Gearing Up

As outdoor-sport culture has evolved over the past several decades, there has become significantly more information and gear available that can and does help make these activities safer, more enjoyable, and more accessible to the masses. As a result of these changes there has been an undeniable and impressive advance in the ability of outdoor enthusiasts around the world. Whether it’s skiing, surfing, climbing, whitewater boating, mountain biking, or trail running (to name just a few), there are several hundred athletes around the world in each of these disciplines who are accomplishing feats which were once considered impossible. Even at the recreational levels of these activities you have tens of thousands of people who take part in these sports in a way that just 20 or 30 years ago would have been considered cutting edge.

All of these advances in information and gear have led to a prevailing mentality that the more information or gear you have with you when you go into the outdoors the safer and more capable you will be. The problem is we don’t always need more, and we often seem prone to letting too much information and/or gear get in the way of actual knowledge, experience, ability, and enjoyment. A few obvious examples here would be the climber who climbs highly technical routes and assumes he is at no risk because he is attached to a rope, but won’t/can’t scramble a 10-foot 4th class pitch without protection. Or the skier who won’t go outdoors in the winter without her full avalanche gear, even when she is several miles from the closest slope that could possibly slide (both things I have witnessed more than once). In running a similar example would be the athlete who participates in a race with a mandatory gear list and spends hundreds of dollars to acquire ‘the best’ gear for this requirement, but doesn’t actually know how to use most of it (also something I have seen countless times). In all of these cases you have gear and/or information which can and will save lives, but only if used properly, and not necessarily in all situations.

I’m not by any means saying that I don’t think we should educate ourselves about the activities we take part in, and that there are not all kinds of situations in which having the correct gear with us could help save our lives, but simply that there is a lot more to it than just having the gear and information. All the gear and information in the world will not do anyone any good if they don’t have a basic sense of how to be safe and comfortable outside without this gear and/or information. Understanding advanced calculus will do very little for you if you don’t first understand basic geometry and algebra.

At the root of this conversation is the often-ignored reality that all of these outdoor sports are inherently dangerous, and we could potentially lose our lives participating in any of them. I think many people begin to forget this reality because they begin to believe that they have enough gear or information to avoid any and all dangers. It is at this point that people seem to stop acquiring knowledge and experience that could go a long way in helping them more properly use all the information and gear that they have spent so much time gathering in the first place. What essentially seems to happen is that people are using information and gear to replace, or as an excuse to not acquire, good old-fashioned awareness, experience, common sense, basic outdoor ideals, and self-preservation, thus often putting themselves at more risk than if they didn’t have all the information or gear in the first place. There are a surprising number of people out there who, as one of example of many I could use, have advanced avalanche-safety training, but may very likely not be able to build a fire if they became stranded in the wilderness, or who don’t choose to carry a fire-starting kit in addition to their shovel, probe, and beacon. A pack of matches must be too basic, too simple, and too old school to be all that important, right?

It’s hard to argue against gear or new information, and that is certainly not what I’m doing here, but I think everyone, in every type of outdoor sport could learn a lot from stepping back from all the new gear and information and spend time becoming as capable as possible in the outdoors without the ‘help’ of it all. Really go and learn how to be comfortable, and how to be safe in the outdoors. Gear and information can be a large part of this, but in all of these activities there is also a very large part that has nothing to do with gear or information. Go back and learn the geometry and algebra and you will be amazed at how much more useful your advanced calculus then becomes.

Although not immune to these patterns, I have always been drawn to running because it is not an inherently gear-heavy sport (although it has certainly become much more so in the past few years). In running you can always just go out and go for a run. You don’t need to have a lot of information or gear to go out and enjoy a run in the mountains. This said, though, the more you get in to running in the mountains the more you want to push yourself in places and in ways which can and do become more challenging and dangerous. Invariably you will come across pieces of gear and bits of information which start to seem necessary, but I urge everyone to remember that you really don’t need anything other than some curiosity, a pair of shorts, and a pair of sneakers. I’m not saying that you should not ever take anything more than this, but I think there is a lot of value in keeping close at heart the knowledge that all the other stuff–the hydration packs, the high-tech clothing, the trekking poles, the waist packs, the sports bars and gels, and everything else we take running with us–is not really a part of why we run and who we are as runners, and should never interfere with or minimize our basic experience or ability as runners.

As outdoor sports continue to grow and evolve there are going to continue to be huge, game-changing innovations in gear. In addition, the internet has brought about an age of information that is unprecedented, and thoroughly entrenched. Over time this information is going to become more and more a part of any outdoor activities we choose to take part in. All of this gear and information has huge potential to push mankind to new and exciting achievements in these activities. This is happening today; it is quite exciting to see, and it is going to continue to happen at an even higher level as the decades unfold before us. As exciting as all of this is, it’s hard though not to cringe at how many people these same changes seem to be pushing in the other direction, into a deep understanding of a few very specialized and specific aspects of a particular sport, but nearly no understanding of basic outdoor safety, awareness, comfort, and savviness.

