Patagonia prototype engineer Justin Mills working for the company’s mask-making operation (Photo: Patagonia/Tim Davis)
man wearing face mask stretching yellow fabric

How the Outdoor Industry Responded to Coronavirus

From iconic brands like Patagonia to that indispensable camping store in your hometown, the adventure economy has taken an unprecedented hit. The good news: the people who created these businesses are doers, and they're putting everything they've got into staying afloat and preparing for an uncertain future.

The bathrooms on the factory floor at Outdoor Research are a little different these days: they were redesigned so that you don’t have to open a door to access the stalls. And the lunchroom where employees gathered and shared food from several cultures is now off-limits. These changes weren’t part of a corporate plot to make OR workers miserable. This is life in the age of coronavirus.

Altering an entrance to keep out a pandemic seems like a minor move, but when the virus invades your town, you can’t overlook the little things, including door knobs that might be touched dozens of times per day. This is especially true if you’re a company that wants to stay in business, keep workers employed and safe, and make a tangible contribution to getting people through this unprecedented global catastrophe.

No city in the United States got hit hard earlier than Seattle, home to OR, a highly respected maker of apparel, gloves, and accessories that appeal to serious outdoorspeople. The 39-year-old company was born here and is still based here; among active Pacific Northwesterners, there’s a local-kid-makes-good affection for the brand, a regard that runs both ways.

So when the novel coronavirus began burning through metropolitan Seattle in late February and into March, OR executives asked themselves how they could keep working while giving something back. For years, part of OR’s business has involved making apparel and accessories for the Department of Defense; this is a big reason why it still runs factories in Seattle and near Los Angeles and not just overseas, because the federal government requires such items to be produced domestically. OR restarted its factories and made a leap—without any specific contracts or previous experience—into making protective masks for medical workers and other frontline personnel.

By the time you read this, OR will be turning out more than 100,000 masks every week. Many other outdoor companies have pivoted, to some degree, to manufacturing masks or protective gear, including Michigan sandalmaker Chaco, North Carolina’s Kitsbow Cycling Apparel, and Maine-based L.L.Bean, which rerouted fabric destined for dog-bed liners.

At the start of this year, the $887 billion outdoor industry was a galloping success story, growing faster than the nation’s GDP. It was a huge creator of jobs and tax revenue, and it drove a lot of consumer spending. Then the pandemic happened. Suddenly, a resilient and creative economic sector was slammed by a tsunami that has closed stores, severed supply chains, caused widespread fear, and restricted many of us from doing the activities we rely on for health, joy, and work.

From late April to late May, I spoke with nearly 30 outdoor-industry professionals—including CEOs, consultants, trade analysts, professors, and owners of small retail shops—to piece together how the industry responded to the unfolding pandemic, get a grasp of its ongoing challenges, and attempt to peer into the future.

Not surprisingly, the going has been rough for many businesses, and there’s a lot of confusion and uncertainty about what lies ahead. Pain will be a big part of the equation, obviously, but along with that there’s possibility. If the pandemic has shown us anything positive, it’s the importance people attach to being outside, in whatever way they can. The outdoors, and the industry that both depends on it and supports it, may benefit from a reawakening of that love, sooner rather than later.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It sucks right now,” says Josh Weichhand, Chaco’s managing director for marketing. Chaco was originally a whitewater brand, and as Weichhand points out, in whitewater “there’s no such thing as just not paddling.” If you don’t paddle hard into oncoming trouble, he says, you’ll get thrashed. So you point your bow into the maelstrom and confront the problem. Ideally, you come out the other side stronger and wiser than you were before.

Sewing machine operator Thi Ngoc Pham constructs an Outdoor Research Resolute face mask
Sewing machine operator Thi Ngoc Pham constructs an Outdoor Research Resolute face mask (Photo: Courtesy Outdoor Research)
Resolute masks
Resolute masks (Photo: Courtesy Outdoor Research)

At the start of the new year, 2020 looked like it would be a happy continuation of the boom time that marked 2019. OR was coming off its best year ever. REI had record sales, moving more than $3 billion worth of skis, chalk bags, Clif Bars, and thousands of other products. In a nod to the economic power of the wild, 16 states had offices of outdoor recreation by the end of 2019—a popular move in places that believe wilderness and adventure can serve as engines for conservation and economic growth.

