Monday, July 30, 2012

Decline of Backpacking

Nicholas Kristov in the New York Times has a column describing a wilderness backpacking trip he took with his daughter and articulating the importance of actually visiting nature in order to care about it:
This trip, even more than most backpacking slogs, was a reminder that we humans are mere bricks in a vast natural cathedral. As we tumbled in snow pits, as rain fell on us, we mused that we’re not landlords of our planet, or even its prime tenants. We’re just guests. In short, the wilderness humbled us, and that’s why it is indispensable. In our modern society, we have structured the world to obey us; we can often use a keyboard or remote to alter our surroundings. Yet all this gadgetry focused on our comfort doesn’t always leave us more content or grounded. It is striking how often people who are feeling bewildered or troubled seek remedy in the wilderness.
For decades, youth programs have found benefit in sending troubled adolescents to drink from wilderness streams and lap up truths about themselves. Outward Bound takes a similar path, for everyone from at-risk kids to returning veterans to corporate executives. Perhaps wilderness is an antidote to our postindustrial self-absorption. It’s a place to be deflated, humbled and awed all at once. It’s a window into a world larger than ourselves, one that doesn’t respond to a remote. It’s an Olympiad for all of us.
In the column, he references these stats from the National Park Service (looking at the "Back Country Overnights" which seems likely to be a decent proxy for overall backpacking levels).  Kristov writes:
Yet, increasingly, it’s for only a tiny minority of us. Getting lost in the wild used to be routine for generations raised on hunting and fishing, yet those pastimes are becoming less common. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service reports that the number of Americans who fish dropped by 15 percent between 1996 and 2006. In that same period, the number of hunters dropped by just over 10 percent.

Likewise, the number of backcountry campers in our national parks has fallen by nearly 30 percent since 1979.
I was sensitized to this issue since I was hiking in the UK on vacation this summer and the mountains seemed quieter and the paths harder to find than when I was doing the same thing as a teenager.

I wanted to see a fuller picture of the drop in US backpacking, so I made a graph of all the available National Park Service data (from 1979 to 2012):

Firstly, it does appear to be correct that there has been an overall secular decline since the 1970s - particularly when you consider that the overall US population is increasing.  I also detect the hand of macro-economics here: backpacking is a very cheap way to vacation, and it appears that there is something of a tendency for it to increase during and following recessions (grey boxes), and decline during booms.

Still the response to more recent recessions has been more anemic.  This is consistent with the idea that the secular decline is due to competition for leisure time from virtual activities:
Hunting’s popularity has waned across much of the country as housing tracts replace forests, aging hunters hang up their guns and youngsters sit down in front of Facebook rather than venture outdoors.
Whatever the cause, it's a worrying trend for those of us who care about the natural world.


King of the Road said...

I love the wilderness (especially the Mojave, Sonoran, and Great Basin Deserts and get there, as remotely as I can possibly be, every chance I get.

But, not too worry. In the end, the natural world will prevail. We'll either learn to live within its ways or it will move on without us.

A Quaker in a Strange Land said...

Now that is an unhappy metric.

Stephen B. said...

This trend has been with us for some time. I worked part time for the outdoor, hiking, camping store Recreational Equipment Incorporated, ( about 13 years ago and I learned this drop off in off-road camping and visitations was the subject of some discussion amongst the marketing people at the company. Even then they knew the trend was away from backpacking and towards day trips and perhaps car camping trips and this was bothersome since REI was into more of the traditional mountaineering sports. There was talk of picking up more family camping gear, more snow sports, more jogging and other fitness related gear, while easing up a bit on the hard core backpacking stuff.

I found the whole idea rather sad, though I admit that I haven't done an overnight hike in about 10 years myself.

At work, with the at-risk boys place I've mentioned, we used to car camp with them every summer, but there too our last trip was in August of 2003 (so says my photo album folder date) owing to the increasing complexities of legally clearing multiple kids in Massachusetts DCF custody to go out of state on such trips. (MA offers little in the way of decent campgrounds that aren't noisy, RV campgrounds.)

Now that virtual activities dominate younger folks' lives, the outdoors drop off seems to have accelerated.

I got into a conversation with a 16 year old kid from at-risk circumstances that really made me raise an eyebrow 2 or so years ago. This kid liked the gardening and silverculture we were doing at the time at our residential school, and I happened to mention how I had gotten a free round trip ticket on Alaska Airlines a few years previously because I had surrendered my seat on another flight (I don't fly much so frequent flier miles don't add up for me.) Anyhow, when I had told him it was good for travel anywhere Alaska Air flew which was a good part of the continental US, Hawaii, Mexico, Canada, and of course, Alaska, I told him I went to Alaska and he snorted back, "Alaska!?! Why the hell would you want to go to Alaska?"

There I was, talking to a teenager and he was telling me I was nuts for taking up the chance for a free trip to Alaska. Right then and there I knew, kids WERE MUCH DIFFERENT from kids when I was growing up. Out of all the crazy things these kids have said to me, that conversation has left me more dumbfounded than just about any of the others.

FYI, what did I do in Alaska? I basically car-camped and day hiked as I was alone and solo backpacking in Denali, etc. didn't seem prudent.

russell1200 said...

In Central NC, the hunting limits are much higher in the urban counties. There is a lot of nice park areas to walk around in, but you rarely see anyone. This in a county with about half a million people. People only go to the "formal", "name" parks, and even there they have volunteer patrols to help with safety issues. All I can think of is that it is to help someone with a heart attack or bee sting, because I have never heard of any real safety issues.

HalFiore said...

Well, the first thing that occurs to me is the aging of the baby boom. I haven't backpacked in many years. While I still hunt, I consider the sort of sedentary stand hunting we do in the Delta as a form of livestock management.

Nick G said...

There's a silver linining here: the wilderness is less stressed by all the humans tromping all over it.

If humans could stick to living in densely inhabited areas and recreating in Disneyworld, we might just leave a little wildlife alive at the end of the day...

Kenneth D. Worth said...

I'm not sure about using the Park Service data as a proxy for overnight backpacking. The cost, over-regulation and sheer hassle factor (trail quotas, etc.) of backpacking in the National Parks increasingly makes the National Forests and BLM land more attractive for overnight trips as opposed to just day hikes.

With some exceptions, the NPS has turned into a kind of Natural Disneyland serving mostly foreigners. You might as well just watch a nature program on TV.