Industry Terms, Outdoor Gear, and Marketing Buzz

TL;DR – Spend some time and research what, why, and how you are taking a particular piece of gear and how it works in your *system*.  Pay less attention to marketing spin, buzzwords, and what people say online. 

You can read further, or save yourself fifteen minutes and not bother. 😉

Back when I considered myself a resident of the Poor Man’s Massachusetts, I became familiar with muscle cars.

Detroit iron, rear wheel drive, and large V8 engines full of raw power if not finesse.

Yes. In my guido-ish days, I (shockingly!) became enamored with big block engines.

On many a Friday nights in the streets of Cranston and Johnston, RI, the smell of Drakkar, gas fumes, and burning rubber permeated the air during some very unofficial drag races.

I never street raced my stock car as the owners of the souped-up Mustangs, Irocs, and Buick Grand Nationals would laugh their asses off quite a bit.  But I did read the auto magazines for a bit and even knew about, and desired a Saleen Mustang

I moved beyond that phase of my teens and discovered the outdoors.

And, from what I understand, the classic muscle cars have given way to lighter and better-engineered imports among those who enjoy that scene back in Rhody. Couldn’t tell you. That part of my life is long gone.  I am either driving a Honda Civic around town or the Kia Sorento in the mountains.

The 19-year-old “Paulie Mags” would laugh his ass off at this photo. The 40-something Paul Mags enjoys how his partner’s Honda Civic never dies and gets good gas mileage. From Pinterest

But I never forgot one aspect of that era: The size of the engine on the side of the car prominently displayed. 

The bigger the number for the engine size, the faster and better the car, right?

Except, no.

The weight of the car, the type of chassis and transmission,  the engine itself, the skill of the driver, or even the kind of tires, make a car faster in these illegal street races.  And probably other things I never knew or long forgotten. But a big engine size on the car caught attention. The marketing people knew how to market to their demographic base.

Here it is in 2018.

The circles I hang in (virtually)  now never discuss big block engines, transmissions, chassis, or if the Keg Room in Providence has pitchers of Bud Light on special.

They discuss fill power, shell material, ounces, and if the local brewpub has the Quadruple Hopped Northwest Style IPA Shazaaaam Supreme on nitro.

The younger version of me became enamored about the engine size connotating the superiority of an auto. In the same way, I see people become enamored about industry terminology, marketed as buzzwords, as a way of deciding that a piece of gear is an end all and be all of, well, gear. Be it purchasing it with their hard earned money,  discussing equipment, or saying that the gear is The Best GearTM  because of these buzzwords or even concepts.

Though with the 850 Fill Power prominently displayed on this down coat, perhaps it is not different from the adoration of big block engines after all?

Without any connotation, background, experience, knowledge of the area, etc. these buzzwords aren’t very useful. But the marketing focused concepts, and the perception that gear with these terms is better, makes people buy the gear without any thought as to what they are buying or how they are using it. Money spent needlessly at best or a person becoming frustrated and giving up the outdoors wholly.  The FOR SALE ads on forums are littered with the debris of backpacking trips not going as planned due to buzzword purchases.

And what are some of these buzzword terms or concepts I am thinking about?

Here are a few topics that come to mind and discussed in my usual subtle, non-opinionated, and typically sensitive manner… 🙂

  • Technobabble
From “Continuing Mission.”

A form of jargon that consists of buzzwords, esoteric language, specialized technical terms, or technical slang that is impossible to understand for the listener. Various fields of practice and industry have their own specialized vocabularies, or jargon, that allow those educated within that industry to concisely convey ideas that may be confusing, misleading, or nonsensical to an outside listener    —Technobabble” Wikipedia article

There are many terms in any niche activity. And within the sub-group of people who are into shaving grams off their kit, these terms abound.

The terms are not for marketing reasons initially, of course.  Knowing that cuben fiber is now DCF and its properties are useful. Having a grasp of various treatments for fabric can help a person fine-tune their kit and perhaps not spend money needlessly.

Instead, it is when a person parrots these terms without thinking about the meaning of the concepts.  I once read a string of words from a person that mimicked my comic above. But with terminology for fabric types instead of SciFi terms. It turns out, he copied it verbatim from an online ad! In other words, the marketing copy was the “proof” of the superiority of the said product.