But in January, outdoor companies sensed trouble. The industry has deep ties to China, where much of its gear and apparel are produced, along with the buttons, fabrics, and raw materials that go into making those products. Wuhan, the city of 11 million where the coronavirus outbreak was first reported, in late 2019, is an important cog in this machine. According to Mike Wallenfels, a founder of Mountain Hardwear who also consults with several outdoor brands, the city “is extremely critical to a lot of the outdoor-industry supply chain”—mostly as a transportation hub for a skilled labor force that works elsewhere in China. As the disease spread in January, Chinese officials halted travel throughout the country while many workers were home for Chinese New Year. Factories were shut down and products couldn’t get made.

The outbreak grew and spread and was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11. In the U.S., gyms, stores, and other businesses closed to protect their workers—or were ordered to do so by state and local governments. On March 16, REI closed all 162 of its U.S. retail stores, paying thousands of workers for a month and then furloughing them as the crisis deepened. It also laid off about a quarter of its corporate staff and shaved the salaries of many who remained. On March 13, Patagonia closed its website to online shoppers for more than three weeks as the company tried to figure out how to keep employees safe at warehouses and distribution centers. It, too, would temporarily shutter stores and furlough employees. On May 1, Dakine Equipment, a prominent apparel and gear maker, announced that it would close its headquarters in Hood River, Oregon, laying off nearly 40 people as it consolidated operations in Southern California.

If the pandemic has shown us anything positive, it’s the importance people attach to being outside, in whatever way they can. The outdoors, and the industry that both depends on it and supports it, may benefit from a reawakening of that love, sooner rather than later.

Outdoor Retailer, the industry’s most important trade show, held twice yearly in Denver, was canceled on April 2. Later that month, a survey by the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable, a coalition of trade associations, found that nearly 80 percent of member retailers and brands had laid off or furloughed workers. Even more of them reported sharply declining sales and revenues in free fall, with drops of 50 to 75 percent or more. Jessica Wahl, the group’s executive director, called the numbers jaw dropping.

For retailers, spring was a particularly bad time for this to happen. Consider the example of Angler’s Covey, a large, successful fly shop in Colorado Springs. Late every winter and into spring, boxes start landing on the doorstep of owners David and Becky Leinweber—more than $100,000 worth of rods, reels, flies, sunglasses, and other items, some of which were ordered as far back as the previous summer. Spring is always a little scary, David says, because the arrival of new inventory means the arrival of new bills while they’re still trying to sell off old stock. He and Becky hope they can sell the gear promptly. “And every year it works,” he says. Strong warm-weather sales insulate the store against the much slower winter months.

The pandemic upended all this. Starting on March 26, Colorado governor Jared Polis ordered nonessential businesses like Angler’s Covey to close—the start of a lockdown that lasted nearly five weeks, followed by a safer- at-home order. The store’s staff of 16 people was immediately laid off. Nearly one-third of the Leinwebers’ business involves guided fishing trips, and most clients canceled summer reservations. Meanwhile, the couple could only watch with frustration as big-box stores like Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops stayed open; they qualified as essential because they sold guns.

When the Leinwebers and I spoke in early May, the business was still going as a family affair. Becky spent her days helping workers navigate unemployment insurance. David pursued federal small-business relief, and dealing with the bank was so confusing that it became a full-time job. (After various travails, Angler’s Covey got a Paycheck Protection Program loan in mid-April, for $82,000, and an emergency disaster advance of $10,000.) Their daughter fulfilled online orders for curbside pickup.

But Angler’s Covey wasn’t doing nearly the same amount of business, and selling fly rods online is not what makes the store stand out. “Our philosophy always has been to pay attention to the customer coming through the door,” David says. A successful fly shop, like any good outdoor store, is as much about mood and personal relationships as it is about product. Employees can discuss the latest conditions on the Arkansas and South Platte Rivers, and the right flies to use for the hatch.

In short, Angler’s Covey sells the stoke of fishing—and if you get that part right, the rods almost sell themselves. “As soon as we pay attention to the computer monitor, we lose that,” David says.

