That Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, and Jimmy Chin are practically household names in 2019 is evidence of the boom in climbing popularity the US has seen in recent years, but hard numbers are way more indicative. For the first time, the American Alpine Club, working closely with a dozen key climbing and outdoor rec organizations in support, has released a comprehensive State of Climbing Report to quantify just how big the climbing community has become.
Because this is the first of these reports, it’s difficult to put the data in historical context to see the real year-to-year change in certain categories, but the raw numbers of dollars spent and climbing memberships initiated in recent years show both a growing interest in the activity plus a big chunk of the outdoor economy.
The report, which is based on survey responses collected by the American Alpine Club of both members and non-members, and data collected by the Outdoor Industry of America, reveals a community composed mostly of young white guys—at least as far as outdoor climbing is concerned.
The OIA estimates that nearly 8 million people participate in climbing in one form or another, up 500,000 from just five years ago. Of those, some 67 percent of outdoor climbers are male; at indoor gyms, 58 percent are male. AAC’s survey was also dominated by white male respondents, roughly 80 percent were white, with 72 percent of AAC members and 57 percent of non-members being male. OIA data also showed that 65 percent of climbers at the crag today are between 18-35 years old.
In case you’re wondering, the OIA considers somebody a climber for the purpose of their data if they’ve climbed at all in the past year. The AAC has no requirement and assumes people in the club and answering the survey are climbers.
All those millions of climbers mean lots of money generated. Nearly $12.5 billion was spent on climbing expenses in 2018. The bulk of that was in travel and trip costs. $169 million was plunked down for gear, with climbing shoes forming the bulk of that. Unsurprisingly, more technical gear fetched less—the smallest category of spending was in ice climbing accessories. Interestingly, climbers buy most of their gear and brick and mortar stores, as opposed to online marketplaces. With so many climbing spaces being in out-of-the-way rural communities, that’s a healthy chunk of money spent in small-town USA.
Indoor climbing has a big slice of these numbers. It’s estimated that over four percent of the US population climbs indoors, roughly 15 million people. Climbing gyms are signing people up at an average rate of 100 new members per month.
Part of the reason for collecting all of this data is to bring the climbing community’s size to bear when it comes to advocating for climbers’interests. The majority of climbing takes place on public land, with over 70 percent of climbing in Western states taking place in publicly-held space. That $12 billion spent too can help bend the ear of policymakers when lobbying for the protection of climbing spots.
Quantifying who climbs, how much they spend, and where they do it is interesting on its own, but the AAC hopes to use that data to address any shortcomings in climbing outreach and advocacy. “We believe that collecting and distributing this information can lead to inspired action among industry leaders and beyond,” said AAC CEO Phil Powers. “If our strengths are exhibited, we can leverage them. If our weaknesses are revealed, let’s address them.”
Download a free copy of the State of Climbing Report here.
Top photo: Tommy Lisbin