The changing face of camping: record numbers of minorities hit the trails

Camping participation has been increasing over the last 5 years as its base gets more diverse


Teshale Nuer, a 25-year-old Latina behavioral therapist based in New York City, recently headed into the great outdoors for the first time, joining a group of predominantly white friends in tents in Maryland. For Nuer, who was initially resistant to joining, it was one of the most foreign experiences in recent memory.

“Growing up as a person of color, camping just never seemed like an option,” Nuer said. “There was a lot of etiquette I didn’t know about. I grew up in the suburbs where people did go camping, but not people who looked like me.”

Camping has been traditionally associated with white Americans — national parks were once segregated and even recently advocates of outdoor leisure activities have asked why America’s national parks are so white. Nuer said there are a number of underlying implications for nonwhite Americans regarding outdoor activities, including the U.S. legacy of racial violence leaving campers uncomfortable around police and state park rangers.

But the activity is increasingly becoming an attractive form of vacation for campers like Nuer, according to a new study from the large national private campground system Kampgrounds of America. It found nonwhite campers now comprise 26% of all campers — more than double when it was first measured in 2012.

The biggest driver of this growth is millennials, said Toby O’Rourke, chief operating officer at KOA, which obviously has a vested interest in people going camping. The age group comprises just 31% of the adult population, yet accounts for 38% of campers — and it’s more diverse: Six in 10 nonwhite campers are millennials compared with 4 in 10 white campers.

“Nature has a PR problem.”

                                                                                                  Rue Mapp, founder of OutdoorAfro
“I was surprised by the high enthusiasm for camping in the teenage group,” O’Rourke said. “We are definitely seeing more and more young people coming in. It’s changing the face of camping. It used to be an older, more Caucasian activity and we are seeing it skew younger and a lot more diversity.”Rue Mapp is the chief executive officer and founder of OutdoorAfro, a nonprofit that “celebrates and inspires African-American connections to nature.” It started as a blog in 2009 and has since grown into a national network in which 20,000 people participate in camping trips and other events across 30 states. She said millennials are seeing the effects of major efforts to show better representation of nonwhite campers in their communities, on social media and in advertising.

“Nature has a PR problem,” she said. “We have not done a good job of letting people know they will be welcome. There is no padlock on any trail, there is no padlock on any campground — but if you don’t know about it, you won’t go. Social media has played a huge role in changing that.”

The camping world overall is getting younger, more diverse and more active, driving substantial growth in the industry over the last several years. More than half (61%) of U.S. households reported camping at least occasionally in 2016, up from 58% in 2014. It estimated that 3.4 million households became new campers over the past three years, and that number is only increasing: roughly 13 million U.S. households said they plan to camp more in 2017 than they did in 2016. The vast majority of campers — 60% — camp in tents, an increase from 54% in 2012.

Derrick Crandall, who is president of the American Recreation Coalition, a nonprofit organization that works with public-private partnerships to encourage outdoor activities, said the study offers an alternative, more optimistic narrative to years of decline in visitors to state parks.

“They have documented that camping still appeals to 21st century younger Americans,” he said. “What we need to do is understand how just as taste in cars and even food has shifted, we need to see some adaptation in terms of the campgrounds.”

This comes after years of decline in National Park visits. From 2000 to 2012, the number of per capita visits to National Parks decreased by 11%. However, that number saw an increase of 14 million between 2014 and 2015 and yet another boost in 2016 for the Centennial Celebration of the U.S. National Park service. The KOA study found 3-in-10 U.S. campers said that celebration got them to a park they wouldn’t otherwise have visited.

For city dwellers, camping can feel like a more difficult venture: the average person doesn’t want to buy hundreds of dollars of gear for one or two trips a year. Tents can cost anywhere from $30 to more than $1,000 and renting a car to get out of the city can add another several hundred to the bill. Uncertainty about gas prices has caused more campers to stay close to home, the KOA study found, with more than half staying within 100 miles.The diversification of the camping industry has a number of financial implications, beyond its effects on national parks. Black consumers surpassed $1.2 trillion in buying power in 2015, up 275% from $320 billion 1990. Hispanics controlled $1.3 trillion in buying power in 2015. and Mapp said while camping is often seen as a budget vacation, many consumers are opting for better gear and fancier locations.

The forecast looks good for the next generation too: 99% of teenagers surveyed said they enjoy camping with family and friends and 90% say they plan to camp as an adult, the KOA survey found. An earlier survey from the Nature Conservancy found that only 10% of children are spending time outdoors every day, but of those who do spend time in nature, 90% said it “relieves stress” and 91% said if a friend encouraged them to spend more time outdoors they would listen. The children don’t necessarily mind unplugging either. Despite their stereotypically screen-addicted generation, 70% of this age group said they wouldn’t mind going to the great outdoors with no access to technology.

“Nature is the ultimate open-source platform,” Mapp said. “The birds and trees don’t know what color you are, what gender you are, or what job you have. In times like these when people are so disconnected from each other, we need to lean into nature more than ever to get our humanity back.”

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