Outdoor Activities Soared During the Pandemic—Including Some You Might Not Expect

From snorkeling to birdwatching, participation in outdoor activities is booming

Surfer Prepares for Day of Adventure
Justin Lewis / Getty Images

We’re dedicating our May features to the outdoors and adventure. In 2020, we saw more people get outside, eager for a breath of fresh air after challenging spring, taking up new activities and blazing new trails. Now, in 2021, read our features to learn more about 15 outdoor skills you should masterthe best state parks across the country, a new trend of hotels opening near formerly remote national parks, and one person’s quest to make outdoor experiences accessible for all.

When the pandemic hit, Jeff Hong, an animation storyboard artist in Brooklyn, could only stay cooped up in his apartment for so long. Even without a lengthy lockdown, Hong’s work logs a hefty amount of screen time. To get out of the house and get in some safe, socially distanced exercise, he began walking and exploring nearby Prospect Park. “I probably explored and saw more of Prospect Park last summer than the entire 13 years I’ve lived in Park Slope,” he told TripSavvy.

However, as the New York winter started creeping up and the pandemic didn’t seem to be letting up, Hong, 42,  realized his outdoor routine was in jeopardy. So, in November 2020, he relocated to Hawaii where he could take advantage of the time difference and good weather and begin splitting his days into early-morning work hours and afternoons surfing–something he was previously only able to do sparingly during week-long vacations to the island.

According to a one-time report released by the Outdoor Industry Association and its research partner NAXION, participation in outdoor activities has surged since the start of the pandemic. The study surveyed 613 adults who have, since March 2020, either adopted a new outdoor activity, rekindled the flame with an old favorite, or continued with an existing activity since.

Activities with a low barrier to entry and high accessibility—walking, jogging, biking—showed the highest number of new or continued participants. In contrast, interest in other, more traditionally niche, activities like birdwatching, surfing, fishing, and kayaking also saw upticks. And, of course, with the boom in domestic travel around road trips and national parks, camping grew as a popular activity.

In the spirit of road trips and camping, Erik Trinidad, a freelance motion graphics designer, video editor, and travel and food writer in Brooklyn, New York, enlisted on a new pandemic activity to get him through the pinch of pandemic lockdowns and heavy travel restrictions. Trinidad bought an SUV, installed removable camper-like modifications, and started taking car glamping trips. “Car glamping,” he said, “is all about using the everyday car you already have and tweaking it for outdoor trips.”

For Trinidad, who was already an avid cyclist, car glamping allowed him to scratch the travel itch, get a change of scenery, and access gorgeous, drivable outdoor destinations close to the city. Once there, he would often go on local hikes or bike rides.

While it doesn’t take a report to grasp why more people took to the outdoors during the pandemic, the OIA/NAXION survey shows that over half of all respondents used outdoor activities as a means to get out of the house, exercise, stay healthy, reconnect with nature, and/or have something fun to do.

For Glen Taylor, captain of Sea Farmer Charters in St. Petersburg, Florida, being able “to social distance in the open sea air” makes fishing an ideal and safe way to spend a day during the pandemic. Luckily, the people seem to agree. “At the beginning of the pandemic, there were several new clients, mostly families, that wanted something interesting and different to do,” he told TripSavvy. “They were homeschooling and needed a break and wanted something fun for the kids to do outside.”

During the first few months of the pandemic, Jeremy Lublin, a musician with Jeremy & the Harlequins in New York City, says he started spending his time outside in local neighborhood parks as a way to socialize safely. “The parks became our restaurants, bars, and venues for music.”

After border restrictions lessened, the 37-year-old says he began traveling again and found himself craving new outdoor experiences like snorkeling and horseback riding. “Snorkeling is great because it's really difficult to do without being someone socially distant. You're swimming with fish and coral, not humans,” he said. “Horseback riding is also ideal. It's pretty easy to keep more than 6 feet apart. Horses don't usually like being super close to other horses; sometimes, they'll kick or buck if they are. They've been into the social-distancing policy for a while now.”

Report findings mirror Lublin’s continued desire for outdoor activities while out on the road, noting that travelers tend to stick to outdoor activities while away from home—though still mostly focusing on those with a low barrier to entry and those close to their hotel (though it’s unclear if it was by choice or because of restrictions). Instead of going out to eat or to a museum, COVID-era travelers have opted to explore their destinations via outdoor activities such as walking, hiking, biking, and kayaking.

