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Backpacking Boom or Bust?

Out of Stock Backpacking Gear
Out of Stock Backpacking Gear

“Backpacking and camping gear is flying off the shelves this year”, said a store manager I know who works at a major outdoor retailer.

“We haven’t seen anything like this since the 70’s,” the last time that backpacking was popular in the United States.

Has the economy improved or are people so inspired by the movie “Wild” that backpacking has become popular again? Is demand being driven by younger millennials or are droves of middle-aged hikers quitting work and heading for the hills?

“We’ve run out tents in our warehouse,” said another rep for a big gear manufacturer I know. “I’ll get you one as soon as our warehouse catches back up.”

It’s the same story with another gear manufacturer.

“We’re completely out of stock. Let me get back to you later in the summer and I’ll see if we have any.”

You know product demand is high when multi-national gear companies run out of stock!

Out of Stock or Back-Ordered

While big gear companies and outdoor retailers have enough depth in their product catalogs to keep consumers satisfied with alternative products, the picture is not as rosy for smaller gear manufacturers that make gear-to-order. They’re heavily backordered, by several months or more, and have the potential to lose business because their customers can’t wait for products that take several months to arrive.

“The problem is that we don’t have the credit line to buy large quantities of material in advance, so we’ve had to delay order deliveries until we can catch up with our back orders,” said the owner of one small “cottage” gear company I spoke with.

Out of stock notices are also widespread on big retailer websites like REI.com and Campsaver.com for select mid-size outdoor brands, even though they’re are more financially sophisticated.

“We had to guess on how much inventory to stock this year and we’re close to running out of some items,” said another medium-sized gear company spokesperson I spoke with.

The 2015 California Dockworker's Strike delayed Asian shipments from entering the USA for months
The 2015 California Dock Worker’s Strike delayed Asian shipments from entering the USA for months

Supply Chain Disruptions

There’s also been some disruptions in the outdoor gear supply chain with a major Asian tent manufacturer going bankrupt and material shortages in the US.

“Our silnylon supplier went out of business and I have a very limited amount of fabric in that color.” said a company owner I spoke to.

“We were really worried about the California dock worker striker earlier this year because we had shipping containers full of gear coming from our factories in Vietnam and China,” said a sales manager I know at a big gear company.

Will Customers Wait for Backordered Gear?

“Millennials want a very different relationship to their gear companies than older customers,” said another small company manager I spoke with. “They’re willing to wait for specialized products.”

“I guess I’m over-the-hill,” I replied.

“I’m not willing to wait all summer for my gear to arrive. The clock is ticking and I need to use my health while I have it.”

What about you?

  • What do you think is the reason behind backpacking’s sudden popularity?
  • Are you willing to wait for back-ordered gear to come back in stock or will you buy another company’s products so you can make the most of this year with the outdoor gear that’s already available?

Please leave a comment.

41 comments

  1. Mmmm. I bought three items in the last three weeks and have had no problems what so ever;. A Bivy bag to replace an old one, a Jungle Sleeping bag, and a Daypack to replace the one where the sewn in straps tore off…. I still have my 10×10 Silnylon Tarp that I bought 10 years ago. So I wonder what it is the younger folks want that I already have? The west Coast Strike had to catch up sooner or later but I do not hear any of my local Retailers having any supply problems.. The problem is with Retailers with a mostly under 35 year old Staff, is that they are no longer keeping large quanties of their items in Stock or in a Warehouse for a couple of reasons, #1 being the “Inventory Tax”. #2. the Cost of Warehousing #3. the Millennial, how can I put this…Their taught in College in business marketing classes that it is not smart to keep a large amounts of inventory if the item is going through many changes in designs, colors, and materials, They have to ready to always jump onto the “new thing” the idea of always having to have something “New” and “Improved” is what their being taught which does not work over the long term as the many bankruptcies and failing businesses have proven.. Meanwhile Eureka! is still selling “the Timberline” tent, standard Forest Green, 6 lb, two person tent that they designed almost 40 years ago for less than $150.00. When I bought mine some 30 years ago it cost $99.00 and it is still a great tent in good condition, but I take care of my gear…I do not use it that much any more since I am mostly a Solo Hiker so either it is a Bivy Tent from Snugpak or a Bivy Bag from Outdoor Research.

