Since When Do You Have to Be Stylish on the Trail?

The author thinks new gear is too expensive, unnecessary, and, also, too too expensive.

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.

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 toward 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.

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. Photo by Al_HikesAZ


Showing 38 comments
  • A.W.

    YES! Completely agree. We need a DIY revolution. I want to see more articles giving tips on making and repairing gear. Why do I never see any articles about sewing your own tent or knitting your own wool cap and sweater in these publications dedicated to experiencing the outdoors?

    • J.H.

      Advertising. Want unbiased content? You need to pay. Free content comes at the price of advertising and the push to sell more stuff. I’m willing to pay for quality content such as the New York Times but I’d imagine it would be difficult for a smaller company such as Adventure Journal to pull off. Remove the advertising model and you will be much more likely to see a reduce in consumerism content.

      • Steve Casimiro

        Actually, folks, Adventure Journal does not accept any consideration in exchange for its reviews, previews, or stories. We do not accept sponsored content or native advertising. To our knowledge, we are the only general outdoor media title that continues to draw this line between editorial and advertising, though we know that our colleagues at Alpinist and Backcountry follow the same policy.

        This is one of the reasons we ask so often for you to subscribe to Adventure Journal Quarterly. Yes, we have ads. But without material reader support, AJ doesn’t exist. And it’s not like we’re asking for charity—we believe this is the most unique, best outdoor title made.

        You can get it here. 🙂

  • Mohamad Redza Hashim

    agreed on what u have says
    i’m a hiker too and often climb mountain in my country. .i have seen changes in climbing gears. .equipment. .and so hikers need to spend a lot of money just to get started…only those who are willing to spend can really afford these kind of activities. They don’t even know how to start a fire unless they bring along a disposable lighter wrap in plastic bag.

    • Anthony

      Glad to know that across the globe there is the same frustration at consumerism and that this isn’t just a norther american community 🙂

  • Moose Hunter

    I’ll take my ultralight, modern gear over burlap sacks and rags for socks any time, thank you. Yes, the prices for some clothes especially are ridiculous, but nothing beats being able to enjoy hiking with a light load. Also, the poles save my knees on long trips.

  • theGarinator

    MEC, (Mtn Equipment COOP since ’73?) here in Canada is starting to look $$$ department store catering to a certain gated community postal code clientelle as well. Though the guarantee is never questioned n’or the quality of MEC brand equipment/clothing. Most of the sizing is for women size ‘0’s to 33 inch waist men who don’t eat bread or most forms of carbohydrate.

  • Mike Pro

    I also lament the high cost of outdoor gear these days, and have soured on REI over the past decade or more. It can get absolutely insane to manage a budget for a fam of 4. My backpack is 20+ years old and weighs 6lbs. My tent fly has duct tape on it. I still use 20+ year old whisperlite stoves. I’ve got a problem with the proliferation of canister stoves that require empty canisters to be tossed in a landfill. I have fond memories of the original REI store on Capital Hill with the old building smells and creaky wood plank ramps, as I’m sure many people do. I completely agree that the reliance on GPS and electronic gadgetry is out of control. Wasn’t there an article just recently on this website about the record numbers of people getting lost in the outdoors and needing rescue? Seems that increase in GPS and electronics use in the outdoors does nothing to reduce this tread. But, I’d have to say that trekking poles are awesome and while not required they have proven to be extremely handy and useful on long treks, and so have been advances in footwear.

  • Dave P

    That’s the best part about the Patagonia Worn Wear campaign – they have a section of show and tell for fixing your stuff! Used it several times to repair gear.

  • J

    I dunno, man. A $60 pair of shorts, in 1970 dollars, would be around $15. Is that really too much?

    • Erik

      We can’t simply adjust for inflation and then apply our 2017 perception of $15. If we were living in 1975 and those prices, or cheaper, were the only norm that we knew, then $15 probably would seem like a lot.

  • A. Wise

    To take this one step further, try backpacking with French & Indian War reenactors, French and British militia and various tribe warriors with all their gear. It can be a real eye opener how little you really do need. Fire stater kit, knife, blanket, twine, leather and gut canteen, corn meal and jerky.

  • Ivan

    So true! Hiking is a fashion industry for some and I’m still amazed to find producers and retailers selling goods that are more about looks than substance. Why not knit, or ask a friend to knit, woollen jumpers, socks and hat like my missus has. Practical, durable and a hell of a lot cheaper than the retailers.

