Cost of Living

Outdoor gear is selling out as Canadians stock up for pandemic staycations

Faced with travel restrictions and health concerns over COVID-19, many Canadians have decided this is the year to explore the great outdoors — and it's causing shortages in stores across the country.

Bikes, stand-up paddleboards and tents among the hottest items this summer

Clearance racks shown in this November 2019 photos at a Vancouver Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) might be a little more bare after a COVID-19 induced staycation summer. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

It's the summer of staycations — and that's leading to retail shortages when it comes to outdoor gear in Canada.

Faced with travel restrictions and health concerns over COVID-19, many Canadians have decided this is the year to explore the great outdoors, and they're stocking up on bikes, tents, stand-up paddleboards, even dehydrated food and binoculars.

"There was this pent-up desire for people to get outside," explained Brodie Wallace, merchandise director of hard goods at Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC).

MEC took a huge hit in sales at the beginning of the season, when the pandemic forced the Vancouver-based company to shut down all of its stores across the country.

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But when coronavirus-related restrictions started to ease, Wallace said customers were keen to return both in person and online. 

"As people were able to get outside and get into the backcountry or get into our parks, lakes and river systems, there was a lot of pent-up demand, and a lot of people who were just looking to re-purpose, maybe, some of that still disposable income that they had thought about using to go to Hawaii or maybe take a European trip," he said. 

'Peak and valley' supply problems

Sales of bikes, stand-up paddleboards and tents saw the biggest jump at MEC, with sales in all three categories up 10 to 20 per cent from the same time last year, said Wallace. 

"Sales of stand-up paddleboards really went through the roof," he added. 

One week we'll have great sales because we've got a shipment, then in the next week there's nothing available again.- Brodie Wallace, merchandise director of hard goods, Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC)

Cycling is one of five outdoor activities experiencing explosive growth this season, according to the global market research firm NPD Group. The report, which is compiled based on June sales in the US, says consumers are also flocking to paddle sports, golf, camping and birdwatching. 

The shortage of bicycles, especially those priced under $1,000, is part of a larger global phenomenon which has been exacerbated by supply chain disruptions and trade disputes between the United States and China. 

"It can be very peak and valley," Wallace said about the Canadian market.

A cyclist navigates Calgary's bicycle pathways in August. (Helen Pike/CBC)

"One week we'll have great sales because we've got a shipment, then in the next week there's nothing available again."

Calgary-based travel writer and blogger Karen Ung, who runs the Play Outside Guide, said she's fielding a lot of questions from readers and friends about where to find tents, life jackets and even smaller items such as dehydrated food for camping. 

"Those are sold out," Ung said. "All the way down to the little consumables like we were trying to just find some of those zip fire starters because they're so good for starting a fire even with damp wood."

More people means more injuries

The surge of interest in outdoor activities means Canada's beaches, trails, lakes and campsites are at times jam-packed with visitors.

"It's pretty crazy right now," Ung said about the Kananaskis region of Alberta. "We were surprised even hikes that were not that popular before, now you go by and the parking lot is overflowing. It's a little overwhelming and so we just keep driving to another trail head." 

Travel blogger and Alberta Parks ambassador Karen Ung says she’s getting bombarded with questions about where to go, what gear to bring and more importantly, where to find it. (Submitted by Karen Ung)

Ung said she's also noticing a lot of improvising when it comes to using outdoor gear. 

"There's people scrambling and they're in places where there's risk of rock fall," she said. "They can't find a rock helmet because the stores are all sold out, so they're wearing bike helmets."

But some things just can't be improvised, Ung added, such as proper footwear.

That includes experience.

The number of rescue responses from Alberta Parks has increased significantly this summer, doubling in the month of July compared to the same time last year. 

"Typically, 20 to 30 per cent of search and rescue calls are related to missing or overdue people," Alberta Parks revealed in a statement emailed to CBC Radio's The Cost of Living.

"This season, there has been a noticeable increase in mountain biking injuries. The team has responded to mountain bike accidents almost every day for the past few months," according to the provincial agency.

Second wave of interest in winter sports?

As the summer season winds down, stores like Mountain Equipment Co-op are anticipating a possible second wave of interest in winter sports.

"My suspicion is that Canadians are going to take to the hills and find their powder and really enjoy being outside," said Brodie Wallace with MEC.

"Whether it's backcountry ski touring, or snow shoes and Nordic ski or even alpine ski -- we're looking at those areas as real opportunities within the business." 


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About the Author

Falice Chin

Senior Producer

Falice is the senior producer of the Cost of Living on CBC Radio. Her international work has appeared in the Financial Times, the National Post, Zacks Investment Research, CBC and others. She's won an RTDNA for investigative journalism in Canada and a World Summit Award for Arab e-content. You can reach her at: falice.chin@cbc.ca

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