Gear as lifestyle. Or why discussion of the minutiae of gear is so popular.
Photo from E-Bay’s outdoor gear section
For various reasons, gear talk is the most popular discussion on most outdoor forums.
Some of the most popular backpacking websites currently are gear focused.
Not just about the basics of outdoor gear, but the minutia as well.
Which three-point-something ounce stove is more efficient versus another three-point-something ounce stove?
Or which latest cuben fiber poncho is better than the previous cuben fiber poncho?
There is certainly a place for this type of discussion.
After all, money is a finite resource and we want to get the piece of gear that works for us.
But why the overall popularity of this discussion vs say outdoor ethics or the best spot for trout fishing? Where to get the best sunset photo or what are some favorite backcountry meals? Or even the logistics of getting to a place and planning for a trip?
Basically, why gear discussion for the sake of gear discussion? Is gear that important for outdoor pursuits in proportion to the amount it is discussed?
REI Garage sale photo from livingbozeman.com
For many various reasons, gear discussion dominates outdoor talk.
Here are my own thoughts on why gear discussion, esp discussion on specific gear items, is so popular.
- If a person is new to the outdoors, it is something very much of interest. If you have never backpacked before, seeing that a seemingly authoritative sounding website or magazine endorses a specific pack is comforting. The person new to the outdoors wants to know what is the best and what to buy. Again, considering money is a finite resource, that is an understandable desire.
- Specific gear is easy to discuss. It is something tangible. You can easily describe what the water filter weighs, the price, how past it pumps water vs the competition and so on. May be more difficult to discuss why a water filter may be more appropriate vs chemical treatment.
- “Gear is fun”. Buying the gear gives some temporary happiness. And many of us like our toys. Basically, we get a thrill when discussing what new things to acquire and then acquiring it. The credit card bill at the end of the month may change that feeling, however. 😉
All about the gear! From Portlandia.
Mostly, though, I think gear is discussion is popular because it is “gear as lifestyle”.
Very few of us are fortunate enough to get out as much as we would like. Even doing the boom and bust hiker trash/ski bum/river rat/dirtbag climber etc life style, we all have to work at some point. Save money and work while planning for the next big adventure.
I am fortunate enough where most of my weekends, vacation time, days off and often my after work hours can be devoted to outdoor pursuits. Though my days of taking off for weeks at a time are temporarily in stasis, I get out pretty often for a weekend warrior. (Understanding wife who likes to share in the outdoor pursuits at times. No children.)
For many who do have less free time due to family, financial or other obligations, getting out is a treat.
Which is why I think “gear as lifestyle”, and the gear discussion it engenders, is so popular.
By purchasing more gear, a person is buying into the outdoors lifestyle:
I may not have time to use a stove, but with my disposable income, I can certainly purchase a few different types of stoves and try them.
I do not have a weekend free to go backpacking, but I can buy the latest cuben Super Ultralight Pack, update my Excel spreadsheet and discuss it online.
I may not go outdoors much, but look at the outdoor gear I have. I am an outdoors person.
The IT geeks will know the Contoso company referenced here…
Also explains why gear sales are so popular on weekends. Getting to an REI garage sale for two hours on a Saturday is easier than backpacking for two days on a weekend.
I’ve compared the outdoors to my grandmother’s cooking many times.
Basically, Grandma Magnanti was an amazing cook and baker. Her stuffed artichokes are something I fondly remember. Her egg biscuits will be something I will never bake nearly as good. And the stuffed squid we had every Christmas Eve is something I have not had in almost twenty years, but can still savor every texture, flavor, and smell strongly in my mind.
And while she would say “just saute’ this in a frying pan” or “chop the garlic with a knife” when saying how to make a meal, I never heard her endlessly discuss what knife to use, what brand of pot she prefers, what is the best colander for draining the macaroni or how the brandy Y skillet is superior to the brand Z skillet. She never planned her schedule around the Peppercorn garage sale to buy the best salt and pepper shakers.
