Camping’s XYZ – The changing composition of North American campers
by: Martin Vilaboy
It’s not exactly what anyone would call a seismic shift – more a morph than an about-face – but make no mistake, the profile of the North American camping customer is undergoing a youth movement of sorts.
Sure, it would be foolish to disregard the importance of traditional camping cohorts. Our nation’s campgrounds, after all, are still filled with plenty of old-school car campers, Scout troops, buddies out hunting and four-wheeling, backpackers, climbers and other various core outdoor enthusiasts bedding down conveniently close to the location of their chosen activities.
At the same time, however, campers in the U.S. and Canada are becoming more diverse, suggests a new survey, in terms of who they are, how they camp and why. In turn, contestants in the space can’t ignore the direction in which camping aisle customers are evolving.
Whichever way one analyzes the trends, the camping market currently is enjoying something of a growth phase. Similar to 2015, there was a 5 percent net increase in new campers in 2016, shows a new survey by Kampgrounds of America, and since 2014, more than one million households have started camping each year. It’s estimated that 3.4 million households became new campers during the last three years, and KOA estimates that 61 percent of U.S. households now can be counted as camper households, up from 58 percent of households in 2014.
These numbers corroborate with figures from the National Park Service, which hosted 331 million visitors in 2016, smashing the record 307 million visits in 2015. Among those visitors, NPS hosted about 3.86 million “tent campers” in 2016, the most since 1995, and 2.15 million “backcountry campers,” the most since 1997.
Possibly even better news, while overall camping incidences continue to show incremental growth, the real growth in camping is at the individual level where campers are migrating from annual camping trips toward taking multiple trips each year, says the KOA survey of nearly 3,000 U.S. and Canadian residents. During the past three years, the number of respondents who take three or more trips each year has grown 36 percent, while the number of campers taking just one trip a year has dropped 10 percent. Among the new camper households, about a third would like to increase their camping trips in 2017.
“These results indicate that once a person experiences camping, it’s highly likely that they will camp more in order to gain the personal and familial benefits associated with camping,” said KOA researchers.
Results also suggest that as older consumers age out or participate less and new participants move in and participate more, the profile of the typical North American camper is skewing younger and younger. The lion’s share of U.S. campers is now made up of millennials (38 percent), which KOA classifies as those born between 1981 and 1997. That compares to the 34 percent of campers counted as millennials by KOA in 2015 and the 31 percent of the U.S. population counted as millennials by the U.S. Census. Millennials and Generations Xers together accounted for 72 percent of U.S. campers, up from 62 percent in 2015.
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As might be expected, the younger customer base presents some unique tendencies and characteristics. Chief among them is ethnic diversity.
During the past few years, KOA has seen increasing proportions of Hispanics, African Americans and people of Asian descent being introduced to camping and its related “outdoor” experiences. Attribute it to industry outreach or the simple matter of changing national demographics, or maybe both, but non-white campers now comprise just more than a quarter of all campers, a rate that’s double KOA’s count in 2012. In many cases, population breakdowns by ethnicity are approaching, and even surpassing, Census percentages, particularly among those who are new to camping. In particular, the percentage of new campers that are of Asian/Pacific Island descent nearly triples the corresponding Census percentage of the U.S population, according to KOA counts.
Indeed, non-white campers, and especially campers of Asian descent, are most likely to be new to camping, with fully 40 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander campers reporting that they have started camping within the past few years. More than one in five Hispanic campers and close to a third of African American/Black campers said the same. That compares to 12 percent of white campers who have started camping within the past couple of years. Not surprisingly this is driven by Gen Y campers, as six-in-10 non-white campers are millennials, compared to nearly four in 10 white campers.
Same but Different
In general, the drivers and behaviors among the various cohorts of campers increasingly are in line with each other. In other words, the reasons why folks go camping, where and how they camp and what they do are fairly consistent among all ethnicities, especially as larger percentages of minorities make up the overall participant base. There are, however, some statistically significant differences worth noting.
Campers classified as Hispanic/ Latino by KOA, for starters, most likely view camping as a way to positively impact health and emotional wellbeing, including reducing the stress of everyday life and improved relationships and academic performance. Those of Asian descent, meanwhile, appear most interested in how camping creates opportunities to spend more time with family and friends.
“In a departure from past iterations of the survey, Asian campers are expressing much stronger opinions about their connections to camping, including the desire to spend more time with family and friends,” said the KOA study.
Campers of Asian descent also are most likely to visit national parks, with nearly 70 percent stating that they intend to visit a national park in 2017. By comparison, about 47 percent of white, Hispanic and African American/Black campers intend to visit a national park.
Recreation remains an important part of campers’ experiences, and the longstanding activities of hiking and fishing tend to be most prevalent among all campers. Even so, Whites/Caucasians and Asians are mostly likely to include a hike during a camping trip, while African Americans are most likely to go fishing. On the other hand, African Americans are least likely to take a scenic drive or visit a historical site during a camping trip.
