The Outdoors Is Having an Automotive Moment

More people are buying vehicles that allow them to visit national parks, car-camp, and get farther into the backcountry. But what does this mean for the future of the outdoor industry and the planet?

Land Rover in mud

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A Land Rover drives through the wilderness. Beside it, trees tower above a packed dirt path. A straight couple with two kids sit inside, in splendorous isolation, as callouts appear and fade: Improved performance. Enhanced second row seat comfort. Intuitive infotainment. And then a midscreen chyron appears, surrounded by animated oxygen molecules flowing from the vents: Cabin air ionization. It’s a telling proclamation as Americans begin to resume somewhat regular life 20 months after the arrival of COVID-19.

“Going into the pandemic, the narrative was very strong around shared mobility. But coming out of the pandemic, it was very clear that private-car ownership is back at the top of consumers’ agenda, because a car becomes a part of your cocoon,” says Rich Agnew, global brand communications director for Land Rover.

Unlike a house during lockdown, a vehicular cocoon is mobile, and it has a destination—away. So carmakers are capitalizing on our desires to get there. “We have a campaign running at the moment, which is Outspiration,” says Agnew. “We’re on a mission to reconnect the nation with the great outdoors.”

Land Rover is not alone. Brands across the economic spectrum have enhanced the role of the outdoors in their consumer messaging over the past year and a half, showing individuals and family units that are using their vehicles to get away from it all—the enclosed spaces, crowds, and urban density.

This isn’t exactly a new message. The desire to be immersed in, or conquerors of, the land—and freed from citified confines—is foundational to the American mythos. It is entrenched in the racist and colonialist notion of Manifest Destiny, in the reverential landscape paintings of Frederic Church, and in our ostensible handbook, the Holy Scriptures.

The most recent spate of consumer messaging does more than simply capitalize on our fantasy to separate ourselves from other humans and our innate misery. It reflects a shift in consumer behavior.

Automotive brands have been capitalizing on this notion since the inception of the car. The song “In My Merry Oldsmobile,” from 1905, tells the story of a couple who go for a ride in the country and fall in love, and it was used for decades as an ad. In the 1920s, camping in cars in the great outdoors became such a national fad that ads for the pastime proliferated in newspapers—even Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and President Warren Harding went “vagabonding” together. (Car camps took a turn during the Depression and became Hoovervilles—villages where the despondent lived in their vehicles.) The first ads for Land Rover, in the late 1940s, read “The Go Anywhere Vehicle” and showed the truck driving over an ocean, on a globe. The modern luxury SUV, the Jeep Grand Wagoneer—with its rectilinear styling, leather interior, iconic fake-wood paneling, and power windows, seats, and locks—was introduced in the 1980s and ended up being the most appealing regular production vehicle to Americans with the highest household income. Automakers noted the trend. Predicated on cheap gas, a blind reverse mortgaging of the planet’s health, and a bunker ideology, these vehicles grew—and grew in popularity. Today more than three-quarters of new vehicles sold in America are trucks, vans, and SUVs. 

Communications professor Shane Gunster, in his 2004 Ethics and the Environment journal article “You Belong Outside: Advertising, Nature, and the SUV,” presciently labeled commercial images of the outdoors in automotive advertising as “common signifiers of utopia, tirelessly making the case that a certain commodity or brand will enable an escape from the malaise and drudgery of urban existence.” Yet the most recent spate of consumer messaging does more than simply capitalize on our fantasy to separate ourselves from other humans and our innate misery. It reflects a shift in consumer behavior.

According to Alexander Edwards, president of the automotive-research and consulting firm Strategic Vision, this shift has been quite profound. “Pre-pandemic, people were using their vehicles mainly to perform tasks like commuting, chauffeuring their kids, and running errands,” Edwards says. “But deep into the pandemic, and after, they are significantly more likely to have increased behavior in four key areas, including going on vacation, carrying large items like bikes or kayaks, going off-road in dirt and gravel, or going off-road in rocks and sand.”

Edwards notes that the increases in usage are between 5 percent and 8 percent, specifying that, in an annual new-vehicle market of 17 million cars, “even a 1 percent increase is huge. There are literally hundreds of thousands of people who are doing these activities more often.”

Sales of electric vehicles hit record highs in the first quarter of 2021. Purchases of pure electric vehicles increased by nearly 45 percent over 2020, and those of hybrids more than doubled.

