By the end of April, however, interest had resumed. “Usually, with significant orders we have a little bit of lead time,” Mrs. Johnson-Leipold said. Not this time. Demand for boats — tandem kayaks stood out as a surprising example — was “through the roof,” with orders soon outpacing production. People were fishing more, or taking it up for the first time. Later, especially as public lands began to reopen, demand for camping gear followed; Mrs. Johnson-Leipold suspects that, if current trends continue, Eureka and Jetboil could soon be dealing with backorders, too.
For much of the outdoor recreation industry, this is generally good news: lots of people buying lots of things, potentially finding hobbies or forming habits that will last for years. “The participation rate will grow,” said Mrs. Johnson-Leipold.
Outdoor recreation is, of course, seasonal, and nobody is quite sure what’s going to happen when winter comes. REI, for example, is reconsidering what its stores will look like come fall, when customers would normally expect to see store displays filled with gear for ski and snowboard outings that, this year, could be risky or impossible.
Shortages also have consequences. A lot of outdoor gear is produced overseas, ordered a year ahead and sold seasonally, meaning some sold-out items won’t reappear until 2021. As with bikes, however, many of the first products to sell out are more affordable and practical options — a stark reminder that some of the industry’s underlying problems are the same as they were in January.
“The dampening effect is real,” said Kenji Haroutunian, a consultant and diversity and inclusion advocate for the outdoor industry. Outside is free, as plenty of enthusiasts will insist, but outdoor gear can be expensive, even in the best of times. As Covid-19 continues to spread, many formerly social activities have been reduced to individual or family pursuits, leaving would-be participants without access to the people and communities that could otherwise welcome them. “Indoor climbing, for example, is more diverse than outdoor,” said Mr. Haroutunian, but gyms are closed, “and that’s cutting off a chain of new climbers.”
Mr. Haroutunian is cautiously optimistic. Close-to-home recreation is on the rise around diverse urban centers. Lots of outdoors companies are hiring, and he’s heard that larger general interest retailers are ramping up investments in recreational gear, some of it more affordable than what you might find at REI. It’s an opportunity to be seized or blown. “When times are good, people forget that you have to invest in maintaining the future,” he said.