Kayaking and Canoeing Participation Rates

kayaking Tettegouche State Park on Lake Superior through a cave

The Outdoor Foundation recently published the Outdoor Recreation Participation Topline Report 2012 in which it publishes the participation rates in outdoor recreation from 2011. I find these numbers of interest to paddlers, and these numbers are something that we can directly affect be introducing people to the sports of kayaking and canoeing.

The report starts out with some good news:

In 2011, outdoor recreation among americans reached the highest participation level in the last five years. Nearly 50 percent of all americans ages six and older, or 141.1 million individuals, participated in at least one outdoor activity in 2011, making 11.6 billion outings. In fact, last year, americans enjoyed 1.5 billion more outings than the previous year. Compared to 2010, participation in outdoor activities increased slightly among all age groups from 6 to 44, while participation among those ages 44 and up remained relatively flat.

But also contained some bad news.

Outdoor participation among youth and young adults continued the promising but modest trend — with one percentage increases in every age bracket, 6 to 12, 13 to 17 and 18 to 24 respectively. This accounted for more than 4 billion outdoor outings for the younger generation with an annual average of nearly 90 outdoor outings. While encouraging, these rates are significantly lower than those recorded in 2006. For example, 63 percent of youth ages 6 to 12 participated in outdoor recreation in 2011, compared to 78 percent in 2006.

As far as paddlesports these are some really good statistics:

The three year trend shows recreational kayak up 32% and whitewater kayaking up 24%. Sea kayaking/touring showed a 14% increase over three years, which masks a drop of 115,000 users from 2010 to 2011. Recreational kayaking dominated the one year change with an increase of 27%. It went from 6,465,000 users to 8,678,000 user in one year. The only other paddlesport ranking high in the one year change is stand up paddling. It showed a 18% increase. The user rate rose from 1,050,000 users to 1,242,000 users, which is only about 200,000 users less than whitewater kayaking. That’s a big jump in users for a new sport. If it keeps up the growth by next year there will be more stand up paddlers than whitewater kayakers and it could have as many users as sea kayaking.

On the other hand, canoeing showed a -1.5% change over three years, which translates to a drop of 3/4 of a million users in one year!

As far as participants in 2011, canoeing had 9,787,000 users, recreational kayaking had 8,229,000 users, sea kayaking had 2,029,000, whitewater had 1,546,000 users and stand up paddling had 1,242,000 users.

My Take

My take on the numbers is this, paddlesport participants are looking for easier and more relaxing experiences. Recreational kayaking, canoeing and stand up paddling are portrayed as peaceful and easy to learn. The advertisement is geared that way as well. Although sea kayaking and whitewater paddling show growth, I’d guess that the general public perceives these aspects of the sport as more highly specialized, scary and complex. My experience as a guide seems to jive with this take. Even with a guide, people are afraid of kayaking on Lake Superior (ocean-like) in a sea kayak as opposed to kayaking on a small inland lake in a kayak with a big cockpit. Thus the lower user rate. All the recent sea kayaking films show people paddling in big water, waves and around rocks. While this may drive participation rates in the short term, I think if we continue to show sea kayaking like this, we’ll stagnate in participation rates and alienate a user base looking for a more relaxing experience. To back this up, look at the participation rates in sports perceived as dangerous, such as climbing with a -23.5% drops, rafting at -17.9%, surfing at -15.8% or most of the other “extreme” sports. They’re all dropping. Right now, I think Americans are trying to get away from danger and risk. Then look at relaxing sports, such as snowshoeing and its 40% increase. Now, Americans just want to relax and have that easy going getaway experience.

My guess is that stand up paddling will continue to grow and surpass sea kayaking and whitewater within a year or two. I think it will max out at the most — but probably less than — at about half of the users recreational kayaking and canoeing have but never overtake those two sports — think something like windsurfing. This is based on a gut feeling with nothing to back it up other than a significant number of kayakers and canoeists that I know personally think that stand up paddling looks silly. It just isn’t going to make converts out of paddlers.

If you have a different take on these numbers, please, post it below.

