COVID changes winter: Outdoor retailers anticipate winter rec changes influenced by the pandemic

All summer long the outdoor industry went berserk as people’s normal vacation plans were upset by a pandemic and replaced with camping, hiking, biking and other outside recreations.

Now a pandemic-laced winter is on the horizon, and some questions loom on how people are going to react to the changing recreational landscape and if outdoor gear suppliers will be ready or caught off guard in a similar way that bicycle suppliers were this past spring and summer.

“Particularly we’re seeing already an explosion in anything dealing with backcountry,” said Davin Napier, manager at Idaho Mountain Trading in Idaho Falls about recent winter recreation trends. “I get it, everyone is pretty uncertain about what the resorts are going to do fully. Even though (Grand) Targhee (Resort) says absolutely they are going to open. Kelly (Canyon Ski Resort) is on track. Everyone in the local area is, but a lot of people are taken to the (alpine touring) or backcountry aspect and that’s where we’re seeing a major pinch in available items.”

With the early closure of ski resorts in March because of the pandemic, backcountry ski hotspots such as Teton Pass were slammed with extra visitors.

Regional ski resorts plan to open as usual this winter, but with added precautions promising a different experience. Some resorts expect to limit numbers on the ski hill and at lodges. Outdoor retailers say changes at resorts may drive recreators to different activities, such as cross-country skiing and backcountry skiing and snowboarding.

“I think we’ll see a big boom in Nordic this winter,” said Scott Hurst, manager of the Outdoor Resource Center at Brigham Young University-Idaho. “I’ve heard from Rossignol and Alpina that their Nordic is all sold out for the season already as far as from the manufacturers. My Rossignol rep told me they were oversold in some categories for their Nordic. The Alpina rep said they have a feeling that Nordic is going to be like bicycles were this past summer. Because you can do it by yourself and it doesn’t require any special equipment, it’s good for social distancing and it’s a great way to exercise outside of the gym with the COVID still going around.”

Taylor Houck, of Idaho Falls, said via Facebook that the pandemic would be changing her winter recreation plans.

“I chose not to purchase a ski pass this year at (Grand Targhee) partially because they shut down early last year and partially because their social distancing protocols add more challenges that I don’t want to deal with,” Houck said. “I will be replacing that winter activity with others however.”

Yostmark Mountain Equipment in Driggs reports seeing a spike in interest in backcountry skiing and snowboarding recently.

“Equipment, avalanche courses, education has skyrocketed,” said Yostmark co-owner Rich Rinaldi. “With the pandemic that hit in March, lift skiing was closing and the uncertainty of lifts running, etc. People figured, ‘I’ll climb the mountain and ski it.’ Simple as that.”

Both Rinaldi and Napier said certain specialty items needed for backcountry adventures have or will become harder to acquire from manufacturers, such as some specialty bindings and avalanche airbags. Most items are available now, but may not be here later in the winter season. Interest in avalanche courses has also increased.

“We always host an avalanche class — an avy 1 or avy 2 class — here in the store,” Napier said. “We have from six to 12 people. … By this point I would normally have maybe two or three interests in an avy class. They’re not inexpensive – $450 bucks generally. It’s a couple of nights here and then a Saturday and Sunday field training at Teton Pass. … What’s interesting is I’ve already had two dozen interested. There are all these telltale signs of the influx. It’s going to be interesting.”

Barrie’s Ski & Sports in Pocatello notes the same trend.

“Year after year we have been seeing more people interested in that level of skiing,” said Nick DeTore, a bike and ski tech at Barrie’s. “The companies are making more of that style of equipment, too. It used to be a high price point, but now they’re making a lot more entry-level setups just because the market for that has grown so much over the past couple of years. This year seems to be shaping up the same way.”

The new outdoor retailer in Idaho Falls, Al’s Sporting Goods, sees a similar view.

“We’ve seen an increased interest in backcountry skiing as well as cross-country skiing,” said Dustin Peterson in Al’s bike and ski department. “That also includes splitboarding for snowboarders out there. I think as we get into the season, if we see an increased interest as we did with bikes, it’s going to be really hard to get that stuff. Normally by the end of December, we’re pretty scarce on equipment.”

Cross-country skiing is also seeing an upward trend. DeTore said when the snow comes, his shop “will rent out our entire fleet of Nordic skis every weekend. We have 75 sets of cross-country skis; all the adult ones will be rented out.”

For some, the momentum carried over from summer outdoor activities will continue into winter.

“We plan on doing a lot more cross-country skiing, and I would love to learn how to snowshoe,” said Idaho Falls elementary teacher Heidi McJunkin via Facebook.

Joe Hill, co-owner of the Sled Shed shop in Rexburg, said his shop has received increased orders to supply the city with cross-country skis for its operation at Teton Lakes Golf Course. “The popularity just keeps on growing,” he said.

Zoom towns

Another interesting recreational trend affecting eastern Idaho is called “Zoom towns.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has sent many remote workers away from crowded cities, some temporarily, others more permanently. National Public Radio defines Zoom towns as housing markets that are booming as remote work becomes more popular or necessary. Remote workers are leasing out their homes or apartments in cities such as San Francisco and moving to places such as Driggs, Sun Valley, Jackson, Wyo., or even Idaho Falls, to give them access to a nearby ski resort, more space, outdoors, less traffic and nature. They retain their big-city salaries and prosper with a small-town setup.

