A look at how the outdoor offerings has exploded in popularity over the past year.
There are a few positives from the COVID-19 pandemic that began in 2020.
One of them is the fact more and more people got outside. “Students are craving outdoor activities since the pandemic has forced many of them to spend more time indoors,” said Michael Hatch, the Outdoor Adventure Program director at Eastern Oregon University. “Outdoor activities have become increasingly popular as they are some of the few activities available to students with most indoor facilities closed or offering reduced services.”
The landscape of outdoor adventures is ever-changing. But, the outdoors has remained constantly available through it all, which is evident by what programs took off around the nation since the spring of 2020.
At Eastern Oregon, the most popular activities during the past year have been hiking, backcountry skiing and snowboarding, and yoga. At Michigan Technological University’s (Michigan Tech) Outdoor Adventure Program, there has been an increased demand for guided/led adventures, Key Log Rolling, the Nordic ski rental and snowshoe rental program, and mountain biking.
“Outdoor recreation has been a go-to for people this past year,” said Jared Johnson, the director of the Michigan Tech Outdoor Adventure Program. “I hope we can continue to see support, awareness and progress in protecting natural areas and supporting local non-profit outdoor-focused groups for the benefit of everyone.”
Robert Jones, the senior manager of Campus Recreation Services Outdoor Adventures at the University of Utah, shared watersports like standup paddle boarding and kayaking are booming right now, along with cycling, adventure travel, camping and boating. “These trends are supported by social distancing required for COVID, but I see the trend continuing,” said Jones.
However, restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic made many outdoor programs pivot even with the offerings taking place outside. Johnson said they were only allowed four people in a 15-passenger van, greatly reducing reach. Yet, many students were willing and able to drive themselves to a trailhead to meet trip staff.
Hatch noted they had similar barriers. “During the pandemic, we had to limit the number of students we transport and have heavily relied on students transporting themselves to the trailheads and such,” he said. “This has reduced access for those students who do not have their own transportation.”
Facing even tighter restrictions, Jones said at Utah they could only provide equipment. All trips, activities and events were on hold through early spring of 2021.
But despite such obstacles, creativity ensued to overcome them. For example, Hatch reported they offered their yoga classes online and got a positive response. Students have found them to be a great way to decompress and reduce stress, making them a popular offering.
Michigan Tech has water access, so instead of transporting students to a launch site for the popular paddling trips, the program continued right from campus, with some adjustments. The Outdoor Adventure Program team shifted to paddle demos and short loop-style paddle trips. “Leaving from campus makes it much easier for participants but limits what we can see and do,” said Johnson. “We are hoping to get back to what would be considered our ‘normal’ programming season and work through any restrictions we need to.”
Looking ahead, Johnson said there’s been a lot of discussion and contingency planning for the fall semester. The Outdoor Adventure Program is building its programming based on university guidelines, as well as the ability to pivot.
“We want to plan activities that can be changed if needed with little impact to participants and can stay true to the concept of the activity,” said Johnson. “It does force us to have a back-up plan in case things change but allows us to plan almost as close to normal as we can.”
Michigan Tech is hoping to:
At Eastern Oregon, Hatch hopes to offer everything they did pre-pandemic. Plus, he does want the trend of higher outdoor usage to continue. This includes the spike he saw in their avalanche safety course due to more interest in backcountry skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing and Nordic skiing. “Much of this increase is due to the fact outdoor recreation was one of the few safe options for folks to engage in social interactions or things to do during a pandemic when many indoor activities were deemed too risky or closed entirely,” said Hatch. “Hopefully, this participation and spike in interest will continue post-pandemic.”
He also noted they’ve been focusing on producing experiences and courses that appeal to the rural demographic. These include offerings like:
But that’s not the only thing he envisions taking off in outdoor offerings. “I also see a ton of interest in our meditation and mindfulness course offerings,” said Hatch. “In the near future, I see an ever-expanding interest in how nature interactions can benefit our overall health.”
In fact, Eastern Oregon is creating academic programs that focus on the prescriptive benefits of nature. Hatch explained as research expands, he sees more prescriptions for nature interactions to improve health. “As a result, there will be an increased need for outdoor recreation and health professionals who cater to such experiences,” he said. “Namely, recreation therapists, forest bathing guides, lifestyle coaches, outfitters and guiding services, corporate wellness program coordinators, and recreation specialists at the federal, state and municipal levels.”
Whether it’s an academic focus, getting students outside to hike and ski, or using nature for mental health benefits, the ever-changing landscape of outdoor adventures has one thing that doesn’t seem to be changing, and that’s its existence.
“The benefit outdoor recreation provides for students or people in general are tremendous,” said Johnson. “Fresh air, a little dirt or mud on your shoes, and a day spent wandering in the woods provides a much-needed respite from the daily grind for so many of our students.”