If you’re reading this article, you’ve likely done it before, gone hiking. Now, if you have gone hiking before, you are not alone. Hiking is the most popular outdoor activity in the United States according to a survey conducted by Outside Magazine.
So, is hiking becoming more popular? Yes, hiking has seen an increase of almost 3 million more people per year since 2016. From 2015-2020, hiking has seen about a 34% increase in the United States. In this age of social media, awareness of outdoor spaces has increased dramatically, and with this increase – the urge to explore and see it in person.
This steady increase in the number of people hiking in America is only growing as each year passes. Hiking has always been an option for humans, I mean, it is just walking but in the wilderness instead of a sidewalk. Still, despite its simplicity, hiking has inspired countless books, movies, and minds.
What is it about hiking that has drawn more and more people to the trail every year?
Study referenced: (travelweekly.com)
Hiking is becoming more and more mainstream
According to Statista, hiking has seen a gradual increase every year since 2006. However, the most significant jump in interest occurred in 2015. However, human interest in the outdoors is not a new phenomenon.
We have been surrounded by authors like Thoreau, John Muir, and Edward Abbey since the mid-19th century. Sure, these guys weren’t always exactly “mainstream,” but they’re of the most influential environmental activists and authors to date.
Hiking was first included as an outdoor activity in the Forest Service annual report in 1933. So, hiking has been an American pastime for a while. However, from the 1930s up until about the 1950s, only wealthy white folks or dirtbags took much interest in the wilderness. Many Americans enjoyed walks in the city parks and an occasional camping trip, but hiking wasn’t a daily or weekly activity like it is for us now.
The National Parks and Forests began to see an increase in outdoor recreation interest starting in 1950. In fact, from 1950 to 1955, the park visitor numbers grew from 27 million to 46 million. That is all participation in outdoor recreation, though. In those five years, the park and forest services went from 634,000 hikers to over 1 million. The number of hikers eventually tripled by 1964, and it hasn’t slowed down since.
Hiking popularity is at an all time high
Deciding why exactly hiking has become so popular is somewhat subjective. Some things have influenced the interest American’s have in going for a hike, but a definitive answer is going to be hard to come by.
The most common theories as to why hiking is so popular now include social media, Hollywood, advertising, and generational culture shifts.
Social media impacts
Social media has become an integral part of our society. Most of us use it multiple times a day, and if we ever do anything “noteworthy,” we have to share it online. Social media has become a powerful advertising tool and a way to share recent news.
I don’t think that there is a question to the fact that social media has brung awareness to our public lands, but how much has it impacted our interest in hiking?
One of the major impacts that social media has had in the world of outdoor recreation and hiking is awareness. As platforms like Instagram and Snapchat grew in popularity, so did the desire people had to get outside.
Social Media can give a “fear of missing out” vibe and as we scroll through our newsfeed, we want to show the world how fabulous our life is too. Some influencers really do want to protect our wild spaces to share awareness for things like Leave No Trace. Then there are others only trying to make money and get more followers.
Where other forms of advertisement are “be in the right place at the right time” or only target audiences see it, social media is for everyone. That means that no matter your race, gender, socioeconomic class, or location in the world, as long as you have internet, you have access.
This was a strange transition for outdoor spaces that are used to getting the word out through guidebooks that only sold a handful a year or a publication in Backpacker Magazine. Now, someone uploads a photo of a beautiful landscape, tags the location, and shows it to thousands of people instantly.
Social media platforms are incredible tools at times, but they also can be detrimental. As more and more people begin to seek out the “perfect shot” for their insta timeline, the more overused that outdoor space becomes.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I think it is great that more people want to venture onto the trail. But there needs to be more awareness in regards to how to care for those spaces when you visit.
All that being said, social media has played an extremely instrumental role in the rising number of hikers each year. As more generations come to use social media, the more exposure these beautiful trails will get.
This deserved a space separate from social media while it is still tied directly to it. There is one specific example of outdoor advertising that showed just how powerful a message could be that I want to highlight today, and that is the Mighty Five in Utah.
In 2012, the office of tourism in Utah came up with a plan to turn Utah into the “go-to place” for outdoor adventure. A place that was accessible, unbelievably breathtaking, and could provide an escape from everyday life. This campaign involved billboards, subway ads, taxi cab topper ads, and of course, a tv commercial.
The Mighty Five includes Utah’s five, now famous, National Parks: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Arches, and Capitol Reef. The ads showed the mainstream world the unmistakable beauty of Utah that before only had a cult following. The advertisement campaign was such a success that in just four years, those five National Parks had a 20% visitor increase.
They jumped from 6.3 million to over 10 million. Jumping to 2020, outdoor recreation tourism is now in the top-ten business sectors in Utah.
This is only one of the numerous examples that we could give you today. Advertising can be powerful when it is authentic and raw. I remember the Mighty Five ads. They weren’t extraordinary as far as an advertisement goes, but the images were. Utah simply highlighted the landscaped they found awe-inspiring because they knew the rest of the world would too.
