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(Photo: Stan Dzugan/Getty)
Outside Business Journal

The Outdoor Industry’s Annual Report Card Is Out. Things Are Looking Good.

The outdoor industry’s growth last year was more than three times higher than that of the broader U.S. economy

Rocky coastline at sunset

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On November 9, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis released its annual outdoor industry impact report for 2021, which calculates exactly how much of our nation’s gross domestic product comes from outdoor recreation. (For clarity, “outdoor recreation” is defined rather broadly in the report, including “conventional activities” such as bicycling, boating, and hiking; “other activities” such as gardening and outdoor concerts; and “supporting activities” like travel and tourism.) The findings paint an optimistic picture for the future of our industry—with a few caveats.

The good news: last year, outdoor recreation and related businesses contributed a staggering $862 billion to the U.S. economy. To put it in context, that’s more than the dollar amount generated by the entire American mining industry, and more than double the economic contribution of the nation’s agriculture sector. Outdoor recreation also created 4.5 million jobs in the process.

But perhaps the most encouraging takeaway from the study is the growth those numbers represent. The report showed an industry worth $173 billion more than it was in 2020. That’s an 18.9 percent increase year over year. Compare that to the nation’s overall economic growth—just 5.9 percent in the same period—and you’ve got a picture of an economic powerhouse that has completely bounced back from its 2020 dip.

Breaking Down the Numbers

The report showed growth across all 50 states, though outdoor recreation has taken off in some more than others. The West and Southwest were bright spots, with Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico, Alaska, and Arizona all seeing 17 to 18 percent growth. Hawaii topped the rest of the country with 23 percent growth, likely due to the rebound of tourism after pandemic travel restrictions were lifted. As for the East, strong gains showed up in South Carolina, Illinois, Indiana, Vermont, and Rhode Island.

The biggest caveat: while participation has been growing across most categories of recreation, not all traditional outdoor brands saw cash raining from the sky. Human-powered recreation, after all, is relatively inexpensive to pursue. Motorized recreation, with its far pricier toys, is where the real money remains.

Among core outdoor recreation categories, the boating and fishing sector was the largest economic contributor in 2021, followed by RVing, then hunting and trapping. “Climbing, hiking, and camping” came in fourth, adding about $4.4 billion to the economy. Snow sports were close behind. This order has been roughly the same since 2017.

All of this rosy economic data mirrors trends in participation. According to the Outdoor Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting outdoor access in the U.S., the number of outdoor participants has increased 26 percent since the onset of the pandemic in March of 2020. Recreationists over the age of 65, Latino participants, women, and casual participants who spend fewer than 51 days outdoors per year were among the fastest-growing demographics in 2021. The result is a wider and more diverse user base, though also a slightly less engaged one. According to the Outdoor Foundation, the industry’s overall share of serious users—or those who notch more than 51 outings per year—is shrinking.

All of this indicates that the outdoor economy only continues to gain strength, though rising inflation and the looming potential of a recession might change the picture dramatically in the coming years. For now, though, the data indicate things are headed in a good direction.

Lead Photo: Stan Dzugan/Getty