The Price of Adventure: Measuring Outdoor Recreation in British Columbia

Snowshoeing can be a difficult activity to keep track of. Given that anyone with the urge and necessary equipment can strap some old wood frames onto their boots and head off into the wilderness at any given time, it is hard to determine how many people are actively involved. Snowshoeing can take place on virtually any kind of terrain on any day of the year where there is snow on the ground. For that reason, determining the who, what, where, and when of participation in this infinitely accessible outdoor sport is a lot like trying to count the stars in the sky or attempting to herd cats.

The brethren of boots and blizzards are not alone in this regard. The same challenges apply to measuring participation in any number of outdoor pursuits. Hiking, trail running, mountain biking, kayaking, and canoeing are just as hard to pin down. In a lot of ways, that is what makes these activities so attractive. If you know of an out-of-the-way spot that doesn’t show up in any popular trail guide you can quickly find yourself in a vast expanse of pristine wilderness and have the place virtually all to yourself. As amazing an experience as that is for the individual explorer, it is a bit of a nightmare for land use planners.

67490_10152788032345355_149862173_nPlanners are charged with determining the need for investment in certain land areas and what form that investment should take. Planners are the people who draw the lines of park boundaries and determine where to direct the money needed to groom trails and maintain amenities like toilets and warming huts. If a planner wants to make the case for increasing investment in a given area, they need to make their case in front of government officials, and those government officials are partial to numbers and hard data rather than gut feelings and anecdotal evidence. That is why the problems that go along with keeping track of outdoor sports often work against the people who wish their concerns were closer to the forefront of policy-making.

There are a few ways to go about determining the number of people participating in outdoor recreation in a given area. Typical strategies include automated counters that shine an invisible laser across a path and keep track of the number of people (and animals) that pass through the beam, log books that rely on people to self-report how often they use a space, and spot checking where an actual person is responsible for sitting at a specific trailhead and counting the number of people who disappear into and reappear from the woods. Generally speaking, the more accurate these methods are the more money they cost and governments often shy away from expensive and uncertain research projects.

180435_10150422067925355_5167837_nThe expense and logistical problems that go along with counting people in the wilderness make the recent work of the Federation of Mountain Clubs of British Columbia (FMCBC) all the more surprising. FMCBC is a non-profit group that advocates for governments and planners in Canada’s most western province to protect the interests of people who participate in non-motorized outdoor recreation. Non-motorized outdoor recreation is politician-speak for anyone who likes to go exploring without the aid of gas, gears, or engines. FMCBC recently funded the exact research that has scared away governments and much larger interest groups across North America, a comprehensive look at participation rates in outdoor activities across the province.

To understand what an undertaking that is, consider that fact that British Columbia is a pretty expansive place. How would you go about getting reliable numbers about anything in an area 100,000 square miles bigger than Texas on the budget of a small not-for-profit? The answer, it turns out is to enlist the help of researchers in the Policy and Tourism Research Group at BC’s Simon Fraser University and Design a survey that targets a representative sample of the province’s 4.5 million residents.

More than 3,000 responded to the group’s survey and the data generated represent one of the clearest pictures to date of recreation over such a large area. Not surprisingly, hiking took top honors as the most popular activity in the province. Apparently when all you need to participate in a sport is to lace up your boots and throw a loaf of bread in your backpack you can expect to draw 40 percent of people out of their homes at least once in a calendar year. The second most popular activity was fishing, with BC’s salmon and trout tempting 18 percent of residents to take part.

185658_10150430439940355_5052255_nSlightly more surprising in a province full of snow-capped, glacier-clad mountain peaks is that the third most popular non-motorized activity measured and the fourth most popular activity overall was snowshoeing. Slightly over 11 percent of respondents indicated that they strapped on snowshoes at least once in the year prior to taking the survey, edging out even the seemingly obvious king of winter activities, downhill skiing, which garnered only 10.6 percent of the province’s people.

On top of the popularity of snowshoeing the study also revealed that participants in winter activities including snowshoeing spent an average of $75 CAD per day on things like transportation, gas, food, access fees to BC’s many provincial parks and recreation areas. Spread out across the roughly half-million snowshoers the study estimates live in the province and conservative estimates for the economic activity generated by the sport are in the tens of millions of dollars.

Those numbers are music to the ears of the province’s land-use planners. For the first time a relatively clear idea exists about the scale of outdoor activity in the province, how often it takes place, and how much money it generates. If a few million dollars invested across the province to improve access to trails can be translated into millions more dollars in economic activity, the decisions that need to be made become a lot more obvious. FMCBC has put the ball back in the government’s court, I for one am eager to see what kind of play they choose to make.


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Steve Kux

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  • Enjoyed your article Steve. In the United States, the Cycle Touring community appears to be investing research dollars to capture data around the economic impact of Rails to Trails initiatives. Great to see BC working on similar studies.