Archived Outdoors

Trending in nature: WNC outdoors enthusiasts talk about trends in outdoor rec

out frWhen Jim Brendle put together the first Smoky Mountain Relay in 2009, it was a pretty small affair. With only 48 runners representing six teams, the 200-plus-mile foot race didn’t draw a lot of attention.  A lot has changed since then. 

“It’s grown to where this year if we don’t have 50 teams, I’m going to be really upset,” Brendle said.

The race route takes in 212 miles of trail and road in Western North Carolina, starting at Pink Beds Picnic Area near the Cradle of Forestry in America in Pisgah National Forest and finally ending at Nantahala Outdoor Center, outside of Bryson City. Teams of six or 12 complete various legs of the race. 

Some of the race’s growth is just a natural result of spreading the word about a new race. With 26,000 feet of elevation change, Brendle bills it as the most challenging overnight relay race in the world and has “some extremely impressive runners running this race” — but some of it is a tied to a much bigger trend. 

Between 2011 and 2013, adventure racing was the fastest-growing outdoor sport in the nation, boasting a 28-percent uptick in participation, according to the Outdoor Industry Association’s 2014 Outdoor Recreation Participation Topline Report. The report, released annually, based its analysis on 19,240 interviews representing Americans ages 6 and older. 

Brendle postulates that part of the adventure race craze is a nationwide desire for fitness, combined with the attraction of overcoming daunting physical challenges in beautiful places.

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“People that are between their 20s and 70s now, seriously that age group are all into longevity and to not only live life, but living life to the fullest,” said Brendle, an avid racer himself. 

The other side of the coin has to do with demand. It’s only recently that 100-mile races have started popping up across the country. One of the first, Brendle said, was the Hood to Coast race in Oregon, whose route reaches from 11,000-foot Mount Hood to the Oregon coast. That race launched in 1982. 

“Hundred-mile races, I’d suspect there are at least 20 across the United States, probably more like 40. There haven’t been races like this in the past,” Brendle said, adding “There’s supply and demand. There’s always been a demand for people who want to do more, but supply is catching up.”


Coming to the water

Supply is also ramping up for a pair of water sports that have been catching on in a big way lately: kayak fishing and stand up paddle boarding. Kyle Fronrath, owner of Fontana Guides in Bryson City, has been incorporating both into his fishing trips. 

He bought his first kayaks three years ago and added paddleboards just one year later. 

“It started out as kind of a personal interest and everything kind of steamrolled,” Fronrath said of the kayaks. “We got a lot of attention from clients and people asking about it.”

Between 2012 and 2013, the Outdoor Industry Association report said, kayak fishing saw a 28-percent increase in participation. Pretty dramatic, but to Fronrath the fascination makes sense. 

“It’s a different feel,” he said. “There’s no sound of the motor. You’re real quiet, real stealthy, so it’s an overall great experience. Every trip feels like an adventure in a kayak.”

Kayaks allow anglers to fish places they never would be able to otherwise, and you don’t have to fill the vessels with gas or oil like you do a drift boat. There’s a physicality to handling a kayak that is lost with a drift boat, Fronrath said, but kayaks are becoming increasingly stable and easy for even first-time fishermen to stand up and cast a fly line. 

Still, they’re not for everybody. Drift boat and wading trips far outstrip those conducted on kayaks or paddle boards, though demand for the last two has been steadily increasing. 

“It just depends,” Fronrath said. “The people that are older and not as active, they’re more suited for drift boats. It seems like it’s more the younger crowd that wants to get into the kayaks.”


The SUP craze 

The same goes for stand up paddle boards, which Fronrath also uses for fishing trips. As far as fishing, paddle boards and kayaks have many of the same benefits and draw interest from a similar group of people, he said. 

“It’s definitely fitness-oriented,” Fronrath said of the uptick in kayak and paddle board trips. “You’re getting a good workout, you’re having fun and you’re not having too much of an impact on the environment. I think all those things hand-in-hand are driving the sport of paddle boarding and kayaking, and the fishermen are right there.”

Stand up paddleboards aren’t only for anglers, though. In fact, their versatility is one of the alluring things about them said Charles Conner, marketing manager for Nantahala Outdoor Center. 

“A lot of people do yoga on their stand up paddle boards,” Conner said. “You can fish off of stand up paddle boards, you can go snorkeling off of stand up paddle boards, you can go backpacking. You can basically throw whatever gear you want on the stand up paddle board and go out and do it.”

Between 2012 and 2013, stand up paddle boarding saw more growth than any sport, gaining 29 percent in participation. Over the three years from 2010 to 2013, the sport had the third highest percentage growth rate, garnering a 24-percent increase in participation. 

“We’re very dialed in to the outdoor industry associations, so we kind of knew that this was going to be a popular trend,” Conner said. “I still think it’s been even more popular than we thought it would be.”

Besides the board’s versatility, Conner said, he believes its simplicity is also an attraction. With just two pieces of equipment — a board and a paddle — you can be on your way to the water. There’s no spray skirt to buy, no boat to drain. And while some uses can be harder to learn, such as whitewater paddle boarding, it’s usually a pretty easy sport to take part in.

“It’s easy and it’s affordable, and I think that’s part of what makes it a really accessible sport,” Conner said. “That’s one of the things holding back whitewater kayaking. People aren’t just flooding the markets with whitewater kayaks, because they’re so specific.”

In short, Conner said, stand up paddle boards are “really awesome.”

“In my personal use, the thing I have found really interesting about them is that kids really love them,” he said. “They’re kind of like a little floating dock. Kids can play on them and do jumps off them.”

In the end, though, it’s about personal preference, because outdoors enthusiasts are really only looking for one thing. 

“For the outdoors lovers,” Fronrath said, “it’s just another way to get out there and enjoy the outdoors.”



Fast stats

• Adventure racing, off-road triathlons, stand up paddle boarding and kayak fishing are some of the fastest-growing outdoor sports. 

• Running, jogging and trail running comprise the most popular category of adult outdoor activities, enticing 16.2 percent of adults for an average of 81 outings per participant in 2013. The same goes for youth ages 6 to 24, 29.3 percent of whom engaged in these activities an average of 82 times in 2013. 

• The 2013 outdoor participation rate is down slightly from 2012 — 49.2 percent as opposed to 49.4 percent — but higher than the 2008 figure of 48.6 percent and on par with the 2006 figure of 49.1 percent. 

• Some winter sports are on a downward trend, with participation in downhill skiing seeing an 11 percent decrease between 2010 and 2013. In the same time period, snowboarding decreased by 7.7 percent, cross-country skiing by 8.9 percent and snowshoeing by 6.6 percent. 

Source: Outdoor Industry Association’s 2014 Outdoor Recreation Participation Topline Report. 

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