Outdoor recreation tends to attract more of a niche demographic, but it is still an important component of campus recreation. And just like any other programming, outdoor programming has trends.
To get insight on the latest trends in outdoor recreation, Campus Rec picked the brains of Ty Atwater, the director of outdoor recreation programs at Montana State University, and Jordan Frank, the coordinator of outdoor programs at Boise State University, to find out what’s new in outdoor recreation, what’s on the way out and what popular programs to start taking advantage of:
“There are trends toward more academic programming associated with outdoor recreation,” said Atwater. “We’re seeing a lot of different departments across the country working with academic units on campus to create programming where students are coming in and maybe taking a class in rock climbing and then earning academic credit for it.”
According to Atwater, Montana State has been offering “activity-based courses” for a few years and just recently began incorporating outdoor recreation classes into that lineup. In doing so, he hopes to encourage students to pursue as many outdoor activities as they want, where previously they might have been restricted by a busy class schedule.
In Boise, Idaho, outdoor aquatic activities are more prevalent.
“We are seeing an increase in participation in water sports, specifically whitewater rafting and stand up paddle boards,” said Frank. “This has been a consistent trend for the last few years, but with cheaper prices and easy access to most rivers and lakes around Boise, it is a good fix for the student population on campus.”
With the rise of popularity of outdoor programs at Boise State, the university has had to expand its offerings, bringing some unique twists to the table.
“This year, snowshoeing to a hot spring is the hot ticket item for our trips, as well as a coastal backpack [trip] on the Lost Coast of California, bringing something extra to normal activities,” said Frank.
But every programming problem doesn’t have the same solution. Each university is different, with a unique student body, campus recreation staff and culture. They’ll all face programming challenges specific to their locations, and it’s at those junctures that some very creative ideas are born.
“I would say we’re seeing a lot of development and progression [toward] needs-specific programming,” said Atwater. “An example for Montana State: we are building an avalanche beacon park on campus, so we’re working with some different entities on campus and off campus to create a training space for students to come in and practice their avalanche rescue skills. Part of the reason for that is we have a distinct campus — we’re really close to some really great skiing and skiing is potentially in avalanche terrain.”
And outside of the overarching, industry-wide trends, there are some smaller operations trends that could prove beneficial to other universities.
“This is subtler, but [we’re seeing] the proliferation of facilities that are designed with specific outcomes in mind,” said Atwater. “An example might be when somebody is building a new climbing wall, not just building a new climbing wall for the climbers but also thinking about what it is going to take for this wall to be well-managed and for us to use it as an educational tool.”
Outdoor recreation programs are like relationships. They need the right people involved, the right foundation and purpose, and the right amount of passion from two parties. Sometimes, they just don’t work out and it’s time to move on. And before you ask — it’s not you, it’s them.
“One of the things that’s a little less popular with our students is that expeditionary style of programming — these multi-night, multiple week kind of programs,” said Atwater. “A lot of that can be tied back to the volume of other things they’re being asked to accomplish, including school. If you were to look across the industry now, a lot of folks are offering weekend and one-day outings as a more regular occurrence.”
Just like expeditionary programming, many programs that don’t experience a high level of success are forced out of action. This does not mean, however, that they have been completely shot down.
Boise State’s campus recreation department also tends to take a more tentative approach to eliminating programs. “I wouldn’t say we have completely phased out any of our activities,” said Frank. “It is more of they are in a hibernation status and one day might be really popular.”
“I think a lot of our students are picking university campuses that not only meet their academic goals, but also line up with what they want to be doing in their free time,” said Atwater. “They’re finding campuses that fit those needs, and campuses are figuring that out, too.”
According to Atwater, a major draw of Montana State in particular is its proximity to exciting natural areas. “It’s all about mountains and minds — that’s kind of our tagline,” he said. “We’re seeing students come to campus because of the access to the outdoors, specifically skiing terrain.”
At Boise State, the popular programming theme is traveling. “We are seeing an interest in ‘destination’ locations,” said Frank. “It seems if someone has seen it on social media or magazines, or have heard from a friend, they are more apt to try it out themselves.”
Frank joked that it could be a hot spring, waterfall or anything in nature, but “people want that picture of it.” There is an understated joy found in simply exploring the great outdoors.
If you’re looking for unique, warm weather programming that will bring students back out of hibernation at the start of spring, try something like stand up paddle boarding.
“We’re also seeing stand up paddle boarding is a popular activity we see lots of students and staff participating in during the summer months,” said Atwater. “I would say that’s probably been one of the biggest changes we’ve seen occur.”
But over in Boise, the tried and true outdoor activities are still popular. “The classic sports — skiing, snowboarding, backpacking, rafting and climbing — still dominate the scene today,” said Frank.
New programs may have significant allure to them, but they shouldn’t take precedence over activities you know your students love.
A surefire way to develop new ideas for relevant and popular programming is to meet and share ideas with other campus recreation leaders.
“There are many professional organizations that wear the outdoor rec leadership cap that we end up being a part of,” said Atwater. “Being involved in those things can be a really great way to stay current.”
Staying connected and current with industry experts can’t fail, but keeping your finger to the pulse of your student body will also deliver promising results.
“Student involvement is key for us,” said Frank. “If a student has an idea and wants to pursue it and more students jump on it, as a department we will try and give them resources necessary to engage in the activity.”