“Real freedom lies in wildness, not in civilization,” famed American Aviator Charles Lindbergh so perfectly stated. These words, among the most oft-quoted of this vast country’s wilderness, have never rung more vibrantly for the people of this nation than they do right now.
As social distancing became the norm, millions returned to the original distancer – nature. Whether out of necessity, to seek new hobbies, or return to lifelong passions – the numbers don’t lie. Americans were out in droves, recapturing the spirit of what makes our wide-open country the outdoors capital of the world.
Indeed, 2020 is an easy target. So many have lost loved ones, hard-built businesses, jobs, and everything in between. Yet a year that seemed destined to strip us of all that we love ended up yielding a remarkable wave of soul-searching for those willing to partake. As such, it feels far more productive (and prudent) to focus on what we gained within a year of remarkable loss – rather than what’s better left behind.
With this in mind, Outsider.com is taking a look back at a year like any other to reflect on our resilient nation – and how its remarkable hunters, anglers, and outdoors-folk alike recaptured the spirit of the great outdoors: one hobby at a time.
Anglers Reclaimed America’s Vibrant Waterways in 2020
“Now I see the secret of making the best person, it is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.” – Walt Whitman
Amongst the most powerful examples of this resurgence lies in one of the U.S.’s oldest territories, Vermont. The state holds remarkable examples – in both experiences and concrete numbers – of America’s will to explore amid the past year.
Within 2020, literal thousands more citizens were fishing and hunting in the state than at any time in the last three decades. Vermont saw an increase of fishing licenses sales totaling around 16,000 more than 2019 for 2020. This brought the state’s total number of registered anglers from 71,000 up to 87,000 Vermonters.
The numbers, which come courtesy of Vermont state news website VTDigger, are pretty incredible. Simply put: “The pandemic [got] more people to get outdoors,” says Vermont’s Louis Porter. Porter, who serves as commissioner of the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, adds that mass unemployment also factored into a return to outdoor hobbies alongside social distancing, as so many know.
“Uncertainty and difficult times were leading people to think about what they really wanted to spend their time doing this year,” Porter adds. “Being with family in nature, doing things that are safe during a pandemic, like hunting and fishing, fit that extremely well.”
Fishing Gets American Citizens Through COVID Pandemic
As for the stories of these Americans themselves, many returned to the outdoors to reclaim their sense of selves during such tumultuous times. One such individual is Vermont resident Danielle McEnany. Once a West Coast surfer, McEnany held a negative opinion of fishing her entire life. Growing up, fishermen’s hooks would get caught in her wetsuit. “It was a real nuisance, so I never thought fishing would be on my radar,” she reports to VTDigger.
That opinion would change drastically over the course of 2020, however. “Fast-forward to this past summer, we probably went out fishing three to four times a week,” McEnany continues. “It replaces a lot of what we’d normally do.”
“Instead of dinner dates with hubby, we’d rent out pontoon boats and fish on Lake Champlain for hours,” she adds of her family’s expeditions on Vermont’s famous lake. “Normally we’d do trips to Montreal and Massachusetts, and instead we did a fishing charter. It’s become an obsession.”
Thousands of others joined the McEnanys in taking to the outdoors for the first time in 2020. In addition, Vermont Fishing and Wildlife Commissioner Louis Porter clarifies that this is in no small part due to state governments – like his in Vermont – stepping up to clarify “quarantine and social distancing regulations”.
As such, citizens had officials not only telling them it’s okay to go outdoors but that they actually recommended it. Wholeheartedly.
“I’ve spoken to many people who aren’t going to their camps because of COVID, or they’re splitting time at camp among families,” Porter adds. “We advised that if you’re going out with a hunting partner not in your household, not to share a vehicle, that kind of thing.” And as all Americans know – actual clarity from the government does indeed go a long way.
Americans Reclaim Hunting as #1 Past-Time in 2020
“Go afield with a good attitude, with respect for the wildlife you hunt and for the forest and fields in which you walk. Immerse yourself in the outdoor experience. It will cleanse your soul and make you a better person.”– Fred Bear, famed American hunter & outdoors personality
Fascinatingly, Vermont saw the same trend for hunting as it did for fishing. Residents purchased 141,000 hunting licenses in 2020 alone. This is a large jump from 120,000 the previous year. That’s 21,000 new hunters in one state for a single year – hefty numbers for a hefty year in hunting.
This mass resurgence of hunting is set to outlive the social distancing age, too, with huge gun sales to new hunters backing this claim. Indeed, if gun manufacturer American Outdoor Brands Inc.’s numbers are to go by, America is in for 1 million+ new hunters. This number, even, is a conservative guess.
The company’s CEO, Brian Murphy, says “there has already been a wallet share shift.” The shift Murphy references came as indoor activities – such as dining out and movies – fell to the wayside throughout the past year.
“Obviously, there’ll be some return once a vaccine is widely distributed,” Murphy continues, “but it’s people, at least, again, what we’re seeing, intend to continue this, now that they have this newfound activity that a lot of times, they didn’t have the time for before or to even try.”
As social distancing quickly became the norm, hunting license sales saw an enormous boost alongside gun purchases, too. America produced a 12% increase nationwide in new hunters, The Wall Street Journal cites via the National Shooting Sports Foundation. Incredible.
