On a fall evening in San Francisco, roughly 1,000 twentysomethings are mingling inside the Folsom Street Foundry, a former industrial warehouse that now houses an event and performance space. Gatherings like this are everyday occurrences in the Bay Area, but tonight the attraction isn’t an IPO party or a meetup for Stanford programmers. This is Outdoor SF, an event put on by a group of small Bay Area outdoor brands. For $15, attendees get a beer, locavore appetizers, and the chance to hang with the founders of new companies like Rumpl (maker of “high-performance blankets”), low-cost sunglasses upstart Sunski, and Hipcamp, which offers an Airbnb-like interface for campsite reservations. Later, a young explorer named Gregg Treinish, who founded the nonprofit Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, will give a slide show about his trips to the Andes and Botswana.
A packed house of kids geeking out over gear—it’s the stuff of dreams for most outdoor brands, which to date have struggled mightily to connect with anyone under the age of 35, despite the fact that the outdoor lifestyle is experiencing a historic moment of trendiness. Adventure couture is hitting high-fashion runways, with labels such as Fendi and Louis Vuitton creating fleece goods that pay homage to classic Patagonia pieces. The lumbersexual look is ascendant in menswear. Last year, youth-minded retailer Urban Outfitters launched an activewear brand called Without Walls. All this, yet young consumers remain decidedly uninterested in traditional adventure brands.
“The window of opportunity is closing to get the attention of millennials”—broadly, those born in the eighties and nineties—“before they move on to the next thing,” says Jeanine Pesce, a fashion consultant who has advised brands including Nike and Patagonia.
The great challenge—and great irony—outdoor brands face is that they’ve spent so many years competing with each other to develop technically superior products that they’ve forgotten how to talk to new audiences. A middle-aged former ski bum might get excited about a $400 sub-nine-ounce waterproof-breathable shell with a single-point-adjustment hood, but the 25-year-old occasional hiker sees an ugly, overpriced jacket.
“Traditional outdoor-product development and marketing has focused on people who want to be at the peak of their sports,” says Scott McGuire, founder of the Mountain Lab, a brand-strategy firm. “That led to huge developments in gear, but things have become so specialized that they’re not welcoming to folks who aren’t hardcore.”
The post-college set in particular is turned off by the go-for-the-summit ethos that defines so many legacy brands. Many of them camp out mostly at festivals like Coachella or Burning Man. As such, they see the outdoors not as a proving ground to be attacked with ice axes and Gore-Tex, but as a playground to be enjoyed with portable sound systems and beer koozies.
The outdoor industry has been wringing its hands over its inability to engage youth for a decade, funding studies to understand the issues and paying consultants to point the way forward. But few brands have actually changed their ways. Instead, a new wave of startups have had tremendous success reaching younger, more metropolitan consumers whose idea of an outdoor adventure is swapping stories around a campfire. Poler, launched in 2011 in Portland, Oregon, and hailed for its vintage aesthetic, bills itself as a company that makes gear “for people that wonder why everyone is trying to pretend they are going to do first ascents on alpine peaks.” Five-year-old San Francisco brand Alite Designs' tagline is Outside Made Simple. Its bestselling products include camp chairs and colorfully printed picnic blankets. You can even rent introductory kits of camping essentials at its San Francisco store. Whereas traditional brands have ambassador teams made up of elite athletes, Alite, founded by Tae Kim, a former equipment-design director at the North Face, promotes the stories of urban professionals who make time for microadventures on a relatable scale.
The startups’ successes (Alite has grown by at least 25 percent each year) are finally pushing the outdoor industry to evolve in ways that focus groups and internal memos never did. REI has recently become a dominant force in the tent market with simpler, inexpensive designs. This spring, Big Agnes introduced a line of tents that have integrated LED lighting. This summer, the North Face partnered with Hipcamp on a series of campouts that featured live music, and in 2016 the megabrand will release a car-camping line that includes a retro A-frame-style tent, superwide sleeping bags, and an oversize cooking shelter. “It’s the party house,” explains product director Andy Coutant, “the center of the community, where everyone is hanging out near the fire.”
As Alite’s Kim sees it, younger generations are set up nicely to engage with the old guard. “It didn’t take much for this market to blossom,” he says. “This group in their twenties and early thirties are so primed to connect with nature.”
Kim also notes that Alite’s customer base is actually quite broad. At his San Francisco store, he sees lots of families looking for advice on outdoor activities. McGuire echoes that sentiment. “So much of this conversation is about millennials, but Gen X and the tail end of the boomers are in the same place,” he says. “We may still want to charge hard sometimes, but at this stage the emotional draw is simply being outside.”
If that’s really the case, the legacy brands may be better positioned for the future than one might think. The nonprofit Outdoor Foundation, which is funded largely by industry companies, is five years into an aggressive effort to connect with younger generations, sponsoring an ongoing series of national youth summits, project grants, and outreach efforts. Interior secretary Sally Jewell has pushed bold initiatives to fund outdoor recreation and education for young people from diverse backgrounds. Meanwhile, the industry still has another decade of selling gear to boomers to help ease the transition. And it may just convert some of those coveted consumers who have developed a thirst for adventure, thanks to the likes of Alite, Hipcamp, and Poler. The optimistic view is that even when the current consumer fetishizing of the lifestyle wanes, it will leave in its wake a large number of young people who have been turned on to spending time outside by posting Instagram shots of their day hikes and watching movies on their iPads in their tents.
“The gateway has opened and we’re at the start,” says Kim, who thinks that people who get interested in the outdoors by a car-camping cookout—or, say, a gear and beer event in a San Francisco warehouse—could become more invested over time. “If you just get people outside having a good time, Mother Nature takes over. They’re hooked for life.”