The good news is we can fight back. Simply go and be outside. Become comfortable outside without all the gear, and without all the information you have read online and in books. Teach yourself. Find what works for you. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and feel the energy of the land around you. Run, swim, hike, bike, ski, and more in a way that just makes simple sense to you, not in the way that others are presenting to you. Eventually you will find a comfort with all of this, and then, at this point, introduce these aspects of yourself to all the gear and information that is already in your possession. This is when the magic will happen. This is when it will finally make sense to have all that gear and information.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you agree or disagree with Geoff that gear and information are giving people access to high-level experiences and places when they might not necessarily have the skills and abilities to be there?
  • And what do you think of Geoff’s recommendation to go back to the basics–to strip away the gear and the information that is acquired from outside sources–to better and more deeply learn about the natural world?
  • Have you had a real-life experience like what Geoff describes, when you realize that gear or information you got out of a book or website got you in a little over your head? Or have you successfully taken away the artificial advances to see where nothing but your own knowledge gets you?

There are 2 comments

  1. @Baristing

    To be honest, it's probably the lack of spending (on said excessive gear) that appeals most of all to me about running. I imagine other poor bastards agree. One of my favorite answers when asked why I run is that I can't afford to be a cyclist.

  2. senelly

    Ahhh… you're a man after my own heart (whatever that means). "Simply go and be outside" indeed.

    I live on a golf course – but don't play golf. It's nice to have the open space but it comes at a huge price (to club members and the environment). And, for me, the cost of gear, carts, green fees, and the 19th hole are definitely prohibitive. I have triathlete friends who spend thousands just on their bikes, not to mention their other gear and the entry fees for their events. Other friends do "Spartan" races and the like. They need special courses, gym workouts, and high-priced events. Yet others travel far with bow or gun to kill and drag game for trophies.

    The list of gear-heavy outdoor pursuits goes on… but here I go, throwing on some shorts and on-sale trail shoes, heading out the door and down the street to a woodsy single-track for some trail play. Whether alone or with buddies, I find myself smiling and reconnecting with the outdoor life of my distant ancestors… tracking game, jumping streams, watching the flight of a hawk, hearing birdsong, breathing the fragrant wildflower air, seeing unafraid deer and wild turkeys. Pity the unfortunate, gear-bound outdoor enthusiast. They don't know what they're missing.

  3. bireweich

    Yep, some of the stuff we do outside is dangerous and I also agree that relying too much on your gear probably leads us to cross borders we'd otherwise wouldn't.
    But gear also has another effect. It motivates. Gee how I look forward to trying my new GPS watch. And the darn expensive jacket? Gets me out the door even when it is raining.
    Yes, I have more gear than needed. Not for safety reasons. Just because it's exciting to have stuff which is related to a dear passion of mine. And with that, one of my favorite answers why I don't bike is, that I just don't like biking, but am very tempted to get me one of these fancy bikes…
    (Nope, I don't spend thousands, couldn't afford that, but I do reward myself with an occasional gadget or piece of equipment)

  4. dotkaye

    Certainly agree – for whitewater boating, rafts and the new kayaks let boaters get to a level of competence that allows paddling class IV in a year or two. Unfortunately they typically don't have the experience of swimming multiple rapids that a similar progression in canoes would give ;-) so when they finally wind up out of the boat and dogpaddling through the rapids, it is more dangerous/scary than it should be.

    I learnt backcountry survival from a book called "Don't die in the Bundu",
    It doesn't translate fully to a US context, but it is still an interesting read.

    Of course there isn't any actual back country left in the lower 48.. the furthest you can get from a road is about 20 miles, or less than a day's walk.

    @Baristing, cycling doesn't need to be expensive, I got a good road bike off ebay for $175, or about the price of a pair of Hokas..

    1. @Baristing

      For sure. I've got a similarly priced road bike that I enjoy. But I'm referring to being competitive – even on the local/regional level. I can win footraces with my 40$ shoes and Target shorts. I'm not winning any bike races similarly equipped.

  5. mikeadona

    This argument is bunk. Ofcourse gear and technology has enabled us to go out and run – possible above ones experience level.

    It's easy to say go back to the basics and sound like some kind of guru but let's get real and agree that that line is completely arbitrary. On one far side it's living in a cave, foraging for food all day with no time to run and on the other it's driving around on an ATV in Gortex.

    I think is pretty hypocritical to say that not using a GPS watch is back to the basics when it's the entire rest of this technology age that allows us to run and have the time to run. Shoes made overseas using science and manufacturing, organic food flown in from all over year round, websites like this that use the global internet to do so etc. Technology is what enables us to run, gps watch or not.

    By the way, who cares if people get over their heads with equipment?

