Has fashion trumped utility on the trail?

Net nuzhdy — “There is no need.” That’s what two former Russian soldiers said when asked if they needed to borrow socks to wear with their old boots instead of the rags wrapped around their feet.

Some 20 years ago they were wandering the high country of Washington’s North Central Cascades. At their camp, they were using an ancient alcohol stove for heat, and instead of backpacks, they carried what they needed in burlap bags slung over their shoulders. You would not find these guys on the latest cover of the North Face gear catalog.

Thinking of them recently while considering the slow transformation of trail style over the last decade or two. Does it feel as though an essential part of today’s outdoor experience involves how you look, how little weight you’re shouldering and what technology you’ve somehow found indispensable? Are we no longer allowed to look like slobs when we’re on the trail? Must everything weigh next to nothing? When did form trump function as a buying preference, and who can afford all of this?

Much of the equipment in the backpacking surge 30 years ago might have been bulky and weighty, but it was also affordable and durable. Some of it even came from do-it-yourself kits for sewing everything from tents to gaiters.

Everyone seemed to make do with gear from Army-Navy stores, thrift stores, J.C. Penney, or mom and dad’s back closet. It took some time to work up to a more expensive item or two. These days, show me a Boy Scout, neophyte hiker, college student or someone on a fixed income who can get out of an L.L. Bean store without a bank loan.

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