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  • I don’t see a lot of difference between recreational kayaking and sea kayaking. For example, by my clubs standards a Dagger Alchemy is a rec boat as is the Current Designs Kestral. However, both of these boats can and do go wherever real sea kayaks go. All my boats are now 24 inches or wider, so by most definitions I have not been Sea Kayaking in over a year! My most used boat is just on the borderline of being a sea kayak at 17.5 feet long and 24 inches wide, but it is a sit on top!

    Long live rec boating! I think a lot of folks are learning the pleasures of a 15 to 15 foot rec boat that handles the ocean well.

    • I’m not sure that boat choice defines the difference between recreational kayaking and sea kayaking/touring for the study. I’ll see if I can get clarification and post it if I can.

    • I got clarification. Here’s what he said:

      In short, we don’t define those differences primarily due to space limitations in the survey itself. This data comes from an omnibus survey that covers 119 different activities. This leaves very little room for description or explanation of any one activity.

      I have anecdotally found that most people understand the broadly accepted definition of any given activity in which they participated, and then define their own participation accordingly.

  • I suspect standup kayaking is showing high participation rates simple because it’s new and everyone is giving it a try, including the canoeists and kayakers.

  • Although I haven’t tried SUP yet, my understanding of it is that it is a) harder than it looks, b) a whole body workout, and c) more fun than it looks. I store my Aleut style kayak at Northwest Outdoor Center, on very busy Lake Union in Seattle. It has been a center for kayaking for many years and now is renting and selling SUPs as well. Someday, when my knees are happier, I do want to try it, but really love my kayak. One thing about it, your legs will get more of a workout than they do in a kayak…

  • Here’s my two bits: My wife and I teach vocational careers in high schools and are avid paddlers. How avid? We have nearly 20 canoes and kayaks. I agree with your comments. Just the other week, my wife and I were making similar comparisons, but here’s some more food for thought.
    Introducing people to the sports is a lifelong passion for us. That said, I regularly get opinions and feedback from people. A few things stand out.
    1. Today’s youth is obsessed with non-physical entertainment and you can blame the baby boomers for being so creative and successful. They invented and marketed such mindless and socially encompassing pastimes for our future generations. America’s youth will sit next to each other during lunch…and text each other instead of talking.
    2. Most of what non-paddlers hear about is what shows up on the news or on the internet pages…Excitement, fear, danger, risk, close calls, stupidity, insanity, etc. This is what they’ve come to identify paddles sports with. Kayak fishing off the west coast usually conjures up 12’ Bonita towing a paddler 12 miles out to sea before being claimed by the paddler, just to have its dead carcass reintroduced to the sea to appease the oppressive shark gods. News at 11:00. So, the non-paddler either is afraid to go or doesn’t want to be part of the 11:00 news.
    3. The baby boomers were the all adventurous, never get old generation. Well guess what, they got older and physical effort and high excitement is not what they used to be (physically or emotionally). Especially with the economy as it is, the cost of gas and with world unrest at our doors, many simply choose cuddling up to the TV in a safe and secure environment.
    4. We teach in Southern California. A politically correct atmosphere dominates the educational system. This includes minimizing physical activity, avoiding any uncomfortable situations, and adopting influences from less productive cultures. Easily over 95% of my students have never vacationed outside their “hood” or that of another family member’s (whether it be in the US or not). I remember one student who went to Idaho on the outskirts of amazing back country. She spent the entire time watching TV and playing video games with her cousins.
    5. We’ve come to a juncture where technology, culture, circumstance, and creature comforts (both physical and mental) have short circuited our natural inclination to explore and to discover and to take risks that build character through self reliance. Even my wife’s cell phone started ringing on a secluded wilderness lake, our grown kids were calling to wish me a Happy Fathers Day. Nice to receive, but completely un expected.
    We can only hope that one day all mighty President-O will waive his magic wand and declare that it really is cool to get out and paddle. That should fix things!

    Thanks for reading,

    Keith (a disenchanted baby boomer)
    Keep your blades wet and your bottoms down (most of the time)

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