  • Patrick

    There’s lots of DIY/MYOG, from the packraft I’m (ill-advisedly?..) ironing together, to whole entire kits including backpacks to shelters to down quilts. Lots lots lots, including access to commercial grade raw materials, from down to dyneema. My mountaineering text even has notes on how to make your own climbing gear, slings and whatnot. Choose wisely..

  • J.H.

    For the most part, I agree with this article. Except the last paragraph. “Wander around in crummy weather” probably shouldn’t be advice given out lightly, especially since some new hikers may take it seriously. Weather and judgement in the backcountry, especially in the mountains, demands to be respected. I see your point that experience needs to be gained without fancy doo-dads, but maybe not recklessly, either.

  • Mark

    Yeah, but what about gaiters? Gaiters are pretty important.

  • J

    I agree with the spirit of the article I don’t agree with some of the things said. While trekking poles aren’t essential I wouldn’t leave for a big miles or multi day hike without them. I (personally) find them while not essential definitely helpful. Also never ever go out with the intention of getting lost.

    Otherwise some “overpriced” gear is fantastic it’s not essential and you don’t need this year’s colour jacket, the outdoors has become too disposable, for an industry that claims to be all about the environment they do seem to promote a fair bit of waste.

  • jim

    but…but…but… what about all of us sitting at work reviewing gear online and getting the best deals on really cool stuff? too bad we don’t have enough vacation days to actually get out on the trail!

    I totally have all the best equipment now that I have my kickbutt IT job but alas i backpack about 1/20th as much as i did when i was poor and footloose.

  • G.G.S.

    I appreciate having a range of options although realize that comes with there probably being more waste ($$$) in the whole process. Sure a lot of it is over priced and over experience level average person will need or utilize. How many people are sleeping at zero degrees in their sleeping bag? Consumer can pick usually between a range of cheaper options to the technical professional level products.

    Not one of those people who thinks you need to suffer to appreciate the outdoors. Sure more people would appreciate outdoors if they didn’t associate it with negative things. Thankfully there is room for all kinds of people, ability, and comfort levels of being outdoors. No purchases required in a lot of cases. There’s usually a cheaper/alternative to a lot of purchase items. Some of my expensive outdoor items were acquired second hand at consignment shop or on sale. I appreciate the quality difference.

    Once used my sister’s Garmin and boy did that thing lead me on some adventures. First it routed me down back roads past beautiful ranches that I probably wouldn’t have chosen to go down without it and then later tried to keep rerouting me to a section of highway that was closed for road work. Had quite the scenic wrote to get away far enough it would not try to use main highway as part of route.

    Trekking poles must be nice on steep mountains or if have an injury mostly a waste.

    As always you choose your adventure. If you don’t want cell service but want it as back up safety item turn on airplane mode and tell everyone you don’t get a signal. ;p

  • Al

    I’m finding good outdoor gear can be had at decent prices. I’ve gone with the “clone-suppliers” on Amazon for a decent stove, tent, trekking poles, and other stuff that are a huge discount from the original big-name brands. Sometimes I feel a little guilty buying these cloned products – but they work just fine. Also just need to wait to buy when REI has their anniversary sale (some stuff more than just 20% off) and when Eddie Bauer has 50% off everything – just to name two examples. Just need be patient and shop around.

    Also, helps to not have to outfit yourself all at once. It’s been well over 40 since I started trekking around in the big wide open … so each year it’s just a few items that I upgrade/expand my collection of gear with.

  • Eric

    $150 in July 1975 = $682.65 in October 2017 according to the CPI.
    That’s still not $1000, but a fair bit more than $450.

  • Sven

    Sometimes it pays to buy expensive gear once because it last longer and/or has a better return/repair policy than cheaper, more basic gear. For example, in 2000 I spent like six months of savings in undergraduate school to purchase an exorbitant Western Mountaineering Apache sleeping bag. It was literally the most expensive brand I knew of at the time. But despite averaging over 50 bag nights a year for the past two decades (and a couple years where I spent over 100 nights in the bag out in the sticks), I’m still sleeping in that thing exclusively while in the backcountry, and it still works as well as the day I bought it (I’ve sent it back a couple times to get the down replaced). Meanwhile, I see friends go through cheaper modern sleeping bags like I go through running shoes. Sometimes it pays to buy the best, and to pay for customer service and quality. The true cost isn’t the purchase price, it’s the purchase price divided by the time you’ll be able to use that thing without having to replace it.

