Go OutsideA Bigger Tent

A Bigger Tent

More beginners are exploring the outdoors. Let’s welcome them.

I remember when I started educating myself on all things outdoors. It was before the proliferation of online resources like YouTube how-to videos and adventure apps. My perception was mostly shaped by outdoor magazine covers that featured chiseled athletes clad in uber-technical gear with headlines like, “How to Survive a Six-Day Hike in the Amazon.” 

But since opening my own outfitter along the north branch of the Potomac River in Cumberland, Md., I’ve seen firsthand that a much broader group of people are participating in outdoor recreation. I still get plenty of cyclists in spandex riding expensive bikes coming through my shop door, asking about 50-mile routes on country roads, but I’m now seeing even more families in casual clothes looking for an easy walk in the woods.

Adventure culture is certainly being shaped by a pandemic-driven spike in people spending time outdoors.

According to a recent study by researchers at Penn State University’s Department of Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management, participation in outdoor activities is up by approximately 20 percent nationally among adults since the start of the pandemic. Change is also coming from a louder call for inclusion in outdoor spaces, as organizations like Diversify Outdoors are working hard to make sure people of color feel welcome to explore the mountains.

The dictionary definition of adventure is “an unusual and exciting, typically hazardous, experience or activity, especially the exploration of unknown territory.” But that reminds me of the hardcore perception of the outdoor scene I used to glean from magazines. The word that I think is missing from that stated definition of adventure is fun. The new people that I am seeing make discoveries in the outdoors with wide-eyed wonder seem to value fun above all else. 

photo courtesy of the author

As a brick-and-mortar business owner in the outdoor industry, my biggest competition is the internet, which gives people instant access to information at their fingertips. But I believe there is no substitute for on-the-ground knowledge, so a big part of my business model is giving people an optimal experience on the C&O Canal Towpath and other scenic destinations near my shop. I am also trying to foster a community of adventure seekers who can come together on a regular basis and have a good time.

The most successful community-based activity that we host at our shop is called Wheelzup Wednesdays. We divide attendees into two groups—one for hiking and the other for biking—but otherwise we keep the format loose. We do not set any distance or speed goals, but rather we let people, many new to the outdoors, use the first hour of the 90-minute event to ride or hike at their own pace. Then we make sure we are back at the shop for the last 30 minutes to let people meet and mingle. In just seven months since I opened my shop, I have witnessed new friendships forming, and people who met at the event hiking together regularly.

My point is not to disparage competition or endurance. I have tremendous respect for elite athletes and those who set speed records on trails, but growth in the outdoors is coming from beginners looking for a more laidback type of adventure. And statistics are showing proof beyond my anecdotal observations. At the Outdoor Retailer convention in January, the retail tracking NDP Group reported that the industry grew 23 percent last year, and during a presentation, the group’s senior sports industry adviser Matt Powell said, “The growth is coming from novices.”

I hope outdoor brands take notice and start making more products tailored to beginners. This is the gear I’d like to carry in my shop, right next to the equipment and apparel that experienced experts are looking for. With interest in the outdoors at an all-time high, all of us in the industry have an opportunity to pitch a bigger tent and welcome more people into the wild. 

Mandela Echefu is the owner of Wheelzup Adventures in Cumberland, Md.

Cover photo: Groups gather to enjoy the outdoors at Wheelzup Wednesdays. Photo courtesy of the Author

 

Places to Go, Things to See: