By Dirk Sorenson
My favorite childhood memories are of trips with my dad to fly fish and camp in Colorado and Utah. I will be a heretic and say I hated the fly fishing part, but I went to enjoy family time and the outdoors. Those trips were incredible, multi-day excursions that included leaky tents, testy camp stoves, meals from cans, and coolers that really didn’t hold their cool. I learned to start fires, set up tents, and sleep under the stars. These were the fundamentals of my summers, and the moments that made me a permanent camping guy.
Times have changed. And I’m not talking about the fact that I now own a tent that doesn’t leak, or a stove that actually works.
The COVID-19 crisis has challenged me to find additional uses for my camping equipment, to entertain my 10-year old son in our backyard. My equipment is becoming multipurpose — it isn’t just about the multi-day family trip anymore, but a fundamental tool in keeping my family entertained, active, and focused on more than a video game or the latest TikTok snippet.
Last week, I went on a purchasing binge for camping items to invent more options for summertime backyard activities. Those same purchases will end up supporting my family all summer long, as I seek ways to reinvent summer now that our traditional vacation plans have been cancelled. Instead of a flight to see family 2,000 miles away, we’ll pack up our car, meet our family somewhere in the middle, and camp. Items like a new tent, better cooler, portable tables, chairs, and more fuel are all going to be used both in the backyard and during this camping adventure.
Looking at NPD data, I realize that I’m not alone in my outdoor equipment-buying behavior. Recreational tents showed strong sales in the last two weeks of April, with sales up 32% in the week ending May 2 compared to last year. Grills, a backyard staple, have consistently performed better week-over-week since the COVID-19 crisis changed our lives. Other camp basics are also beginning to sell better now than at comparable times last year, including camp tables, camp chairs, and lanterns. All of these items can be used both in the backyard and at the campground. My overall takeaway in looking at camping’s leaders and bleeders is that multipurpose products that can be used in both environments are experiencing growth, while those exclusive to hardcore camping or travel have yet to emerge from the crisis.
Embracing outdoor moments and looking to create them in the comfort of our backyards has been a natural response to stay-at-home orders. With air travel showing slow improvement and family vacation options like theme parks limited, camping could have a breakout summer.
Camping has traditionally been an approachable family vacation. The key for brands and retailers will be to focus on this version of the outdoor experience — camping as fun, quality family time, whether it is at the campground or in the backyard — and evoking first timers looking to create memorable summer moments for their family.
Brands and retailers have an important role to play not only in encouraging outdoor activity, but also lending a helpful ear. They must embrace ways to go the extra mile to help new campers plan purchases and discover places to camp out, and create glamping moments in their customers’ backyards. Family is the fuel for the camping market this season. All of these basic steps should help to improve summer sales as consumers turn to new options to reinvent vacation this year.
Dirk Sorenson is executive director and industry analyst of sports for research firm NPD.