THE recent economic slump has added to America's growing enthusiasm for the great outdoors.
Last year 47 million people, about 20 percent of the United States population, went camping. That's up from 43 million people in 1984, when the National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA) began tracking the numbers.
"More people are going to the outdoors as the result of the recession, because it's a cheaper way to travel and take a vacation," says Susan Henley, executive director of the American Hiking Society in Washington.
Instead of taking a family vacation to Disney World, many people are looking at less-expensive alternatives such as camping or bicycling trips, says Catharine Hartnett, a spokeswoman for L. L. Bean, a sporting goods store based in Freeport, Maine.
The increase in outdoor recreation has been good news for companies such as Bean. In 1991 sales rose 5 percent to $628 million, the highest in the company's 80-year history.
Demand for tents, sleeping bags, air mattresses, hiking boots, and backpacks has been very strong in the past few years, says Ben Pearson, L. L. Bean's director of sporting goods.
Last year, more than 120 million Americans made one or more trips to the outdoors - from canoe or mountain-bike trips to birdwatching excursions - and the number will increase 6 to 10 percent over the next five years, the company predicts.
REI, another big outdoor gear store based in Seattle, saw sales grow 11 percent in 1991 from the year before.
"We're seeing increases in more family-related types of camping equipment such as larger tents," says Michael Collins, a spokesman for REI. "You can outfit your family to camp for an entire summer for the price of an airline ticket or a couple of nights in a hotel."
Currently, there are about 11,000 campgrounds in the US. Many are free of charge; many have a nightly fee of $5 or more.
One of the hottest-selling items these days is portable water filtration systems that are used by back-country camping where fresh water is not available. One of the bestselling models on the market is the $140 filter called Water Works, manufactured by Mountain Safety Research firm, Collins says.
Another popular item is hiking boots, with sales growing by as much as 50 percent nationally last year. A recent survey by the NGSA shows that about 22 million Americans go hiking every year; 25 percent of those people are hiking at least 30 times a year. Outdoor gear stores are selling lightweight hiking boots that are a product of athletic shoe technology using a variety of durable synthetic materials.
Unlike the leather boots that have been traditionally used for hiking, these new models don't require a break-in period, Mr. Pearson says. This type of shoe, is popular not only among serious hikers, but also with city dwellers who exercise by walking, he adds.
Among backpacks, smaller daypacks priced between $25 and $45 are selling well, he says.
Even though today's camping gear is made of lightweight, sturdy, and durable materials thanks to modern technology, in many ways the basic pieces of camping equipment such as tents and sleeping bags have changed little since the early 1900s. Pearson said recently he was looking at an outdoor catalog from 1911. He found that people are still using sleeping bags of the same shape and backpacks of similar styles.
"The camping equipment that was basic gear at that time is still basic gear now," he says.