Wealth, racial disparities widen

Camping and RVing have long been dominated by non-Hispanic whites, prompting efforts by industry leaders to identify and address barriers to entry blocking greater Black and Hispanic-American participation. (Asian-Americans have a slightly higher participation rate than whites, but a smaller piece of the demographic pie.) Symbolizing the push for greater inclusivity, KOA even featured a Black (curiously mother-less) family roasting marshmallows around a campfire on the cover of its 2021 North American Camping Report, which went on to celebrate “the changing diversity of camping.”

Yet the actual numbers within the KOA report–released late last year–present a more nuanced picture, and other studies suggest camping’s racial profile may be paling. Moreover, the wealth gap within the camping population is starting to shift, driven in part by the pandemic and partly by the higher cost of camping itself, with still unmeasured implications for the pastime’s racial makeup.

The most recent red flag in this respect is a Penn State study, published in the journal Land, which found that while almost all outdoor recreation locations saw huge increases in visitation during the pandemic, more than 13% of Americans stopped participating in outdoor recreation during the same time. And while as many as 20% of those getting outdoors were doing so for the first time, their numbers were predominantly white and upper income, even as those who quit were more likely to be non-white and from lower income brackets.

Comparing the ethnicity of those who had dropped out of outdoor activities during the pandemic with those who regularly took to the outdoors for the first time, the study found that the drop-outs were 61.8% white, 11.9% Latino and 14.7% Black; the newbies, meanwhile, were 76.6% white, 7.5% Latino and 8% Black. When compared by income, 47.2% of the drop-outs had annual household income under $40,000, while 19.5% had household incomes of more than $80,000. Of the newcomers, 39.3% were on the low end of that range, while 25.1% were on the upper end.

The Penn State study threw a wide net, looking at outdoor recreation broadly and not just camping, which may explain why some of its ethnic findings differ from KOA’s. The latter, for example, claimed that 24% of first-time campers in 2020 were Black and 15% Latino, or more than double the rates in the Penn State study. But while KOA’s statistics for Black first-timers have seen a steady rise since 2016, its own numbers for Latino first-timers have been on an overall decline since 2017.

To further muddy the waters, the 2021 Outdoor Participation Trends Report, released by the Outdoor Foundation, concluded that Black and Hispanic Americans “remained significantly underrepresented outside.” Indeed, Black participation in outdoor activities has actually decreased since 2007, despite occasional fluctuations–or as the foundation summarized, has remained “stubbornly low compared to other groups.”

Mixed though the ethnic picture may be, however, there’s little question that the people getting to play outdoors are ever wealthier. When it comes to wealth disparities among first-time campers in 2020, KOA’s findings were even more stark than Penn State’s: 41% had household incomes of more than $100,000, with an additional 17% in the $75,000-$99,999 range. The implications of that income surge on camping’s ethnic profile? The average household income in 2020 for Hispanics was $55,321; for Blacks, it was $45,870.

You can do the math.

Author: Andy Zipser

A former newspaper reporter who worked at a variety of newspapers, from small community weeklies to The Wall Street Journal, I finished my "normal" work life as the editor of The Guild Reporter, official publication of the union representing newspaper workers. On retiring, I and my wife bought a campground in the Shenandoah Valley and--with the help of our two daughters and their husbands--operated it for eight years, first as a KOA franchisee and then as an independent family-owned RV park. We sold the campground in May, 2021, and live in Staunton, Virginia, a short walk from our grandsons' home.

2 thoughts on “Wealth, racial disparities widen”

  1. Things I have noticed. 1. there are more and more big rigs $100k plus on the road. 2. Tents seem to be declining in numbers. I am at a state park now in GA and maybe 10% of the campsites are occupied by tents. Tents remain very cost effective if you use them and enjoy them. 3. In small private family owned parks there are a growing number of 10 yo rigs in permanent spots. I think RVs cover a lot of Territory and there is more slicing and dining needed to make the numbers meaninful.

    Thank you for your excellent blog. I find the posts fascinating.


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