Hot Trail Summer: The Impact of a Warming Climate on Climbing and Trail Sports

Back

Photo by Stephen Shelesky

We’re big fans of summer. With longer days and sunny weather we’re able to spend more time out on the trail or at the crag making it one of our favorite seasons to get outside and do the things that we love. However, we can’t ignore the fact that summer as we know it is changing. We teamed up with the master’s students at UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management to examine how climate change impacts the rock climbing, trail running, hiking and mountain biking communities to create a report that outlines what many of us already know: that no matter the season, a warming world has profound implications for outdoor recreation.

The report includes firsthand perspectives from POW Athlete Alliance members like  Tommy Caldwell, Kurt Refsnider, Dillon Osleger, Peyton Thomas, Clare Gallagher and more. They provide tangible examples of how climate change is impacting the way they recreate outside and altering the spaces they covet.

Before you dig into the nitty-gritty of the report, we want to make sure you have all the tools you need to take action so that you can help accelerate the transition to a clean-energy future. As you read, keep these actionable steps in mind (more on this below and on p. 40-43 of the report):

  • Educate Yourself: Dive a little deeper into climate change by reading the news, popular blogs or books or listening to a podcast on climate science and solutions. An informed Outdoor State is better positioned to influence decision-makers! 
  • Contribute to Science: Citizen science is a powerful way to contribute to our collective understanding of climate change. 
  • Show Up: You can get involved in how your local community makes decisions by showing up at a town council meeting or energy board meeting. If one town can make a difference, then think about what towns and cities across the country can do to meaningfully reduce our collective emissions.
  • Speak Out: We know that talking about climate change can be tough, whether it’s with your family, friends and co-workers or with decision makers. But these very same people trust what we have to say—so let’s take the opportunity to teach them what we’ve learned! 
  • Vote: Now, more than ever, your vote matters—and not just in presidential election years! 
  • Join Team POW Do you want to get more involved, but aren’t sure where or how to start? Team POW is your front door to climate and lifestyle advocacy. We’ll make sure you are informed and armed with the latest science, up to date on current climate-forward legislation in your state, connected to like-minded individuals and if that’s not enough, you’ll get a great discount on POW gear. 

Now, keep on reading, or jump straight to the report, to learn more about the ways that warming temperatures will affect summer recreation and what we can do as members of the Outdoor State to help curb the threats of climate change.


Trail Sports

As the climate continues to warm, several existing and emerging impacts will make it harder for trail sports enthusiasts to do what they love. While there are regional differences in the severity of each threat, all will affect the trail sports community and their way of life. There are three categories in which these impacts can be categorized: threats to access, health and experience.

THREATS TO ACCESS (p. 8-14)

Wildfire, erosion, extreme heat, sea-level rise and tree die-off are all climate related impacts that are affecting our trail systems. As global temperatures continue to rise, these five factors are increasingly expected to prevent trail sports enthusiasts from accessing the places they love. Here are some quick facts about how climate related impacts are threatening our ability to access the places we love to recreate:

  • Wildfires: In 2020, Arizona had a record-setting fire season that burned 978,000 acres and over 100 miles of the Arizona Trail, limiting the ability of trail users to access these recreational spaces. 
  • Erosion: There was a seven-year-long closure of the Young Gulch Trail in Poudre Canyon, Colorado, which was demolished by post-fire flooding. 
  • Shifted Timing: Average annual temperatures in the U.S. have increased by 1.8°F (1°C) since 1900.  Alarmingly, average temperatures are expected to increase by an additional 2.5°F (1.4°C) over the next several decades and could increase by 3–12°F (1.6–6.6°C) by 2100, depending on future greenhouse gas emissions. Temperature increases will be particularly acute in the Southwestern U.S. (California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona), and parts of this region could experience 45 additional days with high temperatures exceeding 90°F every year.
    • In 2021, the city of Phoenix approved a pilot program designed to restrict the use of certain trails during extreme heat to protect the safety of the public and first responders. 
  • Sea Level Rise: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania could lose 57% of its off-street trail mileage by 2100 due to sea- level rise, but similar effects are expected for many lowland coastal trails 
  • Forest Die Off: From 2010 to 2018, bark beetle infestations killed trees across more than 50 million acres of the Western U.S. In addition to providing fuel for wildfires, these dead trees can damage infrastructure and block trails when they fall. This can cause trail users to cut a hike or ride short.
Peyton
POW Athlete Alliance Member, Peyton Thomas