  2. Milton Beauregard

    In the past decade there have been many thousands of servicemen discharged from the Armed Forces. They make up a large portion of those who have rucked about in various places and wish to continue doing so in more relaxed conditions. There is also the group of younger enthusiasts that are not satisfied unless they have the newest gear or a selection of gear that is specialized for specific environs. I am one of the latter. I like my gear tailored to specific conditions. Like a North Face Mountain 25 to a Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 to a sturdy GoreTex bivy. This goes for all genres of my gear. This is becoming more predominant in my experience. The more your gear is tailored to your expected experience, the easier, more comfortable your outdoor endeavor can be.

    • You bring up a good point about specialized gear. I know I have 4 tents and a hammock for different conditions. Glamping with the wife, kayaking and solo backpacking. It is not just hikers either. I have a friend who bikes with half a dozen different bikes between him and his wife. Another friend has 4 kayaks plus gear. People are more willing to spend on gear and there are more choices now.

  3. Tomoko Nakajima

    I ordered car camping REI 4p tent with footprint. Tent was delivered within a week, but I haven’t received footprint yet. Not sure I will receive it before I need to use in Brevard, NC in mid June.

    • Forget the footprint; the footprint as an accessory was born of the desire on the part of tent manufacturers to maximize profit. There is no identifiable, compelling reason to buy a footprint, they are simply a gimmick.

      • Evidently you have not camped on Sierra Nevada granite

      • Try a sheet of Tyvek from the insulation department of your local big box home builders’ hardware store. It is pretty hard to abrade Tyvek. Noisier than nylon, but probably more durable. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tyvek Some USPS mailing envelopes are made of Tyvek – I have tent stakes in a used envelope.

      • Here’s what Henry Shires of TarpTent says on the need of a groundsheet:

        Use of a groundsheet depends on the conditions you expect to encounter and your style of camping. The sewn-in flooring is remarkably tough and does not usually require a separate groundsheet. We sell optional Tyvek groundsheets which are very tough and great for sleeping out or taking a break, but generally heavier than you need for floor protection on longer hikes, in most conditions. For use on very rocky ground and desert conditions where puncture wounds are possible, a groundsheet is recommended.

        I think Henry was thinking of you Drew D.

  4. Most of my friends are in their mid thirties to late fifties. (I am 43) I hear the same thing from all of them. They saw their parents work hard all their lives and by the time they retired their health kept them from doing all the things they dreamed of when they were younger. Now people don’t want to wait and want to enjoy life now. A lot of this revolves around doing things outdoors. Camping, biking, running, kayaking etc.

    There is also a drive to get back to a more simpler existence for many of us. My friends and I all work in high stress high tech jobs. The simplicity of getting out and hiking is how we cope and have time to decompress.

    • I agree that the boom is being generated by older working stiffs, not millenials. They have money. Young people don’t and betting your business on them is a badddd… idea.

    • Louis I think you’re exactly right. I’m in that mid-30s grouping and saw exactly this with my father. Too stressed out from work to do anything more than mindless yard work on the weekends off.

  5. It’s all Oprah’s fault! Hehehe.
    I guess it’s time to go through the gear closet and make a few bucks selling things I don’t use anymore.

  6. Sales numbers are up, But I don’t see it as”sudden popularity” of the sport, as much as a steady increase in popularity along with a healthier economy. So shame on bad inventory projections!

    As for gear buying impatience, if people are planning.their big dream trip, they can’t wait. If I need a good product and there is one brand unavailable another good option that is available, I’ll just buy the available option, no need to wait.

    But, if backpacking is a regular part of my life, I have, or can get, the gear I need, and if I have to wait another season to upgrade to a specific product I want, I’ll just grit my teeth and bear the wait.

  7. Maybe it’s a fad, maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s just marketing and all the gear manufacturers sponsoring cool outdoors people that are famous climbers. All I know is that more young people are starting to get into backpacking and camping, and that’s a good thing. People are starting to step away from the Xbox and get some sun and fresh air. My kid is almost 2 and you better believe that I’m going to get him used to camping and hiking at a very young age so he grows up outside. Hey, at least I was doing this long before it was “cool” lol.

