A new generation of outdoor junkies is skiing, boarding, biking — and boosting the Colorado economy
November 12, 2016
It's a problem as old as mountain towns: there's no room left at your condo for a mountain bike, rock skis and raft when you finally get your hands on a snowmobile.
"I call it 'the garage,'" said Luis Benitez, director of the Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, a new state department created to oversee a surging sector of Colorado's economy. "When you're in a rural, outdoor-based community, you'll find the dirt bike, mountain bike, water craft and the rest… People are starting to cross recreate a lot."
This trend isn't necessarily new, Benitez said, but the variety of recreation is. Think of it as a new generation of outdoor junkies who belong to multiple "tribes" — a buzz term for the different communities tied to mountain recreation: biking, cycling, skiing, snowboarding, rock climbing, bouldering and dozens more.
Benitez said the latest generation of four-wheelers and off-highway riders are at the forefront. For years, mountain bikers and OHV lovers clashed over trail use and access, but a new generation — a generation of cross-recreators — is more interested than ever in toys that blur the line between the two sports: e-bikes, pedal-assist bikes, freeride downhill mountain biking and products like Quiet Kat, a throttle-assisted fat bike from a manufacturer in Eagle.
"The motorized community isn't saying, 'This is all we do,'" Benitez said. "The bigger story is you're getting mountain bikers who also dirt bike, or climb and dirt bike, or fish and dirt bike. That's important to understand because for so long the motorized community has been seen as separate, and that can lead to feeling disenfranchised."
Like OHV use — it's the third-largest segment of Colorado's outdoor rec industry, behind snowsports and fishing/hunting, according to the state office — outdoor recreation in the U.S. is more robust than it seems.
In 2015, national nonprofit Outdoor Industry Association released an economic impact study with numbers from 2012. The group found that rec spending was the third-largest driver of consumer spending at $646 million, behind only outpatient health care at $767 million and the leader, financial services and insurance at $780 million.
On a local level, outdoor recreation in Summit County and surrounding mountain communities is just as big — and growing at a rapid clip. In 2015, consumers spent $34 billion on outdoor recreation in Colorado, Benitez said, from ski rentals and lift tickets to raft trips, climbing gear and bikes made in state factories.
Skiing is, by far, the largest segment of Colorado's outdoor rec industry. A 2015 report from Colorado Ski Country USA and Vail Resorts found major numbers: the industry pumped $4.8 billion into the state economy during the 2013-14 season, generating 46,000 year-round jobs and 12.6 million skier visits. By this past season, 2015-16, skier visits were up to 13.1 million statewide.
"This report confirms the importance of the ski industry to Colorado," Melanie Mills, president and CEO of Colorado Ski Country USA, said in a press release with the report. "Both as an economic driver and a globally recognized symbol of our state."
So long, shoulder season
Colorado's outdoor rec industry is burgeoning just as the ski industry grows more and more diverse. The alpine touring and backcountry travel markets continue to bloom — and it's led in large part by young women. From 2014 to 2015, sales of women's products grew 4 percent to $1.4 billion, according to SnowSports Industries America, driven by sales of AT equipment, which grew by 87 percent to $2.2 million.
The cross-recreating trend is bigger than product and gear sales. For Chris Linsmayer, public affairs manager with Colorado Ski Country USA, it's impacting how the state's ski resorts do business. In 2011, former U.S. Sen. Mark Udall cosponsored the Ski Area Recreation Enhancement and Opportunity Act, which opened the door for year-round activities on the U.S. Forest Service property most resorts call home. Vail Resorts was first to embrace the new law with expansions to Adventure Ridge, a mountain-top park with ziplines and more at Vail Mountain, and plans to do the same with Epic Discovery, the new summer park additions at Breckenridge Ski Resort.
"There is clearly a demand for this year-round recreation, and so there's now more for people to do at these resorts other than just ski," said Linsmayer, whose group doesn't partner with Vail Resorts. "This has been a response from our resorts. When they see the demand from people who live there year-round, and then see the same thing from visitors, they (the resorts) want to bring that full experience."
It's a relatively new problem for mountain towns and their locals: as more outdoor junkies come to Colorado for year-round recreation, the shoulder season disappears.
"I wouldn't say that the growth will be crazy and rapid, but summer and fall is where the growth will happen," Linsmayer said. "Skiing isn't new to people at this point — we have partner resorts that are 70 years old — but mountain biking and some of these other sports are new to the majority of people. They just haven't been in the public eye as long."