The 5 reasons to buy gear

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).

Gear is good because it lets you go on trips and see Pitcher Plants in bogs.  Isle Royale 2010.

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:

2: Upgraditis

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.

Exit questions:

-What categories did I overlook?

-What is the proper place of gear in your life?

10 responses to “The 5 reasons to buy gear”

  1. I am thinking about gear for a couple reasons:

    1. I have too many bikes and while I have enjoyed the research and testing process, I am ready to cull the herd. One rigid, one short travel suspension (SS!) one long travel suspension covers every situation very appropriately.

    2. I have just been introduced to shooting and it is addictive, and a whole new, open world of handguns is out there. Much more confusing than bike world, but not all that different if you get my drift: What are your needs? What is best for that need? What is your preference amongst equivalent options? How do you weigh the various priorities of weight, simplicity, size, caliber, blah, blah, blah. In the process of this OCD I realized that for me, the hunt/research phase is probably more fun than the ownership. Does this make me a gear queer? Read lots, buy seldom/occasionally.

    3. I am committed to more camping this summer with a 10 yo. I have to figure out what will work for both of us on overnights, and not simply day hikes and am intimidated by that responsibility since I don’t rightly know if I can do the planning for myself right now. Food and food prep is my biggest concern.

  2. I look forward to your involvment in skeet and trap shooting. I hear it makes bikes look cheap. ;)

    Backpacking is easy to figure out. You’ll bring too much food the first time or two, but with your analytical bent that won’t last long. Besides, you can’t go wrong with ramen and snickers.

    1. I have tried skeet/trap in the past and it was fun. Currently trying to figure out if I can hit anything with a pistol:) Ammo is very expensive, so I think I will be sticking with a .22 for a while.

      Camping in AZ should be a cinch. Forget the tent for sure. What is that tarp thingy you use?


      1. The Mountain Laurel Designs Trailstar. A very cool design.

  3. I’m heavy into #3 at the moment. I’m going on a non-commercial rafting trip down the Colorado and while many folks have extra gear, I’m finding myself buying a lot of my own gear. Much of it purchased with the intent of future use.

  4. I am an unashamed gear whore.

  5. I fall smack into the belly folds of impetus #3, backpacking is still relatively a new venture in my life, and currently still an ongoing process. Sure, it did not take considerable time to lighten my pack, that came easy for me, much of the blueprint was already plotted out before me by others more invested in shaving weight all down to something that resembles merely an essence of it’s former self… I’ve simply just checked the specs, did my homework, referenced what has worked for others in similar scenarios and put some things together. However! Defining my own blueprint and learning how to tap into the tool set worn on my back like an archer to his quiver of arrows is another process, a non-tangible which isn’t obtained through a purchase and like you concluded with in your post, is manufactured only through personal experience. My growing experiences outdoors are only defining even further what doesn’t work for me (or what I’m unable to make work for me) and what I prefer, a direct byproduct of this process is moving beyond “old” gear and acquiring the appropriate and most suitable gear for my evolving needs… “needs” of course being subject to further examination. But again I’m the same guy fixing things that aren’t broke. What about new stuff for the same pursuits because of newly acquired perspective? Or did you cover this? Damnit.


    1. I just realized on my last OVERNIGHT winter trip that my Nunatak Arc Alpinist quilt pushed down to zero wouldn’t cut it for me out more than a few nights before things got uncomfortable… backpacking here in the mountains during winter isn’t new to me but I gained fresh perspective in the process of doing so. A sleeping bag is likely the right tool for me in this department. Perhaps this falls into rationale #4? It’s all very gray now.

    2. Newly acquired trail running shoes, I’m on them every day to every other day, they get used and worn quickly, the process of running is nothing new, but again, with every run I find little subtleties, preferences, idiosyncrasies within the process that I respond to. ie. I really prefer a low profile outsole on dry broken down sandstone particulate over an aggressive lugged outsole even though that’s what shoe manufacturers keep proselytizing to consumers, I digress… my point being trail running is nothing new to me but I again, discover fresh perspective on my daily runs caught in-between moments of hard effort and contemplation that ultimately lead me to making a gear purchase (new shoes) as a direct response along the way. Sometimes these responses are frivolous and based off of impulse, other times based off of need (worn out), most of the time they’re based off of consistent feedback and gained experience. I’m getting there with backpacking, but my time on the trail with a pack on is so sporadic and infrequent the process has been slower, really anything I currently have in my closet will get the job done if I’d only choose to make it work for me. Great post Dave, love the brain food.

  6. Or you could follow my gear principle which is to just make due with whatever you have lying around the house because the heavier, in-worse-condition, was-acutally-worn-out-last-year, seriously antiquated, might-actually-verge-on-dangerous, gear makes you, both, develope better skill, and a bigger bad ass, generally speaking.

    New gear is for pussies.

  7. I had a good conversation (4 days in a yurt with a people will do that) with a guy* in the “industry”. He runs an independent testing/development lab and so works with several different companies. One of his pet peeves is the “change for the sake of change” mentality that gear companies adopt. Sure, *NEW* sells gear. But only if that gear still works well. Sometimes a great feature will be discarded in a new model just because. You know… “If it ‘aint broke…”

    But I love gear. The last couple of years I have loved learning about BC ski gear, in general, and specifically the preferences that my ability and needs require. New activities are fun on their own, but all the new toys make them even more so.

    *One other cool thing: this guy has totally old school gear, and he kicks ass with it.

  8. Great post… I find myself dealing with #3 the most, primarily during the season changes (read: right now) when the appeal of new sports is highest.

    For a while, backpacking was my main source of spending… so many little pieces of gear that work together to form one system left me with a lot of desire to upgrade to the latest and greatest system. I was only able to (mostly) step out of the yearly upgrade cycle when I made carrying homemade gear a high priority; when I know that any upgrade requires a weekend of my time, I’m much more likely to use my existing gear to spend that weekend backpacking.

    I’ve been toying with the idea of applying my backpacking goal of homemaking as much gear as possible to my other favorite pursuits: skiing and climbing. I’m in the process of making a bunch of gear for climbing (non-safety related… for now :)), but haven’t worked out a solid theory for how I can effectively make all of my own climbing and skiing gear/apparel and be happy with the results. Hopefully I’ll get things figured out in the next season or two.

    Lastly, I’ve enjoyed your links to Ryan Jordan’s posts on gear… Very interesting posts.

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