountain range and missing the things that happened on the sides of the mountains. I’ve got a few years left and I hope to see a few more things before I have to quit.

  3. Everyone is so used to having things on demand (information, food, etc.) that I feel like people aren’t taking to backpacking like they used to. Unfortunately, the comforts of home are winning over the beauty of nature.

  4. It’s interesting how every year the gear only gets better and allows us to be more comfortable for less weight (or more if that’s your thing) but the numbers are dropping.

    Doing day hikes with the Appalachian Mountain Club always amazes me at how few serious hikers actually backpack. Even with driving 3 hours from Boston to the White’s in NH you’d think over nighting would be more popular. The answer always seems to be either fear of being uncomfortable or carrying all the extra gear. I do think the UL movement has helped get some people, especially older people, back out there, but it’s still fringe to most people.

  5. First, thank you for such a thoughtful and helpful site.

    I suspect fewer and fewer are getting out because they spend more time in front of their devices. Why suffer from mosquitoes, the weather, and other unpleasantness when the outdoors are just a click or two away?

    Naturally, I have no data and this is just surmise. Nevertheless, I would bet the effect is significant.

  6. Geez people, the hiking community can debate these potential issues ad nauseum but, perhaps, consider possible SOLUTIONS have already been offered! From Mr Ketcham’s article he concludes by offering:

    “The best action we can take to keep our kind of outdoor rec alive: Go backpacking. Demonstrate it and celebrate it, “not as a mere sport or plaything excursion,” but as John Muir advised, “to find the law that governs the relations subsisting between humans and nature.”

    Celebrate and demonstrate( and not just by words but also by your convictions and behavior!), “the radical encounter with the non-human: the visceral experience of days in wilderness alone, in vast and complex natural systems not controlled by humans, not arranged entirely for human convenience, not plagued by human noise. This matters more than ever at a time when our natural systems, on a planetary scale, appear to be in full rebellion against human convenience.” That was beautiful Mr Ketcham!

    CELEBRATE and DEMONSTRATE! Recognize that we can, AND MUST, individually and collectively, have a hand in shaping the future of backpacking and outdoor experiences. None of us live in a backpacking bubble isolated from everything else. When we recognize and cherish that humans are part of Nature and the Environment, NOT separate from it, above it, nor viewed as something to be subdued, conquered, managed solely for humanities so called “good” or in the quest for “progress”, or irrationally fearful of, that humans are but one strand in the “web of LIFE”, that “when one tugs at a single thing in Nature, he find’s it attached to the rest of the Universe” -John Muir, that all of Nature is our relative, and see Nature(land) as Aldo Leopold stated “…a community to which we belong, not as a commodity belonging to us, that endows us with the right to abuse, ignore, marginalize, and human centrically exploit”(paraphrased), this possible issue is minimized or goes away or, at the least, is approached from a very different perspective.

    Is it possible this connection, this kinship to all of nature, that John Muir and many others refer to goes beyond what humanity currently understands, or that elements of humanity have chosen to try to forget and ignore, that it goes beyond just a physical, mental, and emotional connection and hence the incorruptible candle light in all of us that yearns to “go home to the mountains and forests, to Nature?” Was Muir really onto something quite literally “far reaching” when he said, “the clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness?” Perhaps, there’s more pulling humans and the rest of Nature, the rest of the Universe, together connecting US? Perhaps, we ALL come from the same substance?

    Look around you. Look around at the world. Stand back and examine the dominant attitudes toward Nature and the Environment that prevail in different cultures. Cultures that have this deep living connection with Nature and the Environment, where this CONNECTION this LIVING AWARENESS hasn’t been replaced with or is prioritized over by a mind numbing connection to the economy(money!) or human centric comfort and convenience there seems to be less self imposed human species destruction overall to Nature and the Environment.

    It’s my contention that a culture a nation a people that recognizes this living connection to the rest of Nature that humanity is Nature will cherish Nature and not only have a greater respect for “it” but also ALL of LIFE in it’s many forms. And, it’s my illusion that a people that cherishes this living connection with Nature will further foster it by likely spending more time in the back country! “The thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people will begin to find out that going to the mountains and to the forests is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

    As long as humans continue to allow themselves to be exploited and abused by the view that they are separate from Nature and not a strand in a an infinite web who’s strand has untold consequences on the rest of the web there will be no end to the negative human centric changes that will occur to the rest of Nature, the Environment, and possibly the Universe. Alas, as enmity tends to breed enmity it may eventually lead to humans turning on and devouring each other.

    • I think there are a couple of reasons that come to mind.
      1. Environmental groups like the Wilderness Society and Sierra Club have gone from encouraging human involvement to viewing human use as a threat to the environment. They are happy to see trails go unmaintained and disappear. John Muir would not be allowed in his own club. The JMT would not be built if it were proposed today and the cables would be removed from Half Dome that were originally placed there by the Sierra Club.
      2. At age 70, I am more fit than my sons. The rigors of backpacking are too arduous for many young people today. Those who are fit are ‘gym fit’ or doing yuppie sports like triathlons.
      There is a new crop of trail runners who will (like me) ‘age out’ of 50 mile trail runs to multi day backpacking.

