Outdoor participation: Numbers up, but the bucket’s leaking and adolescent girls are opting out

2012 outdoor participation is up overall, but a closer look shows fewer adolescent girls participating.

The number of Americans participating in outdoor recreation in 2012 was the highest it’s been since the Outdoor Foundation started tracking participation in 2006.


Last year, 141.9 million people partook in outdoor activities, versus 141.1 million in 2011. And they were more active, going on an average of 87.4 outdoor outings per participant for a total of 12.4 billion overall.

There are areas of concern, however. The research shows girls between the ages of 13 and 17 are participating less. Plus, the industry is experiencing what Outdoor Foundation Executive Director Chris Fanning calls the “leaky bucket phenomenon” — meaning, we’re losing almost as many participants as we’re gaining.

The decline in the number of adolescent girls is of particular concern for Deanne Buck, executive director of the Outdoor Industries Women's Coalition.

"This is a great opportunity for all of us to pause and ask ourselves whether we are creating an inclusive and welcoming culture for women and girls within the industry," Buck said. "From the drop in participation rates among adolescent girls, one could conjecture that as an industry we have some room for growth. The decline in participation may in fact be connected to trends within the industry — and those are trends we can actively work to reverse."

Girls opting out of the outdoors
Though youth participation among females ages 6 to 24 in general is up from 47 to 48 percent, the participation rate among females between the ages of 13 to 17 dropped from 30 percent in 2011 to 26 percent in 2012.

“This is one of the biggest concerns we have seen — the leveling off of young people of both genders,” Fanning said. “When we saw this drop, which is pretty significant, it really caused me to be concerned.”

Fanning said that the Outdoor Foundation is focused on engaging the youth, exemplified in its recent successful Outsiders Ball fundraiser and the work of Outdoor Nation.

Outdoor Nation Spokesperson Stasia Raines said upping this number in the future is looking promising judging from recent Outdoor Nation Summit participation. “We’ll have more women than men at our 2013 Summits,” Raines said.

Fanning said still more needs to be done to figure out how adolescent girls view the outdoors and what the outdoor industry can do to meet them halfway. “Girls and females may view the outdoors differently,” Fanning said. “We ought to pay attention and be proactive.”

Fanning speculates girls may not feel as confident because preconceived ideas that they don't have the necessary skills, or they don't want to want to get dirty or mess up their hair. Maybe, she added, they don’t want to take the risk that’s involved in outdoor sports.

Claire Smallwood, executive director for the Salt Lake City-based nonprofit SheJumps, said she thinks it’s because the industry projects the image that only hard-core men are welcome outdoors and when women are portrayed in marketing materials, it’s often as an object.

“There’s definitely a fine line between using an amazing female athlete to sell a product and showing what that athlete is capable of,” Smallwood said, adding that when the focus is on a female athlete’s physical appearance solely it dissuades young girls. “They think, ‘I’m never going to look like that so how can I ever be an athlete?’”

Introducing them at a more laid-back level and in a community setting might be the ticket.

“Girls find a great sense of community and connectedness in their need to relate to one another as much as possible,” Fanning said. “We need to make sure we’re engaging young girls as a group, collective or community and support them in a way that shows women mentors. If you look in the industry and the outdoor community, there aren’t as many young or emerging professionals and mentors as on the male side.”

That’s exactly what Smallwood is trying to do. The former professional big mountain skier said her nonprofit operates its programs on three different levels: Jump In, for outdoor newbies; Jump Up, for already active people looking for more community support; and Jump Out, for established professional athletes who seek to give back to the community and become bigger role models.

With the Outdoor Industry Association’s Rendezvous approaching next month, these numbers ought to be heeded and they most likely will be, said OIA Director of Communications Avery Stonich. “Our IDEO Project is tracking consumer sentiment while the [Outdoor Foundation] Participation Report tracks the numbers, but they’re tied together,” she said. “The numbers drop if a consumer doesn’t feel welcome. We’re trying to help retailers tap into user experiences to recruit and maintain participants.”

Examining the leak for 2013
While the 2012 research shows that outdoor activities attracted 13 million new individuals, the industry also lost 12 million.

This is bothersome for a few reasons, Fanning said. “It’s far easier to keep a customer than to attract a new customer,” Fanning said. “Why are those 12 million people who were engaged gone? What turned them off and how do we keep more of them engaged?”

For 2013 research, Fanning said the surveys will ask those questions. For now, focus on getting youth — particularly girls — outdoors should remain in the spotlight.

“We’re not out of the woods with fostering this generation’s participation in the outdoors,” Outdoor Nation’s Raines said. “This serves as a rally cry for the industry. There’s obviously a need and we are the people to make this happen and engage this generation.”

--Ana Trujillo



Outdoor Reads: Expedition Denali commences; Girl Scouts cut back on camping

What did the SNEWS team read this week that other industry insiders might find interesting? Read on to find out! A lot of people talk diversity, but it’s merely lip service until something is actually done. The all-African-American team of Expedition Denali is doing what they can ...read more


Stay relevant, profitable, by focusing on America’s shifting demographics

Throughout the month of February, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2012 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Jan. 19-22. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to ...read more


Adventure Ready Brands Announces ‘Adventure Ready Girls’ Initiative to Increase Girls’ Outdoor Participation

LITTLETON, N.H. (Oct. 22, 2020) — There is a double-digit gender gap in outdoor participation between boys and girls, and outdoor products company, Adventure Ready Brands will tackle this disparity by getting 1 million girls outside by 2025 through an initiative called Adventure ...read more


New to the outdoors: Sturdy Girl keeps abreast of what women really want in a sports bra

One of the defining points of outdoor specialty retail is that it is where customers can go to discover what’s truly new. Local shop owners are the ones who often take the risk to bring in a small, start-up brand, differentiating themselves from the big boys. In this reoccurring ...read more


Can today’s outdoor start-ups get by without retailers?

As a new generation of consumers and technology emerges, a growing number of burgeoning outdoor brands are choosing to skip the middleman — retailers — and go 100-percent direct-to-consumer. Heritage brands Eddie Bauer and L.L. Bean have long opted for direct-to-consumer selling ...read more

Black Girls RUN! and REI Outessa Summit Team Up to Inspire Women to Run and Enjoy the Outdoors

Founder of national running group to speak at inaugural outdoor event series  Two organizations that inspire women to be more active are teaming up this summer. Toni Carey, the co-founder of Black Girls RUN!, a grassroots organization that encourages African-American women to ...read more


Strength in numbers: 2014 outdoor specialty retailers list

A few days before Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2014, Texas-based outdoor retailer Backwoods announced a deal to purchase fellow specialty retailer Dynamic Earth in Springfield, Mo. The acquisition, expected to close in September, will add a fifth state and 11th store to the ...read more


Outdoor Reads: NYT shout-out to outdoor footwear brands, and messages of compassion for runners

What did the SNEWS team read this week that other industry insiders might find interesting? Read on to find out. Many of us in the outdoor industry are runners, and have experienced the joy that comes with crossing the finish line of a marathon. On Marathon Monday in Boston, ...read more


Outdoor Reads: Utah's Gov. makes grand plans; Maryland family supports industry

What did the SNEWS team read this week that other industry insiders might find interesting? Read on to find out! Timberland isn’t the only company that reaps the benefits of “hip” hiking gear. In South Korea, dressing in hiking gear is all the rage, and people will spend some ...read more