This past weekend I worked at an outdoor show catering to the “general outdoor enthusiast”. The kind of person who engages in a variety of outdoor pursuits. Usually this type of person is engaged in some activity throughout the year. This would include activities like camping and hiking, fishing and hunting, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, and similar “traditional” outdoor sports. I noticed something about both the crowd and the vendors. This group of people seems to be increasing in age with very few younger participants to follow in their footsteps.

Stock Photos from Pixabay

One might get an impression from popular culture markers like “#vanlife” or the younger people who appear in advertisements for RV companies that the general outdoor enthusiast is a Millennial rather than a Boomer but this does not seem to be the case. I’ve watched the population at these shows continue to age without seeing an accompanying rise in younger individuals. Sometimes I’m surprised at seeing some entire families or young couples attend these shows but mostly I’ve watched the attendees and vendors age.

There could be many factors that play into this shift. Certainly, there has been a shift in emphasis in groups such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts away from outdoor recreation, with some exceptions. The Outdoor Industry Association’s Forecasting Report for 2020 lists several potential reasons for an aging outdoor enthusiast population. Factors such as Urban Migration (The U.S. Census Bureau projects the urban population to account for 82.5 percent of the total U.S. population by 2020.) and the Obesity (If the obesity trend continues on its current trajectory, 42 percent of the U.S. population will be obese by 2020.) are cited as possible limitations to accessing the outdoors. But it could be just as simple as parents not passing on the love of the outdoors to the next generation.

In 2005, author Richard Louv published Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder in an attempt to raise awareness of the loss of direct contact with the natural world among children. This book appears to be the impetus of the “No Child Left Inside” movement, which seeks to incorporate environmental education and awareness with outdoor organizations (Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, National Audubon Society, etc). And yet, it only seems to be helping within small groups scattered across the U.S.A. rather than becoming a significant movement.

I’m not sure I have a solution to this problem I have identified. Perhaps it is only a problem in my mind. As a child, I was allowed to wander the woods for hours. My “backyard woods” included hundreds of acres that were safely bounded on all four sides by hard markers I knew not to cross (roads, waterways, etc). It seems (anecdotally) that if parents today allowed a child to have the freedom to explore and learn in the woods like I did, someone would accuse them of child abuse. My parents taught me how to be safe in the woods as well as how to camp, hunt, and fish. I actively sought more “woodsy education” as an adult and have really never stopped. If the aging generalist outdoor enthusiasts do not pass along their knowledge to the next generation, it will be lost. And that will be a tragedy beyond measure.

A Camp in the Adirondack Mountains, NY by Seneca Ray Stoddard