Charlie's Blog: Walking As An Outdoor Activity


Walking As An Outdoor Activity

I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.

Once upon a time, people's primary way to enjoy the outdoors was through walking. This is no longer the case. People still enjoy the outdoors, but walking is not the first thing that springs to their minds. They think of the more laborious exercise of hiking which is just walking but with expensive gear. Others like trail running which requires less gear but more pain and suffering. Then, there are the mountain bikers who make the foot traffic suffer on the trails they terrorize.

Walking is the easiest, the cheapest, and the most pleasant way to enjoy being outside. Fundamentally, you just need some good footwear. The rest would be clothes and gear you probably already own. On a sensibility level, walking should be the top preference for outdoor enthusiasts. It isn't. This is because walking doesn't have a very good PR department which relegates it to being the most underrated form of exercise and outdoor enjoyment.

It is my contention that walking is underrated because it requires so little in terms of equipment and gear. It is virtually a free activity. Other activities require gear and equipment which can be quite expensive. The makers of this gear advertise these products which ends up bankrolling magazines and other media. This is why you will find a magazine for cross country skiing but not one for walking here in the USA. You have to buy stuff to ski. The economics of a gear heavy fringe activity will always outdo the economics of a gear light but popular activity. Over time, the marketing of the product involves marketing for the activity itself.

This marketing for the gear heavy activities has the counter effect of diminishing the appeal of something easy like walking. Because people can't afford a mountain bike, a kayak, or a set of skis, they leave the outdoors to those with the funds, the youth, or whatever as they choose to spend their weekends watching sports on the couch. This takes a toll on physical and mental health. It never occurs to these people that they could just take a walk and get those outdoor benefits. Walking doesn't "count."

According to Outside, outdoor recreation and related businesses contributed $862 billion to the US economy in 2022. Motorized activities were more lucrative than human powered activities. Think of all the motorboats and ATVs that are out there. Yet, walking as an outdoor activity gets virtually no coverage in Outside. You do get some hiking coverage along with climbing and trail running because those things require gear which requires money which pays for advertising.

The irony of all that spent money is that it doesn't reflect the actual participation in these outdoor activities which is quite low relative to that expenditure. Fundamentally, people buy products for things they don't actually do. The activities are just excuses to buy stuff. It can be rightly called "outdoor consumerism." It is simply easier to buy things than to actually do things. If you need more convincing, look at all the outdoor gear being sold at rummage sales in almost new condition.

Some years ago, there was a fellow who became a living folk hero to the ultrarunning community. He was not a particularly gifted runner, but he was certainly a dedicated runner. He was famous for living out of the back of his truck and using minimal gear for his sport and lifestyle. He amazed people not so much for his exploits but for the style in which he did it. Running injuries would force him to cross train with gravel biking, mountain climbing, and skiing as he morphed from trailrunning bum to "outdoor athlete." The guy hasn't done much of anything as an ultrarunner since, but he is able to live off of endorsement deals as a sponsored multisport athlete because he is able to sell product. He essentially lives as a hypocrite now. He also knows he is a hypocrite which gives him angst. The solution to his angst would be to get a day job and go for long walks.

It doesn't matter to me if people like to do expensive activities in the outdoors. Outdoor consumerism doesn't affect my daily walks. What it does do is discourage other people from walking by fostering a mindset of extremism. Consequently, people spend a lot of money on doing nothing, or they just choose to save money and do nothing at all. That is the number one deleterious effect of all of this marketing and outdoor consumerism. Doing something cheap and fun isn't an option for these people.

The most effective "marketing" for walking is seeing people going outside for a walk. When people see a walker, they immediately know they can do that, too. There are virtually no barriers to entry. Walking outside is cheap, easy, and fun. People know this. They just need reminding.