Throwing a bunch of terms together to make an expensive piece of gear sound “better” does not establish anything beyond a proficiency to copy and paste.  Don’t say MagiCoolAwesomeFabric TM is superior. State why the garment itself is a better option versus a budget option (for example).  Is it more abrasion resistant?  Water resistant? Lighter? Better construction? Etc.  But may require more than a CTRL-C and a CTRL-V(See what I did there? 😉 ) and a willingness to expand a discussion beyond marketing copy. And, ultimately, more helpful in the end.

  • “You get what you pay for!”
From Imgur

Closely related to the above is this truism people love to break out.  What does this statement mean?

Is a $100 Polartec fleece pullover somehow better than a $15 Polartec one from Costco? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Functionally, though, I’m gonna say “No.”

There are some items that you do get what you pay for (higher end down quilts and sleeping bags and winter-worthy parkas come to mind immediately), but otherwise, this terms loses value without context.

My K2 Wayback skis retail for $700. Are they superior to my Asnes Combat skis that retail for less than half the price? Well, what conditions am I using one ski in versus the other? Using the metric of cost, a person would buy the K2 Waybacks because they must be better!  Except that have no camber, are wide, and don’t glide well.  Good for steep descents; terrible for all-purpose touring.

But, Paul, that is not a direct comparison!

OK, I mention sleeping gear above. Few people will claim a Feathered Friends Hummingbird and a Kelty Cosmic Down bag are in the same league of quality. The Feathered Friends bag is expensive but a purchase that will last a long time versus the Kelty bag. No doubt.

But what if you are a casual user out two or three times a summer? Or on a budget? Will the Hummingbird be better for you at the higher cost?  Probably not. And if you are on a budget, I’d argue that it is more important to get out there than to wait to have the perfect piece of gear.  I started backpacking with a 20F synthetic Campmor monstrosity. But I got out there with an affordable bag that kept me warm and let me explore the White Mountains during my first year of backpacking. Oh, I upgraded when I had the chance. But that first year of backpacking is too full of good memories that I’d hate to pass up just because I had the so-called wrong bag.

And sometimes the cheaper piece of gear is superior. I can honestly state I have yet to wear or use liner gloves that are better than my military surplus gloves or prefer “better” sunglasses than contractor safety glasses for my outdoor use.

Finally, even when prices are more or less the same among similar pieces of kit, this expression becomes less useful.  Is the $370 Black Diamond Firstlight tent better than my  $325 Lunar Duo?  Two different tools with two different uses.

In other words, the amount of money you pay for something is only one aspect of what is the appropriate or better piece of gear. Don’t use expressions as a metric for what is the “better” piece of gear. Sometimes the more expensive option is better. But not always. Or even the majority of the time.

This person bought a foam pad rather than a Therm-A-Rest. If the person did their research, they would have realized the difference and what niche a foam pad fills. Instead, the person gave a one-star review.

To repeat a theme, do your research and find what is best for you and your needs beyond a price tag.   You want good value. And the value does not always translate to price.

  • “Lighter is always right(er)”

In the quest to lighten up, people only look at the raw grams.  If something is the lightest, it must be the best!

To quote my friend Andrew, people end up being “stupid light.”

A one-trick pony pack that is 12 oz or less will work great on a well-maintained trail during prime three-season weather with frequent resupplies. But it not going to cut it for something more off the beaten path or on no path at all.

Or in the quest to have an impressive spreadsheet, people eschew items without any thought to how it fits into an overall system.  Picking items ala carte just because of weight does not work in the whole of a kit.

A fleece pullover is a prime example. Weight obsessed backpackers discount fleece as it is not as light as a down puffy. Both pieces of clothing are insulation, sure.   But those are two different items with two different purposes. One for active wear and one for in camp, sleeping, or on breaks.  I don’t think it is a coincidence that some of the most well-known experienced backpackers carry the humble fleece with their kit.

I could save weight by not taking a fleece pullover and making my spreadsheet look good. But why would I when it works well in my gear system and for my uses?

  • The Numbers Delusion
from Shutterstock

Closely related to the above is what I call the Numbers Delusion.  Meaning, buying a piece of gear because of value attached to the technobabble.

