Backpacking article from Hartford Courant

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Sep 4, 2003
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Thornton, NH
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Hartford Courant (Connecticut)

November 14, 2006 Tuesday


LENGTH: 994 words


BYLINE: STEVE GRANT; Courant Staff Writer


Allan Williams of West Hartford, a volunteer with a Sierra Club program that introduces Hartford youth to the pleasures of hiking, says the club would like to add overnight backpacking trips to its scheduled events. \ But there's a problem: The club can't find enough adult volunteers interested in backpacking, never mind willing to commit the time to an overnight hike.

``We always talk about backpacking trips, but we can never have them because we can't get the volunteers,'' he said. ``Without the leaders, it's hard to bring the kids.'' \ The situation with the Sierra Club's Inner City Outings project is not unique; it is symptomatic of a national trend. \ Interest in backpacking, an outdoor activity that was the rage in the 1970s and remained popular well into the '90s, has fallen off sharply. \ Toting a pack that can weigh 50 pounds, sleeping on a too-thin pad in a tent, and cooking supper over a tiny stove, rain or shine, seems to have lost some of its appeal. \ Maybe it is a little too rugged for today's tastes. \ The Outdoor Industry Foundation, funded by outdoor gear and apparel manufacturers, reports that overnight backpacking ``declined dramatically'' since 1998 -- a 22.5 percent drop, even as participation in outdoor recreation has grown. \ Megan Davis, marketing and communications manager with the organization, said its yearly survey found that Americans were increasingly focusing on outdoor recreation that can be done in a day, avoiding ``commitment-heavy'' activities such as a four- or five-day backpacking outing. \ Even more dramatic is the drop in long-distance backpackers who set out each year to hike the entire 2,174-mile Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. In 1999, 2,625 hikers left Georgia with hopes of hiking the entire trail. This year, that number fell to 1,150, less than half the 1999 number.

``Normally in the '80s and the '90s, we'd see a couple of years of growth and then a slow drop, then it would pick up again,'' said Brian B. King, the conservancy's associate director of communications.

Thru-hikers increased for a couple of years in the late '90s in the wake of the best-selling book ``A Walk in the Woods,'' about hiking on the Appalachian Trail, but the numbers have crashed since.

The drop-off is not always easily measured otherwise, especially with an activity that often requires nothing more formal than the willingness to lace up a pair of hiking boots, strap on the backpack and start walking.

But, in addition to the industry polling and the Appalachian Trail numbers, there are strong suggestions that even those who continue to backpack are keeping their trips shorter and, when they can, looking for amenities that make the outing less of a challenge.

For example, the Appalachian Mountain Club says it has seen steady interest from hikers in its network of ``huts'' in New Hampshire's White Mountains -- they are large cabins where hikers can sleep in bunks and a staff serves hot meals. With the hut network, a hiker can travel for days in the White Mountains without having to cook or pitch a tent, getting by with a comparatively light daypack that holds perhaps a lunch, a sleeping bag and some raingear.

``People certainly continue to be interested in getting into the outdoors, and also interested in a bit higher level of service, if the activity we are seeing is any indication,'' said Rob Burbank, the club's director of public affairs.

A Telling Scenario

Further evidence that backpackers are looking for amenities is the club's experience with its Carter Notch hut. In 1995, the club reduced the services offered at that hut -- no meal service, for example -- thinking that would appeal to many backpackers.

``Over the last 10 years, we've seen a substantial decline in the use of that hut, with fewer than half as many visiting since it went self-service. We will be bringing full-service back this summer,'' Burbank said.

Stephen Wall, camping buyer at North Cove Outfitters in Old Saybrook, a major outdoor gear and apparel retailer, said backpack sales seem to have been steady in recent years. But, he noted, customers are tending to buy smaller packs. That is part of a trend toward hiking with minimal weight but also is consistent with backpackers' shortening their outings. Wall said customers often are planning an outing of two or three nights at most, rather than a week or more, as they once did. Burbank said he's heard the same thing.

Day trips are especially popular.

``We are seeing some enormous growth in activities that can be done in a day,'' Davis said. ``People are participating in a greater variety of outdoor activities,'' she said. ``They may be diversifying and, therefore, not spending as much time on any one activity.''

While backpacking participation is falling, other activities, such as kayaking or snowshoeing, are increasing. Snowshoeing participation, for example, has increased 83 percent since 1998. And day hiking remains one of the most popular outdoor activities in America, ranked third among all outdoor activities, with 34.2 percent of Americans saying they hiked at least once during the year.

The Outdoor Industry survey also found that among those 16 to 24 years old, where the backpacking decline is especially pronounced, outdoor activities had to compete with many other indoor activities, including video games.

Williams, who has hiked in all 50 states, says he thinks backpacking is falling from favor for a couple of reasons. One, people are too busy for a multiple-day outing, he says. Two, he thinks the generation now aged 25 to 45 is a more materialistic, indoor-oriented group that was never introduced to backpacking in childhood and consequently has no interest in it today.

For those willing to give up some creature comforts, backpacking has its satisfactions. But, Williams said, those never introduced to the activity ``fear they are going to be more uncomfortable than they would be.''

Contact Steve Grant at [email protected].
Another reason

I'm getting to the age where my ability to backpack, and maybe my tolerance for sleeping on the ground, is waning, so I'm also more likely to do day hikes from a local base, rather than a multi-day, carry everything trip.
pilgrim said:
Is this good news or bad news?

You can take it however you'd like. But it really appears that dayhiking is all the rage these days. Its what I do because it is all I have time to do. Plus, I'm not confident with my survival skills for a multi-night trip, so I don't do it. And I have no gear....

I think the article makes a good point about people being too busy to have a multi-day backpack. It appears that many want amenities like huts to keep them comfortable. Its probably a product of our daily culture. Everything is at our fingertips, and huts in the backcountry are much easier than pitching a tent, making your own food etc etc. It sounds like we are moving into a new age of outdoors activity. Still, there will always be people who prefer the different experience of the outdoors that one gets when camping, and there will always be people attempting to thru-hike the AT.

I don't see this as bad or good - as long as people are still getting out.
I used to do more backpacking and still enjoy it... but I rarely have enough time to take 4-5 days in a stretch to hike - and if I do take that stretch I'll probably be combining other outdoor activities and not just backpacking.
Now that I have moved to NH I hope to do MORE backpacking than before. My wife loves to hike, yet backpacking doesn’t interest her as much as it does me. There are several long hikes e.g., long trail, NH AT, Cohos Trail, and a few others I hope to do before age prohibits me from doing these types of hikes. Although I do not mind hiking solo, I would prefer a partner. Unfortunately, my wife and my other hiking friend are not interested, so I will probably end up hiking solo.
I think this article plays into a couple of threads we have seen on the board of late, declining visitors to BSP in Maine and the National Parks in general.

Its been ages since I backpacked. I think it has to do with lack of time, family obligations and the rest. I am almost strictly into day hiking, but would not mind a night or two in the woods. Plus the generatiuon that started this boom, the baby boomers, is aging and apparently looking for more luxurious trips and all, if you believe what you read.

Which begs the question, have we done a good job passing the love of the outdoors to our kids?