Study Shows Participation in Outdoor Sports Up Sharply in 2020, But Will the Trend Continue?

Research from the Outdoor Industry Association shows that the largest number of people ever participated in outdoor recreation at least once in 2020 — but this level of engagement is not expected to continue.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged communities and forced a nationwide shutdown, outdoor spaces became places of refuge to safely socialize, improve physical and mental health, connect with family and recover from screen fatigue,” the report said, leading to a record 53% of Americans, or 7.1 million more than the prior year, taking part in physical activity outside.

But the 2021 Outdoor Participation Trends report said that one-quarter of new participants don’t want to continue their new outdoor activities and that this figure “may grow sharply as consumers return to pre-pandemic habits.” The group performed 18,000 interviews online during 2020 with people aged 6 and over.

With many outdoor and athletic brands cashing in on the pandemic-fueled outdoor activity craze, this new data could be a sign of caution. — but for now, the momentum seems to be continuing.

The survey also found that the average number of annual outings per participant showed an ongoing long-term decline, dropping to 71 in 2020, from 87 in 2012.

Diversity — which has been a huge issue in the outdoor footwear industry — was also a problem within recreation engagement. White people made up near three-quarters of participants, 6% were Asian or Pacific Islander, and 9% were African American or Black. The results show a 7% annual decline among Asians for the past three years, and a stagnating participation for the last three years among Black people.

In 2020, 11% of outdoor participants were Hispanic, down slightly year over year. However, the report showed that “Hispanics had both the highest number of average outings per participant (75) and the highest proportion of those recreating more than once a week (22%).”

By gender, 46% of participants were female and 54% male, the survey found. Comparatively, 51% of Americans are female.

“This gender gap has not changed in eight years, suggesting that industry efforts to expand the participation base have been ineffective or stagnated,” the report said.

Among the most popular outdoor sport categories, 21% of Americans prefer running, jogging and trail running, while hiking was the most interesting to 19% of those surveyed. Other top categories include: freshwater, saltwater or fly fishing; road biking, mountain biking and BMX; and camping either in cars, the backyard, by backpacking, or in RVs.

Finally, 60% of households with children participated versus those without children, at 46%. The highest household engagement rates, at 62%, took place when they had children ages 6 to 12.

Access exclusive content