The Complete History of the Outdoor Industry (Abridged)

An Introduction: How an 8-year-old future president's scavenging habit led to the fastest-growing sector of the American economy.

By Tracy Ross March 8, 2018

A young Theodor Roosevelt in 1885, already showing his outdoorist leanings.

When Teddy Roosevelt was a kid growing up in New York City, he reportedly begged a fisherman to give him the skull of a seal that had washed up in New York Harbor. It was 1867. Roosevelt, then 8, took the skull home and put it on a shelf for safekeeping. From that point on, he collected every natural thing he could see and reach, and he paid other kids and family members to bring him flora and fauna. Roosevelt would go on to become President of the United States, of course, but also co-founder of the Boone And Crockett Club, a rich boys’ hunting and fishing organization whose members knew that in order to interact with nature in the way they loved, they needed to study and preserve game animals and their habitats. When OIA asked me to do a deep dive into the history, defining moments, economic impact, influencers, trends, and “defining boundaries” of the outdoor industry, square one was Roosevelt because, in my mind, the 26th president and the club he founded with George Bird Grinnell in 1887, mark a point at which the “outdoors” in the U.S. became linked to preservation, recreation and goods that could be turned into money.

When OIA asked me to do a deep dive into the history, defining moments, economic impact, influencers, trends, and “defining boundaries” of the outdoor industry, square one was Roosevelt because, in my mind, the 26th president and the club he founded with George Bird Grinnell in 1887, mark a point at which the “outdoors” in the U.S. became linked to preservation, recreation and goods that could be turned into money.



U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (left) and nature preservationist John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, on Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park. In the background: Upper and lower Yosemite Falls. (Wiki Commons)

Roosevelt loved the adventure aspect of hunting and angling. But he also knew that wilderness and wild creatures could suffer only so much exploitation. He traveled to California in 1903, and, with John Muir, hiked into the area that had been designated as Yosemite National Park in 1890. Rich tourists were already flocking there—with paid guides. Profiteers cashed in, escorting corseted ladies on hikes, selling them pemmican snacks, and offering clean beds for crashing after a long day, say, climbing the 3.5 miles and 2,700 feet to the top of Yosemite Falls. By then, the U.S. Congress had already established Yellowstone National Park and Mackinac National Park; white explorers had already summited Half Dome; a Bostonite had already formed the Appalachian Mountain Club; and a Welshman had patented the first modern “sleeping bag” (all before 1900).


Soldiers of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division near Colorado’s Camp Hale, where they trained for high-altitude ski mountaineering and warfare during World War II. Many would later return from the war and start America’s earliest ski resorts. (National Ski and Snowboard Museum)

In the minds of many modern-day outdoor industry pioneers, these various people and events are like the pieces of rock that zipped through space before centripetal force pulled them together to create our known universe. The bonding continued in the 1940s, with the formation of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division (which would end up catalyzing what we know today as the American ski industry) and Outward Bound; the ’50s with the explosion of Yosemite climbing; and the ’60s with its “rucksack revolution” and creation of the National Outdoor Leadership School. But true crystallization of the industry we now know didn’t occur until the first Earth Day (April 22, 1970), says Eagle Creek founder Steve Barker. “At the time, there was a renaissance movement back to the outdoors. It was birthed in the days when we had rivers on fire and incredibly bad pollution and all kinds of issues around the Vietnam War and civil rights.”


By Pierce, C.C. (Charles C.), 1861-1946 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, The Whole Earth Catalog was the hippie manual of the day, touting a liberal viewpoint but also championing backpacking and outdoor products. The people who adopted the Whole Earth lifestyle included Barker and many others who’d go on to found, run, or reinvent companies ranging from Jansport to Hi-Tec to Lowe Alpine to Chouinard Equipment (which preceded Black Diamond and Patagonia), The North Face and Sierra Designs. They specialized in “trying to invent new products to make our adventures a better experience,” says longtime Outside Magazine owner Larry Burke, but they also formed their early bonds around environmental and political action. The first Outdoor Retailer show kicked off in 1982 and quickly thereafter became the launch pad for the Outdoor Industry Women’s Coalition (now Camber Outdoors), the Outdoor Industry Association (which was originally called the Outdoor Retail Coalition of America or ORCA), The Conservation Alliance, the Access Fund, Big City Mountaineers, and the Outdoor Foundation, founded in the early 2000s.

Our industry has also always had a relationship with hunting and fishing, says Barker, but those sporting branches always had their own identity. With a few exceptions, women struggled to find their place in the new outdoor economy because, as longtime insider Kitty Bradley, who worked for Lowe Alpine Systems and Nike in the ’80s and ’90s, says, “Let’s face it. When I got into the industry, they hardly made clothing for women.” It seems to have taken until the most recent Outdoor Retailer + Snow Show, in January, for us to begin embracing all outdoor-loving genders, colors, backgrounds, orientations and sizes openly and as a point.


But the Outdoor Retailer trade show, itself, has evolved. It started as a response to the SIA Ski Show’s refusal to let outdoor brands exhibit—at the same time that places like Disneyland and even Mexico and Yosemite were denying admission to “longhairs,” says Barker. “They claimed they wanted to keep the show pure ski, but many of us believed it was also because of our ongoing battles over development of mountain areas. There were lots of conflicts between ski area developers and wilderness advocates.” Today the tradeshow is something vastly larger than a retail-order-writing event and more important than just the introduction of a new material or zipper.

“Long ago, we identified Outdoor Retailer as a rendezvous for folks with strong outdoor values; everyone from public agencies to nonprofits were sneaking in the door,” says Barker. “Now there’s a very big welcome to those people, who aren’t involved in the supply chain at all.” Conscientious consumers, however, appreciate brands that stand for more than profits and espouse a growing ethic of protection over exploitation. “Advocacy has become an integral part of brand value and identity,” says Barker.

As big a part of the Outdoor Retailer trade show as the line previews and trend updates, panel discussions about issues ranging from inclusion to climate change have long been important forums for industry activists to learn and to share.

The data—anecdotal and now empirical—suggest we’ve been doing something right: For the first time ever, outdoor recreation’s contributions are being counted as a unique part of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP). The Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) projects that growth in the outdoor industry continues to outpace the economy as a whole and now accounts for over 2 percent of the entire United States GDP. Those data validate our own Outdoor Recreation Economy report, which shows $887 billion in annual consumer spending and 7.6 million jobs.

To continue using the power that has made us one of the fastest growing economic sectors in America, we want to highlight, celebrate and examine people, events, trends, policies, activities, and missions that have defined the outdoor industry. So for the next two months, in bi-monthly installments, we, with the help of countless outdoor luminaries like Bradley, Burke and Barker, will travel back in time, and then forward, unpacking our industry’s unique and forward-thinking history.

Who better to start with than the guy who, 151 years ago, collected his first natural artifact, for preservation, on New York Harbor?

Part 1: The People: Coming Soon