This advertising campaign became a trend in the outdoor industry, and other states, the National Park Service and outdoor retailers like REI, began to follow suit. As more and more outdoor locations started to advertise, more and more hikers flocked to the trails. They wanted to know what all the hoopla was about, and once they were there, they only wanted more.
Another pinnacle part of the hiking boom is a shift in culture. American culture has changed a lot in the last ten years, and that is partially due to generations like the millennials and gen Z. Although social media plays a huge part in these two generations’ lives, it is not why I am bringing it up here.
Most millennials, including myself, have begun to value experiences over material things. Not that we don’t want to be successful, but we want to live our best lives. This simple idea shift is what brings more young people outdoors every day. They want to see the world and what it has to offer them.
There was also a shift in the use of technology. Almost everyone uses technology in some way or another throughout the day and we are practically guaranteed it be a part of work or school. With so much screen time, people need an escape. The outdoors makes individuals feel a part of something and can bring a sense of being grounded. People want to “unplug” from their day to day, and hiking gives them that in an accessible way.
Just like with social media and advertising, Hollywood has a way of bringing awareness to topics. Books do this too, and often, books inspire movies. One movie often referenced when discussing a rise in outdoor interest is “Wild,” originally a book by Cheryl Strayed. The movie was released in 2014.
While there is no definitive evidence to tie this particular movie or any movie to the influx of hikers in recent years, especially between 2015 and 2016, the idea should be entertained. I read Cheryl’s memoir, and it was a good one. It was inspiring and relatable, especially during the time of my life when I read it. It gave light to the beauty and experience something as simple as a hike can provide you, especially when you’re struggling.
This book is not coming up just because it is a worthwhile read, though. In 2013 (a year before the movie release), the Pacific Crest Trail gave out 1,872 permits to hike. Then, that permit number jumped to 7,313 by 2018.
“Wild” is only one of the most famous examples, but there have been many other successful memoirs reflecting on a hiker’s time on the trail. These memoirs awaken something in many readers that were always there. Inspiring stories like these inspire people to explore our nation’s trail systems.
Hiking permits becoming more common
In National Parks and hiking trails alike, there has been an effort by the trail workers to try and minimize the wear on the trails. One of the most common ways to do this is by issuing a limited number of permits per day, month, or year. This is especially true to well-known thru-hikes like the Pacific Crest Trail.
As an example, the PCT permit regulations are as follows:
“The U.S. Forest Service authorizes PCTA to issue 50 permits per day for trips starting near the Mexican border, 1,400 permits for section hikers crossing the John Muir Trail overlap, 600 permits for trips starting in the Southern Sierra, and 15 permits per day for trips starting near the Canadian border.”
Now, thru-hikes are not the only places that require a permit. There are day hikes in Zion National Park that require a permit for visitor safety and restriction of access. In some places like The Wave near the border of Arizona and Utah, there is so much interest in hiking that you have to enter a lottery so you aren’t even guaranteed a hiking spot.
All of these examples demonstrate that the interest in hiking has increased, and in some places, it must be managed. These permits are not set in place to deter you from enjoying the natural world, but to protect the landscape and the hikers that enter.
What makes hiking so amazing?
To me, hiking is one of the best ways to experience the outdoors. There are plenty of other outdoor options that provide incredible experiences, but hiking gives you a chance to really be in the moment. Hiking is amazingly accessible, and almost anyone can do it. It can be inclusive, challenging, and beautiful.
It is hard for me to choose a favorite hike because I have had so many different challenges and insights on the trail. However, one of my most memorable hikes was also one of my first backpacking trips as an adult. Our party of four was traveling through Peru, and we decided that we should experience it on a deeper level. So, we rented camping equipment as this was a last-minute endeavor and picked a place.
I’m not sure if it was the fact that it was so spontaneous, I had great company, or because I was experiencing the mountains of Peru for the first time, but that trip was life-changing.
“It gave me more perspective than any University could have, it brought me closer to nature, and it gave me a sense of community in a foreign place.”
Hiking is fantastic not just because it brings you outside closer to nature, but because it can be done alone or with others. Alone, you have a chance to connect with yourself and your surroundings deeply. These can be intensely introspective and, at times, difficult journeys but almost everyone comes out feeling accomplished.
Then there are group hikes, these have challenges of their own, but in my travels have always brought me closer to my hiking partners.
No matter how far the hike or who I am with, being outdoors surrounded by natural beauty is a reminder of our roots as humans. It is an escape from our tech-filled daily lives, and it provides a sense of home no building ever could.
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From market farming to wilderness survival guide to forestry technician and climbing instructor, Meg has an eclectic work history. But there’s one common factor across all her pursuits: the outdoors. With a formal education in writing, Meg can translate her outdoor experiences into accessible and relatable content for any reader. Now pursuing freelance writing full-time, Meg has found a new base in Pheonix, AZ where she splits her time between writing and new desert adventures.