R-Value is an example that illustrates this concept well. There is no set standard among sleeping pad manufacturers. And where you sleep, what you wear to bed, and even the material or construction of the pad can affect how useful the pad will be for backcountry use.  Heck, one manufacturer eschews ratings altogether and gives a rating without any basis for their rating shared with the public.

Even where there are set standards, it is easy to massage numbers for lab settings that do not reflect real-world use.  High down fill power bags indeed are desirable.  But how useful is this number overall? Lower fill power is more forgiving of moisture as one example.

Again, you must do your research, and take easily spun ratings and numbers with a large grain of salt and use as a loose guideline only.

  • Top 10 Fallacy
From David Letterman

I’ve discussed why Top Ten Lists (Mostly) Suck before.

If a magazine (or more likely, their website), a well-known InstaFamous, vlogger, blogger, etc. puts out a Top 10 List hitting all the high points (This down fill! This weight! This material! This weight!), well it must be good. Right?

Except the company may pay them, are just a gear advertisement site for all practical purposes, and so on for reasons I’ve already stated previously.  Be wary of sites putting out a constant stream of Top Ten Tchotke articles. Some sites are reputable that put out this type of info. Most aren’t.  And a top ten list is, at best, a starting point to spend your money. Not the final decision point. Evaluate the person making the Top Ten List, their experience, and if they can realistically review the gear they are writing about in the time frame they made use of the equipment.

  • Endorsed by someone Internet Famous!
From Tee Public

If someone with many Instagram or YouTube followers uses a piece of gear, well, it must be good.  Except they have sponsors and that is why they use the equipment, or they are using it for a particular task, perhaps they are more gear collectors than users, or it just happens to work for them.

But if a short, bald, scruffy blogger uses a piece of gear, why is it good for you? An internet following does not make their experience applicable to your use.  See what they are doing, if they do more than just Dog Walking park gear reviews, and goes beyond flashy graphics and overplayed music on their videos.

  • Gear As The End All of Outdoors

Finally, gear is just one part of a backpacking system. Where are you backpacking? What are your trip goals? What kind of conditions do you expect? Get the right tool for the right job!

But more than that, it is too easy to focus on the tangible concept of gear.

The other aspects of backpacking are less easy to discuss.

A recent discussion on /ul Reddit, and part of the inspiration for this lengthy diatribe, encapsulates this folly.

A user expressed distaste for trip reports without an attached gear list:

This contributes almost no useful information to a sub about UL gear.

My reply (slightly edited)?

While ultralight backpacking can’t help but cover gear at times, I never thought of this sub or even UL in general as completely gear focused. Technique, experience, and even philosophy (take less stuff rather than buy more gear) gets a person to going ul more in the long run (er…hike?)

The stated purpose of this sub is not gear, it is “...about hiking efficiently through the wilderness with a backpack.

Gear discussion is not useful without the background of the other three concepts. And that is how you hike efficiently. At least that is what I think.

Saying “Take a blue foam pad. It weighs less than anything” is worth jack unless you know how to pick an appropriate campsite or know the limitations of the blue foam pad. And that is one example.

In the end, experience, technique, and thinking about why you are taking a particular piece of gear in your system is going to let you enjoy the outdoors experience than the equipment itself.

***

So here it is my opinionated and highly biased thoughts on concepts to avoid without thinking about them. Do some research from reputable sources.  Using only top ten lists, easily manipulated numbers, and endorsements by gear shills does not help your experience. Or your wallet.

Most of all? Get out there and spend time in the outdoors!!!   You’ll find what works for you, why it works for you, and how it works for you.

Before you know it, you’ll have an Instagram following, Twitter presence, YouTube subscribers, or even a blog if you are not particularly camera friendly. Then you too can inflict your opinions upon the world that people seem to follow for some reason.

Happy Trails!

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5 Replies to “Industry Terms, Outdoor Gear, and Marketing Buzz”

    • This is amazing!

      Also Paulie Mags the article is great, too. Anyway how much do you guys think that Turbo Encabulator weighs? If I get one without the reciprocation dingle arm I bet I can shave a few grams off my base weight, but I wonder if that’s worth losing the benefits of preventing the sinusoidal repleneration.

  1. I really enjoyed this article, which provided several chuckles! It was also a good reminder to me not to get too involved in the “technobabble.” Thank you!

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