The Wayback Machine doesn’t travel back to when I can first recall the concept of “lifestyle” in outdoor clothing and gear. It was a North Face catalogue, late 80s or early 90s, talking about a woman from Alaska or the Yukon or Wyoming or some similarly very far from Ohio place, who had fallen out of her boat during a casual afternoon cruise, and survived the ensuing hypothermia in a fairly matter of fact way because, as the catalogue told us, she had thrown on her North Face gear that morning. Just like any morning.
There is just as much truth and utility as there is malarkey in that thought-picture.
Modern lightweight gear, especially technical clothing, doesn’t make sense in day to day life. Lighter fabrics get slowly chewed by footwell vibration and dusty floors, less than mega zippers loose metal too fast and split into obsolescence, and fancy insulation engineered for performance first quickly compresses under the monolithic weight of seatbelts and routine. And yet, that 10 ounce down jacket hides in the corner of a 15 liter bag, with space for lunch and a nalgene. Pea coats and lambswool sweaters wear well and look better, but feel stolid in the face of unplanned hikes, extended side trips to the park, and the drizzle which catches you walking home late. Outdoor clothing is the frame without which the house of the industry would not exist, and it’s axiomatic amongst those on the inside that the vast majority of that clothing is sold to non-core users, to better blend on the brewery deck.
But, the best part of modern living are places where the line between daily routine and Big Trips in the Big Places is not so clear. Once of my absolute favorite things remains solo trips across a big, unknown-to-me stretch of roadless country where I see no recent evidence of other humans. Some of my other favorite things are riding pump track with my 3 year old son, taking the whole family to the bakery for brunch, tearing out non-native shrubs in our yard, and sinking days that add up to years into a job which is intellectually challenging and emotionally fulfilling. I want all of these things, and with the purer forms of wilderness adventure being such time-queens, it feels better to absorb the landscape in smaller daily increments, which are best catered to on walks and bike rides and diversions which don’t necessitate a full wardrobe change. Little kids don’t often go far, and by adult standards they never go fast, but that lack of the need for gear which serves against serious consequences also means you won’t be generating serious heat. On toddler hikes at toddler pace, best pack a warm coat.
My elitist reservation remains in the form of a question; who can be immersed in all of that, see the air change week to week from the same park, same mid-walk vista, same mountain top, and not in the end both wonder how the landscape sings together and want to go out, far out, to find out more onself? And that is my problem with the new, third or fourth wave lifestyle outdoor brands; that they’ve making shiny crap that is good for the coffee shop and the hike to Delicate Arch, and whose lack of seriousness is predicated on the rare devotee who will graduate to the more core brands when necessary. It seems both wasteful and to assume less of humanity than it hopefully deserves. I understand that practically I would not want every Satruday-noon latte hiker to take five years of labor and become technically skilled backcountry travelers. Things would get crowded out there eventually. I just can’t fathom how at least most of them would not eventually want to at least try to get there. How could you not love straight espresso, and why not have four shots rather than two, when the only consequence is getting more done, and a bit of occasional vibration?
Shit still works, and some of the shit that works well in the variegated, civilized by choice life isn’t necessarily what really works for pure backcountry. So this edition focuses on those things which wouldn’t be too far amiss, and certainly possess the quality, on a 10 day unsupported trip, while also not being entirely awkward accessorizing a meeting, and whose sweet spot is in the middle: cabin trips, drinks outside in inclement weather, strolls which double into 10 milers. They’re among the things I use the most, making them most fitting of the title.
Haglofs Pile Hoody
Fleece is the obvious choice for one-coat fits-most use outside, and this one is the most versatile of the many I’ve tried. Trim enough and in colors that qualify as business casual (in Montana), with the signature Haglofs hood and outstanding attention to detail (flawless pocket zips and mesh), the meat of the Pile Hoody is the 380 grams/meter fabric, which for those less than ideally nerdy translates to damn thick. It isn’t windproof, but the modern paradigm of active insulation which started nearly two decades ago with puffy fleece tells us that more, more air-permeable insulation is more versatile and more comfortable more often than less static warmth with integral windproofing. The Pile Hoody is too cold when the wind really kicks up below freezing, and too warm above 50 or 55F, but a simple and easy choice for most anything in between. Not a cheap fleece, though in the US Backcountry.com seems to put them on sale predictably.
I’ve written often about what makes a good knife, and for the past three years the simple fact has been that the Dragonfly is in my pocket 97% of the time, regardless of setting. Enough that the clip-side end of the handle has faded from sun exposure. I’ve re-profiled the edge as convex, which makes sharpening a 45 seconds, every couple weeks affair. Regardless of who sandy, linty, or bloody the knife has been the lock has never done anything other than engage with a crisp snap. It’s functioned so well for so long that in the last year I just had to tempt fate, and have battened and pried with it a fair bit, out of mere curiosity. No issues thus far, save some scratches. I’d still prefer that the rampant dimples and texture be much reduced in the name of easy cleaning, but otherwise I can’t say a bad thing. And you can still buy one for 60 bucks, a very good deal.
Yes, it’s a tiny 30 dollar water bottle, from the company that gave us the 300 dollar cooler and the 40 dollar bucket. It’s as easy to dislike Yeti (especially after you’ve seen them at a trade show) as it is to not find someone claiming their gear isn’t well made. The 18 oz Rambler is just big enough for a 6 cup Bialetti and a tray of ice, the ideal companion for a summer work day. My other favorite use is making road trip cowboy coffee; add boiling water and a bunch of grounds, shake, let sit for 10 (or 30) minutes, pour, and enjoy. I did partially break the handle off the lid doing this, having to resort to extra leverage on a fence after making coffee, overtightening the lid, and then driving up 5000 vertical feet and back down 6 in the space of an hour. The glue fix on the lid has held ever since, and I still got my coffee, so we chalk that one up to acceptably survival of user error. Most importantly, the 18 ozer is a visually and tactically satisfying shape, especially in stainless, unlike (for instance) Hydroflasks, which on the shelf appear as a thought-provokingly complete range of alien sex toys.
All you need by way of drinks containers is this, a Nalgene silo, and a big Dromedary bag.
Human Gear Capcap
It has a whimsical name, and will close to double the price of your nalgene; unless your water bottle fleet is mostly domesticated from the many free ranging, well seasoned nalgenes of the world. I found the bottle pictured above nine years ago, melting out of the snow atop Lolo Pass. The 48 oz size is my favorite, in spite of them being almost too unwieldy in both height and weight. My recent criteria for building pack side pockets is that they need to provide secure, one-handed silo storage, and if they do that, they’ll do just about anything else. The Capcap preserves the original nalgene functionality, and adds being able to drink, without spilling, while hiking at full tilt. I bought two, at full retail, and don’t go into the woods without one, and often both.