Or, to use another cooking analogy, I loved the meals she cooked, but never once thought to ask her what brand of knife and pot she used to make said meal (gear). I was always interested in how she made the meal (maps to use and trailhead info).
She cooked. She baked. She did it well. And the food she made forms the basis of some of my strongest and most cherished memories.
In the same way, if you are active in the outdoors, there is less desire and/or time to discuss the minutiae of outdoor gear.
If this sounds a little harsh, consider someone who does not get out as much as he likes, has a job that pays the bills but would never claim it is satisfying and blogs fairly often about the outdoors instead of buying gear. Sounds like a short, bald, Mediterranean looking guy I know.
So, I think there are many reasons for the popularity of gear discussion on outdoor focused blogs, hiking websites and so on.
But ultimately I think gear discussion is a way to allow a person to be involved with the outdoors who otherwise would not have the time. Time spent outdoors may be precious and rare; talking about and acquiring the latest gear is easier, more attainable and a way for people to still be connected to their outdoor pursuits.
Finally, I leave off this article with a little humor. Portlandia quite nicely sums up my rambling article in a two-minute clip. Enjoy!
Once forgot a pad and substituted the shiny reflector from my car. Worked great. Being prepared it essential. But, it’s not the gear, its being able to to use what you have on hand in the situation. Sure you can cut your toothbrush handle off to save a half ounce and carry a titanium spork. Or you can know how to cook a muffin in an orange and not need the spork.
Frankly, the Portlandia sketch seems a bit exaggerated. 😉
Only a bit. 😉
Great article. I don’t think it only affects hikers, climbers, and such. I have a few friends who are golfers. They go through the same thing with golf gear – putters, shoes, balls, etc. Everyone’s buying the newest and best stuff. I think the same can be said for hunters and fisherman.
Discussing gear is always good to get some ones view. This past weekend it was a new sleeping pad versus a new pair of hiking shoes. Ended up thinking I would get more use out of the shoes and could still get by on my 10 year old therma rest
Discussing gear is not bad in of itself, but when discussing gear and collecintg becomes the actual hobby, well…time re-evaluate it. 🙂
I completely agree – I can’t get on the river as often as I should, but I can tie flies in the living room every evening, stocking and restocking my boxes.
It’s a necessary ancillary hobby, but a sad substitute for the main pursuit.
I would have to add that our materialistic society pushes us toward buying, wanting, discussing gear. It is blatant consumerism that has permeated all aspects of our lives. Why should backpacking be exempt? We would all do well to just say “No” to more stuff.
ps loved the Portlandia sketch
I think part of my own gear talk is because I’m new and still in the acquire stage. This crap is expensive and I’m tired of spending money on something only to realize it isn’t what I really wanted. Hopefully by hearing how others like something, how it is or isn’t used I can see if I really need it. You’re on to something about people talking about gear instead of getting outside.
Todd, very smart to want t see what gear works best for you. aiming my article more at gear hobbyists: people who collect and discuss gear instead of actually getting out and using it. 🙂 have fun on your hikes!
Mags, great perspective and write-up, as always! As you know we, as busy outdoor educators, are on the other end of the spectrum. For example, I don’t particularly care about the details of any piece of gear, just whether it works. Function and its practical use are my priorities. If something does the job, works from a practical perspective, and is durable enough to last, I don’t care about weight or price. I spend about 150 to 200 days/nights per year out in the backcountry teaching wilderness safety skills to beginning backpackers and thru hikers, alike. It came to my… Read more »
Mags, Before I read any of your article I had the same thought. Gear talk helps to fill the time between what we really want to do which is hike. It’s a gap-filler. I think the other thing perhaps is that you can only bring so much hiking (love the Portlandia sketch though…particularly since I live in Portland) so that enables many people (who have a reasonable amount of resources) to get the very best of everything and actually afford it. There are not many hobbies/lifestyles that can be said for. It’s kind of fun to actually be able to… Read more »