Camping market re-emerges as a driver of industry growth
By: Martin Vilaboy
Don’t call it a comeback, but the camping market is re-establishing itself as an engine for outdoor retail sales. Once left for dead, or at least flat-lined, this large and mature market has experienced very little good news since the late 1990s, at least in terms of participation numbers. More recently, however, overnight camping has been injected with a new, youthful energy that could lead to years of sustained growth, and one would be hard pressed to find better news for the outdoor market.
After all, this trend is a lot bigger than a pair of innovative shoes, a cool new electronic device or a new board and a few accessories. Rather, several product categories throughout the outdoor retail sales floor that fall under the camping umbrella have enjoyed robust sell-through the past few years, from backpacking tents, camp chairs and mummy bags, to stoves, lanterns and coolers. Excuse the mixed metaphor, but camping’s rising tide lifts a lot of boats.
Let’s also not forget how overnight camping has proven itself to be a gateway to other outdoor activities, and the last few years have brought about newer, less-rugged forms of camping and new attitudes about what it means to camp. That represents a captive audience of new potential participants. In other words, there are lots of opportunities for those looking in the right places.
So how big are the opportunities? According to the latest figures from The NPD Group, camping sales through outdoor retail channels jumped 12 percent in 2015, and that’s coming off 7 percent growth in 2014. Camping category manufacturer sales increased 4.3 percent in 2015, according to counts by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, which is more than double the increases seen in SFIA’s overall sporting goods numbers. Camping manufacturer sales are up 32.7 percent since 2010. Those are pretty respectable rates for any market but especially for what’s become a large and mature one. NPD’s growth rates, after all, are coming off more than $1 billion in sales.
On the demand side, our National Parks hosted more overnight tent and backcountry campers in 2015 than they have since the 1990s. The increase in total camping visits in 2015 (concessionaire, RV, tent, backcountry) doubled recent annual growth fluctuations, reaching more than 9.3 million total camping visits. And that came after pretty solid growth in 2014. On public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, camping accounts for an additional 25 million or so visitor days annually, representing more than a third of BLM total visitor days.
So what’s behind the recent upswing? For 2015, in particular, warmer winter temperatures had lots to do with the increases, say NPD researchers. Quite simply, spring-like low temperatures in November and December provided interested parties with more opportunities to pack up and sleep outside, as well as more time to purchase or replace gear. And many folks did just that. Although colder months aren’t typically associated with camping gear sell-through, camping sales through outdoor channels jumped 13 percent in the fourth quarter of 2015 over the same period prior year.
Remaining at a more macro level, the plodding economic recovery also plays to camping’s advantage. Real or not, camping has always been seen as “cheaper than a hotel” for multi-day outings and out-of-town adventures. But camping’s use as affordable traveling accommodations has never been more widespread.
The past several years has brought about the emergence of “festival campers” or, possibly more accurate, “event campers.” This includes fans and participants of music and sports festivals and competitions who make overnight camping a part of their experience at a multi-day concert, run or competition. Again, not exactly a new phenomenon, but today this demographic of camping participants has access to unprecedented numbers of festivals, mud runs, climbing competitions, triathlons, bike and trail races, and cultural gatherings and ritual burnings – almost on a weekly basis.
And it’s not just large, public events driving the trend, says Matt Powell, vice president and sports industry analyst for The NPD Group. Event camping also includes an increasing number of family and social gatherings, says Powell. In these cases, camping can be a central part of a wedding or family reunion or simply an affordable accommodation option for a kids’ club sports team traveling to an out-of-state tournament. Of course, “these are hardly Spartan activities,” says Powell. Event campers are not necessarily looking for the “outdoor experience,” and are not willing to sacrifice for the sake of roughing it. Their days are likely long and filled with activity, so they want camping to be relatively comfortable and convenient, and there’s as good a chance the night entails cocktails under the stars as it does smores.
