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

Instead of spending your disposable income on something, well, disposable, maybe you should spend it on…

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 couple years 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, Colorado, 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 four 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 six 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.

Brendan Leonard is a contributing editor to Adventure Journal. Follow him at his blog, Semi-Rad.
Showing 11 comments
  • yogibimbi

    Alternatively, you can also wait to the end-of-season sales, where stuff is invariably 50% or cheaper. Got my Ghost Whisperer (hoodie, normal jacket and vest) that way at 40-50%, two TNF Point5 jackets, Point5 pants, Therm-a-rest NeoAirs (again, 2, anything that ceases to be useful with a hole in it needs a backup), Haglöfs Atlas pants (2, actually, three at some point, but the zips on the thigh pockets of the three pants broke, and the third pant had been converted into a convertible, so they decided it could not be repaired and gave me the money back).
    Now, if I could get a Haglöfs Grym pant in 52 regular, true black, anywhere, at half price, much appreciated;-) But I am a little bit late now, found out just 3 months ago that that are actually the pants I want; I can wait, the Point5 is a long way from wearing out, just the Grym could replace it, plus the pair of “normal” pants that I have and weigh 200 g less than the Point 5… And less is always better.

  • jim

    Well said! we all know the types that have the best gear possible… looks great too since it’s rarely used. that said, gear research and purchase is something we do while chained to a desk right? when i didn’t have a career or a family i spent way more time in the back country. i had crappy gear but it really didn’t matter. now that i have the money to buy whatever gear i want it also doesn’t matter because I have less free time.

  • Jesse

    Great article and I agree with the sentiment completely. I do find some irony that the article is surrounded by banner ads for REI and Danner, however (at least for me).

    • Steve Casimiro

      Jesse—any time you’d like to launch an outdoor magazine without advertising from gear companies is fine by us.

      • Beth Gallup

        Appreciation of irony is necessary when offering fabulous free content that has editorial integrity.

  • Alan Kaplanas

    Steve-you can use the model of The Surfer’s Journal. A reader supported publication with only 6 Ads. More reader content less Advertising.

  • KW

    Awesome article. I especially love the two guys part and the air fair price comparison. Maybe its time to push guys like them towards the gear care and repair areas so they can get some outdoor time.

    Have to send this to my oldest daughter who is working at local retailer this summer and can’t get over “some of the people”.

  • Dustin@WeGoRTW


    Plus I had that same tent too for my XC bike ride, < $100 and held up great!

  • Jacob

    In defense of gear… in the same book you reference, Yvon Chouinard says “poor people can’t afford cheap things”.

    Sure, I can keep an eye on ebay for a great deal on a “gently used” dry suit, but since my life depends on it, I’m saving up and buying the best I can afford.

    I can also wear a pair of old trail runners, but it makes sense to me (not to mention creates less waste) by investing in an expensive, sturdy pair of boots that will last.

    So yeah, buy the best – but just buy it once (still, I’m never buying titanium chopsticks – looking at you, REI).

    • Will

      Dude, you never know when you’re going to be in the backcountry and some guy is going to stumble into your camp and he has almost no strength left and he needs to eat something and he doesn’t know how to use a fork and you give him your titanium chopsticks and you save his life. YOU NEVER KNOW!

  • Gary Jones

    I have a closet full of little used cycling kit that I bought on the cheap. After about five years of incrementally paying more for better quality kit, I finally broke down and bought Assos shirts, shorts and jackets (all on sale) and realized that if I’d bought the best stuff first I would have saved money in the long run, been more comfortable and had a lot more room in the closet (for my ski gear 😉 ).

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