    1. @jeffhalsey

      You're right that there's a spectrum between the luddite cave dweller and gear junkie weekend warrior, but I think there's merit to Geoff's argument. I imagine public safety policy makers, SAR volunteers and taxpayers care if people are able to feel overconfident because of the gear they have (rescues aint cheap). It was great when you could head up Half Dome for a run, but since the cables also make it too easy for folks to climb granite WAY above their often nonexistent climbing skills, we now need permits. Only kinda similar, but it makes my point :)

    2. mikehinterberg

      You call it "arbitrary," but it's a longstanding argument of aesthetics and philosophy that has interest and importance to many. Geoff's argument may be a little uneven, perhaps trying to tackle it from too many angles and examples, but the crux is a respect and interest of the "older, simpler" way of doing things, as a push-back to against unquestionably moving towards the newest, latest, greatest in trends and technologies.

      I think it's more about deliberation: as a macro-trend, consumption of technology (and finding ways to pay for it instead of discovering ways to mitigate the "need" for it) is the Western default. Sure, the opposing counter-culture can feel a bit extreme at times, but in balance the point is to think about things, new and old, and make choices rather than following trends. Maybe the result is in the middle: trying the run without the watch or headphones, buying clearance/closeout shoes instead of the latest-and-greatest; learning to sew and fix (or modify) our clothes. And we don't need to buy organic food flown in from all over the world, if we slow down and plant a garden, and support our local farmer's markets, or maybe trade with our neighbours: vestiges of the "old way" that are, thankfully, coming back into vogue.

      It doesn't have to be pedal-to-the-medal use of technology: it can instead be very deliberate and targeted. That's worth thinking about.

  6. totops1

    Good point and reflection, especially in the era we live in : those United States of Consumption.

    I have began running, not only for this reason but mainly because I only needed shorts and shoes.

    But as the years went by I also added a GPS watch with some other equipment. Why would I get rid of my watch ? It allows me to record the places that I run/hike/bike and also helps me discover new areas to run/bike etc…
    Would giving up my watch make me enjoy running more ? I don't think so

    Technology and progress doesn't mean evil and I truly believe that technology can be amazingly useful when correctly used. It is like computers, the user makes it useful or not, not the computer/technology itself.
    If one think a GPS is useless, fine! don't use it

    I take the GPS example but it could apply to a RoadID, Hydration pack….

  7. @jeffhalsey

    This classic zen Yvon Chouinard quote taken from Mountain Magazine punctuates Geoff's point rather well: "There’s a stream in Jackson that’s Class IV in high water. It drops a hundred feet a mile, and there are very few eddies. I decided to do it without a paddle one day. A paddle is a powerful tool, and it can make up for a lot of bad technique. I had to look way ahead, and anticipate where I was going to go. To turn the boat, I had to put it on edge like a pair of skis and carve around things. That’s really the day I learned to kayak."

  8. Aaron

    This is similar to my appropriate tech approach to a lot of things, especially those things that I can easily do without. However I don’t look at as just an effort to avoid over complicating things. It’s also about recognizing that most of the gear available is produced and shipped at great social and environmental cost. I can never resist an opportunity to remind the running community of that. There’s a lot of dark history behind that GPS watch and not nearly as much behind some easily stowed contour maps and a compass.

  9. ripvanracer

    I love that I can put a hundred songs on a shuffle and wrap the cord around a pair of headphones for cord free effortless running. Much easier than carrying my cassette player with me on long solo runs in the early 80s and only being able to hear the song when my arm was swinging forward.
    On the other hand, I had a couple GPS watches over the years and have no interest in owning another. (Too easy to over train trying to hit a pace) I do map my run on the computer when I get home. That's also much easier (and accurate) than 35 years ago when I got out the county map after a run.

    1. @PhilJeremy

      Agreed. I have never had a GPS and do the same when I get home, then again I have no music either as I can't see the controls on an ipod, lol. Once got lost after dark with nothing, just used the moon for light…it was quite exiting and invigorating……plus a little scary but I felt connected to the nature around me and that made the whole experience worthwhile.

  10. Max

    The evil to be avoided isn't technology, it's letting technology interfere with the act. Getting down class IV rapids without a paddle must've been one hell of an experience, but add a paddle to that skill level and a whole new world opens up. Running shoes and shorts limits me to about 1.5 hours, add a hydration pack and I can do upwards of 5 hours with no refueling, add a partner and a short rope and we can add easy 5th grade sections. I probably could do a half day run in alpine terrain in shorts and shoes and nothing else, but it'll be a level of uncomfortable I'm not willing to jump into.

  11. andymxyz

    Joyce Carol Oates: "The ideal art, the noblest of art: working with the complexities of life, refusing to simplify, to 'overcome' doubt."

  12. mtndirtrunnr

    Good article, but I'm amused by Geoff's call for simplicity followed by a bio in which it states support from Montrail, Clif, Drymax, Udo's, Ryder's, Atlas, and Petzl. That's a pretty heavy pack!

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