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The Year in Outdoors: A Look Back at 2023

As 2023 comes to a close, we’re looking back on the biggest stories and trends in the outdoors. The call of the wild remained strong this year as millions of people headed to national parks, bought gear, and watched extreme athletes push the limits of outdoor sports further than ever before.

Here are some trends and more from 2023 that made a mark on the outdoor space:

Getting outdoors remained a very popular way to recreate in 2024. While some National Park Service (NPS) sites showed a drop in attendance, places like Yellowstone continued to surge, setting new attendance records throughout the summer. Visitors to Yosemite experienced the popularity in the worst way by getting caught in traffic.  

Yosemite Traffic.
Source: Twitter / @gatodejazz

The demand for fewer crowds and new campgrounds also surged. Camping websites like The Dyrt documented the demand from their customers, as some struggled to find a place to camp. People are also camping more in the winter.

We noticed many people looking for alternatives to the big-name national parks and popular hiking trails. At around 840 million acres, there are endless areas in the U.S. for people to find their solitude, but sometimes, it takes some trial and error.

In 2023, we also saw efforts to protect more public land in places around the U.S. Ideally, this will open new doors for recreating responsibly in 2024 and beyond.

camping in the winter
(Source: Simon Berger)

The Outdoors Is Big Money

With millions of people getting outdoors, millions of dollars are also being pumped into local economies to support outdoor recreation. From buying a fishing license or new hiking boots to paying entrance fees at national parks, people were happy to spend money on outdoor pursuits in 2023. 

In fact, outdoor recreation contributed $1 trillion to the U.S. economy. That money went heavily into RVs, boating and fishing, and ATVs and OHVs. 

zebco 33 fishing reel cover

With that money came a 10% increase in people working in the outdoor industry, which equals about 5 million Americans.

For some towns, especially gateway cities to national parks, we learned their economic vitality largely depends on visitors’ money. The Department of the Interior shared their findings from 2022 that demonstrated how national parks contribute $50.3 billion to the economy and provide about 380,000 jobs. A good portion of this money and these jobs go to the communities and areas surrounding national parks.

best-things-to-do-in-joshua-tree-winter
(Source: NPS)

We’ll have to wait until sometime in 2024 to get the final numbers on national park visitors in 2023, but we expect they’ll be quite high.

New Outdoor Extremes

The outdoors invites people to push themselves to new extremes. This year, several professional athletes set new records, including Australian surfer Laura Eneve, who dropped in on a nearly 44-foot high wave. We saw the two biggest names in rock climbing, Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold, bike and climb from Colorado to Alaska. Others risked their lives to set the bar higher than it was before, like this person who took a 132-foot “death dive.”

tommy caldwell and alex honnold
Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell taking a break on their long ride from Colorado to Alaska. (Source: Instagram @tommycaldwell via @taylor._shaffer)

However, not everyone had to put their lives on the line to make headlines this year. 2023 saw 75-year-old Joan Young hike the entire 4,800-mile North Country Trail for the second time, and a mother and her 13 kids hiked the Appalachian Trail. Kids claimed some impressive feats this year, and their parents shared their tips for other families that want to have big adventures with little ones.

Joan Young
Joan and her husband at the western terminus at Lake Sakakawea State Park in ND. (Source: Patrick French)

Pushing the Envelope

Unfortunately, not every extreme outdoor adventure had a happy ending.

In June, a small submersible with five people on board imploded while going to the depths of the ocean to see the wreckage of the Titanic. A massive search for the submersible was underway for multiple days, as many people held out hope that the crew was still alive. Sadly, there were no survivors.

The debacle left questions surrounding the ethics of extreme tourism. The outdoors industry debated the pros and cons of this pay-for-play “rich adventuring.”

Nature Made Headlines

Human feats and tragedies weren’t the only talked-about stories in 2023. Mother Nature and a few ill-informed tourists that clashed with Mother Nature also captured our attention.

Weather

Heavy snowfall hit the western U.S. last winter, allowing ski season to last well into the summer. Despite the record-breaking heat, the added snow helped slow the wildfire season in states like California and Colorado. However, fires across Canada brought new extremes and smoke across the East Coast.

The extreme weather of 2023 included a rare hurricane hitting Southern California. The damage shut Death Valley National Park down for weeks. When the park finally reopened, visitors enjoyed a new attraction—the hottest place in the world has a temporary lake

unlikely-lake-in-death-valley-national-park
The lake in Death Valley National Park. (Source: NPS)

Wildlife Acting Wild

Wildlife jumped in and out of the spotlight this year. Two examples Outdoors.com covered involved orcas and sea otters.

First, there were pods of orcas, seemingly working together to sink ships off the coast of Europe. Incidents were documented from north of Scotland down to south of Portugal. Each case started with the animals ramming the boats. In more than one incident, the animals successfully sank a ship . . . but were they being malicious? Experts weighed in.

In another example, an otter off the coast of California was attacking surfers. The animal even stole a few boards, and many incidents were caught on camera. Wildlife researchers proposed their theories about the behavior, and officials even tried to capture the animal, eventually giving up, presumably because the otter was pregnant. (She later gave birth.)

And Then There Are These People

In 2023, some people took nature immersion to the extreme and got much too close to wildlife. The result was often viral videos of tourists standing near dangerous bison for a selfie, touching boiling hot springs, and making other poor choices.

A visitor to Yellowstone next to a bison. (Source: Instagram / @touronsofyellowstone)

National park officials say there is a silver lining to all of this. Most visitors are doing everything correctly, and these viral videos in 2023 have hopefully discouraged other people from making similar mistakes when they go out into nature. (We even checked in with park rangers to get their top tips for good park etiquette.)

Which of these moments made a mark on you this year?



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