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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  • Tim Truemper

    I have liked the articles posted lately on hiker etiquette and hiker errors. This one goes right with it. I have used a single coleman hiking pole, wear some “fancy” gear but acquired second hand or through a locally owned outfitter store, and some clothing that is quality but less expensive (champion brand, tek gear (Kohl’s) and Nordic track (Sears) that has lasted, been comfortable, and functional. I like gear, but the author is right, its a two tiered system. For those who are super hard core outdoors folks, I get the expense. But for most outdoor activities, modestly priced outdoor clothing is more than adequate. Your words on this would be most interesting.

    • The last job I had before retiring a few years ago was with an outdoors outfitter, so I was able to purchase the fancy, fancy gear at an extreme discount. It got me spoiled frankly. However, because I also got spoiled by the discount pricing, I won’t buy anything now unless I can find it for at least 50% off.

  • Tim Truemper

    That’s a great anecdote. Sometimes I think I will retire soon (I’m 62) and then go sweep the floors at REI for a few bucks. Anyway, like you said, got to go for the discounts. The markups over wholesale are probably incredibly high.