Rethinking old outdoor gear can help make the outdoors more accessible
The nice thing about my bike is I never have to alert people to my presence or ring a bell to pass. They hear me coming. I’ve nicknamed my 1998 Specialized Hardrock “the screaming banshee.” If the brakes aren’t warm, they tend to let out a piercing squeal. It’s not great for inspiring confidence on steep descents, but it did motivate me to learn how to fix them. Add in the crunch of my gears, the rattle of the chain, and a rickety bottom bracket and I’m often louder than a locomotive.
I recently took my trusty steed to Fruita, Colorado to join my friends for a mountain biking trip. We wheeled around the North Fruita Desert riding the most flowy, fun single-track of my life. Throughout the trip, other riders commented a great deal on my bike. Some were impressed by its lifespan. It invoked nostalgia of their first mountain bikes. Others expressed shock that I had brought it out there, as if it was supposed to stay abandoned in my parents’ garage forever. One guy urged me to “get that thing looked out” as I croaked past him on the climb trail.
While it was wonderful to see so many people enjoying public land and riding world-class trails, I know there are far more people like me who would like to try mountain biking and are intimidated by the steep price tag of a new bike. It’s true that even basic gear costs money, but outdoor brands and talented marketers have convinced too many people that they must buy new equipment before venturing outside. Riding my mom’s ancient bike brought me nearly as much joy as a smoother, quieter bike would have. It has taught me valuable bike repair skills, and when I do invest in a nice bike someday, I will have riding experience and know more about the components I really need.
For so many beginners, it’s easy to feel excluded by the high startup costs of outdoor recreation. For others who can handle the price, it’s easy to become overly focused on finding the best product, when many options would do the job quite well. It’s certainly true that other factors like social capital, representation, and location have contributed to outdoor recreation’s elitist barriers, but at the very least, we can disrupt the notion perpetuated by outdoor brands that you must buy your way into the club.
Four strategies to find affordable, high-quality used outdoor gear
1) Use what you have
Most people have the equipment to try basic outdoor activities like hiking. Instead of spending a hundred dollars on a new hiking backpack, take your school backpack. Trail running? Regular running shoes will do the trick.
2) Try before you buy
Find ways to borrow or rent gear before committing to a new purchase.
You can find great deals on older equipment. Try it on. If it fits, it’s probably good enough.
Make your own gear. Many basic gear purchases from a fanny pack to bike-packing bags are fairly easy to make. If you have time on your hands and can borrow an old sewing machine, it can be more fun and affordable to assemble your own ‘custom’ equipment.
Other outdoor enthusiasts argue that gear is an investment or will enhance the experience. This is true for people who consistently use what they have, but it makes little sense for beginners. I’ve often heard advice for buying tools that seems applicable for outdoor gear: buy the cheapest tool that will get the job done; if it breaks from overuse, buy the nicest tool you can afford. We seem to have forgotten how well old gear holds up. After all, a sleeping bag from 10 or 20 years ago worked then, and it likely works now too.
I’m not immune to clever marketing. I love walking around REI as much as the next crunch nut. Yet I also take pride in old gear. It’s fun to fly by folks on the trail in shoes with holes or charge past skiers with the lightest setup on the skin track. It’s fun to be outside. Focusing on gear takes away from this joy.
Outdoor promoters online seem to spend equal time talking about the stuff they like as the place or adventure itself. Why should we spend our time watching someone talk about the unbelievable benefits of new, breathable running underwear, instead of going for a run? While it’s impossible to escape from consumerism altogether, we do have the power to rethink its prominence.
In some cases, old gear is better than the new stuff. Before solo thru-hiking the Colorado Trail, my first step was buying a brand-new backpack. Half-way through my hike, I realized my new backpack was too big. It had space, so I filled it. I decided to switch it out for a smaller, older “day-and-a-half” backpack my mom had used in the 1980s. The new-old bag, made of burlap, was perfect. Unlike fragile ultra-light gear, older gear is often extremely durable. After thorough field testing, I would be shocked if anyone could tear the bag. For newbies, durability and price should be factors as much as weight and brand. Using what we already have is a healthy exercise in stoicism and can help us enjoy the journey itself.
Fortunately, gear shops are starting to catch on. Although some used gear shops still charge exorbitant prices, others are far more affordable. Thrift stores are another great resource. Their selection can be slim, but often you can find great deals on clothing or basics like backpacks, tents, sleeping bags, boots and other footwear. Hand me downs and online sources like Nextdoor and Craigslist are also great tools. For every person interested in trying backpacking, there’s likely someone else with an old pack clogging their storage closet. Even brands like Patagonia have begun to offer used clothing or services to repair gear. I think this is a step in the right direction, but I also encourage you to learn how to fix your own gear. If it’s something small, you can surely do it yourself.
The outdoors are changing. More and more people are realizing how fun hiking, biking and skiing are. At the same time, outdoor leaders must help to make the outdoors more accessible. Upending the myth that you must buy before you try and finding practical ways to subvert marketing strategies and high gear prices is a good starting place. The reason we go outside is because it’s fun. Don’t let lack of gear or an obsession with “Gucci gear” keep you from enjoying the outdoors.