Feature Article - October 2020
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A March Toward Fun, Family & Fitness

Trends in Military Recreation

By Chris Gelbach

As the military and the interests and needs of service members evolve, these shifts are also leading to new directions and trends in military recreation. In some cases, COVID-19 has augured in innovative ways of doing things that will likely remain far after the pandemic passes. In other respects, the coronavirus has mainly served to boost trends that were already on the rise.

A Return to the Outdoors

One trend growing even before the pandemic was increasing interest in outdoor programming and activities.

Not surprisingly, this has been a particularly notable trend at Fort Carson, located outside of Colorado Springs at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. "Our trend for a while at Fort Carson has been outdoor activities—100%," said Justin Glenn, community recreation officer for the Directorate of Family and MWR at Fort Carson.

A few years ago, Glenn's department set up a quality-of-life-based community wellness program called Mountain Post Living that helps service members and families take full advantage of the bounteous natural opportunities in the area.

"We're taking folks, we're getting them trained up, checking out equipment, and then we would transport them to Breckenridge or any of the cool resorts that are within about a two-hour drive," Glenn said. "The same goes for whitewater rafting."

For that activity, the installation has developed a program that brings in college students for summer internships and certifies them as whitewater raft guides. The hope is that they come back after graduation to continue in those roles providing this recreational option for service members on base.

"That's a marquee program for Fort Carson, and unfortunately, when the pandemic hit, we weren't able to deliver that program this year," Glenn said. "So that was a huge blow financially for sure, but also a resource that gets heavy utilization that we were not able to deliver."

The outdoor programs and services that are up and running at many installations are seeing unprecedented use, in part because of COVID.

"The biggest thing I am seeing right now is people are looking for something to get active and to do something local. There's not the travel and that kind of stuff anymore," said Chris Remillard, community recreation officer for USAG West Point. "When COVID hit the military, they stopped everybody moving from installation to installation. So we have people who thought they were moving who got held at their current installation for three, four, five months."

Because many outside communities near bases have also restricted what people in the local community can do, many service members and families have turned to outdoor activities using equipment from on-base rental programs.

"Our outdoor recreation checkout program revenue for the month of June is 128% higher than June of 2019," said Matt Enoch, chief of the community recreation division at USAG Fort Riley in Kansas. "For the fiscal year, we're still outpacing last year, even though we were shut down for three months."

Popular rentals at Fort Riley include all kinds of boats (ski boats, pontoons, fishing boats, kayaks, canoes and paddleboards), campers and trailers, other camping equipment, bounce houses and more. "I'd like to continue to expand because I don't think we have enough," Enoch said.

Earl Higgs, chief of the community recreation division at Fort Knox, has likewise seen increased interest in adventure programs such as canoeing, kayaking, backpacking trips and day hikes. But he's seen big changes in the equipment people are wanting over the years. This includes a shift in interest from tent camping to campers that provide more amenities.

"We don't see that many of the young military families wanting to tent camp," Higgs said. "We see more of them wanting to go into a camper where they have the restroom facility and shower right there in the camper. They have a stove, they have a microwave, they have a television."

As a result, the base's equipment checkout center rents fewer tents and more camper vans ranging from 20 to 33 feet in length. He's also seeing similar trends in boating.

"Many years ago, a 35- or 40-horsepower fishing boat was popular," Higgs said. "Now we're up to 175-horsepower bass boats, deck boats and pontoon boats. Particularly if they're taking their family out, they're looking for something they all can enjoy."

At the Navy's China Lake installation in Ridgecrest, Calif., the facility was not yet able to rent out equipment due to current COVID-19 regulations, so the facility has moved toward a more consultative role in encouraging outdoor recreation.

"We're providing assets so they can self-recreate—they can get information about hiking, about how to get out and use our local parks, and local resources for self-directed recreation," said Leslie Gould, fleet and family readiness director for NAWS China Lake. "We're facilitating self-directed recreation to an extent we never have before. Usually, we're the ones getting them to go on a bus, go on a tour, supporting them. Now we're doing self-directed recreational support. And it's needed."

E-gaming is another activity growing in popularity, with the Navy sponsoring recent competitions in games like Fortnite and Madden. In addition to being fun, these initiatives can help Navy members develop hand-eye coordination that's beneficial for certain Navy roles.