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Amid A Deep Recession, Outdoor Equipment Is Flying Off The Shelves

A fisherman in a kayak makes a cast on Lake Arthur at Moraine State Park in Portersville, Pa. Sales of camping, outdoor and recreational equipment have been surging.
Keith Srakocic
A fisherman in a kayak makes a cast on Lake Arthur at Moraine State Park in Portersville, Pa. Sales of camping, outdoor and recreational equipment have been surging.

Heather Larson has enjoyed kayaking for several years. Before the pandemic, she'd often rent a kayak for the weekend and ride it at state parks in Illinois and nearby Wisconsin. But the Des Plaines, Ill., resident has had no luck finding one for the past three months.

On secondhand sites like Craigslist, she sees used kayaks priced at $100 over what a new one would typically cost. As soon as new shipments hit stores, the camping and outdoor Facebook groups she's in light up. People post that they're driving for hours just to get their hands on them. Practically as soon as the news arrives, the kayaks are all gone.

And it's not just kayaks that are in high demand.

Across the country, even as the pandemic has claimed nearly 190,000 lives and nearly 30 million people are on unemployment, sales of camping, outdoor and recreational equipment have been surging.

People who were lucky enough to keep their jobs — and those who, until recently, received expanded unemployment benefits — have been driving demand, analysts say. And much of the surge came from people who were trying a hobby for the first time.

Sales of bicycles jumped 63% in June from a year earlier, data from the NPD Group shows. Spending on paddle sports such as kayaking, which had faced declines before the pandemic, bounced up 56%. There were similarly big gains in sales of golf equipment, camping equipment and binoculars, as more people go bird-watching.

The tremendous demand for outdoor products comes from consumers who now have extra time and money because they aren't spending it on other things, says Craig Kennison, director of research operations at Baird.

"Consumers who had summer plans — maybe planning on hotels, planes, cruises, concerts — those people have been forced to cancel those plans and they're looking for something different to do with those discretionary dollars," he said. Those cancellations mean people have a lot of free time to fill.

Carolina Young, who lives in Upper Marlboro, Md., is one of them. She and her husband have always been outdoor people, but they were isolated and working remotely from their house after the stay-at-home orders were issued in March.

On May 15, when Maryland's campgrounds opened back up, they started planning excursions every weekend, whether it was boating, camping, bird-watching or taking their RV for a drive.

They have a big house with a huge yard, but after months of isolation, "I was feeling like, 'Oh Lord, I need to go somewhere,' " Young said.

They bought fishing poles, umbrellas and other camping equipment, and even a telescope and binoculars for stargazing and bird-watching.

"On our first trip out, we were just so excited to be out, we brought grills so we could make food, we bought a new telescope so we could see the stars. ... I just felt like, 'Finally, I'm feeling a little bit normal because we can go out.' So it has made a lot of difference mentally to both of us."

The surge in outdoor goods isn't just coming from people who already camp, play sports or go hiking.

"Certainly some established customers are buying new equipment, but the real surge we've seen has been in new customers," says Matt Powell, vice president and senior industry advisor for The NPD Group.

In the cycling industry, for example, he can see that difference because the surge in sales "was not in road bikes, or expensive mountain bikes. ... It was in more family bicycles, kids' bikes, leisure bikes, transit bikes. And that suggests to me that this is a new customer who's coming in," Powell said. Bikes and bike components, along with kayaks, are selling out in stores across the country.

Powell notes that the increase in spending wasn't necessarily limited to people with means. He says it was easy to see a lift in sales right as the $600 per week in extra federal unemployment benefits started going out.

"That was about $10 to $12 billion a week of additional income that went into the market," Powell said. Those extra benefitsexpired in July, and since then he has already seen a downturn in several categories. "So I think people who might have been out of work but had extra money were spending it on things that they thought would make their lives better," Powell said.

He predicts that sales will start to slow down in the coming months. But as healthy habits persist even after the pandemic ends, he says, many of these new customers will keep up with their newfound pursuits and keep boosting the sports and outdoor industries.

One of those customers is Katie Kruse. She likes hiking, but had never been committed to backpacking before the pandemic. But when a group of friends invited her on a hiking trip to Colorado, she bought her first camping backpack from REI, along with a tent and other hiking gear and set out for a weeklong trip.

Kruse had taken smaller day trips to hike close to the Chicago area and downstate Illinois, but "that was really the first big trip after being stuck in one area for a while. It was exhilarating because it was just so beautiful. ... There's so much out there to experience even in this difficult time."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ashish Valentine joined NPR as its second-ever Reflect America fellow and is now a production assistant at All Things Considered. As well as producing the daily show and sometimes reporting stories himself, his job is to help the network's coverage better represent the perspectives of marginalized communities.