The death of backpacking?

Younger people don’t seem interested in this outdoors tradition.

  • Hailstorms, heavy packs, heat: Backpacking is hard work, and seems to be less popular than ever among young people.

    Bill Stevenson

I keep hearing that the art of backpacking is dying. Usually the messenger is an older person with the tone of the gentle curmudgeon who can't understand why the damn kids aren't interested in hauling 40 pounds into wilderness on a forced march day after day over rough earth, under rain and sun, in order to drink unbottled water of unknown provenance, with a slimy helping of beaver piss and dirt, eat gruel at dusk, be attacked from ankle to earlobe by insects, be watched by carnivores with eyes gleaming in the dark and by mice scheming for gorp, only to crash exhausted to the ground in a sleeping bag that quickly transforms (as the ornery desert scribe Ed Abbey observed) into a greasy fart-sack, and be woken far too early, with the cruel lash of sun-up and the birdsong bouncing on your tympanum like a pogo stick.

Steve Allen, who is 62, a backcountry guide, and the author of many guidebooks, which, if correctly used with several compasses, will get you deep into Utah canyons and possibly back out, tells me he and his friends – other curmudgeons, apparently – almost never see young people on the trails they frequent. Sure, there are outliers, the few Outward Bound and National Outdoor Leadership School groups, and occasional college students who have a bolder vision of spring break than being a body cameo'd on Girls Gone Wild videos. "Mostly we see older folks in their 50s and even into their 60s and 70s," says Allen. He describes himself, proudly if hubristically, as part of a generation, the Boomers of the 1960s and 1970s, that "led the exodus into the backcountry."

His generation read Renny Russell's 1967 On the Loose. "It feels good to say 'I know the Sierra' or 'I know Point Reyes,' " wrote Russell. "But of course you don't – what you know better is yourself, and Point Reyes and the Sierra have helped." They also read Colin Fletcher's 1960s books celebrating his epic backpacking: The Thousand Mile Summer, The Man Who Walked Through Time – about hiking the length of the Grand Canyon – and The Complete Walker, which sold 500,000 copies, "still the how-to bible on backpacking," assures Allen. Maybe they even read Walt Whitman: "Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons. It is to grow in the open air, and to eat and sleep with the earth."

"We wanted to get away from it all," says Allen, "to find peace and quiet as far from the noise of society as we could get. And we did."

The Complete Walker? Isn't that what my grandmother had to use in her last days? Yet this news of the death of backpacking is probably happily received by the likes, say, of Steve Casimiro, who runs the (much-visited, much-lauded) Adventure Journal online magazine, and who in National Geographic Adventure once confessed: "Backpacking leaves me cold. Maybe it's my Generation X chromosomes, but I've found walking in the woods with a heavy pack to be lacking in adrenaline payoff." (Editor's note: Casimiro wrote this in a 2003 review of shoes used for "fastpacking" -- backpacking at a fast pace with only a few pounds of gear. Casimiro often praises intense adrenalin-inducing sports, but says now that he does not perceive a decline in backpacking, nor would he be happy if it is in decline.)

I wonder about those evolved chromosomes, being Gen X myself. More important, I worry about becoming a backpacking curmudgeon. I just turned 40, and I go out backpacking every year for a few weeks at a time, usually solo. Why? Because I like to be alone, sure, but also because I often find that friends of my own age won't join in the wretched fun.

Even in Moab, Utah – the so-called "Adventure Capital of the World" – where I used to live and to which I return every year for a month or so to reconnoiter the sun-smashed redrock desert, I find that almost no one I know who is 40 or younger goes backpacking. This is a kind of heartbreak. The problem might be one of marketing. Backpacking doesn't require much gear (the less the better) or expertise (why trust the experts?), and, if you plan it right, it poses little danger (my own preference). Who wants to market such things? There's no money in it.

Another friend of mine – well-educated, well-read, in his late 40s, but de facto homeless, without a car, an inveterate hitchhiker, an itinerant laborer in Colorado and Utah who spends at least 200 days of the year backpacking in the canyonlands – tells me that he too can't recruit backpacking companions. Instead, he encounters "gearheads" – people who see the outdoors as an arena for deploying the latest technological toys, such as mountain bikes that ride for you, or carabiners that talk, or apps for both. People, that is, who spend a lot of time caressing, naming, oiling, sleeping and playing with inanimate objects, as advertised that they should do in the "Adventure Capital." Then, post-adventure, they recover in various homes with the masses, such as the double-wide tent by the river, with the cooler full of beer, the gas stove searing meat, or to the Motel 6 or Best Western, with the air conditioner and the TV making conversation, as promised on the billboards outside town.

Anecdotal evidence, I know, but it's reinforced by the experts who compile outdoor recreation statistics. Chris Doyle, executive director of the Adventure Travel Trade Association, describes "a well-known trend" in outdoor gear sales, wherein day packs take an increasing share of the pack market while technical overnight packs are a declining percentage of total sales. "The same is true for heavy, extended-trip boots versus light boots," says Doyle. "This is all part of a trend towards 'Done in a day' that reflects consumers' continued interest in outdoor adventures, but they prefer to be in their own bed or another comfortable spot (hotel or lodge) at night."

