My daughter, a sophomore in college, recently told me about a conversation she’d had with her outing club about “toxic outdoor-gear culture.”
It was my first time hearing the term “toxic” applied to outdoor gear, though I’m well aware of the cultural debates about issues of equality, diversity, inclusion, toxic masculinity, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, etc. I read newspapers and books and I listen to NPR, so I know the challenges our country faces as we try to address our past and look forward to a more equitable, welcoming future, but I live in a pretty protected bubble, and don’t deal with these issues on a day-to-day basis, which means it’s easy to feel removed from their impact. Outdoor gear, on the other hand, is part of my day-to-day existence, and yet I haven’t really thought about how it could be considered toxic.
Here in Jackson we are inundated with attractive, fit, white people in expensive, attractive outdoor gear. In fact, we are so inured to it we don’t even think about the cost of our skis, boots, jackets, backpacks, bikes, boats, etc., nor do we really question the homogeneity of our community. It turns out these things are interrelated.
Most of us have rationalized the cost of our gear as a necessary part of enjoying the outdoors, but when we accept that statement we also unwittingly accept its implication: People who can’t afford the gear can’t enjoy the outdoors. I doubt that’s our intent and I assume most of us would like to see the outdoor community become more diverse and equitable, but I also think most of us don’t recognize the impact our attire and gear has in creating an exclusionary club that feels unwelcoming to many.
People are superficial. We make assumptions about others based on snap judgments of their appearance. This is true not only for the outdoor community but across all walks of life. The better someone is dressed or outfitted, the more respect and attention we tend to give them, especially if that attire indicates membership in a group that we aspire to be part of. There is a term for this in psychology: thin-slicing. Thin-slicing is the process of making quick inferences about the state, characteristics or details of an individual or situation based on minimal information. We do this all the time without thinking about it, meaning many of our judgments are based on external appearances. If part of that appearance is a familiar look — expensive outdoor apparel for example — you find yourself identifying with the person as part of your club, or, if that look is out of your reach, you may find yourself feeling left out.
I’m not sure when this exclusivity crept into the outdoor culture. When I was a kid, outdoor gear was not high tech, nor was it particularly expensive. My uniform for my NOLS course in the 1970s came from thrift stores and army-navy surplus warehouses. We wore wool men’s trousers, felted men’s fedoras and old wool sweaters. I was proud of my brand new Kelty backpack and my leather hiking boots were not cheap. Still, my uniform was dictated by its utilitarian functionality rather than style. While the clothes worked, I wouldn’t wear that stuff these days.
I try to convince myself it’s because today’s gear is lighter, more comfortable, more durable and higher functioning, and it is, for the most part. But do I need a parka designed for Mount Everest to go car camping in southern Utah? Do I need a new pair of skis or a new bike every season so I have the right color, geometry or top plate? The answer is no, of course not. I’m not an elite athlete. I don’t need new top of the line gear for anything other than my ego. I know that and yet I still find myself coveting the latest products with its seductive promise of being bigger, better, faster, lighter and better looking.
I remember years ago reading an article that said most people use only 10% of the technological capacity of their electronic gadgets. According to the story, we tend to purchase the fanciest computers or smartphones we can afford, and then end up using them solely for word processing and texting despite their capacity to do so much more. I would guess that nowadays our technical savvy has improved and we are probably doing a better job of using more of the functions of our machines, but I bet the basic premise holds true. I bet we still buy things that promise the universe specifically because of that promise, without considering the probability that we will never need the universe ... at least not on our cellphones.
Striving toward a promise — a sense of possibility — is fine, even aspirational, for our individual selves. It’s great if you can afford a better bike, especially if that better bike makes you feel like a better rider. Research shows that clothes and equipment do change the way people feel and perform, as well as how they are perceived by others, so it’s probably true that you can up your game with an investment in the latest and greatest. However, when that external badge — that incredible outfit or special piece of equipment — is a key that lets you into a locked community, it becomes problematic, because not everyone can afford or attain that key.
On my bike tour this fall, we altered our route unexpectedly and ended up in the mountains. I didn’t have enough warm clothes, so I bought a puffy jacket at an outdoor market for around $30. The jacket worked perfectly. It added the warmth I needed to be comfortable. But to be honest, since I have returned, it’s been stashed in my closet. I’m not sure if I will ever wear it again. Why? Because it’s cheap and has cheesy flowers printed on the lining. It isn’t cool.
It’s ridiculous, but I’m as susceptible to that weird pressure to wear the right clothes as most of us. And if I, who am about as engrained in the outdoor community as you can get, think that I may be scorned or laughed at if I show up in a generic flowery jacket, how does someone who is just getting into the outdoors feel if they have the wrong clothes?
You can argue that part of the reason we buy gear from reputable companies is because of their business practices. Most big-name outdoor equipment and apparel manufacturers work to improve their sustainability, to follow ethical business standards and to create clothing and equipment designed to last. I doubt my cheap, made-in-China parka meets any of these standards.
You can also argue that because most higher-end equipment and clothing is durable, it’s available second-hand, which makes it more affordable for people with limited funds. That’s all great, but it misses the point.
The point is, the unofficial uniform of the outdoor community symbolizes a kind of elitism that is unattainable for many people. I don’t know how we change that really, except by looking more closely at the impact of our habits and the snobbery inherent in our choices.
For me, it means wearing that jacket.