  • W

    Capitalistic materialism will be the ruin of the country, not to mention, the planet. I dug out my old Fire Fox books and rediscovered a gold mine of simple everyday living and knowledge that all of us can afford. I had almost forgotten that the earth and the wild is the inheritance of every man, woman, and child. Get out there. Experience and enjoy. Whatever shorts, shirts, and boots you have will do just fine.

    • Bel

      Um No…Capitalism is what made this country (the USA) the greatest place in the world. I enjoy buying items that make make my life better and I certainly have fun using them. You only live once.

    • colt

      Good point. There is definitely a line where inexpensive gear becomes cheap gear that doesn’t last. I split the difference by purchasing all of my outdoor gear used at garage sales, craigslist, thrift stores and Ebay. It’s a great way to get high quality stuff for less than half the cost of new, or less. Last week I scored a North Face fleece jacket in great condition for $19.99 at St. Vinnie’s.

  • Scott

    This Gen Xer was first introduced to backpacking by reading Backpacking: One Step at a Time
    by Harvey Manning back in the 80s, which was a completely different ethos. It’s great to see the younger generations out on the trails, but I can’t help but feel they’re dressed and outfitted for how their outdoor activities will look on Instagram. But…to each their own. At least we’re all getting out there.

  • David S

    You should see what people (think they have to) bring for a trek in Nepal! Each trekker brings gear many many times the annual wage of porters carrying tgeir expensive (and oh so necessary) gear.

  • Gary

    Be honest with yourself about your true need not what someone in “Marketing” wants you to think you need. Understand the reality of your skills and how you will use the gear you buy. Think for yourself and be a wise consumer.

    Put the Earth first in all things.

  • Kyle

    I don’t know why the surprise with REI being so expensive. It was expensive 20 years ago when I first got all of my backpacking equipment. I remember going in as a kid and walking out with a nalgene bottle. Everything else was too much. The good news was that I was able to find less expensive (but still good) equipment at smaller outdoor supply stores.

    So yea, REI has always been expensive and everyone knows it. That is nothing new.

  • Steve Threndyle

    There was a terrific story in a recent issue of Alpinist about the social/environmental cost of gear and clothing. Like so much of our social discourse these days, this discussion occurs at the poles – the Russian guys vs Joe Techie trekking in Nepal. (BTW, Westerners have been bringing ‘the latest and greatest’ gear to trek in the Himalayas since the early 80s). If you’re not in any hurry to buy gear, you can get some items from a thrift store, secondhand on Craigslist, or through online gear swaps. Joining local outdoor clubs is a great way to go, too. Clothing is somewhat secondary – there are many decent generic waterproof breathables out there – but an ill fitting pair of boots or pack will probably not lead to many repeat backcountry visits. One thing that seems to happen is that people get overly ambitious; they watch WILD and immediately want to “hike the PCT”. Start slowly, in and around your back yard, and work up to longer trips over time (easy for me to say, with mountains literally in my back yard). Backpacking is a hell of a lot cheaper than most sports out there. It’s really OK if a guy or gal wants to splurge a little, eh?

  • Rodger

    In the sailing (cruising) world we call them office boys & girls. Don’t understand the efficacy & pleasure of simplicity & frugal minimalism. More about the look than the do.
    Leaves the rest of us a source of cheap used gear down the line but it clutters the World with unnecessary processed plastic materials.
    Our local Rhode Island, USA REI has just closed.

  • JimG

    Buy good equipment, maintain it well, and keep it for a long time. Expensive electronics can help, but gain skills to use it and to compliment basic skills like map reading & sound decision making. Certainly, people survived perfectly well without expensive electronics in the past.

    I came across a Goretex parka at Goodwill for $8 – cheaper than a pair of smartwool socks. The camo pattern parka was a donation from some USMC veteran done with their service. It now keeps me dry on paddling trips.

    Good used equipment for not much money is out there. But, some pieces of equipment are worth the money.

  • Erik

    A lot of comments about non-brand name, or clone, products. Let’s not forget that those products would not exist without the expensive, name brand products that pay for the initial design and engineering and, in most cases, the factories that turn around and sell knock-offs. The $50 carbon trekking pole on Amazon simply doesn’t exist without Black Diamond or Leki poles. I’m not claiming that I sometimes don’t buy off-brand stuff myself, but that it’s hypocritical to decry the cost of gear, when you’re buying things that are direct descendants of the expensive stuff.