In Moab I notice the kind of herd activity that not only stimulates the adrenal glands, but also keeps the herd together in the front country for entertainment, offers a pile of expensive mechanical stuff for purchase or maintenance (kudos to the retailers, profits are up), and hopefully requires the services of as many paid professionals as possible (more money changing hands). Think rock climbing, canyoneering, mountain biking, guided group hikes, and river rafting on "Moab's Daily," the nickname of a convenient stretch of the Colorado River that must be one of the busiest whitewater runs in the West. Extreme "adventure" is of course about getting high, dosing on dopamine, the pleasure neurotransmitter. This is the pattern of behavior in drug addicts, drunks and gamblers.

The adrenalized relationship with the natural world is also an experience of human conquest – the peak-bagger's pathology. Ironically, it's not much different from the benighted mindset of corporate accountancy: How many cliffs base-jumped? How many extreme trails conquered? Faster, more. And always the adrenalin payoff Casimiro perceives – not dissimilar to the monetary payoff chased by capitalists.

Ronni Egan, who is 67 and happened to go on a backpack into Colorado's San Juan Mountains last summer with Steve Allen, tells me that "backpacking is dying" because younger people are leery of the unglamorous labor required for stepping off pavement, and too occupied with the easiness of TV, Play Stations, X-Boxes, Facebook, smartphones and "everything else with an electronic screen," along with organized sports and other scripted activities, which includes the gym, shopping and "mall ratting."

Aging backpackers like Egan of course mourn the consequences of the death or decline of what they like to do. But the issue is more serious than that. I believe that our 21st century civilization will miss the radical encounter with the non-human: the visceral experience of days in wilderness alone, in vast and complex natural systems not controlled by humans, not arranged entirely for human convenience, not plagued by human noise. This matters more than ever at a time when our natural systems, on a planetary scale, appear to be in full rebellion against human convenience.

The best action we can take to keep our kind of outdoor rec alive: Go backpacking. Demonstrate it and celebrate it, "not as a mere sport or plaything excursion," as John Muir advised, "but to find the law that governs the relations subsisting between humans and nature." Or as Abbey wrote: "We are committed, my legs and I; there is no turning back. I shoulder the pack, resume the trek, the step-by-step progress into ... an infinite regress. ... I am the tortoise."

Christopher Ketcham divides his time between Brooklyn, N.Y., and Moab, Utah, and writes for a range of national publications.

Tim C Loser
Tim C Loser
Jul 21, 2014 01:14 PM
Backpacking is for people with money, most people are working two crappy McJobs or looking for one to have time to go do backpacking or have any kind of environmental sensibility. C'est la vie.
Greg Petliski
Greg Petliski
Sep 07, 2015 04:20 PM
Hahaha oh yea? How come I was able to do it on a budget of $400 a month (could have done $300 or less, but gotta have beer or else why go?), for three straight months? All I had to do was work 70 hours a week for eight straight weeks, save my money, and then not have to work for three months. Backpacking, my god, is like the cheapest thing out there. All you are doing is walking and sleeping! Thats it! No need for fancy expensive gear. Granny Gatewood hiked the whole AT three times in her 60s and 70s with a duffel bag and tennis shoes! Stop whining and go do it bro.
Lindsey S
Lindsey S
Jul 21, 2014 03:35 PM
In my world this is far from true, but I am fortunate enough to be a young person surrounded by field ecologists and adventurers. I don't doubt that there are less young people backpacking than baby boomers, but it's not really fair of the author to blame social media, "mall ratting", and a distaste for something unglamorous. In fact, in my life it seems like it's the older generation that spends more time on Facebook, buying things, and being comfortable.

Preparing for an executing a backpacking trip takes time, money, knowledge, and enough experience to be confident in the wilderness. Many young Americans suffer from low pay and no vacation time, so it's not surprising to me that backpacking might be declining among that demographic. Apologies to the author, but this article comes off as a bit out of touch.
Curt Cragg
Curt Cragg
Jul 21, 2014 04:12 PM
Not sure I can agree with the premise of this article at all. My experience over the past several years would suggest otherwise. While there is a renewed interest in backpacking by my generation (1970's backpacking baby boomers). There is also a significantly increased interest with college aged young adults. There may be a decrease in sales of big backpacks and boots, but that's because more backpackers are embracing the ultralight ethics of Ray Jardine and Andrew Skurka and going farther and faster with smaller packs and trail runners, not just doing a one day hike as the author suggests. The sport isn't dying, but it is change and the big changes is that you no longer have to carry too much weight on your back to have an awesome experience.
Tom Lockhart
Tom Lockhart
Jul 21, 2014 04:13 PM
Me thinks Mr. Ketcham is a bit premature with his eulogy. Backpacking is not so much a sport as an activity whose ebb and flow in popularity reflects that of the natural world he enters on his sojourns. Nothing in that world stays the same. It gets hot, it gets cold, rocks roll down the hills,trees topple over, streams change course. Backpacking will rekindle in popularity I am sure. I could speculate on why, the economy will collapse - again and worse - and it'll be the only affordable outdoor recreation, some new gadget will come along that stimulates interest. But in fact, I have no idea what will transpire, just as I can't predict when that rock will roll or if the creek crossing will be same as it was a few years ago. I say embrace the current ebb, there ain't nobody out there, times is good.
Gerrish Willis
Gerrish Willis Subscriber
Jul 21, 2014 04:28 PM
I think its too simple a conclusion to say that its poor jobs or lack of experience that is keeping younger folks from backpacking. Looking back to my 20's I had neither a good job nor much experience but went backpacking every chance I got. I think I agree with the author's statements. Young people have so many other distractions and want instant, often gear dependent gratification these days. Ask a 20 something mountain biker if she has read Colin Fletcher and you will get a blank stare. Steve Allen? Wasn't he a commedian?
David Duffy
David Duffy
Jul 22, 2014 05:58 AM
I like this article. I'm a backpacker. I am 25 and do find it difficult to find friends that want to go backpacking. For me, it's my tent/hammock a sleeping pack, an area map and enough water/food as I need to get to what's next. I used to run distance races/marathons but have 'progressed' into backpacking. The slow movement, carrying everything you need to live, the blood circulation of 12 hours of walking, the rhythm, being startled by the time you hear a bird or see a person. There's nothing more inherently human than the experience of slow, distance traveling.