“The trails and places I would recreate were flooded and damaged after Hurricane Florence. In Carolina Beach State Park, changes in the water levels are occurring more frequently, so you see lots of flooding in different pockets of the trail system. There’s been a ton of saltwater intrusion into the park too, so you can see huge dead stands of trees. That impacts the stability of the land, and those areas were pretty devastated by the hurricane.”

Professional Runner & POW AthLete Alliance Member, Peyton Thomas

THREATS TO HEALTH (p. 16-21)

Trail sports enthusiasts’ personal health will be at greater risk while recreating due to changes in temperature, air quality, vector-borne disease spread and the mental health benefits received through recreation. Here are a few ways that climate-related impacts will affect our health:

  • Arizona currently averages over 50 ‘dangerous heat days’ per year (heat index of 105°F or higher) and that is projected to increase to almost 80 days per year.
  • Higher temperatures strain cardiovascular, thermoregulatory, metabolic, neural and cognitive functions, all of which play a role in athletic performance.
  • In extreme situations, excessive heat can completely compromise the body’s ability to regulate its internal temperature and result in heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion and heatstroke.
  • Wildfire smoke can contain carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen dioxide, ozone, particulate matter (PM), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), all of which are harmful to humans.
  • Drier and warmer fall conditions increase the amount of ground-level ozone in many states, which can induce shortness of breath, aggravate asthma, worsen allergies, compromise lung function and result in hospitalization.
  • Outdoor recreation provides trail sports enthusiasts with significant mental health benefits. For example, exercise typically decreases anxiety, while time spent in forests and natural settings is positively correlated with stress reduction, improved mood and enhanced cognitive function. Decreases in recreational access due to poor air quality, wildfire risk or increased temperatures reduce these mental health benefits.
Kurt
POW Athlete Alliance Member, Kurt Refsnider

“The smoke was so bad that I completely skipped some of the racing. That month, you’re just looking at the AQI trying to figure out, ‘where can I go?’ For me, I have asthma, so it’s even more of an issue when determining where I go.”

Professional Mountain biker & POW Athlete Alliance member, Kurt Refsnider

THREATS TO EXPERIENCE (p. 22-23)

Climate impacts such as wildfire and erosion damage the aesthetic value of trail systems and result in crowding. These changes will diminish the overall experience that trail sports enthusiasts seek when recreating. Here are ways that climate-related impacts will affect the way we experience trail systems:

  • Aesthetic: Wildfires and smoke affect 400,000 and 1 million visitor-days across the U.S. each year, respectively. Hikers and bikers’ recreation demand decreased in areas that have been burned, indicating that trail users enjoy aesthetic value while recreating.
  • Crowding: The USDA predicts that the total number of adults in the U.S. who participate in hiking will increase from 78.3 million in 2008 to 102.2 million by 2030, an increase of over 30%. At the same time, wildfires, erosion, extreme heat, sea-level rise and tree die-off are all expected to limit the number of accessible trails. Further accentuating the issue of access is the backlog of federal trail repairs. The U.S. Forest Service manages approximately 159,000 miles of trails, but roughly 120,000 require maintenance or repair. The backlog on forest roads and bridges alone is estimated to cost $3.4 billion and has been increasing over time. Taken together, these factors suggest that climate change could dramatically increase crowding on available trails. 
Clare
POW Athlete Alliance Member, Clare Gallagher | Photo by Mike Thurk

“So many places I like to run are still closed years later, and there hasn’t been maintenance work since. Even for trails that have reopened, when running, it’s not the same. You’re breathing in ash and dust, and there’s no tree cover, making these trails exposed, hot and dusty. Visually, there are burn scars and leftover charred tree trunks. It’s heartbreaking.”

