Why the Trails are Trending: A Deep Dive Into the Rise of Trail Sports

What data can and can’t tell us about the ongoing increase in interest and participation in trail running, gravel biking, and other trail activities

Why the Trails are Trending: A Deep Dive Into the Rise of Trail Sports


Alex Tzelnic

Image courtesy Norda

As we all know by now, the pandemic led to a significant boom in outdoor exploration. Among the many activities that saw a surge in participation, running and cycling seemed to have really taken off. Specifically, on trails. But why?

To address the question of cause, let’s first dig into the data behind our assumption to ensure it’s more than just a hunch. In Strava’s annual 2023 Year in Trend Sport Report, trail running, hiking, and gravel riding all saw an uptick in user uploads that far outpaced other activities. Data from TrainingPeaks, a platform used by USA Triathlon, USA Cycling, and weekend warriors alike, showed a 50% increase in gravel racing in each of the last two years, with twice as many trail running events in 2023 compared to pre-pandemic numbers. Despite a return to relative normalcy in recent years, why have trail sports continued to be ascendant?

Part of this trend may be the obvious low barrier of entry for activities like running. Beyond this, it seems quite simply, there is room for growth in such sports. A study by Running Insight found that for every trail runner there are 5.3 road runners. A similar ratio applies to road cyclists versus mountain bikers. In other words, participation in road sports may be plateauing, whereas there is plenty of room to attract more trail users (especially those that might be making the jump from overcrowded road events).

Image courtesy AllTrails

Digging further into the factor of accessibility, it’s important to acknowledge the impact of increased crowdsourced information in recent years. Zipporah Allen, the CBO of Strava, noted the popularity of “route recommendations,” which are compiled from community uploads. “The platform automatically generates personalized routes from your preferred location,” explained Allen. “It’s a great way to confidently explore and discover new trails.” With apps like AllTrails and OnX offering similar functionality, it’s easy to see the impact of real time beta from real people can have in minimizing the guesswork and fear of the unknown. Dorothy and her pals would have a much easier time arriving at the Emerald City unscathed in this day and age.

The gear that supports and enhances trail experiences have also improved in recent years, from trail specific running shoes and apparel to accessories. “When I got into trail sports in 2007 you’d just take a salt tablet and put some dates in your pocket and go for it,” related Nick Triolo, a former senior editor at Trail Runner and Outside Run and the author of a forthcoming book about connecting with landscapes. “There has been more refinement in terms of the things that make the experience more accessible and comfortable.”

"Trail running and gravel cycling feel like the new frontier in the endurance world..."

Image courtesy Satisfy

For brands capitalizing on this niche, this has meant an arms race to “innovate”, with increasingly specific trail gear that ranges from the ridiculous to the ridiculously awesome. HOKA broke the billion-dollar mark in sales in 2022, and saw sales grow by 59% YOY in 2023, with trail and hike products helping lead the way. “HOKA was born on the trails and a notable amount of our growth can be attributed to our line of trail-specific footwear and apparel,” noted Jared Smith, the Global Product Line Manager for Performance Footwear at HOKA. Further, Henrique Nigro, of On, told me that their 45.5% increase in net sales last year was heavily driven by their Performance Outdoor vertical.

And it’s not just the juggernauts leading the charge. Smaller brands, like SATISFY and Ripton, have helped establish a sort of bizzaro dirtbag trail identity—premium products with a grungy ethos—in which one can fly the flag of their diehard dedication to their sport in the guise of a ripped cotton running tee, or performance denim bike pants. In the same way that surf culture helped popularize the sport in the mainstream eye, there is a rapidly emerging trail culture that is generating interest on both the fashion and performance front. Sell enough gorpcore and at least some folks are bound to use it for its intended purpose.

But there is also something about the allure of trails that the numbers can’t quite capture. There is, for lack of a better word, a vibe to trail sports that may be appealing to those looking for an earthier, hardier, more equitable exercise experience. “Sports like trail running and gravel cycling feel like the new frontier in the endurance world, and I think this is something that a lot of athletes are naturally attracted to,” explained Dirk Friel, the founder of the TrainingPeaks platform. “In many ways, gravel riding and trail running events offer a shared experience from the front of the pack to the back.”

Image courtesy Satisfy

Through his experience, Triolo sees trail sports as offering perhaps a more soulful pathway in an age when loneliness is more prevalent than ever. “There’s a counter behavior to the extended isolation of our digital lives,” he related. “In the rain shadow of COVID people felt disconnected, alienated, and separated from communities and landscapes. There’s a huge appetite for exploring less developed and less modified spaces. At the heart of the boom is a deep need to reconnect with people and land.”

Trends come and go, and it can be hard to pin down the precise factors that lead to spikes on a graph. The data can tell us a two-dimensional story, and apps and products can facilitate smoother experiences on rough terrain. But ultimately it is the ineffability of the gratification people feel on trails that has led to such unflagging enthusiasm for trail running, hiking, gravel riding, and mountain biking. “I have faith that there is a deep desire to have a slower, more resonant relationship with land,” said Triolo. “People are turning to trails because we want to breathe and we want to be human.”

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Why the Trails are Trending: A Deep Dive Into the Rise of Trail Sports

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Alex Tzelnic

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