I don't have privilege or money. I chose a life of adventure, of passion, reality. I got rid of my phone, car and friends that stopped me from being the person I imagined I could be. I went for it. I live in Asia, teaching English and backpacking on weekends. Next month, I will back across a network of trails in Japan and then Taiwan. Again, I don't have a lot, I don't spend a lot and I focus on what I need not what I can have for others' approval. I don't chase the bullshit photo experiences of a rafting trip or guided go-pro trips. I walk, I listen to the weather, I heed it's cautions, I enjoy the slow experience of being soaked in a downpour to reveal hidden waterfalls a few hours later. I've learned a lot of patience that way. Or walking for a day to arrive in place that is so natural, so unspoiled that I cringe at the thought of returning to civilization.

I am 'young.' But I pray that there are more like me. Sages of the outdoors. I don't like 'gear.' Climbing, biking, kayaking... It all feels a bit desensitized and gimmicky to me. I hope for our generation. But it's tough. Some days, I feel alien. But then again, I'm a backpacker.
Greg Petliski
Greg Petliski
Jul 22, 2014 07:25 AM
Tim, if you think backpacking is for the rich, then youre doing it all wrong. Im proof that you can live like a dirtbag and still adventure.
Jeremy Evans
Jeremy Evans
Jul 22, 2014 11:38 AM
I agree to a point. I'm 36, I do about 8 backpacks a year and spend at least 75 nights in a tent. half of my trips are solo and most people I see on the trail are older than me. Yes there are the usual bucket listers out of college that to the JMT, PCT or AT but these are usually young people that just finished college or have decided to be an "unemployed wonderer" (nothing wrong with that) I also do group trips for the Sierra Club, sometimes as a leader and sometimes as a participant. I'm always the youngest person in the group. I've been backpacking with a certain group since I was 28 and I've always been "The Kid" in the group. Almost all of them are retired. I'm self employed for this very reason. I have to experience the high country at least once of month for my own sanity. I can never find people my own age to join me. As mentioned in previous comments it might be because younger people don't have the money and time off to do these things. One point I will say about social media. Social media has increased the permits for the John Muir Trail by about 300 percent according to the park service. There are lots of youtube and Facebook posts out there education younger people about backpacking.
Michael Kopp
Michael Kopp
Jul 22, 2014 02:24 PM
Good article. It's thought-provoking, at least. I'm in my mid-30s and love to backpack. I went on multiple trips every summer when I was a little younger, and have lots of friends who do the same. Nowadays, I have two very young (3 years and 6 months) children. We backpacked when it was just one kid, but it's challenging. With two we might, unfortunately, wait until the oldest can do most of his own walking and carry some of his own gear before we head out again. All this is by way of saying that some young people are dealing with obligations that get in the way of backpacking. But we'll be out there again as soon as we can.
James Ratzloff
James Ratzloff
Jul 22, 2014 02:28 PM
I volunteer in schools telling stories to elementary schools, usually based on books with a wild or place-based theme. Of course some of my backpacking experiences creep in, and the kids are fascinated with the mystery of the wilderness, and the photos I share. It seems to me the interest is there, they just need someone to show them, and help them along. I have not backpacked as much this year - still getting my head (heart) around going up there without my border collie, my mountain dog, who passed away last August.
John DeVoe
John DeVoe
Jul 22, 2014 02:38 PM
Maybe instead it's the death of parenting - take your children backpacking. Start 'em early and start small. It can be done. Get creative. Make it happen. Leave the devices at home. It does not need to be expensive. No doubt it's cheaper than 129 other things Americans do on vacation. Lord knows wildlands and wild places will need defenders in the coming decades. Where are those defenders going to come from if they've never backpacked?
Bradley Reichel
Bradley Reichel Subscriber
Jul 22, 2014 02:52 PM
I'm 35 and also can not find companions my age. Most friends my age are more interested in camping at the brewery or a music festival. All my backpacking buddies are pushing 60. Still, I can't help but to enjoy the thought that traffic on the trails is getting better and not worse.
Nicholas Kuhn
Nicholas Kuhn Subscriber
Jul 22, 2014 03:01 PM
I suspect this is just the natural pendulum-swing of people's varying interest in activities. For example, BIKEpacking has exploded in popularity in the last 2 years. Like fashion, these things are cyclical.
michael wolcott
michael wolcott
Jul 22, 2014 03:13 PM
Why backpack? My buddy Jason Fisher put it quite simply back when we were running sled dogs (another masochistic personality disorder masquerading as a sport). His words were accurate and damning: “We’re only happy when we’re miserable.” There it is.
Of course there are other reasons to go afoot geared up like a 21st-century lumpen Kokopelli on pilgrimmage. Here's one of the best: simplicity.
When I am on (or off) the trail, there’s not very much to keep track of. I know where everything is, what it is for, and how to use it. Nothing needs to be programmed. No apps are necessary. To travel this beautiful and terrifying earth–with every single thing you actually need (and not much else) squarely on your shoulders–has an elegant appeal that, for a few of us, will never die.
Tomas Robison
Tomas Robison
Jul 22, 2014 04:32 PM
Wolcott is right. Backpacking has turned back into pilgrimmage, which tends to follow well trodden lines. Off route travel has gone light and right. Suffering can be had with 24 hour races, muddy buddies, RAAM, and Spam. And as far as dopamine, did you know that Fletcher was on the mind expansion express himself while afoot? Who sold more books, He or Butchart? Now what was that about?
Russ Rodderback
Russ Rodderback
Jul 22, 2014 06:00 PM
When I was 23 my idea of midsummer heaven skinnydipping with friends (and good pot) along a high Sierra river a 2-day hike from where we'd left the VW van. But face it, for better or worse, THIS is where today's 20-somethings want to hang out.
John Fisch
John Fisch
Jul 22, 2014 06:34 PM
I have three children (age 15 - 20, both genders)--all avid backpackers. We got them started and they've taken it from there. The two older ones get a lot more time in the backcountry than their parents. Their friends are also avid backpackers and the oldest even used opportunities for such as a college selection criteria.

