Musings on backpacking consumerism

Joan and I hosted a well-known person in the backpacking community who designed gear in the past.  He stayed the night with us, and we had some great talks about various outdoor topics, and then I shuttled him to the start of his multi-day trip the following morning.

One topic we discussed over our kitchen table that evening? How much consumerism drives the outdoor marketplace. 

It’s nothing new, of course; people always want the latest article of clothing for various reasons. You buy another 3oz fill puffy to replace yet another 3oz fill puffy. And the cycle continues.

But what our guest brought up is how this consumerism is now taking hold in the hard goods category as well.  A standard idea is purchasing another expensive tent to replace a few grams heavier shelter. Or to get “the latest and greatest” piece of gear, or how manufacturers are always “updating” their packs seems somewhat newer in our small niche community of long-distance hikes and lightweight backpacking gear.

In short, manufacturers are typically coming out with “new” gear for the same reason Gatorade has so many flavors of their sugary beverage: Shelf space in a grocery store.

From Pinterest

Except for the gear and clothing shelf space is room in our closest, or more appropriately, our credit card limit.

Mind you; gear does get updated and innovated. And we all get new equipment on some level. Myself included. You wear out clothing or tools, or you want to try new techniques and ideas. But buying for the sake of buying? That’s a whole ‘nother ball o’ wax.

In short, gear and clothing as fashion. Something to discard when you are bored and need a dopamine fix. And not something to replace when worn or needs updating.

I made a note to write about this topic on an electronic sticky note, and kind of forget about it over the months.

Then I see a three-hundred (!) response thread about a new grid fleece on Reddit that closely mimics the storied Melly fleece.

An earlier thread about a similar piece of clothing has merely (ha!) seventy-one comments.

I remembered the sticky note buried in Google Keep.

For those not familiar with this piece of clothing, the Melly fleece ends up being a well-made, reasonably priced piece of clothing made in the USA that has a cult following.  Assuming you can get one as you can’t buy it online, Melzana has limited stock, and people scalp this item for up to three times the price on eBay.

All for a modest grid fleece.

I saw the thread on this topic and went, “Holy sh**!”

I wrote my nickel’s worth of thoughts on a separate thread and remembered my conversation with a friend a few months ago.

I find the whole marketing and consumerism aspect interesting: How a simple, if well-made, grid fleed fleece hoodie became an icon.

Not just in ultralight and thru-hiking circles, but also among climbers and #vanlifers (among others). When I took my WFR course this past November, many Melly fleece hoodies abounded.

from Kombi Life

It’s just a fleece at the end.

However, as with many consumerist items, the purchase and wearing of the piece became a statement in itself.  Rather than what you do with the said item in many ways.

Getting back to the #vanlife example, living in a van used to be, and still is for some, mainly a practical way to get in more climbing, mountain biking, or other outdoor activities. At the same time, having a goal of base camping and traveling between base camps, much like the classic pickup and camper shell previously used by climbers in the recent past.

From Pinterest

Now, “van life” is a statement in itself and a lifestyle. You see #vanlife on Twitter and Instagram. And people read Facebook and Reddit groups dedicated to van dwelling similar to Harley groups or your favorite sports car of choice. It’s transcended the mode of transportation and base camping and has become an aspirational lifestyle. But, as this Outside Magazine article laid out so well, the romance often trumps reality.

But aspirational things sell. You can purchase something and become part of a lifestyle. Practical reality? Not-so-much.

A Melly fleece, at one point, found a niche as mainly a comfy piece of clothing to ward off the chill while camped out or walking in a mountain town, getting your next batch of supplies between climbs. Now, it is an item that costs twice the price or more, on eBay vs. its retail price.

For many people, not all, purchasing a Melly sends a specific statement about your lifestyle, aspirations, or “being in the know.”

A Melly Fleece is the tulip craze of the outdoor world in many ways. And the tool itself has become more important than the experience where you use the tool for many. 🙂

From HMG

Though Guy Waterman wrote the following text about mobile devices, I feel the last sentence can easily apply to fetishizing gear:

When a new technology is applied to the backcountry, we tend to focus on its practical uses. When someone later points out a gadget’s impact on the quality of the wilderness experience, we tend to classify such ramifications “secondary”  or “side effects” of the technology’s application. By taking this view, we preclude questioning the original, intended use of this technology. But in fact the changes that a new technology makes on the wilderness experience are not all secondary, but are intrinsic to the very nature of that technology. The medium is the message. The tool becomes the experience.”

(Emphasis mine)

Going back to the Harley analogy, there are “hardcore” Harley riders. I worked with one in the past. Much of her life revolved around her weekend rides, the friendships she made with her Harley friends, the charities she did via charity outreach with the bike club, and she met her now-husband via the same group. She planned her vacation around multi-day or multi-week rides. Far smarter than me, she stayed at her help desk job, she never had to be on call, and once clocked out, she finished for the day. All of this meant more riding time.

She’s an outlier, I think. May Harley riders get the gear, perhaps buy the expensive bike, say “they are a Harley rider,” and their research, talk, and occasional photo-op exceed their riding time.

From Harley Davidson

I think the Harley analogy can apply to van life, backpacking, climbing, etc. where aspirational clickbait lifestyle articles and YouTube videos outstrip factual content.