  8. Wait a couple of years. Large numbers of the folks jumping into backpacking will use the gear once or twice, decide it’s not for them, and dump it cheap on Craigslist.

  9. I can’t imagine it has much to do with the movie/book Wild. The story seems to do less to glorify backpacking than to present it’s inherent challenges.

    My guess is the boomers out there are finding more time and money on their hands and are seeking to unplug a bit after a long career. Just visit a popular trail journals website and count the number of 55+ hikers on any one of the trails listed.

    They’re probably also being frequently reminded by their doctors to lose weight, exercise, etc. What better way than hiking?

  10. Typically, everyone (manufacturers) tries to balance what they want to produce with what sells with having enough stock with having space for storage, with business overhead…well, the list goes on. That’s running a business. Almost all small manufacturers also provide a degree of customization that cannot be distilled into this mix, because that *is* the nature of custom gear. You get an order, then you can make it. This is ALWAYS a delayed process. In the mean time, you can produce some stuff ahead, pack bodies for example, provided you have help.

    Yes, popularity is one thing driving the market, of course. Movies like “Wild” will increase sales. Seasonal slowdowns in production can be expected, spring is not the best time to be ordering new gear. Suppliers can go out of business, leading to a scramble for a different materiel supplier. When you are geared for 300 packs per year, to get 200 orders for the pack in spring will always enforce delays. And when dock strikes cut off supplies, you cannot do much of anything except make parts for the packs that will eventually be produced, dipping into your operating capital. In some cases shutting down and restarting when materials are available again, with the inevitable delays in these things. Sometimes, *if* they can start up again.

    Yes, this all means delays in getting *my* item. The used market should be good if you have a need, selling or buying. I just hope the new “cool” is permanent. It is all good to be outside, to see our parks and trails utilized. Lets just hope that no one gets hurt. As much as I like to solo hike, there is always a place in the wilds that I can go. It is much more difficult for a new person to go to the same places (‘corse it is getting more difficult for me to as I get older!) Despite the delays, I hope everyone can get out that wants to.

  11. I ordered a Notch from Henry Shire (Tarptents) and got it in two weeks. I didn’t notice a lot of backorder warnings on his site.

    I did have to wait about 4 weeks for my Warbonnet Blackbird, but these are very made to order and isn’t my primary shelter. That was last year. Not sure how waits are this year.

    Good to see backpacking gaining interest. It was less than a year ago I read a story about the death of backpacking and millennials not wanting anything without instant gratification.
    http://www.hcn.org/issues/46.12/the-death-of-backpacking

    -=Dan=-

  12. Actually, after all the gear is bought, hiking, camping and backpacking can be relatively inexpensive. People are staying closer to home for activities. Ten years ago I would never have thought I’d have to reserve a spot in a state park except on holidays. Now, I don’t leave home without knowing I have a spot reserved. Less people are finding flying to Disneyworld worth the hassle…or flying at all.

  13. My guess is there are almost as many reasons for shortages as there are manufacturers. This article highlights an interesting tale.
    http://www.wsj.com/articles/big-kickstarter-campaign-overwhelms-radiate-athletics-1410394283.

    My only anecdotal observation ( based on my 3 kids and their friends) is the younger generation has a fascination that borders on reverence for all that is “new and improved”. Just look at the lifecycle of Iphone offerings and you can see the Pavlovian attraction at work. Backpacking gear is no different. Almost every produce touts the “extreme” advances in new technology ( cuben fiber, “breathable fabrics” unobtanium). Pay $600 and save 4 ounces over your current tent / backpack / jacket etc.

    Sectionhiker ran a great post of 1970’s vintage adds, where all the promotion was focused on strength and durability – buy it once and it will last your lifetime, then give it to your grandkids. I cannot find many products that emphasizes these features today. And who would pay for that anyway, given the general expectation that newer and better is right around the corner.

