I’ve been busy travelling to various outdoor adventure shows to present at. It’s something I have done for over three decades now. The question is, have they changed? Has online shopping killed the days of cramming in a crowded building in late winter to get hyped up to spend early spring soaking up the freedom of wild areas? Well, maybe.

Let’s start with the vendors. In the early 1990s, there was a big presence from the Ministry of Natural Resources, dressed in full uniform and showing off caged critters snatched from the outdoors. You had booths selling canvas tents, canvas packs, gas-fuelled lanterns, aluminum-frame backpacks and rubber rain jackets. There was always a massive table of first-aid kits, an assortment of Army Surplus gear, a spattering of outfitters and tourism groups, a barrel full of cheap paddles to sort through and buy on sale—and don’t forget the dried meat vendor that smelled up their aisle and beyond.

picture at an outdoor trade showKevin Callan

For presenters, you had renowned angler and television host, Red Fisher, signing his book of poems or TV celebrities shaking hands and kissing babies. And there was always some survival dude dressed in some type of animal skin trying to light a fire with a bow drill. The smell of burning embers sometimes overpowered the dried meat vendor’s spiced salami.

A decade later, you saw more high-tech gear, from multi-fuelled camp stoves to lightweight graphite trekking poles. Ontario Provincial Parks had a small booth set up with maps, brochures and knowledgeable staff trying to persuade more campers to visit and pitch a tent in the woods. Outdoor authors and wilderness guides gave presentations on their northern canoe journeys. There were more outfitters, more tourist destinations, more dried meat and now a group of un-outdoorsy vendors selling ShamWow towels, knock-off Crocs and a countless assortment of socks—there were a lot of socks.

hanging with people at the showsKevin Callan

Outdoor shows soon became ghost towns. The sock and dried meat vendors started outnumbering the solid outdoor gear retailers. A good number of presenters got old and died.  There was even a time, just after Y2K’s “millennium bug,” when I stopped presenting at outdoor shows. I would go to the outdoor stores themselves and give evening presentations on camping tips and where to go canoe tripping. That’s where the crowds were; in the stores rather than big buildings with expensive parking and overpriced fast food.

For a good dozen years, there was a real lull in any big events. Then, for no apparent reason, gathering with hundreds of other outdoor enthusiasts pre-spring, in a large venue, became a fad again. I started presenting, but this time on a mini stage set up amongst the vendors, while people whizzed down zip-lines overhead. It was an odd time, but a good time for show operators. Big tourism dollars paid for central booth space; Ontario Parks joined in with more maps and brochures. The sock vendors seemed to disappear. Notable outdoor film makers made appearances, as did television icons like Les Stroud (Survivorman) and Man Tracker. A dog team pulled the host of Global News around in a sled, and CBC’s Rick Mercer swam in the scuba diving tank.

Things were looking up for large scale outdoor venues—then came Covid. Some shows gave up completely, others experimented online. Speakers survived by presenting by Zoom, but retailers were close to going bankrupt.

Eventually, audiences grew bored of listening to speakers from the comfort of their couches. They wanted something more tangible, more fulfilling. So, once we were all allowed to gather again, the show organizers that survived the pandemic opened their doors.

explore magazine at the toronto outdoor showexplore

How’s it looking so far? Well, I’ve been to half a dozen of the big shows and I gotta say, things have changed. A lot of traditional companies have disappeared and moved on to social media marketing and online sales, more booths are filled with less outdoorsy products like window shades and matchmaking sites. Ontario Provincial Parks is nowhere to be seen, tourist destinations are overtaking canoe designs, and lots of YouTube celebs are presenting rather than the old slideshow-style presenters.

Some haters are calling the new look just a “love fest” for social media outdoor wannabe types, and that the show has “morphed into a tacky flea market and a meeting place for the multitudes of YouTube egomaniacs and their followers.” Others like the change in speakers. They’re young and motivated. YouTube is the new way of exchanging skills and knowledge. Besides, who the heck watches TV anymore.

Every show I’ve attended so far this year has had record numbers of outdoor enthusiasts bursting through the front gates. So, the crowds are definitely back. But will they return if the vendors are mostly socks and dried meat once again, and not various outdoor gear manufacturers and retailers?

The future will soon tell the tale.