OR executive Jason Duncan
OR executive Jason Duncan (Photo: Courtesy Outdoor Research)
Based in Seattle since 1981, OR has been at its current headquarters in the SoDo neighborhood since 1995.
Based in Seattle since 1981, OR has been at its current headquarters in the SoDo neighborhood since 1995. (Photo: Courtesy Outdoor Research)

Like Angler’s Covey, Outdoor Research saw its world upended almost overnight, and the company responded by tacking aggressively into the heavy seas. I wanted to see what that process looked like, and hear what lessons it held.

It was a blustery morning when I arrived from my home in eastern Washington and drove through the ghostly streets of Seattle. OR occupies the same spot it has for decades, a scuffed, white, seven-story building that sits beside railroad tracks in the industrial SoDo neighborhood, the bottom floor ringed by loading bays. A modest OR retail store facing the street was closed. An overly optimistic sign read: Open May 8.

I was met at the door by Jason Duncan, an executive at the company. He sprayed my hands with sanitizer made by a distillery down the street. He took my temperature. He asked questions about my health and possible exposure—in English, which is one of at least nine languages spoken at OR, including Cantonese and Spanish.

He sprayed my hands again and asked if I needed a new mask. Then we went upstairs, where he pointed out the increased spacing between workers and explained that they now eat lunch in small waves at their stations. OR employees were discouraged from using public transit, so the company had teamed up with Starbucks—whose corporate headquarters is nearby—to use its shuttles.

As Duncan and I talked, a woman approached in a mask and sprayed our hands again. This is done hourly, Duncan said, because it’s important for employees to feel safe. “We have this great quote that we often use here, that factories run on emotion, not electricity.”

When I visited, 110 people were at work on two floors, cutting and sewing. The factory shuts down for a week to mark Chinese New Year, which in 2020 fell on January 25. Employees returned from their break with stories shared by friends and relatives back in China about how bad COVID-19 was getting. By early February, OR executives began meeting daily to talk about the disease’s growing threat, discussing what they should do to ensure worker safety in the company’s two U.S. factories—the one in Seattle and a new one in El Monte, near L.A. By the end of February, OR had stopped all business travel, including trips to South Korea, home of the company’s majority owner, Youngone Corporation.

“We stopped things really early,” Duncan said. “And we all felt like, Wow, are we being paranoid? Are we being overly protective?”

By the end of the first week of March, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases had topped 100 in Washington, and the Seattle area had become the country’s first epicenter. Some of the area’s largest companies began to urge employees to work from home. Schools closed, then libraries. By the end of the month, Governor Jay Inslee had issued a statewide stay-at-home order, closing all nonessential businesses.

On March 12, OR closed its Seattle office and factory for two weeks and paid its staff and workers to stay home. It also closed its El Monte factory for a month. Meanwhile, nationwide it was becoming frighteningly apparent how little personal protective equipment—the masks, gowns, and face shields used by doctors and nurses—was readily available. Poor emergency planning for a pandemic, coupled with years of reliance on China and other countries for imports of such gear, left people begging for protection.

With these issues in mind, OR execs asked themselves: What can we do to help the community? Making PPE seemed like an obvious choice. “We’re getting our asses kicked by this virus,” Duncan recalled thinking. “And we have an ability to sew and make masks. And we have textile and engineering knowledge in-house.”

Duncan and I stepped into a yawning freight elevator spray-painted with yellow dots, six feet apart, to remind workers to keep their distance. In normal times, he said, entering an entirely new area of manufacturing “would have been a six-month decision.” But the PPE shift took about 48 hours. “We saw a need, and we jumped into the pool without doing the business case,” Duncan said.

We stepped out onto a clattering factory floor. In front of us, men cut patterns. On another floor, numerous women sat spaced apart, operating sewing machines. What I saw being made was OR’s Resolute cloth mask, used by the Department of Defense. The sophisticated design features an interchangeable filter cartridge; the company had made around 300,000 already.

OR was better positioned to reboot than many outdoor companies, in part because of its experience supplying the military. Figuring out how to run a factory floor during a pandemic was another matter. By nature, such places aren’t conducive to social distancing, and many of OR’s longtime garment-makers are in their fifties and sixties, rendering them more vulnerable to COVID-19. How do you keep everybody safe?

Not easily, as it turns out. When the Seattle factory closed in March, managers put together a safety protocol for how workers would move throughout the day. Then a group of managers donned masks and did a test run while Duncan filmed it. “We broke about three or four of the protocols right off the bat,” he said. They kept working on it, and results have been good: as of early June, Duncan said, there had been no recorded cases of COVID-19 among employees.

