With COVID Boom Fading, REI Is Targeting Younger, More Diverse Customers Through ‘Fauxverlanding’ Vertical
Vehicle-supported adventuring—sometimes called "fauxverlanding" or "overlanding light"—is introducing a new cohort of consumers to the outdoors
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While the pandemic-driven spike in outdoor gear purchases is leveling off, or even reversing in some markets, adventure car camping is still seeing double-digit growth and fueling REI’s move into that market with new products and outreach, REI senior camp category manager Melissa Paul told OBJ.
“We’re seeing younger, more diverse customers getting into vehicle-supported adventuring,” Paul said. “We’ve been watching it for the past ten years along with the increased growth in overlanding, but in the last two years we’ve really started to innovate our own products and bring in other brand products based on what our customers are telling us.”
REI officially calls this trend “vehicle-supported adventuring (VSA)” to differentiate it from traditional car camping (setting up and staying in one spot), “van-life” and overlanding. In some circles, VSA is called—with amusement, derision, or both—“fauxverlanding,” “soft-roading,” or “overlanding light.”
It’s a hobby particularly suited to a shifting demographic of campers in the U.S. According to the 2022 KOA North American Camping Report, 44 percent of America’s 93.8 million households that consider themselves “campers” are from urban areas, and plan on replacing a leisure trip with a camping trip in 2022. In 2021, 54 percent of new campers identified as coming from racial groups other than white.
“We’re seeing a lot of young, diverse people who are new to outdoor recreation entering through vehicle-supported adventuring,” Paul said. “We’re understanding that vehicles can be an integral part of camping experiences and getting more people outside. It allows everyone to get out and explore the outdoors while still having a lot of fun comforts.”
Paul said customers are attracted to VSA for its convenience—offering the ability to drive to remote areas with gear for multiple activities, and to quickly pack up and move to another location during the same trip. By outfitting a vehicle they already own as comfortably as possible, VSAers avoid the cost of trailers and RVs or the dedication of van conversions.
“It allows people who have been experiencing the outdoors for a while to take lots of gear, do lots of things and visit lots of places during one trip,” Paul said. “And it’s also a great way to get people to experience the outdoors who might not otherwise get out there. I’ve had some really cool conversations with people who never really considered REI because they didn’t consider themselves outdoor athletes, but they find vehicle assisted adventure and that gets them looking at doing things in the outdoors and realizing they can do it, that there’s something for everyone when getting outside.”
REI’s Push into Vehicle-Supported Adventuring
To support the strategy from a product perspective, REI recently launched new vehicle-specific camping gear including its Trailgate Vehicle Shelter and Trailgate Vehicle Sleeping Platform. Paul said the period between 2019 and 2022 saw a 45 percent increase in vehicle-supported adventure gear sales at REI. The 14 percent year-over-year sales increase from 2021 to 2022 has been particularly encouraging, given the decline in other categories as the pandemic-driven sales frenzy cools. VSA gear like Thule rooftop tents and Dometic powered coolers have been selling well for REI, Paul said.
“The pandemic changed everybody’s behavior as far as how we recreate,” said Paul. “During the pandemic, getting outside was the only choice for most people, so we saw that increase. The whole industry now is going through a right-sizing correction as people who found outdoor recreation during the pandemic are going back to also traveling or eating out, but vehicle-assisted camping is still up double digits.”
To help promote REI’s entry into the vehicle camping market, REI employee and social media content producer Miranda Webster of Miranda in the Wild is currently driving coast to coast in a Subaru Forester Wilderness Edition while stopping at REI stores and producing videos detailing her experiences with vehicle-supported adventuring on her Instagram page. The campaign is also meant to promote responsible camping practices, according to REI.
“As we enter this market, we understand it’s our responsibility to also make sure new customers have a base of leave no trace—how to leave a spot better than they found it,” Paul said.
To further its push into the VSA vertical, REI is also promoting a partnership with Hipcamp to offer member-discounted destinations for vehicle-supported adventuring. The co-op’s related ad campaign is the #SaveASpot Sweepstakes, a summer-long offering that will award ten winners immersive outdoor experiences on private farms and outdoor resorts in Washington, California, Colorado, Vermont, and New York. Winners will be outfitted with REI gear and introduced to vehicle-based camping.
“There’s an awesome community of people who are doing this,” said Paul—who herself VSA camped in Baja, Mexico, for the full month of October 2021 while working. “About half of our vehicle-supported adventure customers are existing customers, and half are new. It’s introducing a lot of young people to the outdoors. We can help them enjoy the outdoors responsibly.”