In January, the Outdoor Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the Outdoor Industry Association, shared some gloomy statistics. According to its annual survey, fewer than 20 percent of Americans were recreating outside at least once a week, working out to an estimated billion fewer outdoor activities a year compared to a decade earlier. Just under half of the population, the organization estimated, was not participating in outdoor recreation at all.
“Outdoor participation,” the survey also found, still skewed slightly male and more than slightly white. Overall, a “historical downward trend” indicated that “Americans will likely continue spending less time outdoors” due in part to “work and family demands as well as technology and cost of entry.”
As many of these Americans would soon find out, preferring not to go outside is quite a different thing from being told to stay inside. As official and de facto lockdowns dragged on, and something like a consensus about the relative safety of outdoor activity emerged, an indoor country found itself suddenly, and rather urgently, drawn out.
One way to tell the story of the pandemic is through its shortages. Early and ongoing P.P.E. shortages underscored the threat of the virus and how woefully unprepared the U.S. was to confront it. Subsequent stockpiling — of toilet paper, canned food, weapons — revealed the strange and complicated ways Americans process disasters. Facing widespread business closures and stay-at-home orders, customers looking to buy home fitness equipment, grooming supplies or video game consoles ran up against shortages and backorders.
Already, summer is oozing by, and the uncertainty of autumn is creeping closer. Outdoor pools and trampolines were an early warning sign. Bait and tackle spiked in April. Now, it’s a mad rush for outdoor gear. All of it.
“For us, it’s been a bit of a mirror of the human condition,” said Paul Calandrella, a merchandising manager at REI. First, he said, people came for survival gear: freeze-dried food, water filtration and backup power supplies. “They surprised us out of the gate.”
First came the bike rush, which caused shortages that began in March and have extended, for some brands, into next year. Next to run low were kayaks and stand-up paddle boards. Soon, running shoes were picked over. Sales at outdoor retailers were up almost across the board, with a few exceptions in specialized categories (indoor climbing gear, for example). Next up: camping gear. In the space of a few months, outdoor retailers went from solving a marketing problem to wresting with supply chain problems.
“We’re probably in the early days of feeling some constraints on tents, sleeping bags and camping furniture,” said Mr. Calandrella. “One place that really caught us off guard was backpacking food,” he said.
Freeze-dried food and camp fuel suppliers, already cleaned out by prepper-minded customers months before, were confronted with “extraordinary levels of demand” from actual backpackers looking to escape into the wilderness. “It was whiplash.”
Mountain House, a popular freeze-dried food brand, has a warning on its website: “Due to increased demand, many of our products are out of stock.” An upscale competitor, Good To-Go, founded by the decorated chef Jennifer Scism and her husband, David Koorits, has paused sales through its website while it tries to catch up with orders from retailers. The company has increased its staff by more than 10 percent; after an early spring surge followed by a brief lull, August orders are five times what they were last year.
Some sought-after items suggest that people may also be camping in their own backyards. Hammocks, after a few mysteriously slow years, are back in high demand. Powered coolers are hard to keep in stock. Good To-Go has seen particular demand for some of its less eclectic foods, such as chili and pasta. “Food that would also be kid friendly,” Mr. Koorits said.
Moosejaw, the outdoor retailer acquired by Walmart in 2017, has been looking for new suppliers for tents and camp furniture, two categories where sales more than doubled this year; new birders have taken popular binocular models out of stock. Customer moods have changed accordingly.
“Generally speaking, with these more considered purchases, people they do their homework, and they’ll come to us having already picked out a product,” said Eoin Comerford, Moosejaw’s C.E.O. “With some of these supply chain constraints, people are coming to us and saying, ‘do you have a bike?’”
“Back in March, we didn’t have a picture of how it would turn out,” said Helen Johnson-Leipold, the president and chief executive of Johnson Outdoors, which owns the camping gear brand Eureka, a backpacking stove company Jetboil and the boat brands Old Town and Ocean Kayak, among others. “We had more cancellations than we had new orders,” she said. At the same time, in response to the spread of Covid-19, Johnson Outdoors was keeping many office and factory workers at home.
By the end of April, however, interest had resumed. “Usually, with significant orders we have a little bit of lead time,” Mrs. Johnson-Leipold said. Not this time. Demand for boats — tandem kayaks stood out as a surprising example — was “through the roof,” with orders soon outpacing production. People were fishing more, or taking it up for the first time. Later, especially as public lands began to reopen, demand for camping gear followed; Mrs. Johnson-Leipold suspects that, if current trends continue, Eureka and Jetboil could soon be dealing with backorders, too.
For much of the outdoor recreation industry, this is generally good news: lots of people buying lots of things, potentially finding hobbies or forming habits that will last for years. “The participation rate will grow,” said Mrs. Johnson-Leipold.
Outdoor recreation is, of course, seasonal, and nobody is quite sure what’s going to happen when winter comes. REI, for example, is reconsidering what its stores will look like come fall, when customers would normally expect to see store displays filled with gear for ski and snowboard outings that, this year, could be risky or impossible.
Shortages also have consequences. A lot of outdoor gear is produced overseas, ordered a year ahead and sold seasonally, meaning some sold-out items won’t reappear until 2021. As with bikes, however, many of the first products to sell out are more affordable and practical options — a stark reminder that some of the industry’s underlying problems are the same as they were in January.
“The dampening effect is real,” said Kenji Haroutunian, a consultant and diversity and inclusion advocate for the outdoor industry. Outside is free, as plenty of enthusiasts will insist, but outdoor gear can be expensive, even in the best of times. As Covid-19 continues to spread, many formerly social activities have been reduced to individual or family pursuits, leaving would-be participants without access to the people and communities that could otherwise welcome them. “Indoor climbing, for example, is more diverse than outdoor,” said Mr. Haroutunian, but gyms are closed, “and that’s cutting off a chain of new climbers.”
Mr. Haroutunian is cautiously optimistic. Close-to-home recreation is on the rise around diverse urban centers. Lots of outdoors companies are hiring, and he’s heard that larger general interest retailers are ramping up investments in recreational gear, some of it more affordable than what you might find at REI. It’s an opportunity to be seized or blown. “When times are good, people forget that you have to invest in maintaining the future,” he said.