Buy the Newest, Lightest, Shiniest Gear Or You Could Die

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There’s a single paragraph in Yvon Chouinard’s Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of A Reluctant Businessman in which he talks about solo expedition kayaker (and grandmother) Audrey Sutherland, who at that time had paddled more than 8,000 miles around the world. One of the quotes attributed to Sutherland is one of the main things I took from the book:

“Don’t spend money on gear. Spend it on plane tickets.”

Not that you shouldn’t buy a new climbing rope every few years, or ride your bike without a helmet because that would be “buying gear” — I think what Sutherland is saying is that you don’t need the latest, greatest stuff on the REI floor to have a good adventure.

A little over a year ago, I was rolling my bicycle into the Pacific Ocean after 3,000 miles of riding, from San Diego to St. Augustine, Florida. One of the big questions of the ride for me, besides “Do I have a saddle sore?” was “Is my bike going to make it?” I had bought my Raleigh Team USA from some guy in Broomfield for $100 after seeing it in a Craigslist ad. The bike was 25 years old when we started our ride. I had wanted to try riding that bike across the country in some sort of way of showing all the people we met that you didn’t need to be Lance Armstrong, or have his bike, to do something fun. Plus, I mean, it said “Team USA” on it.

In the end, nobody really cared about my bike besides me. But it made it, 3,000 miles, and when I got back to Denver, I put my old city tires back on it and rode it to work every day, just like I had all the days leading up to our two-month bike ride. Was the bike a little heavy for riding across the country? Maybe. Did I have to do a lot of work on it along the way? Yes. Did it make it? Yes.

Was the adventure way more memorable than the gear I bought for it? Absolutely.

This is America, and we’re constantly bombarded with ways to spend our disposable income. We need to replace our phone that’s 4 months old, or get a car that turns its windshield wipers on immediately when the windshield gets wet, or get a bigger, more defined television to slowly die in front of.

In the outdoors, you need gear, yes, but you don’t need all of it, all the time. A friend of mine who does about twice as much climbing and skiing as I do has about 2/3 of a reasonable rack for climbing, borrows ice tools, and has an avalanche beacon on a kind of permanent temporary loan from someone. He does have way nicer outdoor clothing than me. I am envious of his stories, not what he’s wearing in the photos I see from his trips.

When I used to work at the REI store in Phoenix, we used to have a couple of guys who would come in without fail every single Saturday. Both of them knew more about gear than I did, and they would show up and engage anyone on the sales floor for hours about the materials in this tent, or this rain jacket, or this GPS. It was like they were coming to a class to learn more about gear than anyone. Some Saturdays, I would be pretty tired of giving up all my weekends (I had a full-time job on top of my part-time REI gig) to work at the store, and I just wanted to go up to them and shake them, and say, “Your gear is perfectly fine! Go use it! Some of us have to work Saturdays — you don’t! If you want to buy something, let me sell you a map so you can pack up a backpack and go do some cool shit somewhere.”

Sometimes I hear people say things like, “I’m kind of a gear junkie.” That’s fine, whatever floats your boat. But you really don’t need to know that much about gear to do most things in the outdoors — how to fix some basic things on your bike, sure; how to use rock and ice climbing gear in a fashion that doesn’t endanger you or your partner, yes; how to operate a stove without burning down the forest, yes. But if you’re not Steve House or Ueli Steck, you can probably go ahead and climb with the fifth- or sixth-lightest soft shell, and crampons from 2004. Really. And your tent can weigh 6 ounces more than its closest competitor.

For the record, you know what you can buy for the same price as an Arc’Teryx Alpha LT jacket? Flights to and from Jackson, Wyoming from Chicago in August.

You can find a lot more thoughts just like this at www.semi-rad.com.

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{ 22 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Hotmann

    Great read. I have a few buddies with the newest skis or snowboards but they go up twice a year. My skis have lost all their camber and are actually starting to naturally form some early rise in the tips (getting the latest ski tech without having to buy new skis=priceless haha) because they are on the snow every weekend from november til june.

    Sure I’m jealous when they get the cool new stuff but it doesnt compare to the jealousy I get from them when I tell them about my weekend skiing powder!

  • hatidua

    Good article, and one that the major outdoor magazines would likely never print for fear of losing their advertisers.

  • David

    Wonderful article. We all, including myself, get lost in the gear cyclone. What do I need? what don’t I need? I often forget that I used to ride my Schwinn ten to twenty miles as a kid without water, in sandals and carrying a squirt gun. However, maybe my squirt gun turned in to a steel bike with clip less pedals and OpenPro wheels… Perhaps toys are still toys and tools are still tools. Sometimes toys are dressed like tools, but are not used as one.

