Is Backpacking Dying?

Got back from a trip yesterday and checked a couple blogs. There’s a buzz in the online backpacking community about this article, The Death of Backpacking, in something called the High Country News.


It seems that most people who come up with statistical shit generally agree that visitation to our national parks and backcountry use is in decline, and has been for several decades. Many backpackers see this as a disturbing trend and think encouraging more and more people to backpack is a grand idea. The Gen Y’s and Gen Z’s are the targeted recipients of disdain as the root cause of this decline, and because of their lack of enthusiasm for all things outdoors in the wilderness, the wilderness will be looted and destroyed by corporate America because they can’t or won’t be in the wilderness to become the next generations to defend and advocate for wilderness and the 1964 Wilderness Act, which is celebrating its 50th birthday this year.



Interesting shit. I wonder how much money we spent to gather all this data. And how on earth did the data geeks separate all this information by age group. And where are they getting the data? Not from me. Over the past 10+ years my wife and I have spent over 1,000 nights and 1,000 nights camping. This is in addition to all the time I spend hiking and backpacking. Over the past 5 years I have backpacked in at least a dozen states. I spend much, much more time outdoors than the average American and no one has polled me. Since I often (and purposely) go places where permits or entry fees are not needed, these data people don’t know I exist. How many other people are slipping in between the data cracks?

I am not disputing the data. As a matter of fact I already knew that visitation was down, and that backcountry use is down in most areas, except for those high profile and popular destinations that become defiled from overuse due to trail guides, manicured trails, nature trails, interpretive trails, brochures, Government advertising, magazines, Internet forums, and blogs. They could have just asked me, instead of spending boatloads of money on research. Those of us who are often out in the wilderness already knew all this — at least at a high level. And who gives a fuck if Gen X, Y, Z is less likely to hike, backpack, camp, hunt or climb a mountain. Apparently very few people think the decline is good. I think the decline is wonderful. Most of our parks, forests, and Designated Wilderness areas are over used already. It is time to cull the herd.

Now, that this news has been published on the Web, making it official and obviously “the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help them god” in most peoples minds; I think it is the best news I have heard since Russia removed its missiles from Cuba. We need to embrace the trend, and I suggest we accelerate the decline. Blocking the entrances to our largest National Parks would be a good way to start — you could walk in, if you wanted to; but nothing on wheels gets in. Additionally let’s remove all trail signs. They are an eyesore; paramount to billboards. While we’re at it, let’s remove all footbridges and wooden paths. Time to stop maintaining trails too. Trail building and maintenance are just more taxpayer expense and they encourage people who don’t know what they are doing to enter our wilderness areas. Where I live, there is a very difficult trail named the Cactus to Clouds Trail. The lower 11 miles of the trail is not maintained. Due to the Internet, Darwin Award Candidates are hiking this trail every year, people who have no idea of what they are doing, people who lack the requisite skills to hike it. And every year there are many, many rescues on the trail and even a death or too. Almost every rescue and death incident involves folks who do not have the skill or experience to hike the trail. Let’s make all trails difficult to get to and out. That alone will save us a lot of money. It is better for our wilderness too. In 1972, Martin Litton wrote:

“The only way we can save any wilderness in this country is to make it harder to get into, and harder to stay in once you get there.”

I love Martin’s quote. Enjoying the wilderness is not a right. It is something you should have to earn. You should have to work at getting to the wilderness, and work at staying in it. You need to learn, gain experience, and develop skills. There should be no easy rescue if you screw up. You are own your own – just as early explorers were. Remove enough roads and access will be difficult enough to be self-regulating. No permit system required visiting the wilderness, because most people would be unwilling or unable to get there. This reduces the bureaucratic organizations that operate the permit systems. Time to get them off the public payroll and let them find real jobs. Only the most minimal and least destructive of travel would be allowed – walking. Paddling rivers would also be acceptable, if you carry your raft or conveyance into the backcountry. No domestic animals. No grazing.