John Flaherty, the owner of Central Coast Outdoors, a tour operator that offers hiking, biking, and kayak tours in several locations around California’s central coast, tells us that many of his kayaking clients are first-timers. He also noted that almost all of their business has been from local travelers and people within California. “I think that a lot of people who looked for bigger adventures farther afield decided to give something closer to home—but still a new experience—a try,” he said.

Like Taylor, he believes being outdoors is a big draw for participants who want a safe activity or to feel a little pre-pandemic normalcy. “We follow all COVID protocols,” he said. “But being out on the bay or on a bike or on a trail can be enjoyed by everyone, no mask required.”

The report also found that compared to people who were already participating in some kind of outdoor activity, those who took up new activities were more likely to be female, younger, more racially diverse, live in an urban area, and be part of a lower income bracket.

This may be a reason for the uptick in traditionally niche activities, a wider pool of participants is likely to produce a wider range of interests. Birdwatching, for example, is often pigeonholed as a hobby for retirees. However, it managed to rank as one of the top five outdoor activities people turned to during the pandemic—even though only 30 percent of new outdoor activity participants were 50 or more years old.

“Birdwatching was somewhat thrust upon me,” Hannah Cassidy, 34, told TripSavvy. Unlike Hong, who moved halfway across the world to surf, or Trinidad, who drives out of the city for his car glamping adventures, Cassidy only needed to walk out to her front yard to fall into her new outdoor pandemic hobby.

Young male hiker looking up through binoculars, Primaluna, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy
Eugenio Marongiu / Getty Images

It all started innocently enough last April, when she spotted a bird’s nest in the banana tree off her driveway in Los Angeles, prompting an identification. They were house finches. Sometime later, she noticed a hawk had chosen a tree above her porch as its lunch table for enjoying its kills. “That was gross,” she said. “But, I learned it was a red-tailed hawk.” Now, more than a year later, she admits to owning binoculars and a bird identification book.

Cassidy also fell prey to one of the pandemic’s most surprisingly popular outdoor activities during the lockdown: a retro revival of roller skating. “Once roller skating exploded over the summer on IG and TikTok, I ordered a secondhand pair—because skates were sold out literally everywhere—and took to the smoothest pavement I could find.”

In Manhattan, Jeanie Michaels, a 42-year-old pilates instructor and personal trainer, said she kept seeing more and more people out rollerblading during her daily walks along the Hudson River, and it inspired her to revisit her old pastime. “I rollerbladed a lot in 1997-1999. I even rollerbladed around the city with the traffic when I was young and carefree,” she said. “Gyms were all closed, so I needed an alternative way to exercise.”

“Another plus was that I really, really needed to concentrate on not falling, so I couldn’t listen to the news, music, or podcasts while rollerblading. It was my 40-minute daily break from the news and my phone.”

As if you didn’t already know firsthand, screen fatigue is real. It didn’t take long to hit the wall after the increase in streaming, Zoom calls, FaceTiming, and scrolling caused by the pandemic. In fact, the OIA/NAXION survey found that 46 percent of respondents reported spending more time online, while 52 percent reported watching more TV than before the pandemic. They also found that screen fatigue was a big catalyst to getting people off the couch and out the door—but will it be a lasting motivator?

Now that lockdowns have let up, vaccinations are being distributed, and the country is opening back up, the big question is, will people keep up with their outdoor pandemic activities? According to the Outdoor Industry Association/NAXION report, over 60 percent of people who started walking, hiking, biking, fishing, or jogging intend to keep on it after restrictions lift. However, 25 percent of folks overall reported that they don’t plan to continue their new hobbies once travel, family demands, and their usual activities come back full force.

Cassidy has her doubts about keeping up the roller skating, mainly because as things open back up, smooth skate space will be harder and harder to come by—but she intends to keep birdwatching, at least on a casual level. “I’ve fully accepted that this is now part of my identity,” she said. “It’s been a really fun, new way to connect with nature. I’ve since learned that there are a lot of younger people who enjoy this hobby too—and now I follow a ton of birdwatching TikTok accounts. Because, of course, that exists.”

Hong, who ended up signing a lease in Hawaii after repeatedly pushing back his return to New York, also hopes to keep up his new outdoor-active lifestyle. “The pandemic has really opened Pandora’s Box,” he said. “I hope to continue working remotely and spend part of the year in Hawaii to have easy access to the beach and surfing. I can’t think of a better way to get mentally and physically fit—and have a blast at the same time.” 

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