So we buy the clothing or gear often because we want to be in the know, live a lifestyle, and aspire to do things when time is scarce, but disposable income might be more abundant.

And by making gear and clothing the equivalent of Gatorade with marginally different sugary water flavors at times, manufacturers are happy to help with this goal.

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Matt Pomraning
Matt Pomraning
8 months ago

Use whatever makes you feel good, what you can Oxford, or what proves someone wrong. I once had someone tell me my pack would never make it through the AT. It was mine from Boy Scouts when I was 12. I was hiking neatly 10 years later. After a hiking store readjusted it to my size at that time, New straps are finally sent to me, and a few pieces of dental floss. It made the trip. Whoever said it would never make it, turned out to be wrong. Just enjoy the trip.

Jenny
Jenny
8 months ago

And exactly the same thing happens and is happening with trails. One trail becomes trendy (Thanks Cheryl) and every one wants to do it too, because it’s easier to have somebody tell you what to wear, or what hike to hike and how, than to figure it out for yourself. A fleece that isn’t a melly? Scary! Hiking a 100 mile loop in the Uintas without a step by step guide to the Highline? No way dude! Nobody would read my YouTube or Instagram page if I did just any 800 miles on the Colorado Plateau…it has to be the… Read more »

M.B.
M.B.
8 months ago

Great post, I hope this wakes a few people up to their consumerism. I made a challenge to myself to use my existing gear, a bunch of which was 8-10 years old, on my PCT thru hike, which saved me some money, meant I had ‘unique’ gear and made me happy to know I used something all the way up.

Douche P
8 months ago
Reply to  M.B.

Think of how much better it is for the environment and carbon emissions to actually use the gear you have… compared to this constant shuffling and purchases of new gear

bamboobob
bamboobob
8 months ago

This was a really great read for me. Every year there was a new hip piece of gear. I guess I’m dated by even using the word hip. I recall one year Frogg Toggs, another jetboil, hammocks, sawyers, on and on. My wife an I did the van thing for a few year. Great fun, but it was our only vehicle and it really was crappy as just a car for us. The hip new gear thing reminds me of a story. About beer. When we were teenagers there wa no craft beer of any kind. The hip beer to… Read more »

Dogwood
Dogwood
7 months ago
Reply to  Paul Mags

I get you about all beer being craft beer at one time. It is the marketing as if craft beer entails some super special beer.

Know what is super special? Paul ‘mags’

About time introspective plugged in others start commenting on backpacking Consumerism and Materialism.

Peter B
Peter B
7 months ago
Reply to  bamboobob

The secondary market for craft beer makes an Ebay Melly look like a bargain.

Mike Cunningham
Mike Cunningham
8 months ago

If only I had XXXX I would be happy forever. This could be gear or a relationship or house or car or anything. It does not work. Happiness does not come from outside, it comes from inside.

Diane
Diane
8 months ago

I believe it was actually pasteurization that ruined craft beer. That’s what happened to my partner’s great-grandfather’s brewery.

I have never heard of a Melly before. It looks like a Sr. Lopez. I found a Sr. Lopez and it’s sitting on my drier. Can’t wait to go home and see if it’s one of these precious Mellys. Maybe I can make some money.

Freefall
8 months ago

Good read PMags. Funny how we all get caught up in the consumerism and branding in the outdoor world. I got a Melanzana fleece back in 2014 when I went to Cooper for a family ski trip, and I stumbled on that place. I thought their whole gig was a cool set up with the fleece for sale there, and the sewing machines in the back. I bought one, and then a few years later it seemed like their popularity exploded among my peers. Huh? I had no idea that Melanzana limited their purchases to two now, and people are… Read more »

Amber
Amber
8 months ago

I love the coincidence that I saw this article on the same morning that I was writing a review for the Trekker 2.2 tent, by River Country Products. Thanks to consumerism, I often feel like I’m back in high school again, getting snubbed by the popular kids because my Walmart clothes aren’t as ‘tres chic’ as their Ralph Lauren polos. It’s one thing to keep replacing gear with ‘the next best thing’ for your own enjoyment, but many people take it a step further and use those purchases as status symbols, to make themselves look superior. “Gear shaming” seems to… Read more »

Dogwood
Dogwood
7 months ago
Reply to  Paul Mags

Well, U have a $600 hat.

Dogwood
Dogwood
7 months ago
Reply to  Paul Mags

No harm intended.

I was referring to the Army surplus Boonie hat I see/saw you wearing in pics for yrs. You, maybe, paid 600 pesos for the hat but you cherished it like it cost you $600. You did pen “my favorite manufacturer of gear tends to be military surplus or similar.” And, if anyone is worthy of writing a terse article on potential pitfalls of rampant consumerism in financially abundant cultures it may be you.

Al my best DW

Mahalo

John Van Hare
John Van Hare
7 months ago

I bought my wife and I some Decathlon 1/4 zip fleece on a promotion. $4 each if I recall. I think they are regularly priced at $10.
Walmart has a Corsicana day pack that is $9.97 as another example.
There are low budget lightweight and even ultralight options out there if you do your homework.

Peter B
Peter B
7 months ago

Check your email to confirm your subscription.

I was hiking yesterday and my buddy ripped his Acerteryx pants, I mentioned my fleece lined Wrangler pants from Walmart were holding up pretty well for 20 something bucks. He didn’t have a comeback.