Re­tail­ers rolling out lux­ury camp­ing items

Lodi News-Sentinel - - BUSINESS - By Lau­ren Zumbach

Tent? Check. Sleep­ing bag? Check. Rock­ing chair, air mat­tress and in­su­lated cof­fee press?

Hard-charg­ing back­coun­try ad­ven­tur­ers might scoff at the idea of lug­ging such lux­u­ries. But for many, get­ting out­side doesn’t mean go­ing off the grid, and camp­ing re­tail­ers are rolling out items that let con­sumers bring at least some of the com­forts of home into the great out­doors.

“The peo­ple go­ing to go on a three-week hike and take ev­ery­thing on their back, that was the ideal con­sumer 10 years ago,” said Matt Pow­ell, se­nior ad­viser for the sports in­dus­try at NPD Group, a mar­ket re­search firm. “Now, it’s some­one driv­ing to a state park, sleep­ing next to their car in a tent and try­ing to bring as many crea­ture com­forts as they can.”

Syd­ney Even, 24, of Glen­coe, said she aims for a happy medium be­tween bare-bones camp­ing and “glamp­ing,” and takes a bat­tery-pow­ered air mat­tress on week­end camp­ing trips.

“It helps get more of my friends into it that aren’t big out­doors peo­ple,” said Even, test­ing out a rock­ing camp chair at the North­brook REI late last month. She was pick­ing up a so­lar-pow­ered lan­tern for a week­end trip to a camp­site out­side In­di­anapo­lis.

Camp­ing’s pop­u­lar­ity has been rel­a­tively steady over the past decade, ac­cord­ing to a 2018 re­port from the Out­door Foun­da­tion, a not­for-profit es­tab­lished by the Out­door In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tion.

But a sep­a­rate sur­vey sug­gests that the type of camp­ing trips be­ing taken has shifted as out­door en­thu­si­asts opt for more fre­quent ex­cur­sions and stay closer to home. The per­cent­age of peo­ple who camped three or more times in a year grew be­tween 2014 and 2018, as did the share of campers trav­el­ing fewer than 50 miles from home, ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey from Kamp­grounds of Amer­ica, a fran­chise with more than 500 lo­ca­tions in North Amer­ica.

Paul Ca­lan­drella, gen­eral mer­chan­dis­ing man­ager for camp­ing at REI Co-op, points to fast­paced, al­ways-con­nected life­styles that make it tough to em­bark on lengthy, off-the-grid ex­cur­sions but leave con­sumers crav­ing ways to es­cape and ex­plore the out­doors.

For oth­ers, a shorter, less-rus­tic trip can be a way to boost con­fi­dence in their abil­ity to tackle an ad­ven­ture, said North­brook REI shop­per Liz Ramirez.

“There’s a fear you won’t suc­ceed, or don’t have the abil­ity to think through a prob­lem,” said Ramirez, 48, of Chicago, who is pre­par­ing for a trip where she’ll hike be­tween huts rather than carry all her gear.

What­ever the rea­son, ca­sual trips close to home, a ve­hi­cle or cabin rental make it eas­ier to travel with items like camp­site fur­ni­ture, well­stocked cool­ers and kitchen equip­ment, Pow­ell said.

Young, ur­ban con­sumers, in par­tic­u­lar, are also less likely to have a big base­ment or garage to stuff with gear and ei­ther choose pur­suits that re­quire less equip­ment or rent big-ticket items be­fore a trip, Pow­ell said.

Even as over­all camp­ing equip­ment sales held steady over the 12 months end­ing in March com­pared with the prior year, sales of camp tables and por­ta­ble au­dio and phone ac­ces­sories rose 20% and con­sumers spent about 25% more on in­su­lated bev­er­age con­tain­ers, ac­cord­ing to NPD Group.

“It’s re­ally about tak­ing my nor­mal life out there with me,” Pow­ell said.

For some, that in­cludes tech­nol­ogy. A few years ago, spotty cell­phone ser­vice in many out­door ar­eas made trav­el­ing with por­ta­ble charg­ers “some­what ir­rel­e­vant,” said Michael Parker, di­rec­tor of sales and mar­ket­ing at Chicago-based LuminAID. The com­pany makes so­lar-pow­ered phone charg­ers and lanterns de­signed for in­ter­na­tional aid work­ers but also sold to out­door en­thu­si­asts.

Now that cell ser­vice is more widely avail­able and many con­sumers use smart­phone cam­eras to doc­u­ment their ad­ven­tures, there’s more in­ter­est in tech ac­ces­sories for the out­doors, Parker said.

Out­door brands and re­tail­ers say they’re fo­cus­ing more on con­sumers tak­ing a so­cial, recre­ational ap­proach to their out­door pur­suits in re­cent years.

A few years ago, out­door brands tended to fo­cus on the “uber-ath­lete,” said Mike Gawtry, di­rec­tor of sport­ing equip­ment and travel prod­ucts for L.L. Bean. But most of the brand’s cus­tomers aren’t pre­par­ing for a win­ter camp­ing expedition or high-al­ti­tude as­cent — they en­joy the out­doors, but re­ally care about time with fam­ily and friends, he said.

“The pri­mary fo­cus we have de­sign­ers and de­vel­op­ers work­ing on are re­ally those prod­ucts that en­able folks to get out­side in the safest, most com­fort­able, eas­i­est way,” he said.

Chicago-based out­door and travel gear maker Grand Trunk has seen sales of tech­ni­cal prod­ucts, like light­weight ham­mocks that pack down to a tiny size or come with a mos­quito net, level off while prod­ucts fo­cused on com­fort and fun, like ham­mocks with cre­ative pat­terns, have grown, said mar­ket­ing di­rec­tor Kyle Wood.

Grand Trunk plans to in­tro­duce new prod­ucts next year in­spired by ways it has seen cus­tomers us­ing its ham­mocks on so­cial me­dia: ham­mocks that let users swing while sit­ting up­right around a camp­fire or work­ing on a lap­top.


LL Bean in Oak­Brook Cen­ter, of­fers a va­ri­ety of out­door gear, in­clud­ing tents, and prac­ti­cal fun stuff, such as this rugged French Press.

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