Outdoor sporting goods firms hope more hikers hit the adventure trail | investinchina.chinaservicesinfo.com

Outdoor sporting goods firms hope more hikers hit the adventure trail

By LIU YUKUN CHINA DAILY Updated: 2023-06-27
Hikers pitch tents on a hilltop in Ankang, Shaanxi province, on June 10. LI JIE/FOR CHINA DAILY

Trekking tour operators, rural homestays also riding walkabout wave

Hiking, a popular and healthy pastime, has taken on fresh appeal as adventure-seeking enthusiasts escape the hustle and bustle of city life, and venture into nature's embrace.

Some backpackers opt to carry heavy camping gear on long-distance treks, pitch tents in grasslands or stargaze in deserts. Some simply embark on impromptu hikes in nearby suburbs. From multiday hikes to spontaneous walks, the recreational endeavor is now a sought-after activity and has been trending on social media platforms.

On Xiaohongshu, a lifestyle-sharing platform, the word "hiking" saw a 180 percent jump in searches in April compared to the previous month, reaching about three times the volume seen during the same period last year. Similarly, Mafengwo, an online travel service platform, reported a significant surge in searches for hiking-related topics in March.

As of early June, hiking-related topics on Douyin garnered over 8 billion views, while Xiaohongshu boasted more than 3.53 million relevant posts. The platforms are filled with a plethora of hiking-related content, including recommended hiking routes, equipment lists, outfit guides, club recommendations and tips to prepare for journeys made on foot.

Individuals who have never participated in hiking are easily drawn to the activity through social media endorsements and promotions. Liu Rong, a Beijing resident, is one such example. For her first trip, she embarked on a hiking expedition to the Yanshan Mountains in Hebei province under the guidance of a professional hiking leader.

Contrary to her initial expectations of a typical tourist attraction, hiking proved to be more about physical stamina and endurance, offering a personal journey that she said helped refresh her mind.

A consumer tries out a hiking backpack during a sporting goods expo in Beijing in February. CHEN XIAOGEN/FOR CHINA DAILY

Last month, Liu and her friends organized a trip to a mountain in the suburbs of Beijing, which she described as an "obscure wilderness".

"We had to hire a professional camping leader to help us finish the trip, who helped us avoid situations in which we might injure ourselves. We invited friends we hadn't met for long, colleagues, neighbors and even more casual acquaintances. Hiking turns out to be more than just an outdoor activity, but also a means of enriching one's social life," she said.

According to data from Mafengwo, popular spring hiking routes for young people are mainly concentrated in mountainous regions. Some of the highly sought-after hiking destinations include Shennongjia, a mountainous national park in Hubei province, Siming Mountain in Zhejiang province, and Jiuhua Mountain in Anhui province. The "Shennongjia hike" experienced a significant increase in search volume in March.

He Wenyi, secretary-general of Peking University's China Institute for Sports Value, said that outdoor activities in China have been gaining momentum in recent years. Among traditional outdoor sports such as cycling, hiking and mountaineering, hiking attracts the largest number of participants, primarily concentrated in first-tier cities.

"Hiking is characterized by its noncompetitive nature, relatively low physical intensity, and low entry barriers. It offers certain benefits in combating suboptimal health and diseases while integrating with other types of leisure such as tourism. In the past two years, driven by the increasing focus on health due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, hiking has entered a phase of accelerated development," said He.

With growing popularity, hiking has been expanding far beyond the activity itself. Tourism, accommodations, camping, gear and attire — the sport has sparked diverse and lucrative offshoots that have captivated enthusiasts and entrepreneurs alike.

Just take hiking socks, for instance. Its market size is projected to rise to 4.37 billion yuan ($604 million) in 2023, compared to approximately 4.11 billion yuan in 2022, said research and analysis provider Bo Yan Information Consultation.

According to a report on hiking consumption trends released by e-commerce platform JD's sports sector, hiking apparel that also suits urban work-home commuting, or other gear with fashionable designs, are the main trends for 2023.

Data from online shopping platform Tmall's new life research institute also showed a significant increase in searches for mountain-related products in March. For example, the search volume for outdoor jackets increased 60 percent in March compared to a year earlier, and the search volume for mountaineering sportswear increased by over 550 percent on a monthly basis.

Not only did traditional outdoor brands like Columbia thrive, but also an increasing number of sportswear and leisure brands, including Nike and Adidas, have expanded their outdoor and mountain-related businesses in recent years.

The hiking boom has also heated up the market for related gear such as trekking poles, quick-dry clothing, headlamps and tents.

"We have witnessed a growing number of suppliers of hiking apparel and gear in the past two years who offer increasingly various products," said Ge Yue, a co-founder of Chongqing-based educational camping startup Starry Woods.

"Just about two years ago, our camp participants preferred more relaxing and leisurely activities. In the past two years, recreational sports such as hiking started to boom and have now become a must-have in our camps. An increasing number of hiking clubs, freelance coaches and hiking gear providers have reached out to us for cooperation," Ge said.

"In the past, although our customers who signed up for hiking outings were fewer, they tended to be more professional and preferred challenging routes. Today, among our camp participants who yearn for hikes, only a small proportion have received relevant training. Most would rather have simpler routes with better views that allow them to socialize," she added.

The popularity of outdoor activities such as cycling and hiking has also influenced the homestay industry. According to data from Tujia, a property rental platform and homestay operator, the number of homestay service providers whose descriptions or tags are related to "cycling" and "hiking" has increased by 20 percent as of early June, compared to 2019 levels. For the first five months, the number of bookings for hiking — and cycling-related homestay services increased 2.8 times compared to the same period in 2019.

Spurred by the hiking boom, tourist destinations suitable for hiking have also become hot spots. Travel portal Tuniu said that two-day hiking tours in Jiangsu province, which involve treks along forest trails, have become a recent top choice among tourists from East China. Participants are mainly engaged in team-building and family trip activities.

"To better cater to the market and develop new business growth points, we have expanded our products related to hiking in recent years. For example, in East China, we have integrated activities such as kayaking with hiking and launched a variety of short outdoor trips that are suitable for families, as well as customized outdoor trips for corporate team-building exercises. In addition, we have designed multiple routes for lighter outdoor activities in Southwest and East China," said Zhao Jing, head of customized tours at Tuniu.

"Take the five-day tour in Tengchong, Yunnan province, that was launched on Tuniu's livestreaming platform as an example. This product highlights an easy hiking experience on a local scenic mountain, with an approximately four-kilometer route suitable for even beginners to outdoor activities. Led by a tour guide, the hiking team can have a close encounter with the forest, visit hidden mountain waterfalls and popular tourism sites, all while ensuring safety," Zhao said.