Forbes magazine said, “Recent trends in the real estate market reflect this shift: Rental vacancies are surging and rental costs are declining in urban areas — as housing prices are increasing and inventory is becoming more scarce in suburbs and rural areas.”

The trend has been noticed in Driggs.

“Driggs definitely has a lot more people moving here this winter. Just because everyone is able to work remotely so why not move to a ski town, kind of vibe,” said Heidi Marquart, a bike and ski tech at Peaked Sports in Driggs. “We’re seeing that. We’re getting more people moving here that would probably have not moved here had COVID not hit.”

Marquart said her shop reported seeing more new faces this summer with people renting mountain bikes and expects to see them again renting skis and snowboards. She wonders how many will last after they get a taste of a real mountain winter.

“I’ve noticed people moving here, and they’re already complaining about how cold it is,” she said. “I’m thinking just you wait. It’s barely been freezing. … The overall vibe with Driggs is that it’s busier than it has ever been as far as people here.”

Stealthy in the dark: Idaho couple develops and manufactures bootlamps for hunters, hikers

The idea for Jim Manroe’s new company SneakyHunter started with a problem.

When getting himself into hunting position in the morning darkness of the backcountry his headlamp would often flash the game he was after and spook them away.

“If I heard a noise when I’m hiking in the dark before daylight, my immediate response with my ears and eyes is to turn that way,” Manroe said. “It’s a natural thing. Then I just lit up six eyeballs 40 yards away. Then I’m trying just as fast as I can to get my hand over my headlamp to douse the light. Headlamps are good for a lot of uses but they flood light everywhere you turn your head.”

Jim Manroe

Jim Manroe

So Manroe, who lives in Salmon, developed bootlamps. SneakyHunter bootlamps shine LED light at the foot level in three different colors: white, red and violet. White light for general use, red to not be seen by critters and violet to follow a blood trail. He also sells a model just for hikers with different colored LED lights. The bootlamps have been on the market for about two months, sold exclusively on the SneakyHunter website.

“It was about a year and a half process from the concept in my head to getting the manufactured product,” Manroe said.

The lamps are manufactured in Nampa.

“It’s kind of a clever idea,” said Ron Spomer, who has a YouTube channel called “Ron Spomer Outdoors.” “When you’re heading out into the woods to your deer stand and you don’t want the deer to see your light, if you have your headlamp on and you hear a noise you shine your light all over the woods. With this bootlamp, it shines right in front of your boot. … If you really want to be sneaky, push the button and it turns red. Everybody knows that deer don’t see red very well, if at all.”

Manroe said the entire process of making and selling the lamps has been challenging.

“For one thing it’s very expensive to be manufactured in the U.S., we get challenges there,” he said. “Our production costs are fairly high. That’s where we are at. We’re feeling the market out — if the product can sustain a higher price by being made in the U.S.”

A pair of SneakyHunter bootlamps cost $59.99 on his website.

Manroe said so far, response has been good.

“They perform great,” he said. “We’ve had some really good feedback from hunters already this year. So we’re pretty excited about that.”

SneakyHunter Bootlamps

Manroe and his wife, Annette, have been attending outdoor expos and working on getting their name out there. They’ve attracted the attention of the outdoor television program “Mass Pursuit,” with host Wilbur Ramos, who bought the bootlamps for his entire staff.

“We’re hoping that will get us out there,” Manroe said. “But the shows won’t air until late this winter or spring.”

The Manroes have lived in Salmon for more than 12 years. Prior to that they lived in Washington state near British Columbia, “literally a stone’s throw from the border. We skied and hiked and fished and spent a lot of time in the mountains of British Columbia because they were just right in our backyard.”

Manroe said before venturing into bootlamps, he worked as a truck driver and in the propane business. Annette Manroe worked for 27 years as a dental assistant.

The bootlamps attach to the boot with Velcro straps that wrap under the instep of the boot and with hooks that grab the boots laces. The hiker version offers white, red and green LED lights. The lamps run on three AAA batteries that last about 70 hours.

“The reason we added red and green for an option to the hiker’s model is because those colors are up to 50 percent less eye strain for long periods of time if you’re going on a long hike at night compared to a white light,” Manroe said.

He said bootlamps solve a few problems regular headlamps can create, such as lens glare on eyeglasses, blasting partners in the face when you look at them and depth perception issues.

“People with headlamps have a depth perception issue when they are walking,” he said. “They think they are stepping over a root or a rock, but yet their foot still nicks it. Their depth perception is a little off. This kind of eliminates that.”

Manroe said if you’re hiking in deep snow, you can mount the bootlamps above your knees.

“When people see it and get the concept, people just have to have it immediately,” he said. “They’ve had the same problems I’ve had at getting into hunting areas and flashing game.”

Manroe said he sees other applications for his bootlamps, such as caving, climbing and mountaineering. “We just need to get the word out there,” he said. “I know we would get some interest there.”

The bootlamps can be found at

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