Just one anecdote, but a positive one. I'm not panicking.
Michael Lewis
Michael Lewis
Jul 22, 2014 07:51 PM
Good! Fewer people on the trails. Less wear and tear on the back country. Let the gear heads fondle their toys. Let the adventure-seekers fall off the nearest mountain.

We seek the peace and solitude of our natural home in wilderness. Adventurers need not apply.
martin weiss
martin weiss Subscriber
Jul 22, 2014 08:59 PM
at least once in your life, live on earth on sidereal time, people-- your senses were made for this. go light, but carry enough to make your sojourn comfortable. assert your viability. Tame the wild places and be tamed by them. Go as a humble member of the community, not as a predator. bring your own food and fuel except for sandy riverbanks flush with free firewood. Hear the deer bugle and the coyotes choir, the symphony of birdsong in the spring. cosmic.
Meghan Jerolaman
Meghan Jerolaman
Jul 22, 2014 09:29 PM
I'm turning 30 in a few months and backpack in Hawaii all the time. I see plenty of younger people on the trails. However, with them, comes their fancy gear and technology. After working as a wildlife research technician out here, I've seen a huge difference in the slightly younger generations. As soon as smartphones came out, young adults no longer wanted to go in the back country, but wanted to car camp so they could charge their devices. When I started 7 years ago, one didn't even bother bringing a phone out in the field.
Social media and technology are powerful. No doubt in that. However, there needs to be a better balance between our time in nature and our time with technology.
Patrick Hunter
Patrick Hunter
Jul 23, 2014 08:22 AM
I haven't been out overnight in years. I'm 68. We backpacked in Scouting in the Sierras and then the Cascades. I remember a canvas covered wooden framed pack called a Trapper John. It cut the shoulders and bruised the back. Those were great times.
To adapt a phrase, we may be looking a "clash of civilization". Mosquitoes or iPhone; pick one. I'm working on a long postponed college degree. Sustainability Studies happened to be available locally. The program wants to make a case that "wilderness" is a necessary human experience and that there is a natural affinity for "the wild". To save civilization from itself, in effect, we have to appeal to this deep instinct. I don't buy it.
You might say that humans have been trying to escape "the wild" since the beginning of the agricultural revolution. Spending a few hours outdoors away from sidewalks and manicured lawns is a great form of recreation. It "does a body good". There are still a few that go into the wild; they are in the military. They don't do it for recreation.
I have to agree with others that backpacking was a temporary cultural phase. However, you might want to be training your young with survival skills; the future is not looking bright.

Sean San Romani
Sean San Romani
Jul 23, 2014 03:51 PM
This article is tough... and one perspective.

I know there are younger people getting into backpacking because I'm there with them. They're called "scouts" and often gretting with disdain from the older folks we pass on the trail. That is until lost or injured, then all of a sudden these young people were a happy sight.

While it may not require a lot of gear, it does require gear... and even the least expensive of this high speed low drag gear is expensive. On top of that, our short friends don't quite yet fit the gear found at the swaps.

Top that off with evidence of the "dirt bag" backpackers. I'm not talking about the affectionate dirt bag that is out there for weeks on end, who if met on the trail is the most pleasant, encouraging, and personable human on the trail, but rather the dirt bag that has yet to grasp "leave no trace" means not leaving a signature. This is the dirt bag that doesn't know how to dig a cat hole, much less get it a proper distance from a camp site, and leaves trash in a fire pit.

Instead of mourning the decline of what they like to do, why not volunteer with a local scouting troop or crew? Why not actively share the passion and enthusiasm by presenting a slide or video show to young folks and help them get out more?
Polina .
Polina .
Jul 25, 2014 05:54 AM
If there are people here he does not mind to take me along with you, please let me know.

