Buy the newest, lightest, shiniest gear today or you could die out there


There’s a single paragraph in Yvon Chouinard’s Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of A Reluctant Businessman in which he talks about solo expedition kayaker (and grandmother) Audrey Sutherland, who at that time had paddled more than 8,000 miles around the world. One of the quotes attributed to Sutherland is one of the main things I took from the book:

“Don’t spend money on gear. Spend it on plane tickets.”

Not that you shouldn’t buy a new climbing rope every few years, or ride your bike without a helmet because that would be “buying gear” — I think what Sutherland is saying is that you don’t need the latest, greatest stuff on the REI floor to have a good adventure.

A little over a year ago, I was rolling my bicycle into the Pacific Ocean after 3,000 miles of riding, from San Diego to St. Augustine, Florida. One of the big questions of the ride for me, besides “Do I have a saddle sore?” was “Is my bike going to make it?” I had bought my Raleigh Team USA from some guy in Broomfield for $100 after seeing it in a Craigslist ad. The bike was 25 years old when we started our ride. I had wanted to try riding that bike across the country in some sort of way of showing all the people we met that you didn’t need to be Lance Armstrong, or have his bike, to do something fun. Plus, I mean, it said “Team USA” on it.

In the end, nobody really cared about my bike besides me. But it made it, 3,000 miles, and when I got back to Denver, I put my old city tires back on it and rode it to work every day, just like I had all the days leading up to our two-month bike ride. Was the bike a little heavy for riding across the country? Maybe. Did I have to do a lot of work on it along the way? Yes. Did it make it? Yes.

Was the adventure way more memorable than the gear I bought for it? Absolutely.

This is America, and we’re constantly bombarded with ways to spend our disposable income. We need to replace our phone that’s 4 months old, or get a car that turns its windshield wipers on immediately when the windshield gets wet, or get a bigger, more defined television to slowly die in front of.

In the outdoors, you need gear, yes, but you don’t need all of it, all the time. A friend of mine who does about twice as much climbing and skiing as I do has about 2/3 of a reasonable rack for climbing, borrows ice tools, and has an avalanche beacon on a kind of permanent temporary loan from someone. He does have way nicer outdoor clothing than me. I am envious of his stories, not what he’s wearing in the photos I see from his trips.

When I used to work at the REI store in Phoenix, we used to have a couple of guys who would come in without fail every single Saturday. Both of them knew more about gear than I did, and they would show up and engage anyone on the sales floor for hours about the materials in this tent, or this rain jacket, or this GPS. It was like they were coming to a class to learn more about gear than anyone. Some Saturdays, I would be pretty tired of giving up all my weekends (I had a full-time job on top of my part-time REI gig) to work at the store, and I just wanted to go up to them and shake them, and say, “Your gear is perfectly fine! Go use it! Some of us have to work Saturdays — you don’t! If you want to buy something, let me sell you a map so you can pack up a backpack and go do some cool shit somewhere.”

Sometimes I hear people say things like, “I’m kind of a gear junkie.” That’s fine, whatever floats your boat. But you really don’t need to know that much about gear to do most things in the outdoors — how to fix some basic things on your bike, sure; how to use rock and ice climbing gear in a fashion that doesn’t endanger you or your partner, yes; how to operate a stove without burning down the forest, yes. But if you’re not Steve House or Ueli Steck, you can probably go ahead and climb with the fifth- or sixth-lightest soft shell, and crampons from 2004. Really. And your tent can weigh 6 ounces more than its closest competitor.

For the record, you know what you can buy for the same price as an Arc’Teryx Alpha LT jacket? Flights to and from Jackson, Wyoming from Chicago in August.


12 replies on “Buy the newest, lightest, shiniest gear today or you could die out there

  • twoeightnine

    Hey now! I love my Alpha LT… of course I bought it 3 years ago, in a last year’s gear sale, off of eBay for $200. Can’t fly to Jackson at that price.

    But excellent article.

    • Mark Kim

      Well said, we are bombarded with advertising claims daily. Consumer madness going on to the nth degree. I am guilty of it. In the end, new pair of running kicks will not make you complete your daily 5k if your body is not up for it. Somewhere in other parts of the world an athlete is running his daily run without shoes or proper piece of running apparel. At the end of the day, we reflect on what was accomplished not what we wore or piece of gear we’ve used.

  • Kelly Larson

    Well said, Brendan! And thank you. Over the past 10 years I have gone through 2 pairs of Merrell hiking shoes and 1 pair of Keen sandals to hike up many mountains (and now that I’m in Boston, many hills!), and to travel to many countries. I could use a new pair of sandals. But 5 years later, they will still be a great back-up pair! And that second pair of Merrells is still holding strong! The shoelaces are burned from a campfire years ago, and they aren’t beautiful, but they are functionally-fantastic. And my jackets are older than my shoes – it’s hard to actually wear them out! All of my gear is old, and I do use the saved money and time to travel. In fact, I probably would have a new pair of sandals if I didn’t always have to choose between hitting the trail or figuring out where the REI store is here in Boston! Nothing beats that feeling of spending the day outside… Thank you!

  • brendan

    Right on — I am in the “replacement” stage for a lot of things right now. I just bought a new hard shell (so I had one that fit over a climbing helmet), and gave my old one to a friend last night. A friend had originally been issued this jacket for work, then gave it to me, and I wore it for 3-4 years, and then gave it to my other friend. I told him, “No one has actually ever paid for this jacket.”

  • Tali

    I love love love this post, Brendan. I was so delighted to see my REI dividend this year was teeny tiny. While others were bragging about how big theirs were I took a sense of pride knowing I hadn’t stocked up on gear in 2010 just for the sake of having the newest and shiniest.

    It seems the level of consumerism in the OIBIZ is contrary to enjoying the earth as a natural resource. Sure be safe and if you’re helmet is broke get a new one, but buying a new pack because it’s 6 oz lighter, let’s reconsider that.

  • brendan

    Thanks, Tali! I absolutely love a few pieces of gear that I have, but if it ain’t broke, don’t spend $300 on a new one …

  • Jayson Sime

    Had some time a read the story and f ing loved it friend…Good work and so proud of all the work you are doing…

  • Mike P

    Dude, thank you so much for this! Really a great post that I have to bookmark and share. So many people (me included) need to read this!

  • Mike

    Easy for Yvon Chouinard to say! When he said that he probably owned Patagonia AND Chouinard Equipment. What else would a climber need beyond the scope of what these two companies could make.

    I agree with the sentiment. I know lots of people with tons of gear that never gets used. That said, you still need to have the gear in the first place. Doesn’t matter if it’s the latest and greatest, but it has to be designed [and capable] for the task at hand.

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