My tried-and-true rain jacket, a gift from my parents that served me well for years, recently wet the bed (or, more accurately, wet my entire body during a downpour). I hit the web, looking for Gore-Tex or something like it, a jacket that could handle rainy urban bike commutes, high-altitude storms, drizzly runs around the neighborhood, global travel, and a week spent shoved in the bottom of my pack during a gloriously dry backpacking trip. I just needed a rain jacket. A good one. One to wear anytime it rains, no matter what I’m doing or where I am.
At Arc’teryx, I found six—count ’em—Gore-tex jackets of varying price and color all billed for “all-round” use. Get into their categories, and you have shells billed for rock climbing, ice climbing, alpine climbing, sometimes all three, sometimes just rock and alpine, some specifically built for backcountry skiing and alpine climbing. It’s dizzying.
Hardgoods are even worse. Buying a bike? You’ll be researching like you’re writing a thesis on two-wheelers. There are, apparently, four different categories of road bike, which is profoundly confusing for someone who’d like a bike that can handle roads and the occasional dirt path and maybe a commute or two and can’t hardly afford one bike, much less four for all the specific types of road you can ride on and all the ways you can ride it (don’t you just…pedal?)
Look, I get it. I love talking tech; waterproofing ratings and synthetic insulation, innovations in bikes, skis, wetsuits, surfboards, climbing shoes. I’m always eager to try new designs, learn about the philosophy behind them, test them out. It’s good marketing, too. If you can convince customers they need a special [fill in the blank] for every way they get after it, you’ll sell more product. If owning a product makes someone feel like an insider, they’ll shell out more for it. If you tell women they need a different sports bra for to-and-from the gym than they do while they’re on the treadmill, maybe you’ll shame me into buying something other than the four Target Champion compression bras I’ve been rocking since high school. That said, a shell jacket designed for ice climbing scares me off—I don’t do that!—even though I can’t imagine a shell designed for ice climbing is all that different from one designed for rock climbing, or hiking, for that matter.
Hyper-specificity only makes sense on the Internet. I own somewhere north of ten backpacks, and I still don’t have the “right” bag for short overnights or touring. Hell, I don’t have the “right” backpack for biking around town. I use my summer backpacking 50-liter in the backcountry in the dead of winter. I strap my yoga mat to my Osprey backcountry ski pack and sweat through 90 degrees and 75% humidity on my 1990-something racing bike-turned-commuter all the way to the yoga studio. Half of my packs live most of their lives in my closet, and the hyper-specific ones—the backpack built for air travel and traipsing around foreign countries, the super-lightweight day pack made to fit inside OTHER packs—don’t get used at all.
I’m not saying brands should quit designing perfectly-honed trail runners that couldn’t possibly be worn anywhere else, or asymmetrical skis, or trucker hats with space for buns (okay, maybe that last one’s not necessary.) Innovations that might seem goofy or impractical—for example, skiboards—can revolutionize product design across an entire industry. And I’m definitely not complaining about a thriving outdoor industry and genius designers that give me more options than I can count for basically any type of gear I could need.
I write about this stuff for a living and I still don’t understand the difference between plenty of the products on the market. The most beloved pieces of clothing and gear I own are those that have served me for years, in many places, during many pursuits. The headlamps that doubles as my bike light and my dad’s old canvas backpack that I fly with and stuff my wetsuit in and use for a camera bag, too. It’s all about making it work for you. Next time you hit the web looking to spend your most recent paycheck, remember: you don’t need a backpack for every occasion, the bike gods won’t smite you if your roadie hits gravel every once in a while, and this stuff was built to be used—hard, often, and well. Any piece of gear that doesn’t let you do that isn’t worth your time or money.
Photo by Zach Dischner.