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6 takeaways from the Outdoor Foundation’s Special Report on Paddlesports & Safety

The Outdoor Foundation reveals data on participation, safety, geography, and points of sales.

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In Montana, Todd Frank just opened The Trail Head River Sports. In Colorado, Hala GearSpace is selling more whitewater accessories than high-end rafts. And in Oklahoma, more than 200 stores showed up to explore 120 exhibits at Paddlesports Retailer last month.

These are the individual paddlesports stories Outside Business Journal has reported on recently, but what’s going on across the country?

A 53-page report by the Outdoor Foundation gives us a glimpse into national paddlesports trends—from the number of newcomers to who’s buying boats and where—based on the Physical Activity Council’s dataset of 20,000 people interviewed about their various recreational interests.

Bar graph of paddling participation by ethnicity
Data show year-over-year growth in paddlesports by year and by ethnicity.Outdoor Foundation’s Special Report on Paddlesports & Safety

1. Overall participation slightly declined, but more women, Hispanics, and African Americans are getting out

In 2018, 22.9 million Americans—7.6 percent of the U.S. population—participated in at least one paddling activity on rivers, streams, lakes, and oceans. Compared to 2017 and 2016, the number has slightly decreased from 7.7 percent and 7.8 percent, respectively.

Historically, the vast majority of paddlers have been Caucasian with an average annual household income of at least $75,000. However, the study found that Hispanic participation has increased by almost three percent since 2013 and African American participation has also increased by about one percent per year since 2013.

Additionally, male participation is declining by about one percent per year—this year, it’s at 53 percent—and female participation is increasing by the same amount.

2. Recreational kayaking is growing

The Inuit people of the far north developed kayaks for hunting and fishing in the Arctic waters off of Canada, Greenland, and Alaska, according to the repot. Kayaking caught on as a recreational activity in the 19th century, and finally entered the mainstream in the 1970s. Today, recreational kayaking is the most popular paddlesport with more than 11 million participants.

Right now, it’s dethroning people’s desire to canoe. While stand-up paddling doesn’t have nearly as high of a participation rate as either canoeing or recreational kayaking, its gained 1.5 million participants since 2013.

Paddlers in downtown Austin
Paddlers find oases in urban areas, such as downtown Austin, Texas.Tomek Baginski via Unsplash

3. No surprise: Paddlers live where waterways are plentiful

About 4.7 million paddlesports participants live in a state along the Atlantic Coast. Another 3.8 million participants live in the East North Central region, around the Great Lakes, and 3.5 million live along the Pacific coast.

Canoeing is growing in popularity in the Pacific and West South Central region like Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Stand-up paddling participation is growing fast in the Mountain, East North Central, and West North Central regions. Rafting is declining in the Pacific and South Atlantic, while it’s climbing in the East North Central region.

4. More people are trying it for the first time

While less adolescents ages 13 to 17 are interested in paddlesports (down from 2.6 million in 2015 to 2.3 million today), a larger percentage of Americans are trying it for the first time. In 2018, 56 percent of those studied tried whitewater kayaking, 53 percent tried sea kayaking or touring, 49 percent tried rafting, 48 percent tried SUPing, 31 percent tried canoeing, and 29 percent tried recreational kayaking.

The high rate of new participation is good news for the growth of paddling, and the hope is that younger participants begin to express an interest again.

Chart of top purchase locations of boats
Between outdoor specialty chain stores, sporting good stores, mass merchants, and other stores, most people buy boats from places like Dick’s Sporting Goods.Outdoor Foundation’s Special Report on Paddlesports & Safety

5. Most people buy boats at mass merchants and sporting goods stores

Participants either own, rent, or borrow boats. Here’s the breakdown:

Canoeing: Half of all canoeing participants own canoes. For participants who do not own a canoe, 43 percent rent them and 24 percent borrow.

Recreational kayaking: Most participants have one or two kayaks. For those who do not have their own kayaks, 27 percent rent them and 22 percent borrow them.

Whitewater kayaking: 77 percent of participants own kayaks, but of the 23 percent who do not own one, 32 percent rent and 30 percent borrow.

Sea Kayaking/touring: A substantial 71 percent of participants own at least one sea or touring kayaks. Of those who do not own boats, 31 percent rent and 29 percent borrow.

SUPing: 47 percent of participants own boards, but of the 53 percent who do not own boards, 42 percent rent and 26 percent borrow.

Rafting: 55 percent of participants own a raft, but of the 45 percent who do not own one, 31 percent rent and 24 percent borrow.

6. Life vests and float plans can save lives

Unfortunately, accidents, injuries, and fatalities are part of paddling. The United States Coast Guard reported that paddlesport accidents from 2015 to 2017 resulted in 1,624 reported injuries and 758 reported deaths (29 percent of incidents). Preparation and the proper gear can help a lot in an emergency, but 30 percent of paddlers do not own a personal flotation device and 26 percent do not file a float plan. The most common causes of paddle accidents include hazardous waters and weather, and operator inexperience, operator inattention, and alcohol use.

To read the full report, download it here.