Tools of the trade

Gear is just a tool. And it really does not state anything beyond that.


I forget which home improvement site I download this image from. 🙂


There is a thread over on Backpacking Light about what our gear says about us.

I never really thought about what gear says about me. It is just a tool to use.

Then, a reader brought up her upbringing in a well-written post. Her near-poverty during childhood makes her view her gear as an accomplishment. It means after hard work and making some correct decisions, she has a life where she can afford these goods.

A light bulb went off for me. Using the post as a launching point, I realized that my relatively straightforward approach to the outdoors and my “meh” approach to gear is the legacy of my upbringing.

With three generations of skilled trade people on my father’s side of the family before my brothers and I, we learned an implied lesson: It is not the tools you bought that define your work; it is what you do with them.

I have seen the beautiful stone masonry my great-grandfather did in Providence and Italy before he immigrated. I can drive over the bridge my grandfather helped construct, and when I read about submarines, there is a good chance some of my Dad’s handiwork is on that boat.

I do not know what brand of trowel was used for the masonry or what toolbox my grandfather had, and my Dad, on purpose, left all his sheet metal tools behind when he retired. What ball peen hammer he used is forgotten.

But I can see the beauty (even with the submarine), the precision, and the substance of what was built—their legacy.

In the same way, my gear is just a tool so I can go outdoors. I want to think the output of my outdoor “work” speaks for me, for good or ill, more so than the gear I used to get out there: My ramblings I can charitably call writing, my photos, and of course, the memories I have from my time spent outdoors.

So, I don’t think our gear says anything directly.

What do you do with the gear?

One said, Tools may not define you, but they reflect your priorities when chosen to better facilitate a desired result.”

But overall, the gear does not really change: Pack? Sleeping bag? Shelter? Stove? Shoes?

It means probably means a person enjoys walking and staying out at night. 😉

The specifics are just fine details that fuel a multi-billion dollar industry.

So, I think “What do you do with the tools?” is the telling point rather than the tools themselves.  

  • Are you hiking five miles to go camping all weekend?
  • Are you walking all day?
  • Are you going to the obscure fishing spot?
  • Or maybe it’s just because it looks good?

The results speak more than the tools themselves.

The gear (should not) define you and your outdoor activity. The results of how the equipment is used are what defines you and your outdoor activity.

Tools of the outdoor trade.

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Another Kevin
9 years ago

Hmm, your choices: I’ll agree with all of the top three, but my gear looks like heck. A lot of it is dirtbag, battered, and ugly. It doesn’t define the activity, but it enables the activity. And so sometimes it says a little bit about you. On a recent trip, I looked at the people at the trailhead, and of the once without ice axes and crampons, I said, “these are the people who are going somewhere other than the summit today.” (Indeed, I didn’t see any of them up top.) It’s just a tool, but sometimes you need a… Read more »

Hiker Box
Hiker Box
9 years ago

It’s funny, I’ve been reading a book on how the brain and specifically autistic brains work and basically we get a little high every time we get anything new. You can see this in dogs and little kids that will immediately drop anything to play with a new toy, even if it’s beat up or less interesting than what they already have. I think the same thing happens with gear and we find ways of rationalizing that $300 rain jacket. The worst offenders are basically drug addicts!

9 years ago

I (incidentally another Another Kevin) echo Another Kevin’s thoughts. I in large part agree with “gear as tool” philosophy, and spend planning my next trip than planning my next purchase. That being said… Gear can say something about us, insofar as we use the tools that are appropriate to the job at hand. If I saw a guy headed to the construction site with a shovel, bucket, and 50-pound bag of cement, I probably wouldn’t think that he’s working on building a kitchen table. When I see people with small packs, torso-length foam pads, beater trekking poles, and shoes held… Read more »

Paul from Scotland
Paul from Scotland
9 years ago

Interesting post. I like gear, but I have what I need, so anything new is just be a replacement.

And OK, I did upgrade to a neo-air.

But I take the point: we aren’t defined by our stuff, but by what we do.