    Admittedly, I fall into this trap more than I care to admit, But I still look for those 1970’s qualities in a product, although at my age, expecting things to last my lifetime is a relatively low bar. And I still own a car I bought new in 1997 – thankfully free of complex electronics and goes like stink on the track despite having less horsepower than a new Camry.

  14. Great article. What’s wrong with gear swap? These large outdoor cooperatives have them. I think Strayed’s popularized book by Oprah has made things very difficult. We don’t need increased hiker traffic in the popular back country but it’s inevitable. I saw the decline of the quality of back country trails in the late 70’s. Goodness knows what’s going to happen now.

    • Since the 70s the information era has dawned. I’m hoping that increased access to information and education materials will help people understand their impact on nature. Of course I have no way of proving this and we all know someone who throws their garbage on the ground but I’m hopeful for the masses.

  15. Read an article recently about how Nike and Lululemon are pushing hard into the outdoor market to capture the $ from the surge in casual campers.
    http://www.racked.com/2015/5/7/8565149/outdoor-brands-patagonia-rei-nike-lululemon

    As far as why we are seeing the surge, I don’t have any particular insights. But, I think the surge has been building for a while. Look at the number of AT thru hiker starts this year and the amazing financial success of REI and other outdoor retailers as your evidence. Around me, the trailheads are packed these days and some weekends you have to go pretty far to find an empty backcountry campsite.

    Following Wild and the upcoming Bryson movie later this year, I suspect outdoor pursuits will be in fashion for a few years. But, if we’ve learned nothing, we know that fads come and go.

  16. The bad news about this rebirth of backpacking is that I keep coming across more and more people who are lost, in over their heads, or under equipped!!

  17. That’s really interesting. Presumably you can disentangle the effects of higher demand versus supply chain disruptions by looking at sales/revenue data; sales should be up if it’s demand driven, but not necessarily if this is mainly about the supply chain disruptions. I’m a borderline millennial and my willingness to wait for gear is based on whether I currently have a suitable alternative, how long till my next trip, and whether there’s one product I really want or there are other good options. But in general I’m willing to wait to get what I want, although I don’t know that my views are representative of a whole generation.

  18. One of the questions I often get by younger or beginning backpackers is how do I get into backpacking without spending $5K and be able to do multiday trips. How about a challenge to put together a starter kit for under $1,000 which uses quality equipment and is good for three seasons backpacking and weighs less than 20 lbs.

    • Wow, that’s crazy to me that people would think $5k is what you need to build a good backpacking kit (It likely is just ignorance in large part). I put mine together for almost exactly $1k, plus two gifts. I had my eye on things and bought via sale whenever possible (this was done Jan-Feb, which seems like a good time): Marmot Sleeping Bag ($240), Tarptent Rainbow ($230), ULA Circuit ($200), Neoair ($90, Old version right after new version released),Trail Runners ($80), Marmot Precip raincoat ($60), Ursack ($60), Headlamp ($25), Aquamira drops ($12), odds and ends ($50). For Christmas I got a stove/pot, for my birthday I got a Patagonia Nanopuff, and I already had hiking clothes. I did a ton of research on BPL and bought everything in one swoop four years ago and haven’t changed my kit at all besides adding an inflatable pillow and swapping in a Sawyer Squeeze. It’s about 12 pounds. I bought all new, but obviously used is a good option. It can be done!

    • I’ve been thinking about that. I’m also revieiwng some less expensive products at the moment to help fill that gap.

      • That would be great. I think people need to understand that brands like LL Bean, REI, Columbia, and even some Nike stuff can get them through the back country just fine. I’ve started wearing some cheap running shorts on my hikes and they work just as good as my 5x more expensive hiking shorts. They don’t have as many features and pockets but they work just fine.

      • I’m excited to hear that you plan to review some less expensive products. Being a recent college graduate with limited financial resources, I’ve had to buy backpacking gear on a rather tight budget. I think that one of the best ways to reduce the cost of getting into backpacking is to prioritize acquiring the proper skill set and educational background before buying lots of gear. Double wall tents, GPS devices, pre-made first aid kits, liquid gas stoves, 70L backpacks, and all kinds of unnecessary contingency and luxury items are all expensive purchases that can often be replaced by much cheaper and lighter gear, or eliminated altogether, if certain skills are learned.

