Outdoor Recreation and Climate Change

A young child runs through a puddle while wearing rain gear

Historically, outdoor recreation and environmental conservation often were interconnected. For example, the national park system in the U.S. was established both to conserve natural resources and create places for Americans to spend time in nature. The national parks also were created as part of a model that excluded or forgot to consider the needs of many Americans including People of Color, low income people, neurodiverse people, and people with disabilities. Current issues continue to follow these trends. One area where this is especially evident is climate change. Climate change is a critical environmental concern today, and it intersects heavily with outdoor recreation and with issues of justice and inclusion.

A group of youth set up a campsite

Climate change will affect outdoor recreation in a myriad of ways. It is impossible to know all of the modifications that climate change will bring, but we’re already seeing the effects of warmer temperatures, more severe storms, and changing precipitation patterns on the outdoor recreation industry. Winter sports, such as skiing and snowboarding, are limited by diminished snowfalls and rising temperatures. Water-based sports, like whitewater paddling and fishing, are affected by polluted dead zones, earlier snowmelts, and shifts in rainfall. Catastrophic wildfires displace hikers and campers every year. As these trends continue, and perhaps worsen, it’s likely that peak outdoor recreation seasons will shift, and many people will have to find new places to participate in their favorite sports and outdoor activities. These kinds of changes could be devastating for economies that rely on the multi-billion dollar outdoor recreation industry and for our human connection to natural places.

A boy plays on the beach with the ocean behind him

However, it’s not a one-way street. In some cases, outdoor recreation can contribute to environmental degradation and climate change. The impacts of outdoor recreation are visible in small ways like soil compaction from bikes and trash left behind by hikers, but also in huge ways like the carbon footprint of flying to visit recreation sites or the pollution generated through gear production and distribution. The outdoor recreation industry has room for improvement when it comes to some areas of ecological impact, but it’s also uniquely positioned to help solve some environmental problems.

A sign being held at a protest reads "the tide is rising, so are we."

Outdoor recreation has the potential to respond to climate change in important ways. Because the integrity of ecosystems is a central resource for parks and recreation sites, managers and decision-makers are invested in pioneering adaptation and mitigation strategies, like rotating heavy use areas in and out of service, building with permeable surfaces and green infrastructure, encouraging carpooling and public transit, and countless other practices. Additionally, because outdoor recreation has such a powerful economic impact in the U.S., the industry can advocate for climate action at local, state, and national levels and push for policies that face climate change head on.

A critical role of outdoor recreation in addressing climate change is building connection to nature and creating meaningful learning opportunities. When we encourage people to spend time outdoors and have fun in nature, they often begin to care about the environment around them. Outdoor recreation programs and sites can build on this by educating outdoor enthusiasts about environmental issues and steps they can take to slow climate change.

A family walks across a green lawn

Climate change is, of course, complicated. As we consider these issues, we need to center topics of outdoor and environmental justice. Climate change disproportionately affects communities of color and low-income communities through racist and classist policies that leave marginalized folks behind to face drought, fire, flooding, and storms or restrict them to housing in polluted areas. The outdoor industry often caters to the needs of affluent white recreationists. Companies and programs within outdoor recreation have a responsibility to bring historically marginalized communities into both the benefits of spending time outside and any climate solutions they hope to generate. Any climate action that does not consider issues of equity and inclusion is not a fully realized plan because it will not meet the needs of all people or allow everyone to enjoy and benefit from being in nature.

With all of these factors in mind, it’s important to note that youth outdoor recreation has an especially important role to play in climate action. Young people deserve to inherit a world with a hopeful environmental future. We need to include them in our vision for climate action because they have the most at stake. Youth-focused outdoor recreation can build connections with outdoor spaces from an early age, promote community-based environmental action, and help us to imagine a world in which everyone has access to clean and healthy greenspaces in which to live, work, and play.