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 own upbringing in a well written post. How her near-poverty during childhood  makes her view her gear as an accomplishment of sorts. 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 rather straight forward 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 prior to my brothers and I, we learned an implied lesson: It is not the tools you bought that define your work, it is what you did with them.

I have seen the beautiful stone masonry my great-grandfather did in Providence and in Italy before he immigrated. , I am able to drive over the bridge my grandfather helped to 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 what I can see is 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’d like 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 person said that  while “Tools may not define you, but they do reflect your priorities when chosen to better facilitate a desired result.”

But I think, 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.  

  • Hiking five miles to go camping all weekend?
  • Walking all day?
  • Going to the obscure fishing spot?
  • Or maybe 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 gear is used is what defines you and your outdoor activity.

Tools of the outdoor trade.


8 Replies to “Tools of the trade”

  1. 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 good set of tools to get the job done.

  2. You always need the right tools to get something done…otherwise it won’t be the right tool. Aye? 😉 (or last a good substitute!)

    I must confess, I don’t always go by what people have…I’ve seen people with Avalanche beacons in flat wooded terrain. 😮

    As for dirt bagging, I am right there with ya!

  3. 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!

    1. Good point. I confess to being like that not with gear, but with outdoor trips. I live in a beautiful area, but I find myself going further afield to find something new more and more.

  4. 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 together by duct tape, it’s a pretty good bet that they’re serious about covering more ground and seeing more things, as opposed to fishing an alpine lake all day.

    Another way gear says something about you is your sense of aesthetics. A prime example is the aforementioned foam pad. I like all parts of my system to work together, and so even though a Neoair would be much more comfortable, I like bringing the foam pad because it works well as my packframe and nothing is wasted by being a single-use item. Even though other gear would work equally well, there’s a certain beauty, in my mind, of this particular system. Another example – I wear a ridiculous tie-dyed bandana on trail, for no other reason than that I like wearing a ridiculous bandana.**

    In the end, I agree – it doesn’t matter whether your hammer has a red handle, a blue handle, or a rusty handle. As long as it pounds the nail down, each and every hammer is doing its job. And because of that diversity, there is room for one’s personality/priorities to shine through. Just (as you put so well) as long as the tool doesn’t overshadow the activity itself.

    **Also, it’s way easier to get a hitch when dressed in bright colors.

  5. 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.

    1. It is funny..seems every niche group can be “defined” by gear if you let it. My brother is a musician. Among the many debates they have is what guitar is “the best”. Of course, at the end of the day, it is the musical skills that a good musician. Same debate could be for photographers, writers (Mac or PC????) and so on.

      But, again, what do you do? What have you produced?

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