(Salt Lake City, August 13, 2004) – The Outdoor Industry Association released a state of the market report last week that illustrated disturbing trends in wilderness activity participation: less people are getting into the backcountry these days. Backpacking participation has decreased by 20% since 1998.

Declining Backcountry Participation: Symptom of Societal Changes or a Temporary Lull in a Normal Cycle?

What is the reason for the decline? Jon Almquist, Brand Manager for Mountain Safety Research, believes that the culture of today’s Gameboy-toting youth and their overworked parents are responsible for fostering a culture that is not motivated to seek wilderness experiences. “It takes too much effort to mentor a backcountry experience for the younger generation,” said Almquist. Busy jobs, busy lives, and the availability of spoon fed alternatives provide stiff competition to the outdoor wilderness experience.

Kim Coupounas, GoLite co-founder and Outdoor Industry Association Board Member, believes the decline is a result of the practical direction our society has taken in recent years: we are busier and simply have less time. “People are still finding ways to participate in outdoor recreation, but it’s clear that the shift to frontcountry activities will begin to redefine the Outdoor Industry as we know it.” MSR isn’t arguing that point: they are entering the car camping market with a cool new two-burner high-tech camping stove (16 lb) that is sure to be a hit among Coleman junkies with an eye towards sleek styling and solid technologies (and you certainly can’t ignore a five-inch thick ThermaRest that offers a slice of Heaven in a truck bed at the end of a dirt road). GoLite, too, is responding to the trends by increasing the number of SKUs aimed directly at frontcountry outdoor activities: trail running, day hiking, and road and mountain biking. “It’s important to the long term health of our industry that we encourage frontcountry recreation as much as backcountry recreation,” says Coupounas.

GoLite hasn’t, and certainly won’t, lose their backcountry focus: it continues to remain strong for the company and they promise innovations in both lightweight and ultralight backpacking gear in the coming years. Nor are they necessarily diluting their backcountry message: but there’s no question they are going after broader markets. Hopefully, this strategy will generate enthusiasm for frontcountry outdoor sports that will lead to increased backcountry participation.

Maintaining Backcountry Brand Purity and the Lightweight Message

John Gvazdinskas of MontBell’s flagship store in Boulder offers an entirely different scenario.

“We are experiencing the (hopeful) end of a recessed economy,” Gvazdinskas claims. “People are simply spending less money on recreation and there is an economic barrier to entry for new participants in wilderness activities.” Certainly, frontcountry outdoor sports are not only more accessible for busy people, but they require (sometimes) cheaper gear and less time spent (and lost opportunity costs) away from work. But MontBell intends to ride out the low, believing backcountry participation is in a cyclic low. “We’re not changing our strategy dramatically and are going to keep doing well, what we’ve done well since the early 1970s: manufacturer high quality lightweight gear and apparel aimed at backcountry wilderness enthusiasts.”

Gvazdinskas’ conservative approach to responding (or rather, lack of) to downward trends in wilderness activity participation may be just what wilderness advocates need most right now: an immobile beacon and champion for backcountry activities.