Who owns the term “backcountry”? Well, technically, Backcountry.com, at least in the business sense. About a year ago they began selling their own branded outdoor apparel, and about the same time, filed for trademark protection of the name “backcountry.” In the months since they’ve been serious about defending that trademark, suing small businesses across the country that have “backcountry” as part of their name.
They’ve sued a Colorado women-focused avalanche safety program called Backcountry Babes. They’ve sued a jeans maker called Backcountry Denim. A snowmobile guide service in Michigan. An e-bike retailer in Utah. An organic snack manufacturer. Dozens more small businesses have been served cease and desist letters from Backcountry.com, or a notification they’re being sued by the big online retailer. It also appears, according to a docket from the US Patent and Trade Office, Backcountry.com, which uses a stylized mountain goat as a logo, has also sued at least one brand over also using a mountain goat as their logo.
Backcountry.com is not the first, nor will it be the last, large outdoor brand to resort to litigation to protect trademarks from small businesses. Specialized was involved in a handful of disputes over the past two decades with brands using terms like “Stump,” “Epic,” and “Roubaix,” for example.
Some have settled and changed their name quietly. Others have tried to fight the lawsuits. Jordan Phillips founded Backcountry Denim in 2017 and trademarked the name. He was almost immediately petitioned by Backcountry.com to change Backcountry Denim’s name to something that didn’t challenge their trademark. When he refused, and when the US Patent and Trade Office did not force the change, Phillips was sued. He defended himself, spending hundreds of hours educating himself on trademark law. In August, however, he rebranded the company BDCo after a settlement with Backcountry.com.
David Ollila has built and sold skis under the name Marquette Backcountry Skis for nearly a decade. He too has been sued by Backcountry.com and is refusing to back down, viewing the suit as an unfair attempt to not only protect a universal term that he thinks should be fair use, but to discourage the formation of small businesses by their larger competitors. “If I fight and I lose this lawsuit, Backcountry wants three times my all-time profits and the want their legal fees paid,” Ollila said on the Wintry Mix podcast. “They want to make an example out of me…I’m willing to bankrupt myself and my whole family defending this,” Ollila said. “I don’t think they were prepared to find someone who was a little like a cockroach/scorpion.”
Backcountry.com started out in 1996 under the name backcountrystore.com. The company has since traded hands twice, first when founders John Bresee and Jim Holland sold the brand in 2007, and then in 2015 when the private equity firm TSG Partners purchased the company. Backcountry is now putting its name and logo on apparel and gear made in collaboration with a handful of high-end, well-known outdoor gear brands, which is likely the motivation behind these lawsuits. Representatives from Backcountry.com have not yet responded for comment to AJ. Nor have they responded to the Colorado Sun, which broke parts of this story.
This is a move sure to rankle many in the outdoor industry. Unlike the terms Specialized sought to protect, provoking their own backlash, backcountry, as a term, is about as ubiquitous as “outdoor.” More than 300 companies have trademarks with the term “backcountry” as at least part of their name, evidence of how important the term is to the outdoor community. For many, the backcountry is a state of mind, a way of being, as well as a kind of aspirational destination on par with the term “wilderness.”
“The term backcountry is a term that is the backbone [for] why our outdoor industry exists,” Phillips told the Colorado Sun. “It should be used by all who enjoy the outdoors.”
This story will be updated.
Top photo: NPS