Prototypes of the Resolute mask
Prototypes of the Resolute mask (Photo: Courtesy Outdoor Research)
Sewing machine operator Vannak Sok
Sewing machine operator Vannak Sok (Photo: Courtesy Outdoor Research)

Many companies haven’t shifted to PPE as aggressively as OR. Big Agnes, which makes tents and other gear, has donated thousands of reusable cotton gowns and masks to its local community in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, but that was a goodwill gesture. On the business front, the main strategy has been energetic optimism in the face of hard times. The pandemic shut down stores just as the company’s main selling season was gaining steam, when people choose tents for summer adventures.

“I’ll be straight up, we got our asses handed to us in April,” says company cofounder Bill Gamber. “People shut down. There was not a whole lot of shopping.” Business started to come back online in mid-May, and by June, stores that sell Gamber’s products were starting to open. The upshot is that his company’s main selling season has shrunk from seven months to perhaps four. “I think July and August will be really busy camping seasons,” he says.

I asked Gambler to describe how planning for future seasons works at such an uncertain time. He said that the economic impact has been intense, but added: “We are really stubborn and going for it, because we have such cool products.”

Now, Gamber says, imagine this kind of retrenching at hundreds of companies, large and small, across the entire outdoor world. “I think that factories in the industry are going to go out of business, along with fabric suppliers,” he says. “There’s no doubt it is going to change the way we do business.”

Industry Nine, an Asheville, North Carolina, maker of high-end bicycle wheels, hubs, and components, also attempted a shift. It tried to win contracts to put its nearly 100 computerized metal-cutting machines to work making components for ventilators, but according to company owner Clint Spiegel, nothing came of it and business dipped by 30 percent in March.

Then something curious happened: cycling experienced a boomlet. Bike sales in the U.S. were up double digits this spring over 2019. For Industry Nine, half of whose business is in aftermarket products, there has still been work and no layoffs. “Overall for the year it’s down about 20 percent,” Spiegel said. “It’s survivable.”

As a more immediate fix, several shop owners and brands like Big Agnes and Industry Nine applied for and received federal relief money. Another who benefited from federal cash was Brendan Madigan, owner of Alpenglow Sports in Tahoe City, California, which got a little under $100,000 to cover rent, utilities, payroll, and mortgage interest. Madigan was grateful for the help, but as he told me in an e-mail: “It’s only a Band-Aid that runs out after mid-June.” Not every company applied for the money, such as Patagonia.

On the subject of government responses in general, several business owners praised their state governors, including Colorado’s Jared Polis and California’s Gavin Newsom, for taking forceful action to protect the health of their citizens. There was often disappointment and frustration with the federal response, and a sense that the mixed messages coming out of Washington, which ran counter to the states at times, created confusion. “The country is closed for this, open for that,” says Gamber. “What, really, does stay at home even mean?”

“I think Governor Newsom has been light-years ahead of Trump in terms of communication and a clear reopening strategy, although even that could be rolled out better,” Madigan told me. “As it stands, now you have counties fighting the governor, which is a recipe for trouble.”

Big Agnes masks
Big Agnes masks (Photo: Courtesy Big Agnes)
Sewing at Chaco
Sewing at Chaco (Photo: Courtesy Chaco)

At OR, Duncan and I stepped out of the elevator downstairs into a former warehouse space that had been repainted the blinding white of a laboratory. Six new industrial-grade machines used in the manufacturing of masks and respirators will be placed here. OR is investing millions in the machines and all that was required to get them up and running—new gas lines, test equipment, federal product certification, and 135 new employees to run things, keep the place clean, and package the masks. It now had contracts to supply its Resolute masks to the Defense Department and medical masks to the State of Washington. Starting in June, the company also planned to sell face masks—made elsewhere—to the general public.

The pandemic had fostered an all-hands-on-deck atmosphere, Duncan said. “We have a lot of people here today who are doing different jobs than last week, or last month, or last year. You might have three college degrees, but today you’re the ‘ear loop’ person.” OR’s past experiences and existing skill sets have been a good fit for the current moment, he said. “You work for the U.S. government, particularly the military—they want it yesterday, and they want hundreds of thousands.” Also, at a time when so many of us feel boxed in and helpless, the mission has given staff a welcome sense of purpose. “Seldom do altruism, national security, community, and corporate needs ever align,” he said. “This is one of those instances.”