  • Bobinc

    Well said. Time is more expensive than gear for many.
    But one question: is St. Augustine on the Pacific Ocean?

  • Vince

    As a part-time employee (with a separate full-time gig) of another larger three-letter-acronym outdoor retailer, I can whole-heartedly relate. There are some gear geeks out there who frustrate me. I’ve fostered a relationship with much of my gear, lasting longer than any romantic relationship I’ve had.

    However, it is worth noting that, although I may not have toted an electron microscope and the latest outdoor mag buyer’s guide to the stores, I did make a concentrated effort to purchase the highest quality gear I could find.

    I did this because I knew I was making a (hopefully) worry-free, decade-long investment.

    But is planned obsolescence infiltrating the outdoor industry?

  • adsfadsf

    Thanks for writing this. It actually was kind of a wake up call for me-I spend hours reading and bookmarking all possible options for gear. I’m a bit obsessive, but you’re right about subtle differences not affecting your trip in a significant way.

  • Marjorie

    Awesome article! Speaks to me and I can’t wait until the weekend when I go camping by myself in a little tent with a little sleeping bag and not much else. I just need to be outside.

  • tom

    When i get gear geeky I try to remind myself of Grandma Gatewood, who hiked the AT with crappy Keds and a shower curtain for a tent.

  • 18milesperhour.com

    Amen to all of it. I’m human and, as David put so well, “get caught in the gear cyclone.” But I usually come out the other side remembering what it’s all about, why we’re looking at all the gear: to get outside. Then I do. And I feel better.

    Thanks for a great post.

  • Andrew Szalay

    Well said, and @Steve — that’s a common mis-perception perpetuated by the Outfitter Industry.

    I think what little/old gear you have in the backcountry doesn’t matter so long as it works. Ultimately less is more, so just go!

  • Kim Kircher

    Great post. Thanks for the reminder to keep it real. For the record, I worked with Steve House during his brief stint as a ski patroller. He didn’t have alpine boots, which he needed for the job. He probably only had light stuff that wouldn’t work for hauling sleds through thick Cascade snow. Anyways, I had an old pair of ski boots that he used for the season (yes, I’m a woman, but I’m tall. And I have big enough feet that I share a shoe size with most of the guys on the patrol). So even when you’re on the cover of Patagonia and Climbing in a fancy jacket, that doesn’t mean you have to spend all your cash on gear. It’s a myth perpetuated by gear companies.

  • Mike H.

    Good one, Semi-rad. Reminds me of my favorite saying, “Travel is the only thing you can buy that makes you richer.”

  • Montana Bob

    As a former gear junkie, I’ve evolved to a ‘Whooville’ mindset for acquiring new gear for new gear’s sake.

    Sure there’s a certain satisfaction in buying new stuff BUT if the Grinch came and stole your newest, shiniest and lightest gear, could you still rally on your old stuff and have FUN because you simply enjoy your activity? If not – maybe you should examine your motivations.

    Next time the urge to indulge in that new widget strikes – might I suggest writing a check to the advocacy group of your choice instead. Like IMBA for example…

  • Trini

    Thank You! Shake and wake me up, this was just what I needed. I guess I always blame everything on the gear… but you’re absolutely right about go do some adventure insted of spending all the money on things. This made me realise that I have become more materialistic than I was aware of – thank you for this reminder!
    Great reading – you write very lively!
    Trini

  • Mike

    Very true! I work at REI and teach backpacking, snowshoeing and snow camping there. I get the question, “What’s the best?” very often. In most cases I tell people that most of the gear that we sell is good gear and they should get the stuff that fits their budget and needs the best. I’m so glad that we don’t work on commission.
    I frequently guide people to the clearance racks, the used gear sales, other stores, Craigslist, eBay, REI-Outlet.com, and so on. But gear snobs will always be with us and I don’t mind selling someone a 900 fill sleeping bag and a $600 tent for their hike around Mt. Hood in August.

  • TSkinner

    i saw this picture and read this article years ago it feels like, and i remember it always stickingwith me and sticking in my head when i was debating picking up and finnally taking my ride. i now have a 6000 mile cross country fully self contained trip under my belt, and i think this picture this dudes raw freedom pushed me to make the decision. wierd how little shit like this pic stick with a person sometimes.

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