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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24 Replies to “Musings on backpacking consumerism”

  1. 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.

  2. 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 Hayduke. The long distance/UL hiking community has sheep just like any other community. And most those sheep take their dues from so-called influencers. Meanwhile there is an equal sized community of badasses out there that are doing their thing in any old fleece, on routes they devised themselves, without returning to immediately post of the minute details on their websites.

    1. THat book is rather old at this point. :). Meaning, I think that Insti and YouTube, be it corporations, or individuals, have more to do with the rising numbers to a large extent. Or at least popularity.

  3. 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.

    1. 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

  4. 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 u in New England required a multi day drive out west and a return home with a trunk full of beer to be savore by all. In 1967 that beer was Coors! Today I guess it might be Heady Topper from the Alchemist Brewey in Vermont.
    Is it the great beer? or is it the great marketing? ps. I still use my Jetboil, and sqeeze.

    1. Oddly enough, beer used to be all craft beer essentially. Then Prohibition came, and only a few survived. Add in the Post-WW2 culture where everything became standardized for various reasons, and here we are. Of course, now the big breweries are buying up the small breweries. 🙂

      I grew up in RI, and when I moved to Colorado, showing people the Coors brewery tour was a highlight!

      1. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

    1. Illegal alcohol, except for “medicinal” and religious purposes tightly controlled, may have had a wee bit of impact. 😉 The number of breweries in the US did not reach pre-prohibition levels until ~2015 IIRC.

      “Prohibition crippled a thriving brewing industry in the United States,” writes Kate Vinton for Forbes. Beer production skyrocketed in the early years of the twentieth century, she writes. “By 1916, there were approximately 1,300 breweries in the country. But four years later, a nationwide ban on alcohol went into effect.”

      https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/how-some-breweries-survived-prohibition-180962754/

  7. 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 selling them for three times their amount on eBay. Crazy!

    I remember reading Jardine’s “PCT Hiker’s Handbook,” and if I remember correctly, he advocated cutting all the tags off the shoes and clothes. This measure was not just to save weight, but to reduce the advertising that happens in the outdoors. I never took things that far, but it’s a worthwhile thought.

  8. 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 run rampant online. I’ll see articles like “10 tips for beginner backpackers,” and almost inevitably, one of the tips will be ‘don’t buy anything from Walmart – it’s junk.’ While higher quality gear is certainly out there, nearly everything I carried when I first started backpacking came from Walmart, because it was just about all I could afford. That’s one of the things I love about your site – I’ve never read ANYTHING here that made me feel as if I didn’t deserve to be on the trail with everyone else, just because I don’t have the latest, greatest $600 miracle fiber tent. The people who get sucked in by consumerism will almost always call themselves ‘serious’ backpackers, but they seem to forget that ‘we don’t visit the outdoors so that we can use our gear.’ Those are the types of people who are going to prioritize the actual accumulation of gear over the time and energy learning the skills to USE it. The ‘serious’ backpacker at the next campsite might have the best, most expensive compass on the market, but if he gets lost and doesn’t know how to use it, then he’s going to be lost with a very expensive piece of uselessness – and that’s what makes it junk. It’s a sad fact, but such is life.

    1. I’ve never read ANYTHING here that made me feel as if I didn’t deserve to be on the trail with everyone else, just because I don’t have the latest, greatest $600 miracle fiber tent.

      Thanks, Amber. I try to give advice that is generally less gear specific and more gear types. Glad it shows.

      I tend to use a combo of discount store, thrift store, cottage gear, higher end gear, and military surplus. Call it my family background, but I believe in using the correct tool for a job. And sometimes the “best” tool is not always the most expensive one. I love my down quilts and my Montbell winter puffy (7 oz fill!) and my ULA packs, but I happily wear my $6 beanie, surplus layers, and Costco fleece, too. 🙂

          1. 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

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

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