I m 32 and have been backpacking before . I live in Toronto .
Dennis Willis
Dennis Willis Subscriber
Jul 25, 2014 10:25 AM

Aq contributing factor is people's perception they do not have the time for extended activity. In the 70's, the average visit to the Bob Marshal Wilderness was seven to ten days. Now it is two or three. Nationwide, most Wilderness use is day use. The average visit to the Grand Canyon is something around four hours, half of which is looking for a parking place. River outfitters have a difficult time selling longer, expedition trips. So they sell truncated experiences. People who do not spend much time in wilderness need a minimum of five days to get into the experience (my personal observations of commercial river trip clients). Nobody is taking two week vacations these days. With prevailing attitudes, the west would have never been settled, the trip would just take too long. Where, when and why did we develop this belief that we do not have time to do anything worthwhile? Nor do we seem to have the time to develop the skill needed to do something really well. Time is all we have until we run out of heartbeats and ideas at the same time. Why not spend it wisely, perfecting our craft instead of squandering most of it hurrying along to the next thing? Of course on YouTube, Michelangelo could knock out the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in 00:07:26.
Valda Jane Lockie
Valda Jane Lockie Subscriber
Jul 25, 2014 11:00 AM
I don't know that I fully agree with this article. As an avid backpacker I still see a lot of young people on the trails. If it is a dying sport I am ok with that. I go out there to be alone with my thoughts and to see beautiful places. Fewer people backpacking means less disturbance across the landscape and to those of us who do enjoy being out there.
Robert Kenneth
Robert Kenneth
Jul 25, 2014 12:34 PM
synopsis of the article: I'm upset because people aren't experiencing nature in my way.
I'm all for human powered ways to experience the outdoors. The spirit of backpacking in the 60s sounds like they had it right, nowadays those types of folks who would've been drawn toward backpacking frequently have evolved to utilize the wheel -mountain bicyclists (much to the major disgust of many, including the author and the heels dug-in purists). It is as much physical work as anything and certainly teaches back-country riders an appreciation of nature and to be prepared.

However, frequently the younger backpackers who are left are mountain bikers looking to mix things up. They don't want to ride every day and an occasional overnight back trip sounds like a lot of fun. Unfortunately, the author goes out of his way to disrespect this group many of whom would take the occasional backpack trip.

p.s. bicycles travel plenty slow and methodically to see the back country, there's all types of riders and they stay to the trail which I'd think lessens impact to wildlife
Nick kosmala
Nick kosmala
Jul 25, 2014 06:49 PM
I have to disagree with the authors comparison of mountain biking and backpacking. I am currently 19, I have a disdain for social media, and I enjoy both backpacking and mountain biking.

I think that mountain biking is a great way to get away from the distractions of life for a few hours. I usually go after work to relieve some stress and get my adrenaline fix. Honestly, I enjoy backpacking more because it allows me to go wherever I want; I'm not confined to a specific set of trails. There is also something very rewarding about surviving off of what you can carry, and what you can find, for a week or more all by your self.
Kevin Geraghty
Kevin Geraghty
Jul 25, 2014 09:33 PM
From a public relations standpoint, this word "backpacking" is a disaster. It makes it seem like the point of the activity is to carry stuff on your back in some specially designed bag. Of course, the carrying of stuff is merely a necessary consequence of traveling unassisted for an extended time, in places without stores or motels. Personally, I never go "backpacking". Rather I take long walks. And I ridicule the notion that this activity is not adventurous. It's as adventurous as you want it to be. Try, for example, walking for a couple of weeks alone, off trail, in bear country. Doesn't have to be that way, of course, but at its more demanding end walking makes a lot of canned "adventure" activities seem really tame and, well, un-adventurous.
Dennis Lewon
Dennis Lewon
Jul 26, 2014 11:40 AM
This is a great discussion, but to borrow from Mark Twain, I believe the death of backpacking has been greatly exaggerated. As the editor of a magazine that celebrates and promotes backpacking, I am of course biased. I could share many anecdotal stories sent in by our younger readers (like the 17-year-old who plans to spend most of this summer in the wilderness). But the data is more convincing. Backpacking grew 6% from 2006 to 2012 (according to the Outdoor Industry Association). But more important for the purposes of this article is what young adults are doing. A 2012 Leisure Trends report counted more than 1 million 18- to 24-year-old backpackers. By comparison, that’s about the number of mountain bikers and whitewater kayakers in that age group, combined. Of course, I applaud spending time outdoors in any form, but if you choose to give backpacking a try, don’t worry, you won’t be alone.

Dennis Lewon
BACKPACKER editor-in-chief
Mike Chilsky
Mike Chilsky
Jul 27, 2014 06:30 PM
Backpacking is incredibly boring compared to climbing, canyoneering, ski mountaineering, mountain biking, kayaking, etc. The younger generation isn't hiking around the woods all day because they are packing 3 days in to skin an outrageous peak. When their knees are busted and the kids go away to college, they'll probably regress to backpacking around the wild places dreaming under the stars about their younger days.
Mary Sojourner
Mary Sojourner
Aug 18, 2015 02:28 PM
Ah yes - there has to be an orgasm. I offer Slow:
Andrew Baumgardner
Andrew Baumgardner
Jul 28, 2014 08:53 AM
^^^yea, because backpacking isn'y also rough on the knees....
Kevin Scott
Kevin Scott
Jul 28, 2014 10:17 AM
I went on a 40 mile trip the other weekend in Northern Minnesota. On the trail I saw three individuals in two groups over the age of 30, and 16 people in 5 different groups under the age of 30.

