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The Boston Globe

Business

The great outdoors is still a great bargain

Spending on some sports is flat, but the outdoors has seen steady growth

Kare Sojka of Acushnet helped Becky Kobza of Fairhaven take to the water Sunday at Indianhead Resort in Plymouth, while Kobza’s son Peter watched from the beach. Last year, 141.9 million Americans took part in outdoor activities, according to the industry research.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe staff

Kare Sojka of Acushnet helped Becky Kobza of Fairhaven take to the water Sunday at Indianhead Resort in Plymouth, while Kobza’s son Peter watched from the beach. Last year, 141.9 million Americans took part in outdoor activities, according to the industry research.

As the recession took a big bite out of vacation budgets in recent years, campsites filled up quickly at Indianhead Resort in Plymouth. A family of four could pitch a tent, bike a trail, and go for a swim there, all for $25 per day.

Always a popular destination for visitors to the Bay State, the campground saw an influx of locals who could not afford the getaways they had enjoyed in previous summers. Now that the economy is slowly recovering, vacationers might be expected to ditch the s’more scene. But that’s not the case.

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“Nope, they’re sticking with it,” said Indianhead manager Irene Littlefield. “People found they enjoy it.”

The story is the same across the country. Participation in outdoor activities like camping, hiking, and canoeing continues to grow, according to industry data, even as the nation recovers from tough economic times that heightened interest in cheaper vacation and recreation alternatives.

Last year, 141.9 million Americans took part in outdoor activities, according to the Outdoor Industry Association, the highest total since the organization began tracking participation in 2006.

The National Association of State Park Directors reports that 56.8 million Americans went camping in 2012, a 5 percent bump over 2011.

After increasing spending on outdoor activities again last year, Americans plan to spend even more this year — 15.3 percent more, according to a national survey published this month by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association. That exceeds anticipated increases in team sports and all other recreation categories.

Early this season, camping reservations in Massachusetts are 12 percent higher than bookings at the same time last year, according to the Department of Conservation and Recreation. The Massachusetts Association of Campground Owners reports that campground usage in the state was up 9 percent in April, compared to the same month last year.

“We’re actually seeing continued growth and lots of people trying camping for the first time,” said Marcia Galvin, the association president. “I think people see that it is affordable, and they realize they like it.”

The combination of a good time and a good price helped turn Tom Donahue, 46, and his family into regular campers during the recession. Now they enjoy the outdoors more than ever.

The Globe first interviewed Donahue at Wompatuck State Park in Hingham on Memorial Day weekend in 2009, and reached him by phone last Friday at his auto repair shop in Spencer.

“Oh, we’re still camping — we’re actually leaving in an hour,” Donahue said, looking forward to a long weekend at the Oak Haven Family Campground in Wales. “It’s good for the kids, and it’s cheap money.”

Donahue bought a brand-new 27-foot RV in 2011 and said he and his wife take their two children camping every other weekend during summers.

New outdoors enthusiasts have helped apparel and equipment businesses defy broader trends and increase sales. Between 2007 and 2009 — a period of steep economic decline — sales of camping and fishing gear grew 8.4 percent, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, even as sales of equipment for many other recreational activities — including golf, skiing, and water sports — dropped.

Russell St. Don cut up steaks for Kerri Masapollo (left), Marge Bremilst (center), and Joseph St. Don, at their campsite at Indianhead Resort. The campers hail from Fairhaven.

YOON S. BYUN/GLOBE STAFF

Russell St. Don cut up steaks for Kerri Masapollo (left), Marge Bremilst (center), and Joseph St. Don, at their campsite at Indianhead Resort. The campers hail from Fairhaven.

A similar pattern was observed in the athletic footwear industry. Sales of walking shoes, basketball shoes, golf shoes, and soccer cleats all fell while business in outdoor- and adventure-shoe categories increased 12.2 percent.

“I’ve been in the outdoor industry for about five years, and I remember some of my colleagues who’ve been in the industry for 20 or 30 years saying we do really well in recessions,” said Aaron Carpenter, vice president of marketing at The North Face. “I was like, ‘We’ll see if that pans out.’ But it did.”

As apparel and equipment sales for other activities have rebounded since 2009, gear for outdoor pursuits continues to fly off the racks.

The VF Corp., parent company of North Face, Timberland, and other brands, reported first-quarter sales of $1.4 billion in its outdoor and action sports division, a 10 percent increase over the first quarter of 2012.

One reason why people who tried camping, hiking, and canoeing during the recession continue to enjoy those pursuits — and buy more related merchandise — is a matter of ease and simplicity, said Mac McKeever, a spokesman for L.L. Bean. Parents who recalled their own parents fumbling and cussing through tent setups discovered that today’s camping is not the frustrating experience of their youth.

Priscilla Geigis, director of state parks and recreation in Massachusetts and president of the National Association of State Park Directors, chuckled at the memory of her father’s 15-page instruction manual for erecting the family tent trailer. “I look at my tent now: two pulls and it’s up,” she said.

Then there’s the simplest attraction of all, McKeever said: People who ventured outdoors just keep hearing the call of the wild.

“Those that were drawn to outdoor activities as a result of wanting to get back to the basics and reconnect with nature and the outdoors during the recession are still doing so with gusto,” McKeever wrote in an e-mail while traveling. “And many discovered a passion that will follow them the rest of their lives.”

Callum Borchers can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.
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