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Expo matches women’s rising enthusiasm for the outdoors

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SALT LAKE CITY — An hour outside of Boise, Idaho, Erin Brown said she got addicted to the thrill of maneuvering down the Payatte River in a hard-shell kayak.

Brown was first introduced to white-water kayaking by her boyfriend in June, and fell in love with the sport after she discovered its likeness to a favorite winter sport.

"It was just so fun, and it kind of reminded me of skiing — just in the summertime," Brown said. "I just got really inspired and decided I wanted to be able to get in a hard-shell kayak and actually feel comfortable in it."

Brown is one of many outdoor enthusiasts adding to the growth of women participating in outdoor recreation and fitness activities in the U.S.

Since 2009 there's been a 2 percent jump in women enjoying outdoor recreation, indicating that 45 percent of women are getting active, according to research conducted by the Outdoor Foundation, a nonprofit organization seeking to inspire future generations of outdoor enthusiasts.

At Salt Lake City's 2014 Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, women's increasing interest in all things outdoors was matched with a variety of products specific for women.

Outdoor Retailer spokeswoman Kate Lowery estimated that nearly one-fourth of the venders for the 28,000 manufactures, retailers and suppliers who attended this years Outdoor Retailer Summer Market were companies centered around products for women.

"There’s lots of businesses that are saying, 'This is a really rich market of people who want to actually get outdoors, but they want to do it in a way they are comfortable, safe and fashionable, so they feel like they are part of the outdoor experience,'" Lowery said.

Cindi Bonner said her company, Fitness on Board, was created to reach a woman's desire to feel comfortable.

"We just want to get everyone healthy and active, and if a women is not comfortable in a gym with a bunch of muscle-head men, we want to get them out on the board and change their life," she said.

Bonner's exercise strategy is centered around a paddle board with attachments for women to use for Pilates and yoga. Her customer base is about 80 percent women, she said, after leading a demonstration class on the water at the expo.

The surge of women-specific outdoor products can be seen through a variety of gadgets and apparel.

Katie K, a premium clothing company designed to accommodate all shapes and sizes, has entered the marketplace looking to satisfy women of all weights.

"I worked with a lot of different women who were frustrated they couldn’t find nice, cute, attractive apparel. They would say they were a size 18 and that they wanted to be attractive and active," said Katie Kozloff, founder of Katie K.

"They wanted to have the same stuff that everybody else had," she said.

Ivan Levin, senior director of programs for the Outdoor Foundation, said the shift toward a more overarching market stems from additional opportunities in a culture that has made exercise more mainstream.

"From an industry standpoint, there really is a realization that we need to address the non-white, male population, and because of that cultural shift, you’re seeing the industry provide a lot more opportunities for women and other certain audiences," Levin said.

But not all venders see the need for the trendy transition.

"I don’t think it’s a product issue at all. I think it's purely a gender difference between men and women," said Carol McDermott, owner of Crux and Lightwave, a high-end mountaineering company.

"I think when you put them into a high-risk type of environment, there are women who are there, but proportionally it is significantly less," McDermott said of the extreme pursuits.

Though the rate of women participating in outdoor activities has remained consistent, with modest growth, women have held the buying power in households for quite some time, other vendors said.

"There are a lot of studies that say women are the buying power anyway. I think even now more so, it’s women buying the men’s clothing for their husbands, boyfriends, whomever," Kozloff said.

Matthew Maron, an e-commerce manager for Red Rock Outdoor Gear, said, "I think it’s becoming more common, as gender roles are no longer so inflexible, for women to embrace things that are not typically seen as feminine."

Maron said his company makes products for the everyday "outdoor enthusiast," not necessarily men or women. The company's line of small, sling packs have recently caught the attention of women who enjoy hunting, though men continue to purchase the product as well.

"The women who do buy it, say they enjoy it because you can't buy a Michael Kors purse with a concealed handgun pocket in it," Maron said.

Whether women are buying for their spouses, kids or themselves, companies have shifted to accommodate the rising interest women have developed for the outdoors.

"There’s always been a lack of education and lack of awareness," Levin said. "I think we’re seeing a lot of those things, become challenges that the outdoor industry is really trying to address."

Email: mcollette@deseretnews.com , Twitter: MirandaCollette