My god, why are outdoorsy people always evangelizing their particular outdoor religion? I read too many comments on this “death of backpacking” thing promoting the idea that we must encourage more non-believers to take up the backpacking religion. It’s time to take the opposite approach of mind our own business. Tell the non-believers that the wilderness is dangerous and they might die if they venture forth. Let those who want to experience the backcountry do it on their own without our prodding.


The evangelical backpackers feel that more people in the wilderness equates to more wilderness advocates. More people to fight and lobby against Big Business. They feel Big Business barons are sitting in their corporate boardrooms plotting to rape and plunder our natural resources. Maybe these folks should be spending more time fighting the Government’s push for windmills and solar projects on government land as I discussed in Green Greed.

Does more backcountry use by backpackers equate to more wilderness advocates? I don’t think so. When the Wilderness Act of 1964 was signed into law, an effort that took 8 years to accomplish, backpacking was not a popular activity. Some folks would say that, as the popularity of backpacking increased with a peak in the late 70’s and 80’s, it helped drive the addition of more land as Designated Wilderness. I don’t see the correlation. As a matter of fact, some Wilderness areas I hike, such as the Sheep Mountain Wilderness and the Palen-McCoy Wilderness is sparsely used. I have never seen another person in either.

One does not need to frequent wilderness areas to be an advocate. I may never get to Alaska, as there is too much wilderness in the lower 48 states I have not yet walked, but I can be an advocate. Many people who do not backpack or even camp are wilderness advocates. We do not need to encourage backpacking to protect our wilderness areas. However, one may wonder why backcountry use is declining.


There are folks that say Technology is keeping people out of the wilderness, that Technology is the source of the decline in backcountry use. I think that is bunk. Technology is wonderful — if you use it to your advantage. If you use Technology for Technology’s sake; that is, if you just want to play with the Technology without any useful purpose, then you might have a few stray electrons in your brain. Technology gives us more options. One can use it to create more leisure time, or one can allow it to consume and control your life. What each of us does with it doesn’t matter one iota to me — unless I have to spend my money (taxes, increased fees or insurance rates, etc.) because idiots do stupid things with their lives or their health.

When I was a kid in the 50’s and early 60’s there weren’t a lot of leisure time options. We didn’t have a telephone. Our small black and white television only received 5 channels. TV was not much an entertainment option, but more of a family get-together time. There were no VCRs, no DVD players, no cable TV, no video games, no Internet, and few sporting events were broadcast on TV. The only sports most kids got involved with were baseball, basketball, and football. Most kids only participated in sports at school or after school recreation programs. Some kids played Little League Baseball. Pop Warner football was not popular. Private sports teams were unheard of. Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts were probably at their height of popularity.

Because of the lack of in-house entertainment most parents forced their kids to go outside and play. And we used our imagination. We played Cowboys & Indians, Army, Hide and Seek, and pick up street games of baseball, football, and basketball was common. We didn’t have the best equipment, we often fabricated our equipment. Camping was cheap and popular for some families. Because we didn’t spend our summers inside the mother-ship house, perhaps we were more adventurous. But I don’t buy the Baby Boomers were more backpacking or camping oriented. Few of my friends (almost none) ever went backpacking or camping.

Starting in the 70’s technology grew exposing the population to more information, more kinds of leisure activities, new non-traditional sports, and more entertainment venues. Bottom line is that today people have more entertainment, leisure, and hobby options. Give people more options and they will become more diversified and the popular pursuits will declined, replaced by newer alternatives.

Do I have a problem with how some people use Technology? Sure. It may be the prime reason the majority of Americans are overweight or obese. It may be why we have all the wackos shooting up our schools and neighborhoods — dysfunctional people sitting inside glued to the Internet. But this isn’t a Technology problem. It is the result of shitty parenting.

So go backpacking if you wish. Go camping. Don’t try to force others to do the same. Be an advocate for wilderness even if you don’t visit the wilderness; many, many people do this already.

Backpacking isn’t dying. It is something people, who love to backpack, do. It is no longer a fad. I like that.

Embrace the so-called death of backpacking. Fewer people in the wilderness means a healthier wilderness.

      Related Content