Measuring Participation

Ben Blanche

Fact Sheets for Land & Water Managers

Measuring Participation in Outdoor Activities


The genesis of the Measuring Participation in Outdoor Activities report stems from the Queensland Outdoor Recreation Federation’s (QORF) determination to identify and assess available tools for measuring visitation and monitoring participation in outdoor recreation activities at Queensland parks.

While this is not the only use of parks (consider also tourism, education, conservation activities), it is readily acknowledged that unlike other more formal forms of physical activity, outdoor recreation often takes place independent of structured organisation, can be done alone or in small groups, and is comprised of a diverse range of pursuits. These defining factors mean that without intentional effort, outdoor recreation participation is difficult to measure.

With physical activity research continuing to demonstrate the actual and aspirational appeal of outdoor recreation pursuits as dominant forms of activity (e.g. Australian Sports Commission, 2016), QORF have identified value in identifying valid forms of measurement that can be considered by land and water managers to assess the demand and use of their sites for these purposes.

Fact Sheet 1: Visitor Monitoring

Visitor monitoring is essential for a range of planning tasks for park managers

What Works to Motivate Sustained Data Capture?

Visitor monitoring is essential for a range of planning tasks for park managers including:

  • Scheduling of maintenance tasks;
  • Optimising visitor flow;
  • Staffing and resource allocation;
  • Determining ways to increase or manage carrying capacity;
  • Justifying visitor services, facilities and staffing;
  • Planning for the reduction of conflict between user groups;
  • Monitoring compliance with regulations (e.g. dog walking, recreation activity use);
  • Trail, signage and amenity upgrades;
  • Identifying trends and predictions of future use and areas of concentration; and
  • Capital works expenditure.

Visitor Monitoring works best when it is long term and seen as an essential part of part management.

For it to work effectively, there needs to be:

Organisational Intent

  • Internal organisational acknowledgement and prioritisation of the need and value of having current and accurate visitor use data;
  • A balance of strategic, tactical and operational approaches;
  • Respect and flexibility to accommodate to local conditions.

Sustained Commitment

  • A long term view of data capture so trend information can be determined to manage for change.

Resource Allocation

  • Allocation of resources to enable visitor use data capture and analysis e.g. budgeted and expended funding, personnel time, staff training on available methods to collect and analyse visitation data.

Comprehensive Systems

  • Effective and systematic sampling frameworks and practices to ensure data capture is representative and reasonable;
  • The development of standardised and systematic methodologies and toolkits to enable monitoring and measurement practices and enhance efficiency and effectiveness;
  • Plan for comprehensive counting that includes capturing data from a range of complementary sources;
  • The use of reliable and accurate techniques (not best guess or unsystematic monitoring)

(e.g. Sources: D’Anotonio et al., 2010; National Review, n.d.; Pettebone et al., 2010; Watson et al., 2000; Zelenka & Kacetl, 2013).

Fact Sheet 2: Understand and Have a Plan

Before you begin, you need to be very clear about what you need to monitor or measure.

There are a few steps you can follow that will help you determine how you should best start and what you can get out of your monitoring.

Understand | Plan

Before you begin, you need to be very clear about what you need to monitor or measure. There are a few steps you can follow that will help you determine how you should best start and what you can get out of your monitoring.


  1. What are the objectives of the visitor monitoring? e. what do you want to achieve?
  2. What processes need to be implemented to achieve the outcomes sought?
  3. Define what you are counting – is it users or uses?
  4. Who will use the data (and to make what decisions)?

For example, do you want to collect data so you can:

  • Identify areas of high/ low use?
  • Estimate potential demand for new facilities, trails, infrastructure – based on current usage?
  • Document increase in usage as a result of – new facilities, trails, programs etc?
  • Determine spatial dispersion of visitors to determine high usage areas?
  • Understand variation in visitor patterns over a year/ season?
  • Understand who your park visitors are?
  • … etc


  • What data collection tools best suit the information we need to collect?
    • Do we want automated or manual counting?
    • Do we need multiple tools to gather broad and deep data?
    • Do we need back to base reporting from counters?
  • What resources do we have available that impacts on the approach we might take?
    • Money, time, staff, expertise?
  • Do we need to accommodate to variations in usage
    • g. is usage constant or are there seasonal changes?
    • Multiple activities on single trails – e.g. horses, bicycles, walkers, runners etc
  • What type of data or analysis is needed so we can share our findings with other agencies?
  • What are the best locations for capturing visitor data
    • Trail heads? Single/ multi-use trails? Day use facilities? Car parks? Camp sites? Entry/ exit locations?
  • How can we calibrate our findings so we are confident in the results?
  • Who is responsible for ensuring the collection, analysis and distribution of visitor monitoring/ measurement information?
  • Where will we report our data?
  • How will information be stored in ways that are accessible over the long term?

Fact Sheet 3: Methods of Visitor Data Collection

The choice of method for data collection should only be selected once it is determined what variables you are measuring and the data that is required. No one method is premium, but the BEST APPROACHES include the use of more than one method to reinforce, verify or double-sample visitor – use, time, activities, motivations etc.

