Recreation by the Numbers
Posted In Rucksack on Thursday, October 18th 2018

Recreation by the Numbers

Northeast Outdoors Experience Staff


Outdoor recreation is an extremely important factor when considering relaxation, local and national economies, tradition and many other aspects of day to day life for millions of Americans. Population estimates in 2012 show 232.3 million adults in the U.S. But recreation is not simply for adults, far from it. Accurate estimations for how people, both adults and children participate in the outdoors are sometimes difficult to establish, especially since most of the data is given for 6+ years of age. However it is clear how seriously Americans take their recreational sports and activities from the sheer number of participants reported through the various statistical agencies and the millions of dollars spent supporting outdoor recreational activities.


Boating is the number one outdoor recreation with 88 million participants each year. Statistical data shows a steady increase in the number of participants each year since 2006.

Boating includes a wide variety of boats including rubber rafts, canoes, kayaks, rowboats, bass boats, drift boats, sailboats, motor boats, yachts, commercial fishing boats to list some of the most popular boats employed. It is extremely difficult to further refine the number of boaters that participate on freshwater versus saltwater water bodies as there is a tremendous amount of overlap between the two. Likewise it is difficult to predict the type of boats employed as many boaters own several such as a sailboat and a dingy, or a canoeist owning a kayak or more than one of each. Boating can also be associated with activities such as fishing, water skiing, parasailing, jet skiing and may be accomplished on specific water types related to the type of watercraft, i.e. canoes are generally considered freshwater craft whereas large sailing vessels tend to be more marine oriented.


Cycling is the second most popular outdoor recreation with about 57 million people over the age of 16 participating in the sport. It can be off road (mountain biking) or over the road (touring) or a combination of the two as well as performing stunts and racing. Cycling is an excellent family oriented activity with minimal start-up and maintenance costs.

Cycling is an activity that is often begun at a very young age and can extend well into maturity with many seniors choosing it for exercise along with walking. Many enthusiasts participate in cycling clubs and organizations as they take part in road races or off road races such as in downhill mountain biking. Cross-country touring is also a popular venue for cyclists as planned journeys can often involve hundreds if not thousands of miles with cycling “vacations” planned in advance with scheduled stops and routes to take advantage of visiting various sights and activities along the way. Bicycles can be purchased very economically or for the serious enthusiasts wanting state of the art innovations in their equipment for competitive racing, thousands of dollars.


Fishing is the third most popular outdoor recreation with 44.5 million participants over the age of 6 taking part. Saltwater and freshwater fishing have seen recent trends towards the practice of “catch and release” methods increasing and replacing former days when success was based on how many fish were taken home.

Fishing has had its roots throughout history as a way to put food on the table regardless of fresh or saltwater applications.  There are many variations as to equipment used to fish such as fly, spinning, bait casting, trolling, ice fishing, offshore and onshore saltwater, bait fishing and others. Recent trends towards preserving and maintaining the fisheries have seen dramatic increases in “sport fishing” where the angler’s focus is on the catch providing the enjoyment rather than putting meals on the table. Certain species of fish are considered “food fish” with controlling populations by managed harvest being an essential part of conserving the resource.


Recreational camping is the third most popular activity statistically with an estimated 38 million enthusiasts over the age of 6 participating.  It is an activity that can involve the entire family with various levels of “roughing it” from backyard tenting to using custom motor homes costing upwards of a million dollars in some cases.

Camping can be defined in many forms from the basic tarp arranged for shelter or tents intended for multiple campers to elaborate RVs costing hundreds of thousands of dollars parked at campsites providing cable TV, Internet, electricity and septic hookups. Campsites can vary from informal sites chosen and used by campers in remote locations, to organized sites at state or private facilities with varying amenities provided. Access to these “campgrounds” can be by vehicle, hiking, ATVs or boating and feature opportunities to observe nature or historical sites. Outdoor cooking is often an important part of the camping experience over campfires or using propane or other types of fueled stoves.


Hiking can be accomplished in virtually any environment from urban to extremely remote settings. The trail system in the U.S. can accommodate hikers of all age and experience levels often including hikes in mountainous, woodlands, lakes, coastal or island marine settings. It can be organized as “day hikes” with minimal equipment and gear or extended by using backpacks into hikes taking several days.

Hiking differs from walking by the terrain and gear required to participate. Each year about 34.5 million enthusiasts hike a wide variety of trails from maintained and popular ones such as the Pacific Coast Trail or the Appalachian Trail that see millions of hikers a year to more remote access trails that may not see more than a handful of hikers over several.  The restrictions of access are minimized by foot travel allowing the enthusiast to observe nature and remote locations in a variety of settings. Many other recreational activities such as hunting, fishing, birding and camping are facilitated by hiking during all seasons of the year. Snowshoeing can be considered a form of hiking during the winter months and is the most strenuous form of the activity.


Birding is an activity that requires very little investment in the form of equipment or gear, but is more dependent upon the amount of time invested by the birder. Many locations around the country are known for the birding opportunities they offer as migrating species can flock in great numbers along their travel routes. Most birders create “life lists” of all the species they have observed during their career, sometimes even traveling to remote and exotic locations to expand these lists.

Birding is enjoyed by nearly 20 million enthusiasts over the age of 6 years old. The equipment required may only be a pair of binoculars and a field identification guide, or for some the investment can extend overlap with photography using advanced still and video cameras to record their sightings. Birding also allows the enthusiast to set up nesting boxes or feeders to attract birds, or planning trips to known bird locations around the country to observe various species unique to certain localities. Birding can also include the sport of falconry where raptors are employed in hunting small game.


Skiing is categorized by three classifications. Downhill or Alpine, cross-country or Nordic and stunts including freestyle and ski jumping compose the general term “skiing”. It is enjoyed by 20 million enthusiasts each year in one form or another, although recent trends with global warming reducing the amount of natural snow that falls has seen declining participation in the sport.

Skiing is enjoyed wherever snow is found in any measureable amounts. While downhill or alpine skiing requires mountainous terrain, cross country skiing only needs a few inches of snow on cleared trails to allow the skier to enjoy the pursuit. Freestyle skiing, snowboarding and ski jumping are offshoots of traditional skiing. While ski jumping is generally reserved for those whose athletic abilities can keep the enthusiast safe, freestyle jumping, aerial, snowboarding and other trick style maneuvers are rapidly becoming popular, especially with the younger sportsmen. Many localities in mountain country rely on skiing to supplement their winter economies.


Many species of animals and birds are hunted from every environment including wetlands, grasslands, woodlands and mountainous terrain.  It can include hunters using archery equipment, rifles, shotguns and handguns. Also falling into the hunting category are various other shooting sports such as trap, skeet and trick shooting. Hunting can be done with or without the assistance of hunting dogs, boats, guides and other associated gear such as photographic equipment.

Hunting and the shooting sports are outdoor activities enjoyed by nearly 16 million enthusiasts over the age of 6. The species of wildlife hunted can be waterfowl, upland game birds, small game, predators and big game species. The shooting sports also include competitive venues on many levels including Olympic, International, National and local competitions. Tax revenues from the purchase of equipment used in the shooting sports help support the hunting industry and funding various wildlife management and conservation agencies. Many states and localities rely on revenue generated by hunting of several species as a major source of their recreational income.

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