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Essay: The End of Outdoor Recreation

With all the great gear available, why isn't this the heyday of camping, hiking, fishing, backpacking, and generally getting outside?

multi generational family hiking in the woods, picture
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Photo: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
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Get kids into the great outdoors when they're young and they will develop a lifetime love of nature.

If we are defined by our work, we are also judged by our recreations. Leisure follows fashion: We do what is culturally valued—really, what most other people are doing. Two or three decades ago, that involved a great deal of outdoor activity, much of it rigorous, even risky. Many of us camped, backpacked, fished, and hiked, and a significant number took up edgier pursuits such as white-water kayaking, rock climbing, mountain biking. I was part of that trend, and despite reduced lung power and increasingly creaky joints, I still get out regularly for some (fairly) vigorous interfacing with the Great Outdoors.

But it seems I’m in the minority. Outdoor recreation in the United States peaked around 1989 and steadily declined thereafter. The downward spiral has accelerated since the late 1990s, with most outdoor pursuits dropping between 1 and 2 percent annually. Similar declines have been recorded in other parts of the developed world, most notably in Spain and Japan.

What makes this phenomenon dramatic in this country is that it reverses a 60-year national trend. From 1930 to 1990, an appreciation of the outdoors was part of being an American. For every year throughout those six decades, an increasing percentage of Americans camped, backpacked, fished, hunted, and otherwise ventured into the wild. Then came the change.

So what happened? Several factors are involved, but one trumps the rest: videophilia. That’s a neologism coined by conservation ecologist Patricia Zaradic to describe an obsession with electronic media.

Zaradic, a director and cofounder of Red Rock Institute in Bryn Mawr, Pa., and Oliver Pergams, a conservation biologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, have coauthored several research papers on the decline of nature-based recreation. The two academics found that the ebbing of interest in the outdoors coincided with another trend: the boom in video gaming.

When electronic games consisted of batting a virtual ping-pong ball back and forth or wrangling simulated centipedes across a screen, the interest was significant, but not all-consuming. People played video games, but they also maintained a robust interest in other activities, including the great outdoors. They still fished, camped, or cycled. They still took walks.

But in the late 1990s, gaming technology had so improved that it transcended mere recreation. It allowed players to hopscotch from one reality to another, assuming different personae. And that proved too seductive to resist.

“If it was part of the culture, if it was fashionable to be active in the outdoors in the 1970s and 1980s, it is now fashionable to be a gamer,” Zaradic says.

Further compounding the allure of the Great Indoors are HD television, big screens, and the exponential jump in on-demand video content.

“Basically, it has become very difficult to get off the couch,” Zaradic says. “The technology is just too appealing. It is so absorbing that a great many people ultimately come to prefer it to any other pastime.”

The negative health impacts of such passive entertainment are well known—obesity, lousy aerobic conditioning, even coronary artery disease and diabetes. And the young are not immune.

There are other risks, of course, including mental vacuity, arrested social graces, a slack-jawed look, and a thousand-yard stare. I know this first-hand; I see the signs in my own teen.

As interest in outdoor recreation withers, so does an interest in nature. People care less about ecological process, about the living planet that sustains us. When you’re used to battling giant reptiles from Antares VI, a meadow blazing with spring wildflowers or a spotted towhee twittering from a thicket doesn’t really light up the synapses.

“This is high-stakes stuff,” says Bruce Palmer, the director of admission and marketing for the National Outdoor Leadership School, perhaps the most comprehensive and rigorous of the country’s wilderness skills academies. “When we start losing our connection to the outdoors, we start losing our ability to evaluate human impacts on our environment and the importance of basic ecological processes.”

Zaradic seconds that observation: “If we don’t place a high intrinsic value on nature, we aren’t likely to devote time, money, and political capital to preserve it.”

The economic effects of this trend are not lost on the outdoor recreation industry. Many companies that once focused on hard-core gear and expedition clothing now concentrate on a softer, more urban demographic. People are more comfortable identifying as lovers of the outdoors than they are in developing real outdoor skills.

Some companies are bucking the trend. Foremost among them is Patagonia, the Ventura, Calif.−based manufacturer of high-end outdoor equipment and clothing founded by famed mountaineer Yvon Chouinard. Jess Clayton, Patagonia’s product public relations marketer, says the company just posted one of its best sales years ever, thanks to brand loyalty and a customer base that remains extensive despite the downward trend in outdoor recreation.

“The company has always been known for producing real gear for real outdoor sports enthusiasts,” Clayton notes. “Our basic mission hasn’t changed, and our customers tend to stick with us.”

Still, Patagonia’s story is the exception. And as Palmer and Zaradic observe, a widespread disconnection from the outdoors poses long-term threats to both human and planetary health. So what to do? It all comes back to the kids, insists Palmer of the National Outdoor Leadership School.

“We need mentors,” he says. “Parents simply have to take the time to get their children outdoors. Once they’re there, the interest comes naturally.”

That’s for sure. My 15-year-old son will sink into a vegetative coma as readily as any adolescent male when presented with a compelling video game, but he also responds enthusiastically to outdoor adventures. I sometimes forget the impression our forays make on him—that his neural chemistry is subtly refined every time we go mountain biking, skiing, camping, or fishing. On returning from a ski trip last season, I asked him if he had a good time.

He laughed. “Good time? Dad, I had one of the best times of my life. When can we do it again?”

This article was first published in August 2012. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.