Why has fashion trumped utility on the trail?

Outdoor pursuits now come with a price tag that’s unattainable for many.

 

Russ Hanbey is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a former backcountry ranger who lives in Tucson, Arizona.


Net nuzhdy “There is no need.” That’s what two former Russian soldiers said when I asked if they needed to borrow socks to wear with their old boots instead of the rags I saw wrapped around their feet.

I ran into them some 20 years ago as they were wandering the high country of Washington’s North Central Cascades. At their camp, they were using an ancient alcohol stove for heat, and instead of backpacks, they carried what they needed in burlap bags slung over their shoulders. You would not find these guys on the latest cover of the North Face gear catalog. 

I thought of them recently while considering the slow transformation of trail style over the last decade or two. Does it feel as though an essential part of today’s outdoor experience involves how you look, how little weight you’re shouldering and what technology you’ve somehow found indispensable? Are we no longer allowed to look like slobs when we’re on the trail? Must everything weigh next to nothing? When did form trump function as a buying preference, and who can afford all of this?

Lest you think I'm a fuddy-duddy, scan your favorite outdoor publication or website and check out their advertisements and endorsements. For an outing featuring an Osprey backpack, Big Agnes tent, Nemo sleeping bag, MSR stove, Sawyer water filter and Petzl headlamp, be prepared to have $1,000 or more vacuumed from your wallet.  

For items similar to those listed above, circa 1975, the cost would have been around $150 for a Kelty backpack, Sierra Design tent, Fiberfill bag, Svea stove, iodine pills and a hardware store flashlight. If you factor in 355 percent inflation rate since the middle ’70s to now, the same type of items should cost around $450. Instead, it’s twice that, and often it’s less about function than what’s on the label.

A camp set up in the Grand Canyon with its gear out front.

Much of the equipment in the backpacking surge 30 years ago might have been bulky and weighty, but it was also affordable and durable. Some of it even came from do-it-yourself kits for sewing everything from tents to gaiters. Everyone seemed to make do with gear from Army-Navy stores, thrift stores, J.C. Penney, or mom and dad’s back closet. It took some time to work up to a more expensive item or two. These days, show me a Boy Scout, neophyte hiker, college student or someone on a fixed income who can get out of an L.L. Bean store without a bank loan, and I’ll eat my vintage Sac Millet. 

The latest illustration of this shift towards fashion-forward shopping comes compliments of REI. I recently went to their mother store in Seattle to buy a simple pair of hiking shorts. There was nothing under $45, with most options in the $60 to $80 range. At least half of REI’s floor space seemed to be given over to ridiculously expensive clothes and boots and sandals. REI, the co-op outdoor store of the people, had become the store of the affluent. It may be a business decision to fill their shelves with high-end stuff, but what about the average Joe or Jane? If there is no diversity in prices, then don’t expect diversity in buyers.

Another artificially created expense for the trail walker seems to be trekking poles. Who in thunderation decided that they were needed for everything from everyday walking to climbing approaches? Go online and you’ll see terms like “mandatory” and “essential” used to describe these toys. This seems like verbiage straight from the marketing department. Lay down another $50 to $100 and you’re set to go. Certainly, walking poles help hikers with balance problems or bad knees, but if you’re a normally ambulatory human being, you don’t need help walking.

Can’t find your way? Afraid of the big bad woods? Then shell out another $350 for your Garmin GPSMAP 64s unit to carry with you at all times beyond the end of the road. “This unit is a must,” according to the REI rep on YouTube. There’s not much to figure out for yourself in the backcountry if you have satellite imagery, photo navigation, an odometer and smartphone alerts for the cellphone in your pocket.  

Deep experiences in remote terrain can’t be bought, but they’re there for the taking. Go out and get lost once in a while. Wander around in crummy weather. Maybe even hike alone. Perhaps you’ll run into a couple of Russian hikers with cold feet and big smiles.                      

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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