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.
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.
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.
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. 🙂
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.”
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.
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.