Basic & established methods of estimating visitor use levels

(Adapted from D’Anotonio et al., 2010; O’Brien & Morris, 2010; Watson et al., 2000)



Best used in areas where access is restricted and/or usage is low.


  • Voluntary registration
  • Self-issued permits
  • Mandatory permits


  • Subject to inaccuracies; visitor non-compliance.
  • Often lack descriptive information such as visitor use patterns, visitor characteristics, motivations, behaviour.
  • Information will be restricted to what visitors’ say they do/ intend; not necessarily what they do.
    Self-selection bias.
  • Accuracy: Require mechanisms to estimate registration rates to understand accuracy OR enforced compliance of permit requirements.

Benefits/ Best Use

  • Visitor burden is low for voluntary registration; higher for permits (incl. sense of control & compliance requirements)
  • Relatively inexpensive to administer, but this will vary with permits especially where there is a need for enforcement.
  • Inexpensive.
Direct Counting - Observational Techniques

Direct Counting – Observational Techniques

Best used in areas with limited number of access points

Observational techniques

  • External (as visitors arrive or leave – e.g. trailheads, car parks). May observe through use of cameras, video or human observers.
  • Internal (from specific locations based within the park – e.g. trail segment or destination). May be static observations or roaming (e.g. during park staff patrols)


  • Time consuming for staff;
  • Subject to inaccuracies – need trained team & good levels of inter-observer reliability;
  • Visual interpretations only, lack detailed information or confirmation of demographics or visitor motivations/ itineraries
  • Management costs can be high – personnel time to monitor visitor traffic & to set, maintain & move.
  • Accuracy is questionable e.g. roaming observations by park staff is often biased to data capture during heavy visitor use. Needs to be randomised.
  • Time consuming – for visitors, rely on recall, can be challenges in achieving complete answers.

Benefits/ Best Use

  • Can provide use estimations & data on use patterns & behaviour, group size & method of travel
  • Unobtrusive, make no demand on visitor time – but may raise issues of privacy especially when visitors are observed in the park
  • Accuracy best with human observers who have a systematic model of data capture that reduce bias.
Direct Counting - Surveys

Direct Counting – Surveys

Best used in areas with limited number of access points


  • Time consuming – for visitors, rely on recall, can be challenges in achieving complete answers.
  • Management costs high – expertise for survey design, personnel costs, administration of survey, data entry, coding and analysis
  • Accuracy is dependent on sampling technique (i.e. not convenience sampling)

Benefits/ Best Use

  • Any type of information can be obtained. Can provide use estimations & data on use patterns & behaviour – including use patterns, demographics, itineraries, motivations.
  • Better than observation if there is dispersed use.
  • Can streamline administration through use of e-surveys on site
Indirect Counting

Indirect Counting


  • Pressure plates
  • Automatic trail counters
  • Electronic vehicle counters


  • Do not capture visitor demographics or visitor itineraries;
  • Subject to vandalism if not well placed/ hidden;
  • Can be expensive to purchase;
  • Sensitive to temperature changes/ dust/ fire etc.;
  • Need to be calibrated, accuracy should be checked;
  • Battery/ power life needs monitoring.

Benefits/ Best Use

  • Basic versions are relatively inexpensive, easy to set up and maintain.
  • Infrared technologies have increased scope and scale of data that can be captured – speed of travel, direction of travel
Indirect Counting - Indirect Estimation

Indirect Counting – Indirect Estimation

Predicting visitor use from predictor variables e.g. weather, water course levels, trailhead or vehicle counts


  • The predictor variable needs to be carefully evaluated – for initial and ongoing suitability;
  • Predictive power is limited and will be determined by strength of the relationship;
  • Initial management costs high – but should decline

Benefits/ Best Use

  • Useful where there is an easy to measure predictor variable demonstrated to confidently predict visitor use characteristic (regression analysis).
  • Once the relationship is quantified, monitoring of ongoing relevance may be all that is needed for a period of time.
  • Visitor burden is very limited.

Emerging Methods of Visitor Monitoring and/or Measurement

Public Participation Geographic Information Systems

Public Participation Geographic Information Systems


  • VGI – volunteered geographic information or a form of crowd sourced data that allows capture of specific user information on their individual/ group recreation participation practices


  • Data capture relies on self-reporting and recall (e.g. locations, specific sites found on a map to assign spatial attributes);
  • Does not capture the exact time spent at specific sites or facilities;
  • Effort is required to establish the PPGIS data capture resources (technology, people);
  • Visitor time impost can be quite high when using online mapping tools;
  • Data processing time is high;
  • Does not provide a visitor count – but can be used to calibrate with other methods

Benefits/ Best Use

  • Insight into spatial distribution of visitors; locations they report visiting;
  • Enables capture of data on reasons for park visitor activity;
  • Potential to overlay distribution from different visitor groups (e.g. MTB riders, horse riders)
  • Online PPGIS demonstrates as popular with visitor samples
  • Valuable as a multi-method approach
GPS Mapping

GPS Mapping


  • Track the movement of volunteer visitor samples, capturing actual and not just reported information on what people are doing, where and when, in the park.


