Is Backpacking a Dying Sport?

Is backpacking a dying sport? That seems to be the question asked by this article over at the Seattle Weekly website. Backpacking was a craze that took off in the United States during the 60’s and 70’s, but seems to have fallen by the wayside in recent years as something people do when they head outdoors. The article sites a study that shows the number of American’s who participate in backpacking is dropping fairly substantially, especially amongst the 16-24 year old age groups, where the sport has traditionally been popular. Other activities, such as trail running, adventure racing, and snowshoeing have all seen steady growth.

What’s the solution? Well, the article quotes Demetri Coupounas, founder of GoLite who is a strong proponent of Fast Packing. It’s the mantra of GoLite in fact. Drop the weight, take the bare necessities, and move fast an light on your hikes.

It’s a shame that backpacking has fallen out of favor to a degree. Many people are missing out on an opportunity to explore the backcountry in the best way possible, but it’s also not for everyone. You need to plan ahead, and think about what you’re doing and where you’re going. You need to carry your gear and food and other equipement, and you have to know how to navigate and surive off the beaten path. The upside of less people taking part in the sport, is that there are fewer people out there when we head into the backcountry, which means more solitude. That always sounds good to me.

Update: (10/6/2006) I urge everyone to read the comments posted on this article by Steve Sergeant. He has made some great points about how the lack of interest in backpacking can cause less resources to be given to our natural resources in general, and a growing sense of apathy amongst people to fight to defend the backcountry. I completely agree with what he has to say, and although my comments above make it sound like I’d prefer fewer people to actually be in the backcountry, I was actually trying offering a little tongue in cheek commentary. Obviously I love the wilderness, and want to see it preserved for all of us to enjoy, future generations included. Steve, who produces the Wildebeat podcast, does a much better job making the argument than I can, so again, be sure to read his comments.

4 thoughts on “Is Backpacking a Dying Sport?”

  1. The downside is that with fewer people visiting the backcountry, fewer people will recognize its value. That means they’ll be less inclined to fight to protect it and preserve it from development.

    Those fewer backcountry visitors are discovering reduced backcountry ranger patrols, which give nefarious people the opportunity to trash these places. It also makes it harder for people in the backcountry to find emergency help.

    The few extreme sports backpackers who are covering ground lighter and faster are discovering that many of the present wilderness areas are barely big enough for their adventures — they can often travel the length and breadth of these areas in a day.

    So I don’t really see any upside to this decline. If backcountry use is down, then the political constituency for protecting it is also down.

  2. I agree with everything you’ve said, and I was mostly being a bit tongue in cheek when I was saying it was nice to have the areas less crowded. For those that really like to get into the backcountry, it’s usually not that crowded anyway.

    A lot of areas are finding reduced funding and staff for the parks in general as it is, and with less traffic into those areas, it’s hard to justify spending more money. The last thing we need is for our favorite wilderness areas to just disappear. I don’t think any of us want that.

    You make some great points, and I appreciate the comments. Thanks for taking the time to reply.

  3. I am surprised at the decline, even questioning the statistics.

    Worldwide backpack hiking must be UP. I was 6 months in South America and outfitters are very optimistic there about increasing numbers.

    In New Zealand and Australia hiking is booming. New hikes are still being added.

    Perhaps this decline in North America is a blip.

    Hiking with a backpack is an ideal fitness pursuit. I will eat my words if the internet does not bring more folks out into the wild in future.

  4. It does seem that hiking and backpacking is still booming on the International level. I have read a number of reports that say New Zealand in particular has become a hotspot for backpacking, and that Patagonia has seen a lot more traffic in recent years as well. Perhaps it is indeed a blip here in the North America, or perhaps many of the people who backpacked here, are now expanding their excursions to explore some of the great hikes in other countries too. I know I for one am planning to visit some of those areas in the future.

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