OR isn’t the only outdoor company trying to give something back while staying in business. Hoka One One pledged to donate 5,000 pairs of shoes to health care professionals. Specialized gave 500 bikes to essential workers and created a matching program for the public to buy them more. Goggles for Docs has gathered more than 40,000 pairs of ski eyewear for medical workers, collected from both the public and manufacturers.

Nor has OR been alone in executing a shift to protective gear. Simms Fishing Products, which makes waders at its 80,000-square-foot factory in Bozeman, Montana, is producing reusable hospital gowns. Yeti Cycles has distributed 20,000 face shields and 24,000 masks.

Such companies have been motivated by more than compassion. For one thing, making protective gear allowed outfits like OR to qualify as an essential business, which let the company keep their doors open and keep people employed at a time when retail sales were struggling.

Figuring out how to run a factory floor during a pandemic was another matter. By nature, such places aren’t conducive to social distancing, and many of OR’s longtime garment-makers are in their fifties and sixties, rendering them more vulnerable to COVID-19. How do you keep everybody safe?

“I’m not going to sit here and say to anybody that this is an altruistic endeavor,” says James Morin, who until recently was a co-owner of Flowfold, a Maine-based manufacturer of travel products. “We were dealt a hand; we had to figure out how to adapt.” Flowfold has contracted with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to produce 500,000 face shields, among other big shield orders.

Forloh, a startup based in Whitefish, Montana, was set to launch a web business and brick-and-mortar store on April 1, selling high-end hunting apparel with materials created and stitched in the U.S. When it became obvious that chaos was looming, Forloh’s execs started exploring the idea of making medical gowns in conjunction with Merrow Manufacturing, the Fall River, Massachusetts, mill that was engaged to produce its clothing. The two companies spun off a joint venture called Merrow-Forloh Medical and bought up more than five million yards of fabric. Charlie Merrow, Merrow’s CEO, says the startup “is now the largest manufacturer of medical isolation gowns in the U.S. We’re making millions of them.”

As for the hunting brand, executives plan to launch it on July 1.

When I asked companies how long they envisioned being in the protective-gear business, some saw it mainly as a way to achieve temporary stability. Not OR’s Duncan. “We’re in the made-in-the-USA, medical-PPE business for the long-term,” he said. You don’t have to traffic in conspiracy theories, he said, to conclude that the pandemic has exposed our nation’s overreliance on other countries for some important items.

“Where do you want your personal protective equipment to come from?” he said. “We hope that people want a USA option. Maybe not forever. Maybe not everything. But certainly for the products we make in downtown Seattle and Los Angeles.”

Chris Golz, the sustainability, safety, and facilities supervisor at Simms, shows off a reusable medical gown
Chris Golz, the sustainability, safety, and facilities supervisor at Simms, shows off a reusable medical gown (Photo: John Frazier/Simms Fishing)
Yeti Cycles co-owner Steve Hoogendoorn wearing a face shield produced at the company’s headquarters in Golden, Colorado
Yeti Cycles co-owner Steve Hoogendoorn wearing a face shield produced at the company’s headquarters in Golden, Colorado (Photo: Josh Conroy/Yeti Cycles)

There’s little doubt that the next six to twenty-four months will see convulsive change in the outdoor industry. “It certainly seems like there’s going to be a reckoning,” says Michelle Wardian, OR’s president. The healthy companies—and the larger companies—will survive this, observers predict, but even they are hurting.

“We’ve had to do practical things, such as reduce the size of our line for spring and fall 2021,” says Rose Marcario, Patagonia’s former president and CEO, who stepped down in June. “We’ve paused some new store openings. We’re reevaluating our marketing campaigns. The hardest thing for me, honestly, is that we’re not able to give as much money to our grantees this year, which is part of our normal process of giving to grassroots activism.”

Other parts of the industry could see complete upheaval.

“Trade shows are probably going the way of the dodo,” says Casey Sheahan, CEO of Simms Fishing Products and a longtime outdoor-industry veteran. “Why do we need to go shake hands with a bunch of people when we can create a product digitally, we can show it digitally, and we don’t even need to be in the same room with other people to sell it?”