America’s Modern Outdoors Age: Rise of the New Hunters
This fiery, passionately-renewed interest in outdoor sports and activities, is justified in merchandising numbers, too.
Americans quickly adjusted their spending habits in 2020 to fit outdoors lifestyles – purchasing guns, ammo, and hunting supplies in droves over other outdoors supplies. To put this in perspective, the aforementioned AOB saw a rise of 66% in revenue in 2020 from previous years. In 2019, the company saw an almost $400,000 loss in contrast.
2020, however, brought them a $7.3 million profit in comparison. Talk about a 180 in American spending.
These spenders didn’t set on their hunting gear, either. States like Delaware saw them out in record numbers, where popular hunting seasons – like their fall white-tailed deer harvests – shattered every previous record. In fact, hunters harvested almost 7,100 white-tailed deer in Delaware alone during the state’s 10-day November shotgun season.
Speaking to this, Delaware’s State Wildlife Administrator, Rob Hossler, told his local Cape Gazette that “Hunting helps keep the herd healthy and stable. For the last seven or eight years, hunters have harvested an average of about 14,000 deer, half of them with shotguns.  was super high. I guess all the planets were aligned.”
In turn, Hossler says that “Hunting rights have become a commodity just like crops. It started in the Southeast and spread across the country.”
As for Hossler’s own story – he’s in on the hunting resurgence, too. An avid deer hunter, the Wildlife Administrator reworked his bucket list after 2020, and now plans to harvest a buck white-tailed deer (or fellow cervidae) in all 50 U.S. States.
“It’s my way of seeing the country,” he concludes. “One deer stand at a time.”
Millions More Returned to Camping, Hiking, & Love of Outdoors in 2020
“A bad day camping is still better than a good day working.” – Anonymous
Lastly, a year defined by social distancing was bound to bring city-goers outdoors for the first time. Many tried camping for the first time – only to find out it’s a whole lot “harder and dirtier” than they expected. As is the case for most Americans, however, giving up was never an option. Not in 2020.
“[New Outdoorsmen and women] are amazed by the amount of bugs that they see and the variety… and how big they can get,” says Outsider Rafael Lopez to Fox News. Lopez is the creator of – and still runs – the NYC Hiking and Backpacking Group on Facebook. For his part, Lopez saw the largest increase in membership for his group in 2020. And the numbers just keep climbing.
The most fruitful part for Lopez, however, comes from the testimonies of group members. The hopeful outdoorsmen and women prepared as best they knew how, and then set out into the great wilderness. One such hopeful came in Chelsea Janke.
“I’m a stage manager, which means I’m prepared for every emergency,” says the 25-year-old American from Washington Heights. Her first camping trip – to Lake George – took place with her partner, Jason McGuire. She’s got her backpack all ready to roll: it’s stuffed to the brim with “essentials”. Included are: a book, Band-aids, water bottles, washcloths, “medicine”… and an umbrella.
The resulting bag was… enormous. Jason would insist on helping with its weight, only to become absolutely shocked by it. “Jason insisted on carrying it and it would get really heavy, and he’d be like, ‘Jesus, what did you pack?’” Janke laughs.
She found out really fast later that night, however, that she forgot something crucial. Amid all those Band-aids and books were no extra jackets, switchable layers, or anything for temperature regulation. So Jason ends up sweatpants-less their first night so she can sleep.
Perseverance: 2020’s Word of the Year
But Janke, nor a pantsless McGuire, would let this stop them. 2020 taught them both to persevere, she says. And as such, they pressed on. Now, the two are avid outdoors folk – something neither ever would’ve fathomed before the pandemic pushed them into the American wilds.
Scores of similar stories came from this past year. Others, like New Yorker Natalie Compton, even managed to fare far better.
Compton, a travel writer, has been camping before. Camping entirely on her own, however, is an entirely different story. If you’re thinking 2020 gave her the push she needed to finally go out on her own, though – you’re absolutely correct.
“I had never been in charge of the logistics,” she clarifies to Fox News. “I was never the one packing the food and packing the tent.”
The 29-year-old had little else to occupy her time during the pandemic. As such, she set out into the wilds like so many others. And after a lot of trial and error, including leaving her tent open overnight and waking up feeling “like a tea bag, dipped in a cup of tea”, she’s got the basics nailed down.
Firstly: zip up your tent. Always.
Secondly: bring a sleeping pad. “It felt like I woke up and was hit by a bus,” she says of her experiences without one.
Thirdly: If you bring a portable charger for emergencies, be sure to charge it at home first.
Since rediscovering camping, Compton says her life has completely changed. As a result, she’s done overnights in the wilds of Connecticut, the Catskills, and a few famed spots in the Virginia outdoors. Being able to chronicle her adventures as a travel writer, too, has been a huge bonus for her.
The biggest bonus of all, though? Peering up at a night sky full of brilliant stars. It was, as the camper says, “one of the most breathtaking moments of my life.”
It’s sentiments like this that Outsider.com wishes to remember about 2020:
The brave seeking of hobbies new and old.
The fiery returns to lifelong passions.
The resilience of our remarkable hunters, anglers, and outdoors folk
And the recapturing of the wild spirit that makes our wide-open country the outdoors capital of the world.
Happy New Year,