Those of us who use the trails regularly have noticed this shift, and not always pleasurably, as parking lots and garbage cans overflow and etiquette diminishes. Automakers with an outdoorsy fan base have found creative ways to assist with these issues—and alert consumers to their efforts. Subaru used the pandemic to advertise the fact that it is the largest corporate donor to the National Parks Foundation and was working with the parks to help reduce the amount of trash and make them zero-landfill destinations.

Subaru also recognizes that its consumers want to get away from these invading hordes. “With the parks being so crowded, our owners are going to go a little further out, because they’re probably more comfortable outdoors than the new arrivals,” says Nicole Riedel, the brand’s carline planning manager. “So we had to get a vehicle to them that can get them there.”

The brand’s solution was the creation of an all-new model, the Outback Wilderness. (Ad line: “The need for adventure lives within all of us. But for some, the need is much greater.”) Equipped with a jacked-up suspension, stouter tires, modified front and rear overhangs, and an enhanced all-wheel-drive system, it’s a factory-built overlanding vehicle, with full-warranty coverage.

Automakers do not see these pandemic-influenced shifts as temporary. “Reconnecting with their families and with the outdoors is valuable for mental health, for resilience to get through every day, not just in the pandemic,” says Agnew. “I think that’s a good correction in society. We predict that won’t go anywhere in the short term.”

Subaru concurs. So much so that it’s expanding its Wilderness into a full family of vehicles. “As the customer moves more to the millennial and Gen Z, they’re looking for authentic experiences. They don’t want fussy fancy meals or hotels, they want to get out and do things themselves,” Riedel says. “And with mental wellness joining physical as part of a wellness package, the outdoors ticks two boxes. We think it’s definitely something that is going to become a bigger and bigger part of people’s lives.”

Yet all of this masks larger, darker issues occupying our collective dreams and destinies.

But isn’t there some hypocrisy to utilizing the outdoors to promote a purchase that is, in many ways, responsible for the destruction of the planet? (Outside has enthusiastically reviewed many such vehicles and partnered with these companies on advertising deals.) Carmakers have noted their moves toward electrification, their commitments to sustainability during the manufacturing process, and their general insistence on beneficent environmental stewardship. Some of this is clearly marketing lip service, and far greater regulatory efforts are needed to help nudge consumers into more sustainable choices, and place checks on a slow-moving industry that contributes heavily to climate change.

Interestingly, engagement with the outdoors is affecting consumers’ automotive attitudes in other significant ways. “With the pandemic, and this reawakening, people have been even more likely to look at electric vehicles and hybrids,” says Edwards. “Not because of saving gas money—that wasn’t on their mind at all—but to be globally conscious and mindful of the world around them.”

Again, this has translated to direct action. Sales of electric vehicles hit record highs in the first quarter of 2021. Purchases of pure electric vehicles increased by nearly 45 percent over 2020, and those of hybrids more than doubled. This is an important trend, as it takes numerous considerations for people to shift to more environmentally friendly, battery-powered vehicles. “In the pandemic, and since, people who looked at hybrids and EVs five or six years ago and dismissed them decided maybe it’s time to look at them again,” says Edwards. “That was the starting point, in March to May of 2020, as reporting on great environmental changes around the world took on greater importance, and people were attending to it, in part because they were not traveling.”

Automakers will continue to roll out dozens of new electric-powered vehicles over the next year or so. And one of the key areas of focus is creating EVs in market segments where consumers are already shopping: trucks and SUVs. This kind of paradigm shift will be necessary—perhaps more necessary than consumers are able to change—to help overcome the global environmental issues we face. But this change in our understanding will also require confronting darker issues occupying our collective dreams and destinies.

“When most people think about the future, they come up with images of a post-apocalyptic world,” says Richard Louv, bestselling author of Last Child in the Woods, The Nature Principle, and Our Wild Calling. “And one of the questions I ask is, What happens to a culture when those are the only images it can easily conjure of the future? You know the saying, ‘Be careful what you wish for, it might come true’? Be careful what you imagine, it might come true.”

Louv posits that we need to conceptualize a new way of envisioning our fate, and our place in it, which he calls imaginative hope. “We have to start to come up with images of a new future. A beautiful future. Not just a sustainable future,” he says. “This is going to take a real effort.”

Images of electric cars rolling silently through vibrant, sustainably powered greenbelt cities might represent just this and take the place of automakers’ alfresco fantasies. Whether the cars’ windows are open or closed remains to be seen.