Joshua Williams, an assistant professor of fashion management at New York’s Parsons School of Design and the president of Fashion Consort, a consulting agency, wonders what will happen to many smaller, promising young companies that have “a limited runway in order to truly launch.” They have no incoming cash and are about to miss a season or two of selling. Can they survive until next winter?

If they can’t, Williams says, “I actually think that some of what we’re going to see in the next three to four months, depending on how things unfreeze, is a lot of mergers and acquisitions” as larger companies snap up smaller brands that are failing. “But then the question is: Does anyone have any money to acquire?”

Another focus of concern is the small retailers—like Angler’s Covey—that are a crucial part of the outdoor world. For them, the pandemic will hasten retail trends that began long ago, including consolidation and the growth of online shopping, neither of which have played to the strengths of small specialty stores.

“The shift to digital, both in commerce and in information, is now going to be complete,” Sheahan says. “It’s going to be much more significant than it was at the front end of this crisis. This will be a cataclysmic shift over time.” One person I spoke with called the pandemic forced modernization—because everyone will have to find new ways forward, whatever that looks like.

As disease swept the country in the spring and shops closed, some outdoor brands extended a helping hand to the stores that sell their products. EcoVessel, which makes reusable bottles and mugs in Boulder, Colorado, was one of many that set up a revenue-sharing program with its retailers, which receive 30 percent of the sale when an EcoVessel product is purchased on its website.

Lowe Alpine and Rab have told shops that they will accept returns in September of up to half of unsold spring and summer merchandise, giving credit toward fall and winter orders. Those companies and others have also delayed due dates for payments. “If we can come out of this with stronger retailers, we’re all going to be stronger in ’21,” says Jon Frederick, the U.S. manager for Lowe Alpine and Rab.

“It’s goodwill,” says Mike Wallenfels. “But it’s likely not going to be enough dollars to keep the retailer as healthy as they need to be.”

Kitsbow is manufacturing face shields authorized by the FDA, as well as sewing face masks for front line workers and the general public.
Kitsbow is manufacturing face shields authorized by the FDA, as well as sewing face masks for front line workers and the general public. (Photo: Courtesy Kitsbow)
The joint venture between hunting and fishing brand Forloh and seasoned manufacturer Merrow has become the largest producer of American-made PPE in the country.
The joint venture between hunting and fishing brand Forloh and seasoned manufacturer Merrow has become the largest producer of American-made PPE in the country. (Photo: Courtesy Forloh)

How long this sense of shared purpose persists may be in direct proportion to how long the coronavirus lingers. Last spring, some outdoor brands panicked and started selling their products on company websites and e-tail sites at a dramatic discount, well below the minimum advertised pricing policy, known as MAP. Brands use MAP as a floor—they try hard to prevent their products from being sold beneath it. When they do, it starts a race to the bottom that can undercut brick-and-mortar stores.

But as the pandemic drags on into summer and cash-strapped companies sit on a glut of warm-season inventory in their warehouses, the temptation to do this more often will grow.

Perhaps the hardest thing for everyone, whether they’re a brand, a retailer, or an outdoor enthusiast, has been the uncertainty. How long before stores open in a big way? What will that look like? One example comes from REI, which has begun reopening around the country in phases, depending on local conditions. But will customers come back with money to spend?

Wallenfels suspects that many people won’t trust that the public shopping experience is safe yet. Others won’t be able to afford it. “They might not actually have the disposable income anymore because of job loss or job reduction,” he says.

Adding to this uncertainty is the range of consumer behavior shops are experiencing. When I touched base with Angler’s Covey in mid-May, co-owner David Leinweber was shocked: sales were up 40 percent over last May. “We sold 1,000 flies on the first day we opened,” he said, thanks to pent-up demand. Would it last? He wasn’t sure. Those canceled reservations for guiding fishing trips hadn’t returned at all.

So many questions remain. What if the infection charts resemble a roller coaster—rising, falling, and rising, keeping everyone on edge? What if shutdowns recur throughout the summer? What if infections spike again in the fall?

Roger Barton, a top executive at OR, worries that a situation like that could wreck confidence. “If you go through two of these in short succession, now you’re really talking about something that’s going to fundamentally change the economic situation.”