Its just anecdotal but young backpackers abound here.
Daniel Watts
Daniel Watts Subscriber
Jul 28, 2014 12:43 PM
The title of this article is pure click bait. And it worked. Look at all these comments.
Derek Hardman
Derek Hardman
Jul 28, 2014 01:32 PM
True, Moab and other "adventure capitals" have transitioned from trailhead motel towns to tourist turnstiles abundant in single-day outings, but if you were to go south a few miles to, say, Bluff, Utah it would appear that the backpacking golden age was still going strong.

Personally, I find backpacking perfectly complements my trail running and mountaineering mainstays. All receive and transmit feedback to and from one another and somehow strike a roiling balance.

And, as for generational tendencies: while I certainly see more parties consisting of baby boomers, I have been pleased to observe substantially more younger parties these last few years. In fact, during a seven-day outing last week in the Sawtooths I didn't encounter a backpacking party over the age of 35.

Rachell Vincent
Rachell Vincent
Jul 28, 2014 01:58 PM
I don't agree. I know plenty of backpackers who are in their 20s. I am 20 years old and take my 13 month old baby. I am a strong young mom. I carry all my own gear... Tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, food, baby food, our water... You name it, I'm probably carrying it. This is including wearing my 22 pound baby. It's heavy and hard work but it's fun. I legit think backpacking is NOT dying out. And to tell you the truth I find my backpacking buddies through social media! (Instagram)
Justin Lewis
Justin Lewis
Jul 28, 2014 02:53 PM
I'm 37, I've been backpacking for at least 10 years. I generally go at least once a year. Most of the people I go with are younger than me by at least 5 years.

But, not really the point. The problem with backpacking, and I think the thing that stops people from doing more of it, there often just isn't much point.

I don't move nearly as fast carrying a heavy pack as I do carrying a much lighter day pack. If I only have a weekend, that would mean just 1 night in the backcountry. Typically, I can day hike, out and back, the same destinations I can reach backpacking in a weekend. The advantage to day hiking is I can do something completely different with my 2nd day, so I can cover far more distance in a weekend of day hiking. I can avoid the whole issue of food storage, and just eat at restaurants for breakfast and dinner, and I don't have to deal with wilderness permits.

I've got nice, lightweight backpacking stuff, but then the whole system gets screwed up by the bear canister requirement. Suddenly I can't just carry my small alpine pack, I need my full backpacking pack to deal with the bulk. I have to get up first thing Saturday and go to a ranger station and stand in line to get a permit. In most cases you have to pack out toilet paper, in some human waste. So, it's a lot of hassle with no real advantage.

So, generally, unless I have a goal that I can't reach in a day, I just won't bother with backpacking. I don't see it as an activity in itself, it's a means to an end.
The Taylors
The Taylors Subscriber
Jul 28, 2014 04:59 PM
I'm a baby boomer. dob 1947/Arizona. I backpacked many trails and backcountry destinations in my young adult years until I took a very different trail from all the above comments. I adopted a wild burro from the bureau of land management, tamed and trained her into a pack animal and from then on that is all I did for trails and backcountry travel! we've traipsed hundreds of miles, many multiple day trips since 1991. even a multiple day trip down into the heart of the grand canyon (with permits). yes, there is a "trade off" utilizing a pack animal, while the beast carries the heavy burden you gotta xert some effort managing and coaxing her to follow thru. so if you're tired of all that load and wanna help the public rangelands think about adopted a blm wild burro or horse and "take a load off your back"....and a load off the range!
David W Hamilton
David W Hamilton Subscriber
Jul 28, 2014 06:02 PM
As I was reading this essay my pucky detector started to go off concerning the total lack of anything other than anecdotal perceptions...did this guy research any statistics on backpack (and related gear sales) or backcountry permits? I was, therefore, pleased to see Dennis Lewson weigh in from BACKPACKER MAGAZINE with some actual numbers.
My surmise while reading this essay was that the vast preponderance of backpacking...and certainly long haul backpacking...was going on elsewhere than in the desert SW...places like mountain ranges with established trails and reliable water sources have always had backpackers in greater numbers. I was well aware of this fact even in my halcyon BP days...mostly during the 1980's. I think that we can safely say "the death of backpacking" is a bit of a canard!
Furthermore, as one who was around the scene in those supposedly Arthurian days of the pure BPr when Steve Allen's "Canyoneering" was all the rage, there was, in fact, a rather unsavory fixation on "peak bagging", the latest gear and gadgets and the notion that any hike worth its salt had to be "technical" in nature and essence!! None of you younger folks out there taking on a trail should become ocerly awestruck by the lore of these misty-eyed veterans of the hikes of yore! Cum Grano Salis!
I myself have settled on the formula of a remote car camp with an array of dayhikes that provide a great deal of solitude as well as variety while allowing for the return to a glass of wine, an excellent meal and a comfy sleeping bag and tent...none of which did I have to carry around all day!! More's the better, I say!~

John Gioia
John Gioia
Jul 29, 2014 02:42 PM
"This is the pattern of behavior in drug addicts, drunks and gamblers." This is the author's opinion of those seeking the thrill of something beyond backpacking, such as rock climbing, mountain biking, or backcountry skiing. This is a very strongly worded insult and speaking on behalf of the younger twenty-something generation with whom the author seems so disenchanted, I find it distasteful and far from the truth.