        When I walk into my local REI and see an abundance of really expensive gear options for backpacking and a dearth of educational resources (there is only a small section of one shelf that is dedicated to hiking/backpacking that usually only contains one or two semi-useful gear and skill guides), I’m not surprised that people think it takes thousands of dollars to get into backpacking.

  19. Unless it is something very specific I want, I won’t wait for backordered gear. I have a busy trip schedule to keep to. I don’t have time for delays.

  20. I’m not nearly as “new and improved” as the gear I own!

  21. I bet you could completely outfit yourself from garage sales and Craigslist for under $300. It might not be the newest hi tech gear, but it will be perfectly serviceable. And it might not be the lightest weight, but if you’re 25 years old you can carry an extra few pounds without strain.
    I personally sold a nearly unused winter tent for $50 and an MSR X-G/K for $25 at my garage sale last summer. I’m glad that someone is getting some use out of them.

  22. I can’t imagine taking up something as involved as backpacking based only on seeing a movie – but maybe that’s just me. I wonder if a lot of the resurgence may be generational and cultural. Being a baby-boomer, my children are now young adults and backpacking is something my son and I enjoy doing together (I am no fun to game with). I have always enjoyed being outside and backpacking is a logical progression from a lifetime of car-camping and day-hiking. So maybe for other baby-boomers, like me, now that we have a little more free time we are getting back to, or getting more deeply into, some things we have enjoyed all along.
    I also wonder whether the economy struggling since 2008 and then gradually recovering a bit is part of the resurgence of backpacking. Perhaps many of us now have a little breathing room in our budgets. However, I think for me, and probably for some other people, I have been more mindful of living simply and sustainably which can also be consistent with backpacking trips for long weekends or vacations. This does not mean I will be replacing gear frequently – I am looking for good value and we research gear quite a bit before we buy. This year our/my big purchases are a Six Moon Designs Lunar Duo outfitter tent and a Gregory Deva backpack . I don’t know if I could bring myself to spend $1000 in a season outfitting myself for backpacking, never mind $5000 (yikes!)…just too frugal for that. Fortunately the gear we most wanted to buy was in stock so we didn’t have to wait. I probably would have waited a while for the Six Moons tent because after extensive research it really seemed like the best tent for the budget and our preferences. I’ve already started my wishlist for next year too ;) I’ve tried Craigslist a few times and don’t ever plan to do it again. Way too many scammers out there and every CL encounter I’ve had has left me with a bit of that icky feeling. I will gladly pay a little more money to be sure I’m not buying stolen merchandise and to avoid that icky feeling.

  23. Around where I live, getting your gear at an REI is for yuppies. My bet is that the two big-box hunting/fishing/camping stores Cabela’s and Bass Pro (plus the Boy Scouts supply store) sell more camping gear in the St. Louis MO region than REI and Alpine Shop, the two hiking/biking/kayaking/camping stores. Not to mention, there is a more modest selection at Dick’s Athletics chain store and Walmart. Cheap and heavy gear is just fine for car camping at the local state parks. And the expensive and heavy – I have seen people with humongous, wood-stove-equipped (chimney included) safari tents from Cabela’s – like small cabins.

  24. It’s because everyone seems to be hiking the Camino in Spain these days.

  25. Great blog Philip. Your trips reports are nostalgic for me—-I spent 3 years in Plymouth, NH for college and cut my hiking teeth in central NH. My favorite hike was Black Mountain pond, done as a loop.

    As far as modern backpacking; I think there are multiple reasons for it’s “resurgence”:

    1. People in general are more active these days and outdoor adventures like backpacking have sort of a romantic appeal.
    2. Backpacking enthusiasts have a HUGE variety of gear to choose from now, and most of us are weight-conscious which drives business to niche manufacturers and cottage companies.
    3.I also think neophyte backpackers get the impression that they need to have all the latest and greatest brand-name gear to be safe and have fun. Big box stores tend to upsell.

    As far as back-ordered gear, I would wait for a custom made niche item, but I wouldn’t let it delay any of my trips. I bring what I have. 6 weeks in Colorado is almost half the backpacking season.

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