Professional runner & POW Athlete alliance member, Clare Gallagher

Climbing

Climate change is impacting the rock climbing community in several ways. Since rock climbing frequently requires the use of designated trail systems, they are similarly affected by climate-related impacts as trail users are. There are a variety of climb-specific impacts that can be grouped into the same three overarching categories as trail sports: threats to access, health and experience.

THREATS TO ACCESS (p. 26-29)

Access to outdoor rock climbing locations typically requires trail use or wilderness access. Warming temperatures will threaten access to approach trails and climbing areas alike by increasing instances of wildfires, erosion, extreme heat and forest die-off. Here are ways each of these is impacting access to the climbing destinations that we love:

  • Temporal Shifts: Climbers are now moving to more temperate locations where there is better climbing conditions in different seasons. For example, in the summer months, rock climbers often seek cooler, higher-altitude regions such as California’s High Sierra, Nevada’s Spring Mountains, Wyoming’s Wind River Range and Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park.  
  • Wildfires: The 2012 Waldo Canyon fire in central Colorado which closed down all of Rampart Range Road for two years, preventing access to climbing spots like Parachute Rock, Devil’s Head, Scorpio Crack, Jackson Creek, Split Rock, The Taj Mahal and Cabin Ridge Rock. 
  • Forest Die-off: In addition to fueling wildfires, these dead trees can fall across trails and roads, resulting in maintenance closures, added inconvenience to approaches and potential safety hazards to those nearby. 
  • Erosion: Projected increases in heavy precipitation and extreme drought conditions are expected to increase rates of soil erosion.  Similarly, as more frequent wildfires burn through vegetation and destabilize the soils below, the likelihood of debris flow, mudslides and landslides will all increase. These impacts can result in the closure or complete loss of roads and trails leading to climbing access points, limiting or prohibiting access to some rock climbing locations. 
POW Athlete Alliance Member, Tommy Caldwell | Photo by Corey Rich

“October used to be the target time frame, so it’s shifted by a month. That’s alarming. I think three out of the last five seasons, I had to leave Yosemite early because of smoke in the valley. Everything becomes inaccessible.” 

Professional climber & POW Athlete Alliance Member, Tommy Caldwell

THREATS TO HEALTH (p. 31-32)

Changes in temperature, air quality, the spread of vector-borne disease and the mental health benefits received through rock climbing all threaten the health of rock climbing enthusiasts in the following ways:

  • Higher temperatures present severe challenges to cardiovascular, thermoregulatory, metabolic, neural and cognitive functions, which can wreak havoc on climbers who require fine motor control and intense focus to perform. 
  • Rock climbers often exert themselves for extended periods which increases their risk of negative health effects when breathing air that contains compounds from wildfire smoke, ground-level ozone, dust and pollen.
  • Rock climbing has been demonstrated to decrease anxiety and improve self-confidence. Lost access to rock climbing opportunities due to poor air quality, site closures or increased temperatures can prevent rock climbers from receiving multiple mental health benefits that are an intrinsic reason why rock climbers recreate outside.
POW Athlete Alliance Manager & Professional Climber, Graham Zimmerman | Photo by Jeremiah Watt

“Living in Bend, the biggest effect here is honestly smoke. As we move into that prime climbing season in the fall, it’s been more and more affected by that ‘fifth’ season—of smoke. That can really get in the way of climbing. Particularly for me as an endurance athlete, I have to be super careful about my lungs, so I do not go and train outside when the AQI is above 80 to 100. You just can’t go climb outside.”