"younger people are leery of the unglamorous labor required for stepping off pavement, and too occupied with the easiness of TV, Play Stations, X-Boxes, Facebook, smartphones and "everything else with an electronic screen..." The author again misses the point here. Perhaps the younger generations of today are backpacking less, but perhaps it is because of the access to so many more outdoor activities. The author posits that young people are leery of stepping off pavement, implying that young people are not participating in outdoor adventure really at all, which of course is again far from the point.

Overall, I understand that we are losing something as backpacking becomes more of a thing of the past, as people tend toward car camping and rock climbing versus backpacking for a few days. But we also gain something when we push ourselves such as rock climbers and mountain bikers do. Is it not possible to suggest ways in which we can maintain our relationship with nature in an evolving human world, rather than pessimistically chastise those that are seeking adventure in accordance with the times?
Jul 30, 2014 08:15 AM
My 20 something friends and I discuss going backpacking all the time, but the sad reality is even if I splurged for all the activity-specific gear required, I wouldn't have the vacation time to do more than a weekend trip. For 2 days, camping and/or mountain biking is a good substitute and I can use the equipment for those for other activities and do them more often. That's really it.
evan curtis
evan curtis
Jul 30, 2014 06:53 PM
Great article! I've been a trail crew leader in Montana and the Adirondacks, working with teenagers and young adults. Here's a film I created from the last two seasons:
Greg Petliski
Greg Petliski
Sep 07, 2015 04:32 PM
I wonder if we know the same people, I was SCA ADK 2012 and MCC Billings 2013.
Emily White
Emily White
Aug 01, 2014 08:16 AM
We wrote a reply to this article in our blog. Check it out.[…]/#sthash.ZrkfHR4w.zZGXJ4LP.dpbs
Ken Lewis
Ken Lewis
Aug 01, 2014 10:16 PM
Fairly sure the author only wrote this emotional and inaccurate essays to provoke a lot of comments, which it did. A quick check of SM like "meet up", tweeter, instagram (not FB only old coot still use that) and you will find thousands of ppl under the age of 30 meeting up to go BP. Demanding jobs make it difficult to get away for an entire week like those lucky Europeans do, and WOW to they flood the parks during peak season but hey if this dude that slapped this cute little essay every networked much he would find more young backpackers and other outdoor enthusiasts than with in a short distance of his home than have ever even heard of this rag. Hey and quit ragging on recreations and sports that do not interest you that does not bode well for the readership of this rag. Peace out, live and let live. HYOH
Doug Smith
Doug Smith Subscriber
Aug 02, 2014 07:43 AM
This reminds me of the fly fishing debate. I prefer too few as opposed to too many. Some activities are better appreciated with experience and a little wisdom.
Birch Davis
Birch Davis
Aug 17, 2014 12:28 PM
Um, those 50-70 year-olds are either retired or have lots of vacation (or any). No little kids that can't be left home alone. Us younger people are out here, just closer to the trailhead on shorter jaunts with smaller people.
David Nix
David Nix Subscriber
Sep 14, 2014 12:32 PM
Wanna get folks backpacking again? Pick up a packraft....
Grant Black
Grant Black
Jul 19, 2015 05:06 PM
I think it would do the author and subjects some good to meet and talk to some of the new generation. Here's the reason you're not hearing about or seeing these young adults on your news feeds, they're out there doing it, not talking about it. And if you're looking in national parks, you're looking in the wrong place. This new generation is venturing into the low(no)-fee, low-traffic national forests, wilderness areas and blm land. Why? Because it's often free, and not the disneyland our parks have turned into. The young folks are out there, you just can't see us through the trees.
zach davis
zach davis
Jul 20, 2015 11:14 AM
I encourage Steve Allen and the author of this piece to check out, your opinion will quickly be changed. Young people are backpacking in droves.
Oleg Borodin
Oleg Borodin
Jul 21, 2015 03:02 AM
>Backpacking is for people with money

