The Boom in Family Outdoor Adventuring

By Scott Graham
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Eleven-year-old scuba diver Colin Mummery isn't alone in his desire and ability to participate as a youngster in an outdoor sport once considered the sole province of teenagers and adults. Nor are Colin's parents, Mary and John Mummery, alone in sharing their love of outdoor sports with their preadolescent son. Many parents today are turning their kids on to outdoor sports that until recently were considered too radical for youngsters, and outdoor sport manufacturers and outfitters are taking note.

In 2004, world-champion freestyle kayaker Eric Jackson, the father of a daughter and son eager to emulate their dad, sniffed a trend in the making and began producing the Fun 1, a tiny whitewater kayak for paddlers who weigh 80 pounds or less. Rock Island, Tennessee-based Jackson Kayak sold more Fun 1s the first six months following the boat's introduction than the company expected to sell the entire first year, and the Fun 1 has sold steadily since. (To whit: I recently spotted a 3-year-old paddling a Fun 1 around a local pool with his mom and dad.)

When it comes to other sports such as rock climbing, cycling, and trekking, the trend toward kids and families is just as strong.

Eastern Mountain Sports climbing school manager David Kelly reports that the number of children and families signing up for one of EMS's many rock climbing courses has been growing at a phenomenal rate. In 2005, EMS rolled out its Family Climbing Camp at all six of its Northeast climbing locations. The company did so after a pilot run in 2004 at EMS's New Hampshire headquarters site proved extraordinarily successful. EMS accepts climbers as young as 4 for its family courses.

Moab, Utah-based Western Spirit Cycling Adventures introduced its first backcountry mountain biking trip for families in 2000. Today, Western Spirit offers eight family mountain biking adventures around the country, and those backcountry trips account for a full one-third of the outfitter's business. "We have families who have gone on all our trips and are just waiting for us to add more so they can go on those, too," says Western Spirit owner Ashley Korenblat. Children as young as 2, who tag along in pull-behind trailers, are welcome on the trips.

In northern New Mexico, Taos-based Wild Earth Llama Adventures' Stuart Wilde reports that "more and more and more" of the people he guides on wilderness llama pack trips are families with children. "It's up to 60 percent of my business now, and it's just not stopping," he says. Wilde has taken families with babies as young as three months on multiday journeys into the backcountry, and he has led kids as young as 5 up the area's 12,000- and 13,000-foot peaks.

The Genesis of the Outdoor-Sports Boom
Among teenagers and 20-somethings, the boom in fast-paced, or "extreme," outdoor sports began with the inception of ESPN's X Games in 1995. As the teen and young-adult audience for the X Games has grown in the years since, so, too, has participation in outdoor action sports by the same group. The Outdoor Industry Association reports, for example, that over the last few years, participation in playboat kayaking has increased 77 percent among those between the ages of 16 and 24, while telemark skiing is up more than 300 percent among the same age group. Even trail running, at the low end of the adrenaline scale, is up 30 percent.

The increase in participation by parents and pre-teens in outdoor sports has followed the boom among the teen and 20-something crowd. The families-with-kids boom is readily apparent in the travel arena. Larry Mogelonsky, executive director of the San Francisco-based Adventure Collection, an association of adventure tour operators, says many of the operators he represents have seen their bookings for families with children increase by more than 70 percent in the last few years.

From luxury adventure tours to low-cost camping trips, outfitted outdoor adventuring with children is popular. "What we're seeing on the outfitter end of things is that parents want a more intensive holiday for themselves and their kids," Mogelonsky says. "‘Wherever we're going,' they're saying, ‘we want to get the most out of it.'"

Donnie Dove owns Flagstaff, Arizona-based Canyon Rio Rafting, which runs trips for families on rivers in the Southwest. Dove points to the 9/11 attacks as a significant impetus for the increased family business Canyon Rio has seen since 2001. "Up to 9/11 we saw a decline in family multiday adventure trips," says Dove.

Before 9/11, Dove says, families were so busy with work and school and after-school activities that they could squeeze in only what Dove calls "sound-bite" experiences—half-day river trips and other short vacations. Parents didn't have time—or didn't make the time—for the longer, more experiential family trips of the sort Canyon Rio offers.

"After 9/11 there was a retrenching of values, of what it means to have children," Dove says. "The 9/11 attacks got people thinking about what they'll be leaving their kids with when they're gone."

The result has been a steady increase in family business for Canyon Rio, and for outdoor action sport outfitters across the board.

Bringing the Kids Along
The family outdoor industry is booming in part because of a parallel trend: Those people who grew up in the '60s, '70s, and '80s with the advent of backpacking, mountain biking, snowboarding, and other adventure sports now have kids that they'd like to bring along on their outdoor pursuits.

"The children of the outdoors have grown up," says Wild Earth Llamas' Wilde, referring to those of us who came of age during backpacking and camping boom of the last few decades. That boom followed the development of the first generation of lightweight camping and backpacking gear, and the publication of books like Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire and Colin Fletcher's The Man Who Walked Through Time. "We're parents now," says Wilde, "but we don't want to give up our passion and connection to the outdoor world. Instead, we want to share it with our kids."

This trend is easy to spot here in my hometown of Durango, Colorado. Durango, set between mountains and desert in far southwestern Colorado, long has been a mecca for outdoor athletes eager to mountain bike, ski, and climb—often all on the same day.

The outdoor athletes who were drawn to Durango a decade or two ago now have gray in their hair and children of their own—and they're taking their kids along on the pastimes that long have defined their lives. These days the trails around Durango teem with parents and kids mountain biking together. Moms and dads telemark with their children at the local ski area and in the backcountry in winter. In summer, the river through town is busy with parents and kids taking turns surfing waves and pulling play-hole tricks.

In New Mexico, Wilde and his wife, parents of a teenager and a preadolescent, have been exploring the outdoors with their offspring since shortly after their children were born. "It's been a beautiful thing," Wilde says with the wistful air of a parent watching his kids grow up too fast.

Wilde is quick to point out that sharing the wonders of the outdoors with children isn't limited to parents who were already outdoor-experienced before they had kids. Many of the parents in families Wilde takes into the backcountry have never before explored the outdoors. "For them, it's almost better," Wilde says of the first-timer parents, "because they're getting to experience it fresh along with their kids."

Western Spirit Cycling's Korenblat says that's a big reason why companies like hers are so popular. "We're here for everybody who can't get into the backcountry on their own," she says. "If you're coming in from Chicago or wherever, if you've never done anything in the backcountry before, we're here so that you can do it without you or your kids getting dehydrated or sunburned or injured."

Creating that possibility for parents and kids has led directly to the increase in family business Western Spirit has experienced since 2000, and to the similar increase in family business experienced by other outfitters.

The Adventure Collection's Mogelonsky says that the boom in adventure family travel is just beginning. He says tour operators should expect families to demand that the trips they sign up for be even more outdoor-action-oriented in the years ahead.

"Parents, obviously, drive the family-travel market," says Mogelonsky. "Today's parents have high expectations and they want great experiences, for themselves and their kids. That's a trend I see only growing stronger, regardless of whether parents are heading into the outdoors with outfitters or on their own."

Published: 27 Apr 2007 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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