Why We Hike

May 15, 2019

Research on First Day Hike Participants Examines Hiker Motivations

Kristen Grissom enjoys the peacefulness that comes with long walks in remote places. An avid hiker, she can often be found on the trails several days a week after work and on weekends.

“I enjoy the freedom of it and the feeling of satisfaction after spending a day in the woods and conquering a difficult trail,” Kristen says. “My family does not enjoy hiking though, so I go on my own or with friends, if possible.”

Photo of first day hikers at Croft State Park in South Carolina.

First day hikers at Croft State Park in South Carolina.

Kristen is among 45 million Americans aged six and older that went hiking last year, with per capita participation increasing steadily over the past decade. Day hiking is consistently ranked as one of the most popular recreation activities in the United States for adults and children, making it an important marketing and management consideration for local, state, and national parks. However, although we know people enjoy the act of hiking, we know less about why they choose to hike, particularly among different sociodemographic groups.

Researchers from North Carolina State University and Clemson University recently conducted a research project to find out who hikes, why, and how those motivations might vary among different groups of people. Results were recently published in the Journal of Park and Recreation Administration.

“Most of the research we have seen to date has focused on the environmental impacts of hikers and visitor use management along trails,” says Sarah Wilcer, interpretive park ranger at Grand Teton National Park, who led this research project while earning her master’s degree at Clemson University. “Few studies have focused specifically on the motivations of hikers – what gets them out, how they decide where to go, and who they prefer to hike with, even though these are important resource management and marketing considerations for park leaders.”

The study focused on First Day Hikes on January 1, 2016, in three state park systems that were among the top 10 in terms of the total number of first day hikers in 2016: Georgia, Massachusetts, and South Carolina. Before they started their hike, adult park visitors were asked to complete a questionnaire that asked if it was their first hike or first experience at a park site, the size of their group and who they were with, and why they chose that specific hike. Respondents were also asked to provide their zip code to gauge the distance travelled to the park.

In all, the study sampled a total of 114 first day hikes, with group sizes ranging from 2 people to more than 300 participants on the most crowded hikes, and about two-thirds of the hikes taken were classified as “easy” by hike leaders. About 60% of respondents were participants on their first-ever First Day Hike, though almost all of them had already been on other hiking experiences. The majority of respondents also identified as Caucasian and were highly educated.

Photo of first day hikers at F.D. Roosevelt State Park in Georgia.

First day hikers at F.D. Roosevelt State Park in Georgia.

Overall findings demonstrated that different groups of people do, in fact, hike for different reasons. First time hikers, for example, were more likely to hike to try something new, while older participants were more likely to hike for exercise. Groups with children wanted to spend time together. The most popular reason, however, was to enjoy time in nature.

Other motivations included the uniqueness of the day and hike location. For example, female hikers were more likely than male hikers to be motivated to hike by the First Day Hike event, and close hikes were also preferred destinations for those coming to celebrate the New Year. Hikers choosing moderate or strenuous hikes further from home, however, were more likely to be motivated by trying something new.

“Our results show that different groups of hikers are seeking different types of recreation experiences, which provides valuable insight to park managers creating trails or marketing opportunities,” says Lincoln Larson, Assistant Professor at North Carolina State University. “If managers know who is using their trails and how far they are traveling to reach them, they can influence use patterns or create new trails with hikers’ needs in mind.”

The group is considering future research to build on the study results. “The study’s findings demonstrate that park managers can market and manage day hikes as a way to improve health, strengthen social bonds, connect with nature, and learn and experience new things in novel settings, but there’s much more we can learn about underrepresented groups,” said Jeff Hallo, Professor and Graduate Program Coordinator for Clemson University’s Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management department. “This research serves as a base we can build on to explore and contrast motivations of other groups, including those who may not have been on a hike yet, but would consider it.” Faculty at Clemson University are currently seeking graduate students – both in their online and on-campus M.S. and Ph.D. programs – to study and explore these topics and other current issues in park management.