      • Hell yes I say! Poor Muir would certainly not be allowed in (just like Jesus couldnt run as a Republican today; healing the poor, for free? Sounds like Obamacare). One of my heroes, Ed Abbey, would absolutely wretch at seeing his name and writings slapped all over Arches and Canyonlands visitor centers, when in Canyonlands, it costs $30 for a simple backcountry permit. Be it one night or fourteen, they make you pay $30. Right. Very Abbey like.

      • I cant agree with you about the cables though. They definitely dont belong. Cant climb Half Dome on the rock’s own terms? Then dont go. There are a gajillion other rock formations you CAN walk up, so why do you have to conquer each and every one by your own means? Go to nature on nature’s own terms, not your own.

  7. I’d like to offer up two more factors that I think help explain the trend.

    First, the relative affordability of air travel. These days it’s within reach for many in the middle class to fly somewhere for vacation. People are a lot more likely to jump on a plane to the Bahamas or something than they are to hike into the woods. Sure, it’s still a lot more expensive than camping (especially when you already have all the gear), but it’s a lot cheaper than it was a generation ago. This is a gradual thing that is still playing itself out in our culture. For instance, at my age (30) people often spend four or five weekends a summer flying around the country for friends’ weddings. That’s a lot of coin, and a lot of time, and I bet it was a lot less common thirty years ago.

    Second, air conditioning. The mountains used to be a refuge for people fleeing summer heat. Nowadays many people would rather go to the beach instead. The general trend has been that people in this country want to spend summer on the beach and not in the woods and this has been playing itself out for a generation.

    As a young lawyer, I can also attest to the need to stay plugged in. There is definitely an expectation that you’ll be “offline” for no more than a few hours at most, and it’s hard for people to stomach the idea that you’ll be completely and totally inaccessible for days on end.

  8. Has anyone mentioned that perhaps the decline is due to the massive explosion that preceded it? When will silly homo sapiens learn that growth is not infinite?

    And I dont know when this was written, but gas prices are not up as of the last year. In fact I saw $1.85 just today.

  9. Greg Petliski,
    “Can’t climb Half Dome on the rock’s own terms? Then don’t go.” I guess you’ve just ruled out anyone who uses ropes etc. too. There are even “purists” who are upset about solo unassisted free climbers using chalk. Wilderness for humans is a balance between access and environmental preservation. Would you remove the roads and bridges in Yosemite too? Not me. However, I am glad that Yosemite, unlike Yellowstone, does not allow snowmobiles in the winter.
    P,S. “Jesus couldn’t run as a Republican today.” Since you want to get political too, Jesus would probably not run as a Democrat either, He would probably run as an independent if He ran for political office at all.

  10. so this is anchored in natl park system stats? maybe natl park backpacking is down and non-NPS backpacking is up? thanks to the interwebs i know of every trail in my neck of the woods, what its like, and whether its worth it, and when open-invite groups are going. side note- i havent been to places like yosemite in decades

    • Other stats as well from the Outdoor Association which also show an overall decline. Feel free to write them for their methodology.

      HEre’s a more recent one from 2016: http://www.outdoorfoundation.org/research.participation.2016.html

      Static vs recent years, sharp decline vs earlier years, an overall decline in youth participation, factor in 90+ million people since the 1970s and the decline is even more pronounced as a factor of the population. And the upswing from thru-hiking is a very small, insignificant drop in the outdoor bucket.

      Camping specific from 2014 (using 2013 stats when most Americans were out of the recession) show an overall decline continuing
      http://www.outdoorfoundation.org/pdf/research.camping.2014.pdf

      I am not sure why people are surprised. Go to a typical corporate environment. People check their email at all hours, think nothing of working 12hr days, and getting off grid for even a night almost is impossible for even the very bottom of middle management..or for people who hope to claw their way to said position.

      Since we continue to bring up anecdotal data on this subject with figures ignored, I’ll bring up my own: Go to an outdoor store. WHat do they sell? Lifestyle clothing and gear to facilitate done-in-a-day activities.

      We are busy society. Or want to be perceived that way. And the simple act of sleeping outside does not fit in the lifestyles for most people.

      • While the trail permit process has some merit restricting trail volume. Overall, I believe it discourages folks from applying in advance. Many of the folks my age can’t navigate the process of applying. I have been frustrated many times over even when applying only for myself. For example, A day hike of Mt. Whitney requires you to show up before noon the day before. If the weather turns bad. There is no rain check process. By the way, I caught a phrase, “…people buying more trail runners vs boots. I use trail running shoes for lightweight backpacking and guess many other do also.

        • Again, people look at the fringe lightweight backpacking community and assume it is the norm. Most people still use boots. As far as dat hiking, that has shown a healthy increase if anything. You can be home at time to check your work email and let the your boss’ boss know how diligent you are about your job. 😉

          • “… fringe lightweight backpacking community” That depends on what you call “lightweight”. I am not talking about the ultralight folks. I don’t see myself as a “fringe” backpacker. Lightweight to me means 35-45 pounds of gear vs old school 65-70 pounds. Old school is Norman Clyde with his 70 pound pack which included a cast iron skillet. Added to this number are the younger to middle aged climber/backpackers which I see more often in the Sierra Nevada than 10 years ago. I’ll bet if you look at the outdoor backpack companies offerings, 20 years ago vs today, you will see lots more <50 liter backpacks than before.

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