Mountain biking, meanwhile, is significantly more prevalent among those responding as Hispanics, who also are the most likely to take part in hunting. In terms of paddlesports, a full 32 percent of campers of Asian descent say kayaking is part of their camping outings (compared to about one in five of the other groups surveyed), while African Americans are the most likely to say canoeing is part of a camping trip.
Overall, “an influx of younger, more physically active campers is changing the recreation landscape as it relates to camping,” notes the KOA research. More-active pursuits such as hiking, mountain biking, paddling and backpacking are increasing in occurrence as part of a camping trip, while less active pursuits such as sightseeing, scenic drives, birdwatching and fishing have seen declining participation. Fishing remains a popular activity, but in 2016 hiking for the first time outranked fishing as the most popular form of recreation, show KOA figures. (Incidentally, even though fishing has waned as an activity among adult campers, it is extremely popular among Gen Z campers, with eight of 10 teens stating that they go fishing while camping.)
At the same time, as large numbers of millennials increasingly move into adulthood and start families – while mature campers participate less – camping becomes more and more of a family time event. In 2016, for starters, more than 50 percent of camping households reported to having children, up from 35 percent of camping household that said the same in 2012. According to Census figures, 34 percent of U.S. households includes kids.
“Couples form the group of campers most likely to share their camping experiences, and overall, camping appears to be gaining among familial groups,” reports the KOA study. About three-quarters of campers take trips with a spouse or significant other; about half with their children. That’s up from 62 percent and 40 percent, respectively, in 2014. All the while, the chunk of participants who camp with siblings has creeped up to three in 10.
KOA figures likewise indicate a growing percentage of respondents who connect the camp out experience with childhood development. More than 80 percent of adults say it’s important for kids to spend time outdoors, and about a quarter feel camping has a “great deal” of impact on academic performance. Teens agree, as 81 percent of Gen Z campers feels it is very important for people their age to spend time outside participating in activities such as camping.
“Overall, parents have strong enthusiasm for camping,” say KOA researchers. “This is especially true among younger parents.”
Along with the parent-child dynamic within the activity, family camping also is increasingly seen as a way to gather the extended family, as KOA’s findings suggest this social element is a key driver toward participation. In addition to partners and offspring, a desire to spend more time with family and friends, as well as the desire among families and friends to “camp more often,” are recurring themes for growing majorities of campers when asked about impacts, benefits and influencers. That includes the top reasons for camping more in 2017.
Again, this is largely attributed to youth and diversity. Millennials, for one, are most likely to site “spending time with friends and family” as a reason for wanting to camp more often, and they are most likely to feel strongly about camping as part of a group. Non-white campers, meanwhile, are more likely to camp with multiple generations. Three quarters of Hispanics and nearly seven in 10 African American campers spend nights around the fire with multiple generations on hand – compared to 55 percent of Whites.
Among those who go on trips with others outside of their immediate family, group sizes tend to be somewhat larger among millennials and nonwhite campers. Asian campers report the largest average group size (13), compared to African American (11), Hispanic (11) and White (9) campers. Millennials host the highest group size among the age cohorts surveyed, at 10.7 campers.
Gen Z campers, for their part, “are incredibly social,” says KOA, “with virtually all the teens surveyed saying that they like to camp as part of a group including friends and family.”
Looking forward, the influx of new and youthful campers are bringing with them a renewed enthusiasm for the sport. Among millennials, intent is high to camp more often, try new types of accommodations and explore new sites, shows KOA’s research. And teens who are introduced to camping seem to fully embrace it. A full 99 percent of Gen Z campers, for example, say they enjoy camping with friends and family; 89 percent describe camping as “very enjoyable.” More than nine in 10 teen campers plan to take their own kids camping someday.
“Teen campers express strong opinions about camping in general,” say KOA researchers. “Not only are they highly engaged in the planning, but are enthusiastic about their trips, and strongly identify with the benefits of camping for them and their peer group.”
And while many adults assume Gen Z is too glued to their devices to pull away long enough to truly appreciate the campground experience, teens are no more likely to use technology than adult campers and go online during camping trips at the same frequency as their adult counterparts.
That could be because, “like adult campers,” note KOA executives, “they view camping as a way to escape from their everyday lives.”
In today’s hyper-connected world, the need to detach from the day-today has arguably never been more apparent. And the diverse group of new and young participants being introduced to the joys of camping fully understand its inherent ability to provide such a respite, suggest KOA’s findings. They also fully embrace the benefits camping offers in terms of physical, emotional and social wellbeing. What’s more, separate studies by the Physical Activity Council and the Outdoor Foundation both found camping to be the number one “aspirational activity” among non-participants between the ages of 6 and 24 years old.
It would behoove the industry to tap into all this excitement.
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