Survey says…

A look at the Outdoor Foundation’s 2011 Outdoor Recreation Participation Report

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It’s often said that you can get statistics to tell you anything you want to know. Survey results published in the Outdoor Foundation’s 2011 Outdoor Recreation Participation Report offer an in-depth look at the level of participation in the outdoors by a cross-segment of the U.S. population.
The survey involved interviews with a nationwide sampling that included responses from more than 15,000 individuals and almost 24,000 households in early 2010. While discouraging in several areas, the survey also indicates promising trends in others. Perhaps the most revealing and noteworthy figures to outdoor writers are those results from the youth (6 years old and above) and young adult segment of the survey base.
The survey polled participants on more than forty different outdoor activities, including: archery, backpacking, birding, camping, canoeing, fishing, hiking, hunting and wildlife viewing. In addition, interviewers sought out influencing factors that affected the degree and frequency of participation across that broad spectrum of activities.
The overall good news/bad news statistic regarding participation in the outdoors by children ages 6-12 is that, for the first time, participation remained flat instead of falling. Plus, adolescent and young adult participation grew by one percent.
The most popular outdoor activities among those age 6 to 17 were: Road biking, mountain biking or BMX (27 percent of American youth); car, backyard or RV camping (23 percent); running, jogging and trail running (23 percent); freshwater, salt water and fly- fishing (20 percent); and hiking (12 percent).
When looking at Americans ages 6 and older trying out new outdoor activities, stand up paddling, traditional/road triathlon and non-traditional/off road triathlon made the top three slots for activities with high percentages of first-time participants. Boardsailing/windsurfing and sea/touring kayaking were fourth and fifth in popularity. Of the hunting and fishing activities listed among the top 42 activities, fly-fishing ranked 19th; bow hunting, 25th; handgun hunting, 27th; shotgun hunting, 35th; and rifle hunting came in at 38th.
The survey notes that, “[t]hough an indicator of growth, the percentage of new participants in an outdoor activity is dependent on an activity’s size and can also indicate activities with a high turnover in participants — activities that draw large number of new participants but also lose existing participants at the same time.”
Equally challenging and useful to outdoor writers may be the statistics summarizing the reasons people throughout all age groups are discouraged or motivated about participating in the outdoors. When comparing the change in response between those age 6-12 and 18-24 who were asked what motivated them and kept them from participating, the shifts and trends are subjectively revealing. And while the age 6-17 group has the highest participation rate, the frequency of their activities remains below standards as set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“Outdoor activities are cool,” “My [family] participates” and “Outdoor activities are a good way to get exercise/stay fit.” were the top three motivators in the age 6-12 group. The age 18-24 group responded differently: “Outdoor activities are a good way to get exercise/stay fit,” “Outdoor activities are cool” and “I want to relax/manage stress” were top motivators. These results and others suggest that as we grow older the need to reduce stress and strive for fitness become more important. Lack of time is a large reason why those surveyed aged 6-24 don’t spend more time outdoors.
Influences for participating covered a broad range of topics as well. The two top, equally popular responses for those age 6-12 to “What keeps you from participating in outdoor activities more?” were related to time spent at school and undesirable weather. For those age 13-17, time spent at school and not having the right gear were the most major inhibitors. And for those age 18-24, not having the right gear and a lack of vacation time were the two biggest reasons. The survey also reported that “[a]mong adults who are current outdoor participants, more than 79 percent reported having physical education classes between the ages of 6 and 12. That compares to just 63 percent of non-outdoor participants.” For those in the age 6-24 group, more than half got involved in outdoor activities for the first time because “My friends and/or family participate in outdoor activities.”
Camping, fishing and hiking — three getaway activities — rank among the top activities of children, just behind bicycling and running. These getaway activities are recognized as lead-ins to other outdoor interests. Getting and keeping children actively interested remains a challenge as participation in outdoor activities declines with age.
So what might this all mean and how can we as outdoor writers use these figures to our professional and even ideological advantage? Many of the responses bordered on the obvious or givens such as parental influence, gain of independence and, based on other data from the survey about buying habits, the state of the economy.
An interesting figure revealed by the survey says that of first-timers, 2 percent of those age 6-24 and 3 percent of the age 25 and older saw an article, show or video that made them decide to participate in an outdoor activity for the first time.
Articles conveying passion for a wide variety of outdoor activities beyond the standard hunting and fishing tales may be the encouragement needed to expand those ranks. Many more figures including economic and ethnic factors included in an expansive overview of the Outdoor Foundation study are available at ♦
—A member since 1988, Tom Watson is from Appleton, Minn. He is a freelance writer and photographer specializing in Alaska, tourism, outdoor destinations and product reviews. Watson is also a guidebook author. Contact him at

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