This more-practical, moresocial style of camping is important to another emerging group of users. It’s no secret, since the late 2000s, camping has had some trouble attracting younger adults. Between 2007 and 2012, the 18- to 24-year-old camping market (car, backyard, backcountry and RV) was down nearly 900,000 potential customers, according to participation estimates from the Outdoor Industry Association. The 6- to 24-year-old segment went from 17.2 million participants in 2007 down to 15.7 million in 2013.
Since 2013, however, there’s been a renewed interest among younger participants, says Powell. Quite simply, the campsite setting aligns well with the Millennial milieu.
Assuming Millennials fit the common stereotypes (that Millennials prefer experience over materialism, social over monetary currency, hold appreciation for the environment and a desire to “share their stories”) then it’s not hard to imagine a group of 20-somethings hitting Snapchat while sitting around a campfire with friends, drinks and scenic backgrounds.
“Camping is a perfect way for Millennials to express those values,” says Powell, “and they are finding ways to bring its products beyond the campgrounds.”
As might be expected, Millennials can have their own ideas about what it means to camp out, and those notions couldn’t be more “beyond the campgrounds.”
During the past few years, there’s been an emergence of what’s come to be known as “urban camping” as its own legitimate market. Kamikazestyle, often-minimalized campsites increasingly are popping up on urban rooftops, under bridges, within city parks and open spaces and in the imagery of hip Millennial urbanites. Much like we see with events campers, these urbanized outdoor experiences generally can be categorized into two groups. On one end, it’s simply about affordable accommodations (albeit often illegal) when visiting a city or spending a night away from home. On the other side, it’s about the social experience – a chance to disconnect from devices, soak in some scenery under the stars and gather with likeminded souls around a conceptual campfire, all without the time and effort required to travel to more remote locations.
In both cases, the movement provides camping with a cool factor that it hasn’t enjoyed in some time, and likely introduces the activity to lots of members of a desirable demographic.
So where are the opportunities? While it’s possible that these Millennials, as well as many event campers, may never set foot on our nation’s recreational lands, that’s not to suggest traditional campgrounds have gone quiet. Quite the opposite, actually, suggest National Park Service figures. Last year, our national parks hosted more than 3.6 million campground tent overnights, up 13 percent from 2014 and the most seen at NPS tent camping sites since 1995. In 2014, overnight stays at NPS tent campgrounds was up 8.4 percent year over year.
And, apparently, not everyone is “done-in-a-day.” In 2015, NPS sites hosted more than 2 million backcountry overnight visits, the most in any year since 2001, while the more than 1.8 million backcountry overnights in 2014 was the most of any year since 2002. NPD sales figures likewise suggest a resurgence of interest in backpacking, as several product categories typically associated with backcountry pursuits jump off the spread sheet and often out-performed their recreational camping counterparts. Dollars spent on bivy tents, for instance, jumped 27 percent in 2015, while growth in backpacking tent sales the past two years has outpaced recreational tent sales by significant margins. Also in 2015, sales of backpacking tents ($149.6 million) surpassed those of recreational tents ($144.6 million). The year prior, recreational tents outsold backpacking models by $8.5 million, show NPD Group figures.
At the same time, single-burner stove sets and dehydrated foods enjoyed healthy gains the past two years, and mummy sleeping bag sales ($131 million in 2013 to $155 million in 2015) largely drove growth in the sleeping bag segment. Of course, plenty of backpacking products never actually see the backcountry. And it’s probably safe to assume many urban and Millennial campers are attracted to backpacking gear more for its reputation for quality, compact and sleek design and brand cachet than its ability to perform in remote areas.
Backcountry or backyard, urban, event or family camper, one trend remains firmly entrenched: camping is no longer necessarily associated with roughing it. To previous generations, a camp site typically meant a night away from the amenities of home. Today’s affordable technology and clever product marketing, however, allows us to conveniently bring the comforts of home along with us. Hatchets and hot-dogs on a stick have been replaced by gourmet backpacking food and nesting champagne flutes. And outdoor consumers seem to be really comfortable with the change.
