Allow me to begin here at the end: gear should be a means to an end. And not just any end, but a good end. Ryan Jordan has recently written a superlative post on just this point, building on his interpretation of what a good end should be. I agree with him, I’ve written here on several occasions that insofar as humans are basically social critters, outdoor adventures ought to be used to enhance our relations with others (perhaps most directly through enhancing the vessel, our selves).
In practice the distinctions are much finer, and in the gear store principles are much harder to put into practice. So then, let us discuss a few reason why you might buy some gear, and in particular examine the problematic distinctions between these motives.
1: Replacing the broken
Simple and straightforward; an existing piece of gear breaks and/or wears out, so you replace it. Problem is that modern gear tends to be well put together, and when well selected does not break easily or wear out fast. The exception is semi-disposable items like bike chains and ski wax, which unless you’re a serious speed-weenie are purchases requiring neither excitement nor nuance. Thus, many purchases made under the guise of this category are probably more accurate handled by the second:
Newer = better, yes?! Well. Defining better isn’t an exact art, or even an especially possible one, so it’s safe to say that novelty (not necessarily in a pejorative sense) is at the core here at least as often as functionality. The waters here are muddied in turn when upgrading co-mingels with our next category..
3: New stuff for new pursuits
Want to take up packrafting? Gotta get a packraft, no way around it. (Joy!) Better get a (good?) paddle, PFD, helmet, throw bag, drysuit, wetsuits, etc, etc while we’re at it. Oh the bankers do love people taking up new pursuits, seldom is more money spent on gear in so short a time and with less compunction. Of course, outside observers find it hard to see that another pair of skis, or a bike with a cumulative 3″ more travel and 1.5 degree difference in geometry, constitute anything new. See #2.
4: Aesthetic appreciation
Some things are just cool. I think this is a fairly noble end, provided that said items make it out on a regular basis, to have their appearance further enhanced with scratches, tears, solar fading, and soot. Something which is highly aesthetic, tough, and (theoretically) useful goes a long way towards excusing, at least in my mind, purchases and acquisitions which may not be strictly utilitarian.
5: Experience by proxy
Gear you wish you had the impetus/courage/time/inclination to take out, but instead sits unused. In my opinion, far and away that most sinister item on this list, though it/they can provide a catalyst for problem solving. All that winter gear gathering dust with the tags still on? Better go snow camping, or just let that idea go and become content with sitting around a fire in the lodge with a beer. You’ll buy a lot of them with all those ebay proceeds.
There have been few days in the past decade when I haven’t had a certain gear question to turn over in my mind. Like it or not, the curse of the thinking practitioner seems to be a near constant meditation on some combination of #2 and #3, with some #1 and occasional run ins with #4 as well. #5 I’ve been lucky enough to avoid for the most part, though my un-sold off climbing gear might be more of #5 and less of financial prudence than I prefer to pretend.
For most of this winter it has been skis, more specifically, what ski and binding combo will I purchase for next winter? This has been a good and healthy question. The time frame and scope of the purchase are closely defined, and the contemplation is reinforced by weekly feedback sessions which ideally will maximize the utility and longevity of the hypothetical items in question. (The crash yesterday gave a serious bump to releasable bindings, weight be damned.)
Growing up as a post-grad school adult has been a very good influence on this process of gear purchase contemplation. I have student loans to pay down, a process which does not promise to go away soon, as well as a modest income which does not promise to increase substantially in the near future. My budget for gear purchases is thus both small and well-defined. It is as much as I need, but not enough for me to get greedy. Because one important piece of my life with gear, something which has become increasingly clear as I’ve become older and a bit more self-aware, is the paradoxically coexisting appreciation and loathing I have for my gear. I have a refined appreciation for what gear can do for me, bred in no small part from my penchant for doing more with less (you cannot appreciate a suspension fork until you’ve spent a year riding actual rough terrain without one). In the same instance and via the same process, I know exactly how much easier technology can make things, and I’m not always ok with that.
Experience is paramount, as Jill has pointed out with her usual eloquence, and given the current state of our lives quality experience (read: difficult) must be manufactured. One way to create a sufficient state of challenge is to go out in bad conditions, easy to do if you live here in Montana. Another way is to add 5 miles (if backpacking) or 30 miles (if mtn biking) beyond your comfort/experience zone. And yet another way is to monkey with the gear. Take just enough clothing. Bring only a large scale map. Don’t do exhaustive internet research. Just don’t let gear get in the way, because fun, insofar as it makes the lives of those around us better, is very serious business.
-What categories did I overlook?
-What is the proper place of gear in your life?