  • Relies on visitor sharing tracking information
  • Data capture may be sporadic
  • Requires some level of technical skill to import & share data
  • Outcomes depend on depth of analysis, which can be complex

Benefits/ Best Use

  • GPS data is detailed & accurate
  • Can be used in concert with other data sources
  • Insight into spatial extent & duration of any off-trail use
  • Examine large & small scale visitor movement & flow
  • Capture entire travel route
  • Easy to use & unobtrusive to visitor
VGI/ Mobile Apps

VGI/ Mobile Apps


  • Location based online sharing  apps e.g. Strava, Ride with GPS, Map My Ride/ Walk/ Run/ Hike


  • Inconsistent use of app may result in incomplete data sets
  • If pictures are posted, or preferred sites named, site specific detail may be low;
  • Legal & ethical considerations need to be investigated
  • VGI data may be impacted by measurement error, loss in detail, inconsistency

Benefits/ Best Use

  • Heatmapping of app users can show most commonly participated in activities (where critical mass is established)
  • Can social sharing apps are heavily used, may be possible to exploit VGI through existing online sharing platforms
  • Access GPS data through individuals existing equipment (own tracking device)
Aerial Surveying

Aerial Surveying


  • Unmanned aerial vehicle remote monitoring
  • Drones/ remotely piloted aircraft (RPA)/ unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) the park.


  • May be expensive if multiple samplings are required
  • Impact on visitors can be high if drone flights are intrusive or incompatible with park values
  • Not useful in dense canopy
  • Privacy considerations need to be considered/ confirmed
  • Cheap UAV’s have short flight times
  • Aerial surveying device may need to be deployed by approved pilot
  • Local and National Park laws as well as Civil Aviation regulations need to be considered.

Benefits/ Best Use

  • Can be used in remote areas
  • Can provide high definition video/ images
  • Spatial accuracy is considered to be high
  • Data collected in short timescale
  • Effective in open landscapes
  • Spatial spread of visitors can be surveyed

Fact Sheet 4: Automatic Counter Equipment

Deciding on the frequency of counting that is required can help determine the value of manual counts vs the use of automated equipment. Automatic counters are generally identified as more expensive as they require upfront purchase. However, these costs can balance out over time as the ongoing operating costs may not be extensive (where equipment can be secured and maintained), and they can reduce staff time in terms of manual surveying and counting.

Note: QORF does not receive commissions or payment from any of these companies, nor do we provide any guarantees regarding the use of these products.

Counters Available

There are a range of motorised and non-motorised (e.g. bike, pedestrian) counters of traffic volume that are available. The choice of these will be localised and the following factors can play a role:

  • Price/ Value for Money
  • Commercial availability of the product
  • Skill / time needed to download/ analyse data (physical collection or ‘back to base’ automation)
  • Longevity of battery/ power storage
  • Capacity to ‘hide’ counters in the environment to protect from theft, vandalism, weather conditions
  • Level of accuracy required
  • What is being counted (e.g. walkers only, walkers and bike riders, bike riders only, horse riders, trail bike riders etc)
  • How long the count is occurring (e.g. permanently, temporarily)
  • Environmental conditions

Of note, there are options to purchase commercially available trail counters in Australia, or to purpose build counters to suit conditions and budget. For example, the Department of Conservation in New Zealand have moved to a closed system of visitor monitoring, including building their own counters and analysing the information centrally. On a much smaller scale, South Burnett Regional Council have engaged a local supplier to build digital remote counters (TTC-10MT with no reflector, remote solar kit with battery back-up) to install on two trails.

Examples of commercially available trail counters in use in Queensland

Canadian TRAFx Infrared trail counter

Counts walkers, hikers, joggers, skaters, horse riders, cyclists etc
Technology: Passive infrared
Features: Compact, camouflaged design, battery life up to 4 years, large storage capacity, -40 – 55?, max range 6 m, built in clock.

TRAFx Vehicle / Mountain bike / OHV counter

Technology: Low field, Geomagnetic
Features: Designed to be buried, pre-programmed for MTB/ OHV/ Vehicle use, battery life 8-9 months, -40 – 55?, built in clock.

Australian Traker-Count

Technology: Passive infrared
Features: Estimated 20 year battery life, robust – sealed in solid milled aluminium case, unit is one solid device, easily hidden, placement 1-4 m from path of walkers.

French Eco-Counter

Pyro-box (Technology: Passive infrared)
Zelt (Technology: Inductive loop)
Tube (Technology: Pneumatic tube)
Slabs (Technology: Pressure plate)
Multi-nature (Technology: Combination – 2 or more sensors)

Features: Some products can differentiate between pedestrians & cyclists/ horseriders/ ATV’s, Zelt is buried therefore invisible, work in all weather conditions, accuracy, directional counting, built in clock.
Local contact: Jamie Seeleither,

Measuring Participation in Outdoor Activities

An exploration of methods

Developed for QORF with funding from the Queensland Government, Department of National Parks, Recreation and Racing. (November 22, 2017)

Another QORF Outdoor Project

Written and produced by Donna Little, way to be

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