Before COVID-19, Brianna Roberge of Waterford had never hiked a mountain. Now, after a summer of exploring the Maine wilderness, she has hiked more than a dozen, clocking over 200 miles and shucking 40 pounds in the process.
“It completely changed my life,” she said. “I just feel like a more independent and liberated person.”
During a time of isolation and stress, hiking was an activity that pushed Roberge out of the house, strengthened her body and mind and perhaps most importantly, provided some worry-free fun. On trails, Roberge could easily practice social distancing, staying safe from the virus while breathing fresh air and taking in new sights. And she wasn’t alone.
Throughout Maine and beyond, countless people turned to the outdoors for exercise and entertainment during the COVID-19 pandemic. With large social gatherings forbidden, theaters closed and festivals canceled, people were left with more time for outdoor pursuits. And many tried activities that were entirely new to them such as hiking, mountain biking and kayaking.
“Before all of this, I was a really social person. But I found that I really liked being out in nature alone,” Roberge said. “I went out, and I felt really free and I was hooked.”
Tracking a movement
While it’s impossible to count exactly how many people became more outdoorsy during the pandemic, different statistics give glimpses into the phenomenon.
Nationwide, for example, between 25 percent and 50 percent of state park visitors were new users this year, according to information reported at the National Association of State Park Directors’ annual conference in December. And in Maine, state parks saw a 60 percent increase in camping reservations for Mainers, and a 15 percent increase for nonresidents.
Throughout the state, Maine’s 80-plus land trusts also noticed an increase in visitation to their preserves, said Rich Knox, director of communications for the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, which leads the Maine Land Trust Network.
“It’s definitely something that almost every land trust we worked with reported,” Knox said. “And in terms of who was using [the preserves], we definitely saw a lot of first-time users.”
Moving to watersports, the Maine Island Trail Association, which stewards more than 200 wild islands for boaters to enjoy, noticed increased visitation on islands. For example, the popular Little Chebeague and Jewell islands estimated a 57 percent increase in visitation. They also experienced a 20 percent bump in membership.
The increased sale of outdoor equipment also offers some insight into just how many people turned to the great outdoors during the pandemic. During the spring and summer, outfitters and sports stores throughout Maine found themselves running out of entry-level bicycles and kayaks due to high demand and supply-chain issues. Hiking boots and backpacks flew off the shelves, along with tents and other camping gear.
“We had one of the best years that we’ve had in years and years. It’s been crazy busy here,” said Troy Curtis, general manager at Maine Sport Outfitters in Rockport. “Much of the inventory we’ve had throughout the year, especially the hard goods — which would be canoes, kayaks and paddleboards in the summer, and now into the skis and skates, all that stuff — we just can’t keep this stuff in. As soon as we get shipments in, people are buying it up.”
The inventory sold ranged from entry-level equipment to more technical gear for experts, Curtis said. They also experienced a record year for rental equipment such as boats and bikes.
“We’ve seen a lot of new folks to the outdoor scene coming in and gearing up, getting some information about where to do things and what they need,” he said. “We’ve also seen an awful lot of families that are all the sudden doing things in the outdoors tougher and that’s hopefully introducing a whole new generation to the outdoor lifestyle.”
A passing craze or the beginning of a trend?
Will those who discovered the outdoors this year abandon it once the pandemic is over? Perhaps some will, as music concerts, sporting events, pub crawls and movie dates resume. Yet many newly minted outdoors people are resolute in the belief that now they’ve discovered the outdoors, they’re not going to let it go.
Roberge, for example, plans to continue hiking and intends for it to be a lifelong sport. In fact, she’s a little disappointed that it took her until she was in her 30s to discover her passion for the activity.
“It was the best part of my year, developing those interests and becoming more involved in the outdoors,” said Michelle Keith of Durham, who started vegetable gardening, hiking big mountains and deer hunting in 2020. “It’s something I think that’s going to continue for a lifetime now.”
Mandy and Amy Lewis of Brunswick made it a point to spend time outdoors with their two young sons, ages 4 and 5, every single day during the pandemic. They went on hikes and their first tent camping trips as a family, and those wonderful experiences has them convinced that they should continue to weave the outdoors into how their family operates.
“I think the pandemic gave us a whole new opportunity to think about our family time,” Mandy Lewis said. “Instead of having the outdoor space feeling separate from that, it now feels like a part of it, every day.”
Even though the weather is growing cold, the Lewis’ plan to continue their new tradition of spending time outdoors every day throughout the winter.
What’s next for new recreationists?
If the trend continues, outdoor equipment retailers and outdoor-related organizations and agencies may need to make changes and expand to accommodate new recreationists.
“In some ways, it’s a demand and supply issue,” Knox said. “As demand has gone up, supply is creeping along. This is the clarion call for the land trust and land conservation movement to find the supply and increase the numbers of places people can go to experience the outdoors.”
In addition, with more beginner recreationists on the landscape, outdoor professionals have voiced a need for more education about things like outdoor safety, etiquette and ethics. At the Maine Coast Heritage Trust, Knox said they plan to increase their public outreach and find new ways to communicate preserve guidelines to visitors.
“We expect the increase in visitors to continue in 2021,” Knox said. “We think this is a trend in Maine, where what we have to offer for outdoor recreation is something people are catching onto.”
Yet hikers, cyclists, paddlers, sailors and skiers aren’t born overnight. It takes time and effort to pick up a new activity successfully and safely.
Roberge admits that she was nervous when she started hiking back in the spring, but she started with a small local mountain, then worked her way up to more challenging trails. Over the months, she acquired more hiking gear and clothing, and she joined the Facebook group Maine Hiking for advice, support and knowledge from seasoned hikers. Eventually, she tackled her first 4,000-foot mountain, Old Speck in western Maine, and when she reached the summit, she felt like she was on the top of the world.
“Now I’m excited to start winter hiking,” she said. “I hope more people will get out there and do it. I’m glad I decided to get out and get healthy and not let COVID keep me inside.”