I think, from my family practice, It's mistake. Backpacking is part and tool of life configuration. No more.
Audrey Wheeler
Audrey Wheeler
Jul 21, 2015 03:19 PM
This article is solely based on anecdotal evidence and is a completely unfair representation of "young people these days". I am 22, and I backpack often, as do all of my friends. Yes, I climb too, not because I'm an adrenaline junkie or addicted to shopping but because I want to get off the beaten path and out into real solitude. In my experience, many of the places I can access to backpack for a weekend (being new at my job, I don't have any paid leave yet) are overrun with people. Climbing provides another route for getting away from urban life and feeling in touch with natural elements.
When I backpack, I often see other groups of "young people". I have always thought that the increased sales of frivolous camping items like roll-up tables and solar phone chargers were for an older audience than me, who desired comfort over efficiency in their explorations.
It does require money to get started backpacking - packs, for example, rarely cost under $100, not to mention sleeping bag, pad, and warm enough clothes. I consider myself lucky and privileged to have these things.
Finally, the biggest thing in the way for me (other than my full time job) is a car! I'm all about carpools and busses, but to get to remote areas you have to drive. I have friends I usually carpool with, but I do not have the ability to get myself to trailheads alone. I really wish I could sit down with the author and have a longer discussion about this - there are assumptions being made on both sides, and it's sloppy reporting to claim that one side is the truth.
Greg Petliski
Greg Petliski
Sep 07, 2015 04:31 PM
Three words: REI Garage Sale. Never pay more than 50% of retail ever again. And when you finally stop and realize, as we all do when we learn about backpacking, that all youre doing is walking and sleeping, you realize you dont need a lot of stuff to accomplish that. Buying used, one could easily acquire the following for about $6-700: Pack, socks and shoes, full non-cotton clothing system (baselayer top and bottom, sturdy nylon pants, nylon tops, fleece, rain layer top and bottom), closed cell foam pad, tarp, sleeping bag, and 10 essentials. How much does an annual gym membership plus all the fancy gym clothes and the latest app for the iPhone to track your workout cost? Probably the same.
marc  hoshovsky
marc hoshovsky
Jul 22, 2015 08:16 AM
Sad to see such poorly researched work in a reputable source like HCN. Yup, ya gotta look at the data, not just at perceptions. Several reports available online readily dispute the article’s argument.
1. There’s been a 161% change in the percent of US population participating in backpacking between 1982 and 2009. This is the 3rd highest increase among 33 outdoor recreation categories surveyed (Hammitt et al 2015 “Wildland Recreation: Ecology and Management”).
2. The 2010 RPA Assessment special report on outdoor recreation trends and futures ( ) reports that backpacking participation by people 16 or older increased 14.7% between 1982-1983 and 2005-2009. This was the 16th greatest increase among 27 outdoor recreation activities. The average number of person-days per year that people backpacked rose from 8.7 (in 1999-2001) to 10.2 (2005-2009). Young people (16-24) had a 14.3% participation rate in backpacking, compared to about 12% for people 25-54 years old.
3. The Outdoor Foundation’s Outdoor Participation Report series has a 2010 Special Report on Youth ( ) showing that backpacking is the 14th most popular (of 41 activities) among youth.

This last paper has some added information that we all should pay attention to. Top motivators for getting youth into the outdoors are parents, friends and family. Most youth enjoy the fun, relaxation and exercise of outdoor activities most. Top barriers are a lack of interest and lack of time among youth.

So, invite a young person outdoors next time you go. I’ve been backpacking with my sons since their 1st birthday, and I’m quite pleased to seem them now taking off on their own adventures with their friends
Max Hoagland
Max Hoagland
Aug 05, 2015 02:37 PM
Great article! I also think that the trend has moved to more "marketable" sports where people can spend more money on more equipment for more epic photography that people can share with their friends online. Less money in a sport where you can have less and be out for longer with less = all makes for more amazing experiences!
Greg Petliski
Greg Petliski
Sep 07, 2015 04:25 PM
Im a 28 year old and pretty biased (two seasons of trail work, LNT Master Educator, Wilderness Society member, Access Fund member, you get the idea), but I agree, not many young folks strictly backpacking as in Im gonna take my stuff and carry it on my back for X days without help from anyone else but my fellow partner, if I have one. I hitchhiked around the Southwest January-April 2015, backpacking in Saguaro and Joshua Tree National Park's as well as a few Natl Monuments and hardly saw any young folk at all. Mostly just snowbirds that time of year. Wish my generation hadn't been suckered into college aka debt slavery. I can hitchhike for three months because I didnt.
Ed Morrow
Ed Morrow Subscriber
Apr 22, 2016 07:36 PM
The original article was written to be read as a fun review, I think. It is humorous and its question about backpacking
being on the way out is not seriously researched as many pointed out. But, who knows it just might incite a few to go try it. I hope so.

 I firmly reject the idea that the sport is in trouble. I see people of all ages regularly, and many go out in winter.

I am in my 70s, live in the Sierra Nevada near Tahoe and have backpacked since I was in Scouts at 12. I am a geologist which has taken me to many great places over the years either packing in or to return to with a backpack for pleasure later.

 I have never lost the thrill of being away from roads and civilization. There have been many adventures and a few mis-adventures, all just about as much fun as you can have.

 The number of nights on the trail is not a significant statistic for me and I never counted, The trips are always a good way to get the knots out of your rope, as the old sentiment goes.

 The truth is, it is getting harder to find backpacking partners. I find many of my friends and ex partners are simply not interested and/or physically unable to go, so I m out usually with people 20 odd years younger than I am. I will never quit, I am not a gadget freak and have always been a minimalist as far as gear goes. Weight is the enemy.

  See you on the trail.
Bill Taylor
Bill Taylor Subscriber
Jul 12, 2016 09:39 AM
This doesn't match my recent backpacking experiences in the Sierra Nevada. My wife and I are both in our mid-sixties. On a backpack into northern Yosemite two weeks ago, we saw families with children, lots of 20-30 somethings, and not so many of our peers. There was a healthy ethnic mix too. We have had similar experiences in the southern Sierra as well. While there are gray hairs out there, it seems that, for California at least, the future of backpacking is secure.