POW ATHLETE ALLIANCE MANAGER & Professional Climber, Graham Zimmerman

THREATS TO EXPERIENCE (p. 34)

Rock climbers enjoy the unique views that climbing offers them. However, changes in the aesthetic quality of recreation areas and increased crowding are likely to diminish the experience that rock climbers have historically enjoyed. The climbing experience is changing due to climate-related impacts in the following ways:

  • Rock Climbing has an estimated 1.2 million new participants in the United States between 2007 and 2016. At the same time, increases in wildfires, erosion, extreme heat and forest die-off will limit outdoor climbing opportunities. For example, in a survey on preferred climbing conditions, climbers listed crowding as a significant concern due to a desire for more solitary experiences. 
  • Crowding can cause extensive erosion at climbing sites and result in closures lasting multiple years.

WHAT’S AT STAKE (p. 35-36)

Outdoor recreation in the U.S. is a major economic driver, and summer sports play an important role in generating revenue. The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) assesses the total added value of outdoor recreation at the national level each year, and in 2019, the outdoor recreation economy accounted for 2.1% ($459.8 billion) of U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) while supporting over five million directly-dependent jobs. Like much of the available economic data, these figures focus on past and projected productivity, which highlights the potential magnitude of economic losses as climate change impacts these communities. Here are some recent stats on how the outdoor industry has positively impacted the U.S. economy:

  • In 2020, the real value added by bicycling was $2.11 billion, and the real value added by climbing/hiking/tent camping was $3.69 billion.  
  • A 2020 U.S. Forest Service report found that visitors spent approximately $10 billion in the areas near national forests and grasslands in FY2019. Those expenditures ultimately contributed $12 billion to the national GDP and supported approximately 154,000 jobs.
  • According to a 2019 study produced by Eastern Kentucky University in partnership with Access Fund, a rock climbing advocacy organization, non-local climbers visiting West Virginia’s New River Gorge contributed approximately $12.1 million to the local economy. This supported an estimated 168 local jobs and $6.3 million in regional wages.

The Path Forward (p. 40-43)

It’s clear that climate change will make it harder to enjoy the outdoors in the summertime. Wildfires of unprecedented size and frequency, persistently poor air quality and hot temperatures will all make it more difficult for America’s millions of trail sports enthusiasts and rock climbers to access the places they love.

Photo by Eliza Earle

The good news is that The Outdoor State is 80+ million strong, made up of backpackers, trail runners, mountain bikers, hikers and climbers who care deeply about their outdoor spaces and want to see them protected. When given the proper tools and support, the Outdoor State can shift our nation’s response to the climate crisis. This community can accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy—reducing our reliance upon fossil fuels, creating clean jobs for our communities, and ultimately, shifting our state and federal responses to climate change—but only if it’s done together. Here’s what we can do:

  • Educate Yourself: Dive a little deeper into climate change by reading the news, popular blogs or books or listening to a podcast on climate science and solutions. An informed Outdoor State is better positioned to influence decision-makers! 
  • Contribute to Science: Citizen science is a powerful way to contribute to our collective understanding of climate change. 
  • Show Up: You can get involved in how your local community makes decisions by showing up at a town council meeting or energy board meeting. If one town can make a difference, then think about what towns and cities across the country can do to meaningfully reduce our collective emissions.
  • Speak Out: We know that talking about climate change can be tough, whether it’s with your family, friends and co-workers or with decision makers. But these very same people trust what we have to say—so let’s take the opportunity to teach them what we’ve learned! 
  • Vote: Now, more than ever, your vote matters—and not just in presidential election years! 
  • Join Team POW Do you want to get more involved, but aren’t sure where or how to start? Team POW is your front door to climate and lifestyle advocacy. We’ll make sure you are informed and armed with the latest science, up to date on current climate-forward legislation in your state, connected to like-minded individuals and if that’s not enough, you’ll get a great discount on POW gear. 

You can start taking action now by contacting your lawmakers.