The backcountry business
While the wavering national economy has had an impact on the outdoor industry, backpackers, bikers and rafters are still venturing from Colorado’s resort towns into the backcountry.In fact, say retailers and guides in outdoor recreation stores from Aspen to Glenwood Springs and Vail to Breckenridge, visitors and locals of all ages are enjoying Colorado’s mountains.Of course sales tax figures can tell a different story. Although the outdoor recreation industry has grown leaps and bounds in the past 15 years, a national recession seems to be keeping sales figures from skyrocketing as even the most enthusiastic adventurer is keeping an eye on his wallet.Plus, the wildfires that burned through Colorado during the summer of 2002 aren’t exactly a distant memory.”Last summer was tough. It was hard on everyone because of the fires,” said Monica Minogue, manager of Mountain Outfitters in Breckenridge. “Our numbers from that have gone up, but I don’t think things have really spiked.”JT Thompson, owner of the Back & Pack Shop in Vail and Avon, said he considers last summer to be an anomaly for resort towns business.”Business is absolutely better this summer. I think our governor gave the impression of the entire state being on fire when he said Colorado was burning,” Thompson said, referring to Gov. Bill Owens remark last June that “all of Colorado is burning.” “We’re still very much an economy-driven resort [in Vail], and we’ve seen fluctuations over the last year due to the economy.”Sales tax fluctuations in the sporting goods industry have been relatively similar in Aspen and Vail: Although there was a growth in business between 1999 and 2000, the last two years have shown declines – a trend that mirrors the national economy. And while there aren’t a lot of new outdoor recreation stores in Colorado’s resort towns, those that are in business have proven their longevity.Aspen’s Ute Mountaineer has been in business since 1977, Vail’s Back & Pack Shop since 1982. Summit Canyon Mountaineering found their niche in Glenwood Springs in 1978. Although state-of-the-art hiking boots and the newest, lightest equipment might not be flying out of the door these days, the number of people who pass through stores – even if simply for maps and shoelaces – remains still strong, retailers say.In some towns, business is booming based on the type of activity; in other resorts, business is booming, period.”You used to be able to sit in the middle of Main Street and not worry about getting hit by a car,” said Minogue of downtown Breckenridge. “Now you have to wait for the cars in order to cross the street. Summers have definitely gotten busier.”Minogue said that includes an increase in the number of people rafting, hiking and, especially, biking to Frisco, Copper Mountain and back. Plus, many Coloradans see Breckenridge as the perfect “just far enough away” mountain resort to escape the summer heat of the Front Range.Mountain Outfitters sells both equipment and clothing for the outdoor experience. In summer, the store rents bikes; in winter, the shop focuses on the backcountry experience, including cross-country skiing, telemarking and alpine touring. But year-round Minogue sees customers who are interested in venturing out of Breckenridge and into the wilderness.”What I see from this business is people wanting to venture out,” she said. “Local backcountry ski classes and avalanche classes are pretty well attended, and in the summer people want to go camping, climbing, or combine the two.”And when they walk into Mountain Outfitters, Minogue said they’re generally interested in getting a few pieces of gear so they can do it all themselves inexpensively, rather than hiring a guide or purchasing a lift ticket.For Peter Krainz of Rocky Mountaineering Guides in Dillon, the guiding business took a hit after September 11. But overall, Krainz has seen increasing interest from his customers in sport climbing, from gym walls to rock faces.”Summit County is becoming a destination for biking, rafting, jeep tours, as well as shopping,” Krainz said. “My business is OK – I take everyone from teenagers without their parents to families and individuals climbing.”In Aspen and Snowmass, co-owner of Blazing Adventures Bob Harris said he’s expanded business laterally over the past few years, adding biking, hiking and jeep tours to a business that he began as a rafting outfit called Blazing Paddles.”In any particular year, bike tours might be more popular so we have an incentive for expanding that,” he said. “In general, rafting is up in popularity, and so is biking. But although activities are popular, there are more people offering them.”Competition is a trend in the entire outdoor adventure business, Harris said, with sea kayaking, bike tours through France and everything in between upping the local ante. Harris has found that Blazing Adventures benefits from taking many different types of rafting trips, with varying levels of difficulty that keep customers coming back for more.And sometimes customers aren’t interested in large-scale wilderness adventures – they just want to get out there and experience the backcountry, no matter how quickly, and now matter how little experience they have.”The types of trips people take have changed from a two-week-long backpacking trip to one day hikes or overnight trips,” said Mike Brin, shipping manager at Summit Canyon Mountaineering in Glenwood Springs. “More people are getting into these backcountry trips and shorter trips are a great introductory way. If you’ve never backpacked, you’re not going to spend three weeks in the woods to start with.”
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Hanging Lake will once again be taking visitors starting May 1.