It seems to me that the outdoor industry has claimed ownership of the outdoors. Paradoxically, they preach a message that the outdoors is for everyone while simultaneously acting as a gatekeeper that prevents people from going outside.
I’ll explain, but first let me say that I’m not talking about diversity here. There’s a big push right now for outdoor companies to be more inclusive- to include people of color, overweight people, LGBT people in their advertising. Those groups say that they are not represented in the advertising and therefore they feel that the outdoors isn’t for them. I’m sure there is some truth to that, but there are plenty of other articles on that subject so I won’t rehash it.
I’m talking about walking into an outdoor store and the sales person telling you that you can’t go camping without $1,000 worth of gear. I’m talking about $600 backpacking tents that sleep one person. I’m talking about The Ten Essentials to go on a simple hike, of which maybe two are really essential for most people on most hikes. I’m talking about feeling inadequate if you can’t afford the most popular brands. Let me elaborate…
I did not grow up camping. I lived on a barrier island off the coast of North Carolina, part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. We already lived in paradise, so we rarely went anywhere. (Plus, we were poor.) When I moved to the city, I desperately needed a connection to nature that I previously had found at the beach. That’s when I discovered the mountains of north Georgia. I wanted to go camping and hiking in those mountains. I needed to, for my soul.
When I started buying camping gear, I quickly realized that the price tag on many items could be a non-starter for people. Sales people at big outdoor stores tried to sell me on $300 sleeping bags that would get me through the night in sub-Arctic temperatures. I didn’t need that. I wasn’t going camping in Antarctica. A 30 degree bag would do just fine for me.
I got into backpacking and wanted an ultralight backpacking tent. All the cool kid thru hikers that post videos on YouTube were sleeping in Big Agnes or ZPacks brand tents. They retail for $300 to $600 and one person fits inside them. ONE PERSON FOR $600! I knew there was no way in hell I was spending that much money on a tent, so I started looking around. I ended up buying a $50 tent (on sale for $35) from Ozark Trail- a Wal-Mart brand. I have backpacked with that tent multiple times in all weather and it’s FINE. I don’t think it would withstand Camp Four at Mt. Everest, but I’m not going there. I’m going to north Georgia in moderate temps and light rain.
My husband and I had bought an REI tent (the Kingdom 4) years ago when we first started dating. We used that tent for 13 years, on multiple trips, until finally one pole snapped. I honestly can’t remember what we paid for that tent. When we bought it, it was moderately expensive but well made, as evidenced by the fact that it lasted 13 years. I’m not saying that people should buy cheap gear that’s going to fall apart. I’m saying that what is trendy at the big outdoor retailers is usually designed for people doing more epic things than your average weekend camper. You might not need a $600 tent and $300 sleeping bag. You can still go outside with mid-grade gear.
What the big outdoor brands have done is to create a culture of being “outdoorsy.” You can put on Chacos, Patagonia shorts, and a North Face t-shirt and slap a Yeti sticker on your truck and you will look cool, but buying those brands doesn’t mean you’re actually going outside. Maybe you are; maybe you’re not. The brands have done what they were designed to do- make you look like you belong to a certain cultural subset of outdoorsy-ness.
Unfortunately, there’s a flip side. Those things can act as barriers as well. People who don’t have those brands or the money to buy them might feel like they’re not “outdoorsy,” because they can’t afford entry into the club.
Social media has a lot to do with our expectation of what it means to go outside. If you look on Instagram, you’ll see the most insanely beautiful pictures of the outdoors and a very attractive person wearing a piece of gear with a logo. It’s designed to make you think that if you buy the shoes or the tent or whatever is being advertised, you too will wake up on a mountaintop to an epic sunrise. It’s genius marketing, but it isn’t true.
My philosophy when buying gear is not to pay attention to trends and brand names. If the brand name piece of gear works better, then I’ll buy it. I will pay more money for quality gear. I will not pay more for a brand name, so I usually end up buying a cheaper brand that does the job just as well. Here is a great video comparing a $50 tent and a $600 tent by one of my favorite YouTubers. It perfectly illustrates how high-end gear is out there for people who care about brand names and only want the very, very best, and how there are also affordable alternatives that allow people on a budget to get functional gear.
Case in point- I wanted dry bags to organize my backpacking things- one for my kitchen stuff, one for food, one for clothes, one for hygiene. All the cool kids have Sea to Summit brand, but they’re pricey (around $25 for one larger bag). Ozark Trail, the Wal-Mart brand, had 3 bags of various sizes for $10. I bought them, packed my food in one and took it camping on a weekend trip when I knew it was going to rain. The bag hung all night from a tree and got rained on. The next morning the contents were still dry as a bone. I paid less money and got an equally effective piece of gear.
I think that the outdoor industry also overcomplicates things. Have you seen the 10 Essentials? It’s a list of ten things that are recommended to take hiking. It was originally intended for mountaineers going into the backcountry. It’s a good list, for sure, but it’s overkill for many people who are just doing 3 miles at the state park. I don’t take anything but water and my phone on most of my hikes, because most of them are at state parks close to other people, in locations I’ve been multiple times and won’t get lost. It would be hard to get myself into a real bind on a trail frequented by 100 other people in a day. I would hate for someone to think they had to go buy a $200 GPS unit to go walk their local trail. (By the way, your cell phone IS a GPS unit.)
Part of my annoyance with the outdoor industry stems from growing up in the American South, the home of redneck culture. I know country boys that can identify every bird and tree they see, have paddled every river and climbed every peak in a 20 mile radius of their home, and spend more hours outside in a month than most people will all year. But they don’t wear a North Face t-shirt and rock a Patagonia jacket, so you’d never know it. They’re not advertising their membership in the Outdoor Club because for them, going outside isn’t something they do, it’s part of who they are. They don’t have any sponsors or a YouTube channel; they just go outside because it’s where they love to be.
I don’t want to be totally negative about the outdoor industry or particular brands because I know that those companies are very influential in protecting public lands and the backcountry wilderness. I like to pick on them a little, but I do appreciate the advocacy work they do. The point I’m trying to make is that for-profit companies benefit from creating a culture of outdoorsy-ness that is tied to buying popular brands. While this might make you look or feel cool, it really has no bearing on whether you go outside and how much fun you have once you’re out there. Buy good, functional gear but, most importantly, get out there and use it!