Outdoor enthusiasts up their game with gear upgrades

After two years of booming cycling and camping sales, MEC and Altitude are seeing consumers return for more than the basics.

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By Will Novosedlik 

In the first year of the pandemic, when everyone was suddenly locked indoors as the virus tore through cities and towns, warm weather brought us out of our homes for some much-needed fresh air. But the need to keep a safe distance from each other prompted us to engage in activities that could be enjoyed alone or within our bubbles. For instance, camping and cycling.

According to outdoor sports specialist Altitude Sports, year-over-year growth in camping and cycling shows that people who invested in these categories for the first time in 2020 came back for more in 2021. While first time campers may have bought the basics in 2020 – tents and sleeping bags – in 2021 they came back for accessories like bug sprays, dishware and cooking utensils.

Altitude says it saw 141% year-over-year growth in sales of camping equipment from 2020 to 2021. Sales of accessories jumped 91%. Similarly with cycling, the overall category saw year-over-year growth of 127%, while helmets jumped 107%, sunglasses skyrocketed by 558% and wearables like vests, sweaters, bibs, shorts and shirts saw a 217% growth.

Adam Ketcheson, chief product officer at outdoor sports retailer MEC, says he saw a similar pattern to Altitude.

“We saw a lot of new people come to camping, especially families due to their limited ability to travel,” says Ketcheson. “And then, we saw a lot of very experienced outdoor people who had always camped spend more of their dollars in the space and in activities around the camping lifestyle. For instance, we saw multi-day backpacking really rebound after decades of slowing down.”

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This development is very definitely a response to pandemic restrictions. It may also be related to the so-called Great Resignation (or Great Renewal), wherein people either left or lost their jobs and took advantage of their newfound freedom to explore new possibilities in life and work.

“If you think back 20 years ago people would buy a 70-litre pack and go on a five or six day backpacking trip,” says Ketcheson. “Over the last 20 years that has become very much a single day adventure. But when COVID hit, all of a sudden people rediscovered the sport of multi-day backpacking.”

Ketcheson goes on to say that, in general, the way people enjoy the outdoors is changing. More people are shifting into things like mountain biking and backcountry skiing. So while MEC obviously didn’t see a reduction in the amount of people doing outdoor things, it did see them explore other outdoor categories.

“What we’re expecting to see this year is people purchasing accessories to make their activity more enjoyable and buying new gear because now they know what they need,” says Marie-Hélène Choquette-Zaurrini, brand marketing director at Altitude. “So for example, we’ve been seeing an increase of 235% in sales of coolers since January. And it’s not even April yet. Camping chairs are up 140%. Camping dishes are up 71%.”

Ketcheson is seeing the same thing. “They’re coming back looking for the next level of kit. They’re coming back for a slightly more comfortable sleeping bag or a slightly lighter backpack, or to upgrade their shoes because they are bit more committed to their newfound interest in camping and hiking.”

Now that mask and other mandates are being lifted, what other trends are sports and outdoor retailers seeing? “We’ve seen a 41% lift in bags and luggage, a 136% increase in swimwear and 92% increase in sandals since January,” says Choquette-Zaurrini said. Given that these purchases are happening over the winter, it suggests people have been more comfortable with flying to sunny destinations.

Altitude has also seen growth sales of water sports equipment. “Water sports is a category that we introduced last year,” says Choquette-Zaurrini. “It includes swimwear and water shoes, but also stand-up paddles and kayaks. Inflatable kayaks are a new category that we’re introducing. People want to be on the water again.”

Categories that were popular during the lockdowns, like yoga and home gym equipment, appear to be losing consumer interest.

“Yoga and home gym are down,” says Choquette-Zaurrini. “Earlier in the pandemic, people equipped themselves with elastic bands, weights, yoga mats and so forth. Now that it’s spring people are less interested in indoor training. We’re seeing a 66% decrease year over year in elastic bands and 38% decrease in sales of yoga mats since January.” (This is also partly due to the fact that this kind of equipment lasts more than a season. Once you’ve got a set of weights or a yoga mat, you don’t need to replace them for years.)

With spring here and summer around the corner, Altitude is over-investing in cycling. And MEC is confident that sales of camping equipment will continue to be robust. “We’re betting that when people start or reconnect with camping, they have some pretty unbelievable experiences,” says Ketcheson. “You don’t meet too many people who go camping once and say it was awful. It’s more like, ‘I can’t wait to do it again.’”

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