Industry experts say Americans are turning more to outdoor sports — like backpacking, camping, and rock climbing — to make up for more expensive kinds of recreation during the recession.
Going camping over Labor Day weekend? If you're trying out a new tent or fishing rod, you're part of a retail trend. While people have cut back their spending in many areas during the recession, outdoor gear sales are going strong.
Wilderness Exchange Unlimited is an outdoor gear store in Denver, and its owner, Don Bushey, knows the market well. Plus, he's not just a businessman — he's also an avid climber.
"Climbing's a very good metaphor for running a business. It's taking calculated risks," Bushey says.
Last year he took a big risk by moving the store to a larger space.
"On the outside, if you look at it, it's kind of insane. We decided to increase our expenses to almost twice what they were in our old space, during the heart of the recession. We moved in ... [the] middle to the end of '09. But it was the right decision at the right time. We're up in sales as a business," he says.
And that's pretty much the story for outdoor gear overall. The industry says its sales dipped only 2 percent last year and are up more than 8 percent this year, topping overall retail sales.
People who bike, hike and kayak are often from higher income brackets. But the president of the Outdoor Industry Association, Frank Hugelmeyer, says the recession also seems to have more people wanting to get away from it all.
"People go back to outdoor activities, they go to close-to-home recreation, they go to affordable family vacations, and that's our industry," he says.
Hugelmeyer says changing attitudes are also helping sales. People look at outdoor recreation as more of a lifestyle these days. That means instead of just sticking to rock climbing or kayaking, people are trying a lot of different sports.
"Once introduced to the active outdoor lifestyle, you will try anywhere from four to six activities as a participant. And you'll [home in] on three to four and do those fairly regularly," he says.
All those activities can add up to a garage full of gear. Finding the people buying this stuff is easy, at least in Colorado. Just drop by any campground.
Ann Taylor and her friends were recently exploring the Mount Evans Wilderness outside Denver. It was their fifth camping trip of the summer. And they've come well-supplied: tent, hiking boots, camp kitchen. Taylor says she shops sales and discount websites as much as possible to stock up for camping and backpacking. But she admits not all her purchases are purely practical.
"I mean, there's always like, 'Ooh, that's so much lighter and smaller! And that just looks cool.' So sometimes — I mean, we definitely have more than one tent. So, you know, sometimes if something cool comes up," they buy it, Taylor says.
Even accounting for a few impulse purchases, Taylor's friend Joe Kuechenmeister says loading up on equipment pays off in the long term.
"Once you get that down, it's not very expensive to come out here; obviously you just have a little food and, you know, a little gas to drive out. So it actually is a lot cheaper than if we would like stay in the city and go out to ... dinner, or a bar, or anything," he says.