You might say Paul Fish is a happy camper these days. Twenty-four years ago, he and his wife opened a small outfitters shop in Spokane, Wash., catering to a close-knit circle of backwoods hikers and campers. Today, that tiny supply depot has blossomed into Mountain Gear, a sprawling 14,000 square-foot outdoor retailer with a staff of 85 and a packed warehouse of tents, sleeping bags, and other assorted gear.
It's the same story at JAX, a former army surplus store in Fort Collins, Colo., that's grown over the past 20 years into a chain of warehouse-sized outlets -- two in Colorado and one in Iowa, totaling some 72,000 sq. ft. -- with 160 employees and an inventory of more than 125,000 products in dozens of categories, from camping, climbing, and paddling, to paintball, cameras, and optics.
Surprisingly, the booming business at private equipment outfitters like Mountain Gear and JAX -- and thousands of others across the country -- is coming at a time when the popularity of overnight camping trips appears to be fading.
To buoy sales, retailers have instead tapped into the rising popularity of rugged apparel -- cargo pants, hoodies, hiking boots, and other essential campground gear that's now as likely to be seen on a subway platform as a mountain trail.
The strategy appears to be working. In the 12 months that ended in May, sales at outdoor stores grew by 14%, according to the Outdoor Industry Association, a trade group based in Boulder, Colo.
In fact, what began with a few small startups in the 1960s has become a multibillion-dollar industry, according to researchers at the Outdoor Industry Foundation, an advocacy branch of the OIA. While a handful of large companies, such as North Face and Columbia Sportswear, have a deep footprint, the industry's growth has also been fueled by thousands of smaller equipment stores and suppliers.
"It's a very strong market," said Megan Davis, an OIA spokeswoman.
The growth comes even as fewer Americans are packing overnight bags and heading into the woods. Last year, 161.6 million people ages 16 and older took part in outdoor recreation activities, up from 159 million in 2004, an OIF study shows. Yet, taken together, they ventured out on far fewer trips -- 7.3 billion, compared to 8.3 billion in 2004.
The number of overnight backpacking trips has declined by 22% in the past eight years, while trail running has grown by about 22%, the study found. Among the top five activities identified in the study, hiking and camping ranked last behind trail running, cycling, and fishing.
Michelle Barnes, the foundation's vice president, says the study confirmed what many retailers and industry watchers already knew. "Participants are focusing on low-commitment activities, especially those that can be done in a day, in locations near their homes, and with limited technical equipment," she said.
It's a trend Fish has seen firsthand. "Right now, people are taking shorter trips and lightweight gear is back," he said, recalling a time not long ago when longer trips and heavyweight gear was all the rage.
Shorter trips might seem a worrisome trend for equipment retailers, since they typically require far less hardware, but many have come to rely as much on non-camping customers as devout backpackers.
Within the past few years alone, annual sales of all outdoor products has surpassed the $10 billion mark, according to the OIA. Between 2002 and 2004, total sales grew by 11% to over $20 billion a year, the group says.
Outdoor Retailer, the outdoor industry's main trade event in August, is expected to attract nearly 1,000 exhibitors and several thousand brands, along with some 37,000 national and international buyers, retailers and other outdoor enthusiasts, organizers say.
The annual event is fast becoming a fashion show. Apparel sales are today the fastest-growing product category in the outdoor industry, having grown by 22% at outdoor chain stores in the past year alone, the OIA says. "Sportswear continues to fly off the racks," the group's most recent industry report says, citing double-digit growth for nearly every category of outdoor wear, from short-sleeve shirts to parkas.
By comparison, tents, sleeping bags, backpacks and other camping hardware have accounted for only about $1 billion a year in factory shipments -- a fraction of the recent industry-wide gains -- according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.
Timberland, an outdoor footwear and apparel firm based in Stratham, N.H., made more than $1.6 billion in revenue last year -- more than the entire camping hardware industry combined. (In 1983, the company ranked No. 495 on the Inc. 500 list of the nation's fastest-growing private companies.)
Along with North Face, Patagonia, Columbia, and even Abercrombie & Fitch, Timberland started out as a small family-run business in the wilderness outfitters market, and has since expanded into an increasingly mainstream customer base.
Tellingly, North Face now has a boutique store in Beverly Hills -- a long way from the foothills of the Rockies.
Many of these manufacturers still pledge allegiance to the hard-core adventurers who once made up their sole market -- as if adhering to some back-trail code against leaving anyone behind.
For his part, Fish says the industry shift from equipment to apparel means the backwoods trekkers and campers, who are still his best customers, are also becoming his best advertisers. "The apparel they wear carries over into their everyday life," he says, "and that carries over to their friends."