A discussion about how gear and second-hand information changes the way trail runners interact with the world.

By on June 4, 2014 | 18 comments

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?
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Geoff Roes
has set numerous ultramarathon course records including the Western States and Wasatch 100 milers. Salomon, Clif, Drymax, Ryders Eyewear, and Atlas Snowshoes all support Geoff's running. You can read more about his running on his blog Fumbling Towards Endurance and join him at his Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camps.