“My job is to try to tell the future,” says Jesse Thomas, CEO and cofounder of Picky Bars, an Oregon company that makes endurance food for athletes. “It’s already a hard job. And this makes it really hard. I redraft my financial models for the next six to twelve months every week or two.”

Amid the carnage, there have been some unexpected bright spots. Uncharted Supply Co., which sells packaged arrays of emergency gear, has seen such a surge in demand that it ran out of some products and was taking advance orders. Laird Superfood, which sells natural nutrition products, saw “a major, major increase in product demand,” says Paul Hodge, who cofounded the company with Laird Hamilton. The company’s top-three sellers online have been mushroom-based products that some believe boost immunity. Makers of bikes, water purifiers, car awnings, and campfire equipment all saw big upticks in sales as the pandemic hit—a reflection of a desire to be alone together outside.

Meanwhile, to the extent that they can, customers have rallied to help the businesses they love. When Alpenglow Sports closed its doors in March, owner Brendan Madigan used social media to put out a call for help. “In a nutshell, we said, Hey, the shop has been here for the community for more than 40 years,” he says. “We raise a lot of money for the community, and we need your help. We’ve never asked. And we wouldn’t ask if things weren’t tough.”

Customers bought $100,000 in gift cards in the next month, essentially providing an interest-free bridge loan. “It was one of the most beautiful acts of humanity I’ll ever experience,” Madigan says.

Is there any light on the horizon? Lise Aangeenbrug, executive director of the Outdoor Industry Association, the trade group for the human-powered-recreation business, thinks so.

The pandemic has caused many people to discover, or rediscover, how much they cherish being outdoors, she says, pointing to an April survey of U.S. consumer sentiment done by McKinsey and Company. It found that people are strongly motivated to continue with new habits they developed to pass time during the pandemic, including outdoor recreation. “We believe that our outdoor economy can help drive the economic recovery, and the health, spiritual, and wellness recovery of America,” she says.

Her group and others have been lobbying Congress to pass a half-dozen ambitious proposals. One was to permanently underwrite the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which historically used a portion of lease sales from offshore energy drilling to help pay for parks and recreation. (This was accomplished in June with passage of the Great American Outdoors Act.) Another is to create a revitalized Civilian Conservation Corps, modeled on Roosevelt’s Depression-era CCC, which can tackle projects of all kinds on public lands. “We know from surveys that the 18-to-24 age group is going to experience the highest level of unemployment,” Aangeenbrug says. “We have to not give up on the future.”

So many questions remain. What if the infection charts resemble a roller coaster—rising, falling, and rising, keeping everyone on edge? What if shutdowns recur throughout the summer? What if infections spike again in the fall?

I found similar optimism in many places. Fly-shop owner David Leinweber doubts that destination air travel will return anytime soon, even as he expects regional travel and staycations to increase. He plans to do more marketing to states that are within a day’s drive of his shop. The retailers that survive, he thinks, will be ones that can give people the things they can’t get online, which includes serving as “a travel agent to their own backyard.”

The unprecedented challenge of the moment seemed to energize several people I spoke to, including Davis Smith, founder of gearmaker Cotopaxi. Dire circumstances force you to become innovative, a skill that can grow dull during the day-to-day running of a business, Smith says. When the pandemic struck, Cotopaxi, which felt the slowdown, let Uncharted Supply Co., which was seeing a sales boom in survival packs, use its warehouse space. That put some Cotopaxi employees to work. Afterward the two started talking about collaborating on a product—a Cotopaxi travel bag containing everything you need if your trip goes south.

“There’s a part of you that’s awakened,” Smith says. “I hate to use the word fun during this crisis, but problem-solving, and looking for creative solutions to things that we couldn’t have done before, is very fulfilling and satisfying.”

Joe Vernachio, president of Mountain Hardwear, told me that he likes to tell his staff, “We are not surviving. We are preparing.” There are hard times ahead, for his company and others, and recovery will take years to play out, Vernachio says. The world is going to change in ways we don’t yet understand.

“But I believe that if you are observant, and you pay attention,” he adds, “and you don’t have strong paradigms, and you are willing to accept what you see, there is going to be big opportunity out there.”

Lead Photo: Patagonia/Tim Davis

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