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What's In A Number: Looking At Outdoor Recreation Participation


Who is recreating across America, and what sports are they pursuing? Is hiking on the rise, or decline? And what about biking, or paddling participation? Curious about those numbers, I turned to the latest report on outdoor recreation from the Outdoor Industry Foundation.

The numbers contained in the Outdoor Recreation Participation Report 2011 just might surprise some, and alarm others.

For instance, the report notes that, overall, the popularity of biking (BMX biking, road biking, and mountain biking) declined by 2 percent last year in the 6- to 17-year-old bracket (though interest in BMX biking specifically was up 31 percent).

And yet....that biking category (again, all three approaches to cycling) ranked third nationally in popularity of outdoor activity for those aged 6 and older, with 15 percent of Americans, or 42.4 million participants. Hiking wasn't far behind, with 11 percent of Americans, or 32.4 million participants, making it the fifth-most-popular outdoor activity.

The most popular outdoor activity for all ages above 6 years old, according to this report? That would be trail running, jogging, and running in general, with 18 percent of Americans, or 50.2 million, age 6 and older participating. Ranking second was fishing -- freshwater, saltwater, fly fishing -- with 45.4 million participants, or 16 percent of Americans. Virtually tied with biking was camping -- car camping, RV camping, backyard camping -- with 42.3 million Americans making it their most popular activity.

"Unfortunately," the report notes, overall outdoor recreation "participation among boys ages 6 to 12 continued to slide in 2010, and participation among young men ages 18 to 24 lost last year’s two-point gain, dipping back down to 59 percent.

"Although girls’ participation in outdoor recreation is still lower than boys’, those participation rates showed improvement — or at least leveling — in 2010. Participation rates for girls ages 6 to 17 held steady at 58 percent. Rates increased by 1 percentage point for 13 to 17 year olds and by 5 percentage points for 18 to 24 year olds."

There is some good news, though, among the 18-24 age group.

"... the overall outdoor participation rate continued to increase slightly among young adults ages 18 to 24. Participation among men dropped back to the 2008 rate of 59 percent, while rates for women’s crept from 48 percent up to 53 percent," the report found. "Young adults prefer to run when they get outdoors. The participation rate increased by 1 percentage point in 2010. Biking, number one among youth, dropped down to fourth most popular among this age group."

Hiking was right behind biking, with 3.7 million people in the 18-24 age group saying it's their favorite outdoor activity, compared to 4.1 million for biking, while 4.5 million people made camping -- car camping, RV, and backyard -- the second-most popular outdoor activity in this age bracket. Ranking third was fishing (freshwater, saltwater, and fly fishing) with 4.3 million participants in 2011.

What gets people outdoors to recreate? The report has an answer for that question, too:

Youth and adolescents are motivated to get outside simply because they think “outdoor activities are cool.” While the cool factor is still present in young adults, slightly more participants in this age group cite exercise as their top motivator for outdoor participation.

Young adults also seek outdoor activities as a way of managing stress, while youth and adolescents go outside because their relatives participate in outdoor activities.

This report is a must-read if you want to understand what drives folks to get outdoors, which sports are on the rise, which are in decline, and which are relatively flat in participating levels. Plus, the report delves into the role of technology in outdoor recreation, family involvement in outdoor recreation, and even ethnic breakdowns by sport.

Participation in outdoor activities was considerably higher among Caucasians than any other ethnicity and lowest among African Americans in all age groups.

While 67 percent of Caucasian children ages 6 to 12 participated in outdoor recreation in 2010, only 48 percent of African American kids in the same age range participated. Still, this was the largest increase seen from 2009 to 2010, from 39 percent to 48 percent.

Although their participation rate is much lower, African American and Hispanic participants tend to participate more frequently than Caucasians in outdoor activities.

According to the report, Hispanic and Caucasian youth said too much schoolwork prevented them from getting outdoors as often as they'd like, while African-American and Asian/Pacific Islander youth said they didn't have the proper equipment.

Open up this report and you can really dial in specifics by turning to pages 66-70, which breakout specific activities (ie, Adventure racing, canoeing, free weights, wakeboarding) by age group and participation levels for 2006-2010.

The survey upon which the report was built was conducted during January 2011 and early February 2011. A total of 38,742 online interviews were carried out; a total of 15,086 individual and 23,656 household surveys were completed, according to the Foundation.


Trying to pry my 9 yo from his video game is not easy, and he's probably fairly representative of his age group.

Ask him if he'd like to ride a Mule into the Grand Canyon, Zeb! That'll get his attention. It does great things for kids of all ages, seriously! One of the great adventures still allowed but there are a few bureocrats that want that to slide into the museum archives. I would suggest therapy for those that don't get the importance of the adventure...or a Mule Ride to get what it's all about, respectfully.

Interestingly, kids are twice as likely to mountain bike/BMX than hike. Bodes well for the future. :)

Real stuff: I'm first and foremost a mountain biker. I take my kids riding and hiking whenever I can, but they don't enjoy either one as much as I do.

Zeb, don't get too excited. If you look closer, they lump BMX with mountain biking and road biking and, OVERALL, biking was down by 2 percent. With BMX being up 31 percent, I wonder what the declines were in mountain biking and road biking...

I think they all go through cycles. (Oops, no pun intended.) I have heard that road riding declined quite a bit at some point, then picked up because of Lance Armstrong's Tour de France wins. Now that he's retired, it could be declining again. I suspect mountain biking also goes up and down. (Again, no pun intended!) Both are rather hard physically, for one thing, and it can take years to hone one's mountain biking skills unless one is a natural. The sad likelihood is that active kids in every activity combined probably constitute a distinct minority compared to kids (and adults) who basically don't do anything outdoors and get precious little exercise.


Based on the numbers provided, cycling excluding BMX was down 3%. Clearly, trail running/jogging is the one activity that has shown steady progression over 5 years, whereas cycling/hiking have been pretty much flat for the last 3 years. I wonder if the HOHAs will complain about trail running as well being that it's not that contemplative of an activity. :)

"I'm first and foremost a mountain biker. I take my kids riding and hiking whenever I can, but they don't enjoy either one as much as I do."

Zeb: Funny how that works sometimes.

Real stuff, indeed. Then again, I was more interested by computers than the outdoors when I was their age. So, there's still some hope. :)

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