Indeed, items largely associated with comfort – such as camp furniture, sleeping pads, coolers and accessories – have seen healthy increases in both the last two years, show NPD Group data. Bumps at retail of “other cookware accessories” (from $26 million in 2013 to $34.6 million in 2014 to $43 million in 2015) and “pots and pans” (from $11.9 million in 2013 to $13.9 million, 2015), in particular, even have us wondering if campgrounds are the only place American families are actually cooking. Sleeping pad sales leave us wondering how many people are still sleeping “on the ground.” Total sales of all sleeping pads/mattresses at outdoor stores in 2015 nearly matched the dollars made on recreational tents.
One comfort-oriented category also seemed to benefit from last year’s warmer winter temperatures. NPD Group retail sales figures suggest consumers are looking to extend the comfort range of sleeping systems into non-summer months. The overall sleeping bag accessory market topped $28 million in retail sales, up 13 percent in 2015 following 7.6 percent growth in 2014. Overbags were up 10 and 16 percent in dollars during the last two years, while bag liners topped $10.9 million, up 16 percent year over year. Sleeping bag blankets, meanwhile, became a standalone market, topping $1 million in sales after two years of more than 30 percent annual growth.
It’s similar to what we are seeing in outerwear, says Powell, where Millennials are choosing lighter insulated, layered systems that they can peel off or pile on depending on the season. “Consumers are doing more with less; rather than purchasing specific products for every season or activity, they are buying adaptable and multipurpose items,” he says.
If this trend continues, one might expect near-term sleeping bag purchases to favor warmer-rated bags that can be beefed up with an overbag or liner during colder weather.
Multiple-season tents, likewise, may benefit from longer camping seasons due to warmer winters. Both three-season and four-season backpacking tents did quite well the last two years, with year-to-year growth rates ranging from the low to high teens.
Some other camp-oriented categories that enjoyed healthy growth the past few years, according to The NPD Group’s retail tracking data, include tent accessories and tent replacement parts, battery-powered (non-combustion) lanterns, coolers, first-aid kits, stoves and stove parts, kitchen utensils and water filters.
Sure, the sales numbers may be just a blip – the result of normal replacement cycles and one warmer winter. Even so, a more comfortable camping experience is widening the appeal of an important category to outdoor retailers, while new attitudes of what it means to camp is exposing the activity to folks who might not have participated otherwise.
Where to Hang Hammocks
Some may find it peculiar to see a story on the growth of camping product sales that doesn’t directly address the surging sales of hammocks and the subsequent rise of “hammocking.” It’s certainly a story worth mentioning, considering hammock sales at outdoor retail, as tracked by The NPD Group, more than doubled the past two years, going from $25.9 million in 2013 to a whopping $53 million last year. Even so, we can’t be sure how much of the recent growth falls under sales specific to camping demand.
Certainly, the number of hammock campers has grown, and hammocks and hammock systems have become a widely accepted option for sleeping under the stars. At the same time, the explosion in hammocks doesn’t seem to be taking any bite out of traditional sleeping arrangements, as tents and sleeping pad/mattresses likewise have experienced substantial sales increases during the past two years. Dollar volumes of three-season backpacking tents, for instance, were up 20 percent and 13 percent annually the past two years, while four-season tent sales jumped 7 percent and 10 percent in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Even bivy sales were up 27 percent year over year in 2015. The sleeping pad/mattress category experienced similar growth.
And while it’s relatively common to see both tents and a hammock set up at one camp site, we’d argue that the wider hammocking trend – defined as folks hanging in their hammocks on college campuses, in city parks and at other scenic locales – is driving large chunks of hammock sales growth, and that form of hammocking is more aligned with picnicking or an afternoon at a swimming hole than it is to overnight camping.
That’s no slight to hammock sales and hammocking. Outdoor dealers would be less-than-thorough to ignore a $50 million market that requires relatively little floor expertise. But whereas we can safely assume most one-burner stoves, campfire grills, lanterns or tents are being used specifically at overnight campsites, we can’t be so sure with the current hammock demand. A similar case could be made for the high-end coolers that are flying out of outdoor stores lately. We simply just don’t have the data to declare anything yet.
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