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].

High Country News Classifieds
  • WYOMING OUTDOOR COUNCIL OFFICE MANAGER - BOOKKEEPER
    The Wyoming Outdoor Council is seeking an office manager-bookkeeper to join our team. The office manager-bookkeeper supports the program and administrative functions of the Wyoming...
  • HEALTHY RIVERS SENIOR STAFF ATTORNEY
    WRA seeks a passionate attorney to join our Healthy Rivers team. The Senior Staff Attorney will research and advocate for wiser water management and updated...
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and will be accepted until: February 03, 2020. Overview Conservation Voters for Idaho (CVI) protects Idaho's environment...
  • WRITING SKILLS TUTOR FOR HIRE!
    Fort Collins, CO college students welcome. Meet on your college campus!
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • NATURE EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Our mission is to inspire a life-long connection to nature and community through creative exploration of the outdoors. We are seeking an educational leader who...
  • REALTOR NEEDS A REMOTE ASSISTANT
    This is a business assistant position, The working hours are flexible and you can chose to work from anywhere of your choice, the pay is...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Oregon LandWatch is seeking an Executive Director to advance our mission and oversee the development of the organization. Job Description: The Executive Director oversees...
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • MEDIA DIRECTOR
    Love working with the media? Shine a spotlight on passionate, bold activists fighting for wild lands, endangered species, wild rivers and protecting the climate.
  • STAFF ATTORNEY - NEVADA
    The Center for Biological Diversity is seeking an attorney to expand our litigation portfolio in Nevada. Come join our hard-hitting team as we fight for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Montana Wildlife Federation seeks an energetic leader to advance our mission, sustain our operations, and grow our grassroots power. For a full position description,...
  • HISTORIC COMMERCIAL OPPORTUNITY IN DOWNTOWN NOGALES
    Nogales. 3 active lower spaces and upper floor with lots of potential. 520-245-9000 [email protected]
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • DIRECTOR, TEXAS WATER PROGRAMS
    The National Wildlife Federation seeks a Director to lead our water-related policy and program work in Texas, with a primary focus on NWF's signature Texas...
  • SPLIT CREEK RANCH
    Spectacular country home on 48 acres with Wallowa River running through it! 541-398-1148 www.RubyPeakRealty.com
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...