How social effects from the COVID-19 pandemic shape the future of outdoor recreation

This year marks an unprecedented level of participation in outdoor recreation. During the COVID-19 pandemic, people all over the world turned to outdoor recreation as a safe way to move more and socialize when large gatherings were canceled, and restrictions were placed on indoor activities. The surge in activity and rise in engagement from younger generations (Gen-Z, Millennials) make outdoor recreation an industry ripe for tech disruption. While the pandemic persists, there may be a more permanent shift in consumer behavior over time as people continue to seek outdoor experiences.

The Surge

In 2019, roughly half of the US population did not participate in any outdoor recreation whatsoever1. This unbelievable statistic was upturned this summer, with an influx in new participation: 81% of Americans reported that they got outside this May and expected to do it again2. Forty-three percent of Americans said they would participate in more outdoor activities due to COVID-19 social distancing rules3. During the summer of 2020, first-time outdoor recreation participation exploded among a younger, more diverse demographic. According to the U.S. Census Survey, nearly half of Gen Z and Millennials say they’ll be getting outside more, and the younger the respondent, the more likely they were to get outdoors. As the attitudes shift and participation expands, there is a growing opportunity to convert more individuals into outdoor enthusiasts and increase future participation. 

The Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) data confirms an increase in outdoor activities due to COVID-19. Interest in boating is at an all-time high. Local parks and trails are far busier than usual. It’s even harder to find trail parking. Plus, many are purchasing new outdoor equipment and gear, ranging from bikes to hiking boots to camping. While increased participation persists through the fall and winter months due to continued COVID-19 restrictions, looking specifically to April, May, and June4, the largest increases in participation came from running, cycling, hiking, and fishing.

Camping, RVs, and outdoor tourism are emerging as popular alternatives to traditional travel. Road trips have become a significant trending activity of 2020.  The initial driver of this ‘new travel’ stemmed from this spring’s shelter-in-place mandates and stands to benefit from permanent shifts in consumer behavior. 

For decades, the convergence of fishing and camping has been well-established.  These are both resilient segments poised for growth in a post-COVID world. Fishing participants are generally outdoor activity participants–79% of fishing participants also engage in at least one outdoor activity, like camping6. For example, when participants add on a complementary activity to their fishing trip, 84% of them camped. And hiking and boating came in second, both at 47%.6 The Recreational Boating Participation Study also cites a clear connection between fishing and boating: 83% of active anglers are also active boaters.7

An Opportunity for Disruption

With the influx of new outdoor recreation participants, especially from the Gen Z and Millennial population, an opportunity for emerging technology integration and innovation follows. Gen Z and Millennials represent 42% of the US population5; companies that target this group will benefit from creating and retaining lifelong outdoor enthusiasts. 

Demographic Shifts, Stats, & Expansion

Millennials have the lowest average income but spend the highest percentage of their income on experiences than non-millennials. (34% spent on experiences vs. 28% by other age groups)7

In 2019, even before the COVID-19 outbreak, camping participation increased year-over-year in the U.S., with Millennials driving that growth, accounting for 41% of the 78 million active camper U.S. households (up from 34% in 2016). Core reasons for camping include spending more time with friends and family, being physically active, and improving their overall emotional well-being and health. The 2020 global health crisis now amplifies these reasons.8

Boating is a social activity, and millennials are social beings.  In 2016, almost all active boaters said they spend time with friends or family while boating (95%), followed by enjoying nature (94%) and relaxing (93%). Fast forward a few years, and now we’ve seen through record boating sales and excursions that on-water participation is a safe, socially distant, outdoor, and social event that can safely be participated in even during COVID-19 times.9

Making Outdoors More Accessible

At TechNexus, one of our core investment themes is travel & leisure, which includes ventures in the outdoor recreation market. Our growing portfolio includes many mobile apps and devices that have made it easier for individuals to plan and enjoy trips, access recreational gear, and participate in an online community. It’s the new waypoint for participating in outdoor recreation and building an online community. Outdoor recreation is becoming increasingly more digital, moving customers away from guidebooks and maps and into experience-sharing online communities. From campsite reservations (The Dyrt) to hiking trails to fishing excursions (The Catch Co., Easol), almost everything, even ‘where’s the best bass fishing hotspot’ nearby (Anglr), can now be found on an app. 

In the wake of retailers being forced to shut down earlier this year during COVID, they adapted by launching contactless pickup or delivery options and forged partnerships with gear & equipment rental startups. Digitally-native brands have performed well during the pandemic. Startups focused on generating content and building community have increased user accessibility and engagement, fundamentally improving how we interact with the great outdoors, and each other.


  • 1.
  • 2. NMMA. Outdoor Recreation Round Table. October 2020.
  • 3. US Census. March 2020.
  • 4.
  • 5. NIC Outdoors. October 2020.
  • 6. Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation | 2020 Special Report On Fishing  
  • 7. Pew Research Center
  • 8. 2019 North American Camping Report 
  • 9: 2016 Recreational Boating Participation Study 

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