Pandemic drives booming demand for kayaks, bikes, outdoor gear

Sam Jones
The Detroit News

Kayaks are scarce at Michigan retail locations, merchants say, and bicycles and other outdoor gear are in high demand as people head for the water and wide-open spaces after months of stay-at-home confinement.

“We’re definitely seeing a big increase in sales,” said Tiffany VanDeHey, owner of Riverside Kayak Connection in Wyandotte. “We'll probably be out of boats in a few weeks. People are looking for rec boats all over the place. There’s just so much outdoor activity these days.”

Connie Bodnar and Kevin Kaufman, both of Wyandotte, push off from Sunrise Park in Grosse Ile for an afternoon paddle on the Detroit River Friday, June 19, 2020.

Booming demand for kayaks and paddleboards, bicycles and fishing equipment comes amid the continuing coronavirus epidemic that for months forced residents to stay indoors and avoid close contact with others. One by-product: soaring demand for toys to use outside, just as public health professionals advise.

Ryan Dingle, 25, is an Oak Park resident studying medicine at Wayne State. She's also a recreational kayaker and regular paddler at Lake Saint Clair Metropark, one of many public paddling venues readily accessible to folks in the Great Lakes state. 

"I'm not usually one to want to go outside a whole lot, but ever since lockdown, I've been itching at the bit to be more active," Dingle said. "Kayaking is such a great mixture of social fun while also getting a great workout."

And even though she's been kayaking for more than four years, the now-easing COVID-19 lockdown encouraged Dingle to get onto the water more than ever. Among popular paddlesports, kayaking is an easy way to be outside and to be active while also social distancing. 

Recreational kayaks, colloquially known as "rec boats," are a standard, comparatively inexpensive selection for new customers who are looking to stick a blade in the water. Some boats can be had for as little a $200 at major retailers.

Ryan Dingle and Jessica Topalli paddle  at Lake Saint Clair Metropark in Harrison Township on June 19, 2020.

Increased demand for the plastic boats comes as manufacturing has been disrupted by the economic shocks delivered by the pandemic, interrupting seasonal order flow to retails outlets. Joe Ross, store manager at Cabela’s in Dundee, said: “Our kayaks are completely sold out. We’re trying to find a way to keep up with customers.”

Other Cabela’s locations across the country are experiencing an unusually high demand for recreational kayaks, he added. And the paddlesports department is not the only place seeing increased traffic.

“The sales in our fishing section have been absolutely insane,” Ross said. “It’s unprecedented to the point where we can’t keep up with the demand. It’s exciting, really.”

Dan Prough of Parma was one of those customers last week, when he was shopping for a new fishing pole.

"We're staying home more, fishing, and if we go anywhere, it's in the car and not very far," he said.

Dan Prough of Parma, Michigan, shops for a new fishing pole at Cabela's in Dundee, "We're staying home more, fishing and if we go anywhere it's in the car and not very far."

Zak Pashak, owner and founder of Detroit Bikes, says bicycle sales are tracking a similar upward trajectory: "This summer has been completely wild. The industry is totally upside-down. People are really getting back to their roots."

Detroit Bikes is both a retailer and manufacturer for the cycling industry. He's fielding calls from customers all over the country looking for bikes, another booming sector in the outdoor sports business.

"For our own bike brand, online sales are up almost 10 times what they were this time last year," Pashak said. "And overall sales are five times higher than last year. We're trying our best to keep up."

Macomb Bikes, based in Warren, has also been selling out of most models. Manager Jeff Radke says supply is much lower than usual, in part because of shutdowns in overseas manufacturing operations during the pandemic are only beginning to ease.

"We have a high demand and low supply," Radke said. "We won't have a full supply for a few months yet. Our supply has been a slow trickle, and it sells out quickly."

At outdoor retailer REI, sales of bicycles and cycling gear are four times higher than sales compared to June 2019. Cycling is usually the strongest category of sales for REI, but not to this extreme, said Courtney Gearhart, senior public affairs manager for the company.

All outdoor activity has seen a noticeable increase, said David Lorenz, vice president of the Pure Michigan state tourism marketing organization. Some people are outside more because they are working from home, have more free time without a daily commute, or have been furloughed or laid off because of the economic downturn.

"People are really searching it out," he said. "Biking, hiking, kayaking, whatever it may be. Even I'm participating in more activity."