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Against the Gear Gurus: When it's the equipment that counts, not the experience 

If you believe the numerous outdoor gear sites, self-appointed gear guru bloggers and outdoor magazine "test" stories and annual gear guides, no outdoor experience is worth undertaking unless you have the latest and greatest (read expensive) gear. A two-person tent's five-star rating by Backpacker magazine apparently means that every night spent in said tent during a howling blizzard will be as comfortable as a stay in a five-star resort. And woe be to anyone who even considers a snow cave as shelter.

Gear has always been an integral part of self-propelled sports and outdoor recreation, but over the last 10 years, top-rated gear has gone from being "nice to have," but really not required to enjoy a trip, to "if you don't have it, the experience is ruined" status. The subliminal message from the gear guru blogs and magazine test articles tells us that simply having highly rated gear is everything. Forget the fact that it's a glorious day and the conditions are right for whatever you're doing - if you aren't astride the latest and greatest, you're not going to have fun.

That means that I won't have a very good time, even on a good powder day, if I'm skiing on a pair of hopelessly slender old tele skis sporting three-pin cable bindings. Now, if I have a pair of uber expensive, wider-than-a-semi-trailer pair of tele skis, sporting bindings that cost more than my car, and boots that appear ready for a World Cup Alpine Super-G race, then I am guaranteed a fabulous time - even if I really don't ski that well.

That's another subliminal message from the gear floggers to the gear-absorbed: Buy this gear and you will become an instant expert.

Whenever I think of fancy/new/expensive gear and how it really doesn't matter, I think of the time I covered the Outside Magazine's World Telemark Ski Championships a few years ago in Steamboat Springs, Colo. Every competitor, save a young Norwegian student attending the University of Utah, had the latest and greatest tele gear. The Norwegian student showed up on narrow Asnes skis with three-pin "rattrap" bindings. He wore leather boots that could have doubled as sneakers; they were that flimsy. He proceeded to smoke everyone in the dual slalom format.

"Wow, makes you wonder how important having the right gear really is," said one of his competitors.

Back then, as now, along with aiding and abetting the gear-is-everything situation is the fact that the outdoor industry (a lofty appellation for a small group of manufacturers and distributors), has fallen on slow times.

Economy aside, the business of making and selling outdoor gear and apparel is a mature business. Once the industry had lots to talk about: Gore-Tex and fleece, for example. But, Gore-Tex is now an almost 40-year-old story; fleece (developed by Malden Mills in conjunction with Patagonia) is more than 30 years old.

Today, little tweaks on well-established products are hyped as "innovations." Walk the floors of the Outdoor Retailer summer or winter trade shows in Salt Lake City and chances are that you won't see anything new, but lots of "refinements." Those refinements equal higher prices, yet nothing that's made in the good old U.S.A.

These days, what's new in outdoor gear are electronic gadgets that make sure you can hike from your house to downtown Bend for coffee on a snowy day and not get lost. (Yes, we used to have snowy days in Bend.)

Losing the pervasive lust for gear and gear-for-gear's-sake attitude would be better. Then people would realize that they can have a great ski, mountain bike ride, hike, or paddle using old gear, and, shockingly, while wearing old apparel.

I have a 25-year-old parka that still works well. Luckily, it's not one with those '80s vintage neon accent panels and, therefore ,fairly timeless. I also, from time to time, use a pair of 30-year-old cross country skis that still get the job done. I use what works, not what magazines tell me works or what gear gurus declare will make me enjoy my outdoor experience more.

So call me a cranky old timer who is totally out of touch. A crank who prefers to spend his extra cash on beer and pub eats after a day outdoors. A crank who thinks we'd all be better off without the self-appointed gear gurus and magazine gear-article writers who spend most of their days in cubicles - lost in a haze of gear porn dreams.

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