By: Jack Stauss
The pandemic’s impact on the outdoors: the “new normal”
When the COVID 19 pandemic began, our lives changed forever. Amenities that we never had to think about become a privilege or disappeared completely. We had to work harder to plan for simple things like getting groceries or going to the dentist. Businesses changed drastically. We did not want to overstress the hospital system, we did not want to carelessly infect others, or be infected with the disease. And of course, indoor events and social gatherings were completely forbidden. So, what did many of us do? We went outdoors.
Adapting to the reality of COVID
At first, even this was hard to understand how to adapt to. Many of us scaled back the rate or intensity of our outdoor activities so as not to get injured or need a rescue. At guiding companies like Holiday River Expeditions, trips were canceled, downsized, and adapted to fit the reality of the pandemic world. Many rules and precautions were put in place. But, something unique happened during this time. People realized how wonderful spending time with their close family in nature was. People began to take up new outdoor activities, and branch out into bigger, more remote, and wild spaces.
My partner and I took our dog down to the San Rafael Swell here in the Utah desert. One weekend we had complete solitude – camping among a cottonwood grove next to a trailhead. Our only visitors were the occasional satellite overhead in the astonishingly bright stars against the pitch-black sky. Our days were filled with red rock slot canyons – twisting and bending with millennia of water and wind. We topped out high mesas and looked out over the tans, browns, and golds of the landscape, onward to a gray-blue horizon, distant jagged laccoliths, and the unknown beyond. We saw other travelers sporadically on our hikes and in rural gas stations. We gave each other space and masked up when we needed to.
Just a few weeks later we visited a similar part of the world. The word was out. Families from all over the country had come to the Utah desert to spread out, and spend time together outdoors. While it was a little bit of a shock, it was good to see so many people enjoying the land.
Fast forward to today – many of these changes are here to stay. People have changed jobs or shifted their schedules to allow for remote work or a more flexible work-life balance. And as such, the outdoor industry has continued its immense growth.
By the numbers
At first, with the unknowns of the pandemic, everything ground to a halt. For six months in 2020, Holiday saw no income come in at all. Then, it was a tidal wave of interest. From 2019 to 2021, they saw a 20% increase in guests and a 45% increase in revenue. This means that those amazing guides that roll it out for us are getting better pay. Holiday has plans to update infrastructure and put new in-depth training in place, meaning a better trip for everyone.
This also seems to be the general trend. The outdoor industry itself saw a massive boom in growth during the pandemic. In 2020 alone there were nearly 20% new users in the outdoor space and a 56% growth in paddle sports gear purchases, making it the second most popular behind cycling. Because of this, Holiday suggests if you want to go on a trip, you should be looking at planning about 18 months out.
This boom for the rafting industry has come with some issues to be sure. Many of the new users are predominantly upper to middle-class suburban people, where the decline in usership has been among lower-income and urban folks. The explosion in usership comes with big questions about the management of the masses in oftentimes sensitive ecosystems, or potentially damaging prehistoric cultural sites. This comes with an opportunity to teach more people about the Leave No Trace principles, and how to Visit With Respect. At least where Holiday trips are concerned, we are lucky that use limits have already existed for decades to prepare for just such an occasion. That said, solutions for other less regulated public lands and their surrounding tourist-reliant communities won’t be so cut and dry.
As an avid outdoor appreciator myself, I am both excited and a little wary of this boom in places and activities I love. It is hard to watch campgrounds that were once completely solitary now be highly competitive. And, it is harder to plan trips, both guided and private. But, it is also amazing to see new people exploring the outdoors for both their physical and mental health. As you do so, tune into the surroundings and different tensions that exist…
In this new era, we have an opportunity to learn how to share better – share the land, water, and outdoor recreation resources. We can learn from and help support indigenous communities that live in these desert landscapes. It gives us a chance to reassess how public lands in the West are managed, and what values we want to uphold.
As more people get out into the outdoors – I invite you to consider your own impacts on the region. How can we travel there and not damage the resource? Did we Leave No Trace and Visit With Respect? Thinking bigger and on a community level, which policymakers will protect these lands and honor the original inhabitants of these places? If you connect with a landscape if you love a river or a mountain range, how can you help preserve that place for future generations? If you’re ever unsure, ask your guide! They will help you navigate these complicated issues. It will take all of us answering these questions to ensure a sustainable future for these places we love.