    Buying less expensive, “lower tech” stuff is an entirely different perspective that has its own merit. The author, I think, is arguing that we don’t need all of the latest gear–not that we should just buy cheaper versions of it.

  • Robert August

    When my mom started my little sister and I backpacking we had big heavy flannel sleeping bags and slept under makeshift visqueen tarps and used a second or third hand Svea stove. I have many great memories from that time and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone, but I frequently see great gear from not too long ago cycle through my local Goodwill and other thrift stores. Yard sales are another great option to stretch your bucks and the gear is frequently lightly used.

  • tom

    my clothes for the hiking and backcountry are 14 pair of usmc cammies from younger son. they have two tours of Iraq duty under their belt and i’ll get thousands more miles from these well made military pants. my hiking staff is a sotol cactus stalk, or a saguaro rib. my danner mountain light hiking boots (made in the usa!) have been resoled twice! they have thousands of sonoran desert miles on them. my backpack is my old burro I adopted from the burro (pun intended) of land management. with her pack saddle on she’s carrying all the gear & equipment! and to top it all off, I haven’t paid for a haircut since 1970 when I was in my tour of duty in Vietnam and learned to cut my own hair! surprise yourself and pare down your spending inertia

  • Colt

    If a GPS is “essential” for getting in and out of the wild, you have no business being there in the first place. Electronics fail. No replacement for a compass, map and the knowledge to use them.

  • lance

    I certainly understand that there can be a lot of marketing and other rubbish that builds up the prices of gear – I make gear for a living. But that is hardly why gear prices are what they are today.

    Things that impact prices more impact than marketing – how about the nearly 20% duty rate that companies have to pay to bring a backpack into the US? There is not a big enough pool of trained workers to even consider making all of the backpacks that Americans buy every year in the US, nor would the pack companies be competitive in a global market if they did make them there – so take 1/5th of the cost of your backpack and know that this is just a government fee that you have to pay like sales tax.

    Sure, duck canvas was pretty good and fairly durable. But it can’t compare to the strength-to-weight of new man-made fabrics or waterproofness of modern laminates and coatings. Unfortunately, those man-made fabrics probably use precursors that are also in demand for many other things – like gasoline, consumer electronics, etc. So the price of those fabrics is not based on the demand for a specific-use crop, but rather a polyvalent commodity that has a global market.

    Are outdoor companies doing something that serves their own interest – to be sure, every company in the world is. Is what they are doing based on consumer demand – this is true as well. If people didn’t want the new, high-tech stuff and kept asking for $30 sleeping bags, you can be sure that more companies would be making $30 sleeping bags instead of leaving those to Dicks Sporting Goods and WalMart to sell (heck, WalMart has USA made bags that retail for less than I have ever bought a bag from a manufacturer for…).

    Is it a shame that ‘access’ is more expensive – only if you buy into the load of rubbish that this article seems to be selling.

    You still need nothing more than you ever did to get out there. And the trickle-down of technology means that you can go to a store like Decathlon (I’ve been based in Europe for the last year) and get gear that serious outdoors people would have given a year’s salary for at prices that are in-line or even cheaper than the 70s (inflation adjusted).

    One of the great things that more-durable gear has created is a fantastic used-gear market. If you feel like your access is being reduced because you can’t spend a certain amount on your gear – number one, spend more time outdoors, build self-esteem so that you don’t care what anyone else out there thinks, and build the skill set to do whatever you want in the backcountry safely – then go to one of the great used stores out there and buy the gear that some potzer from a big city got and used for a single weekend before they decided that they hated camping no matter how much the hipsters said it was cool.

    If you don’t want the best or most-modern stuff, go to any thrift store and pick up what you need. Those places can be treasure troves of classic outdoor gear – from a vintage Dana Designs backpack, to a forgotten pair of Vasque Sundowner boots.

    Motivation, skills, and placing a priority on getting out there determine your access. The suggestion that fashion even remotely matters is a concocted bunch of nonsense that is straight from the “my mom said you have to be nice to me, my dad said I deserve a trophy, and all my friends think I should get a raise” guidebook to not being able to cope with life.

    Just get outside, find something you love to do, and let the rest of the crap fade away…

  • Martin

    I love the mention on the walking poles, why would you pay for a stick?! I mean, it can sure help to some, but why pay for it? good wooden stick would easily last you a season and looks so much more classy and solid…

Leave a Comment

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!
Share This