With plans to hike the towering San Jacinto Mountains outside of Palm Springs, Suzanne Russell recently stocked up on sports equipment for the trip.
During the recession, the avid hiker from Laguna Hills cut back on outdoor gear. But, encouraged by a strengthening economy, she visited a huge new REI store in Tustin, where she shelled out $100 on poles and $25 on shorts to pursue her favorite pastime.
"I did cut back for a while but, then again, hiking is something you can do really cheaply," she said.
With the help of customers like Russell, outdoor retailers are bouncing back from the recession. That is particularly true in California, where recreation gear merchants have made plans to open new stores and expand existing outlets to take advantage of the state's massive sales potential and reputation as an outdoor enthusiasts' playground.
Sales of such outdoor gear as tents, backpacks, hiking boots and clothes jumped as much as 35% nationwide in 2010, according to an industry analysis. Part of that growth was driven by snow sports equipment sales, which reached a record $3.3 billion this season, according to a trade group for snow sports retailers.
Industry experts say Californians generate almost 10% of all outdoor gear sales nationwide and continue to spend big on recreation, although recent state-by-state numbers are not available.
"California has a huge population and its weather is conducive to outdoor activities," said Mike May, a spokesman for the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Assn., a trade group based in Maryland. "All of those people can be a juggernaut."
Even during the recession, industry experts say Californians continued to play outside because outdoor activities remain a cheap alternative to more expensive vacation and entertainment options.
And now outdoor enthusiasts are spending again, prompting sporting goods chains and outdoor recreation retailers across the state to expand.
Dick's Sporting Goods Inc. of Pennsylvania opened three stores in California in the last three months, the most recent one this month in Fresno.
La Canada Flintridge-based Sport Chalet Inc. also reported this month its first profitable three-month period in more than three years and is considering expanding its portfolio of 55 stores.
"Because we were able to get our business back to a better place, we are now back in the real estate market," said Sport Chalet Chief Executive Craig Levra.
El Segundo-based Big 5 Sporting Goods Corp. said it hoped to open 10 to 15 stores in its fiscal 2011, and Ventura-based Patagonia has announced plans to open four stores in the Golden State in the next 18 months.
"California is one of our most important states," said Patagonia spokesman Rob BonDurant.
REI plans to open two stores in California later this year, including a 24,500-square-foot location in Santa Barbara by this fall.
Last summer, the Seattle-based co-op relocated its 25,000-square-foot store in Santa Ana to a new 35,000-square-foot space three miles away at the Market Place shopping area in Tustin.
"This announcement reflects our commitment to expanding our presence in Southern California and offering our members and customers more ways to get outside," said Greg Mellinger, REI's retail director for Southern California.
Even as the economy slumped, retailers began appealing to customers with new stores that offer more than just tents, camp stoves and fishing poles.
As part of its 180,000-square-foot store that opened in 2007 in Rancho Cucamonga, Bass Pro Shops included an indoor archery range and an outdoor casting pond.
Scheels All Sports Inc. went further in 2008 when it opened a flagship store near Reno. It is so big that it houses a 65-foot Ferris wheel and two 16,000-gallon aquariums.
And even during the economic recession, outdoor industry representatives say hikers, campers, skiers and other outdoor enthusiasts continued to enjoy their favorite pastimes while cutting back on other diversions, such as shopping or traveling abroad.
But sales of outdoor gear dropped off during the recession as many outdoor buffs put off replacing old tents, backpacks and skis with the latest equipment, industry experts said.
"I've been seeing backpacks from the '60s," said John Mead, president of Adventure 16 Inc., a San Diego-based outdoor gear retailer. "People are pulling them out of the closets and bringing them in for repairs."
The shaky economy was one reason Aisha Almata, a college student from Whittier, has spent more time with her family recently, camping and hiking in Yosemite National Park and around Lake Tahoe.
"And it wasn't like we spent money on a new tent," she said. "We used what we had or we bought something only if it was on sale."
But sales figures for the outdoor recreation industry and sporting goods manufacturers show that spending on outdoor gear began to increase last year across the country.