A leopard doesn’t change his spots – so why do human interlopers so often reach for a new coat? Or, for that matter, new boots…new backpacks…new skis…new things so new in their newness…

Too often the answer precedes the question – if the question is ever asked at all. And that answer is automatic and predictable: ‘This new coat makes me a whole new cat!’, they say. As this subconscious ethos animates the contemporary outdoor community, it’s no wonder that sales of outdoor products continue to increase. In the context of this material explosion, the question must be asked: At what price do the outdoors become inextricably consumerist? Does the mountaintop exist to be climbed, or just to be marketed?

Sometimes considered the originator of modern outdoor advertising, photographer Galen Rowell combined lustful scenery with activity. Be they climbers, hikers, or mountaineers, his images continue to inform the high concept advertising of so-called ‘aspirational’ outdoor brands. Traits that Rowell embraced – a hard-charging figure baring the elements – will always be, at best, stuff of consumer daydreams. Whereas sex sells film, and murder makes newspapers, outdoor achievement markets jackets. Sales of outdoor goods increased by six percent in 2016 alone.

Taken literally, the price of these products has also increased in recent years (alongside market expansion) due to specific advances in technology and continual leaps in advertising. Physical changes in fabric alongside changes in sourcing allows companies to levy an additional charge for each product addition, regardless the utility of those supposed advancements. That is, the rising cost of outdoor goods only partially reflects the cost of raw materials.

For contemporaneous comparison, consider coffee. While price has risen (due to climactic vagaries), most consumers would not factor bean commodity prices into their expenditures. Rather, the shockingly high cost of a cuppa derives from unnecessary machinery, new terminology, and ambiance. Two decades ago few would have prognosticated a five dollar cup of coffee; now consumers willingly pay ten dollars for the privilege of affirming that very price exists. So it goes for all luxury goods.

This massaging of messaging has only furthered outdoors’ material consumerism. The gimmicky is now de rigueur (waterbottles for running), the basic is now aspirationally priced (hiking boots), and the packing list is longer and more brittle (weight-saving trekking poles). Again, similar to shifts in coffee consumption, these shifts have been slow moving over decades, but the effect is far more significant. Beyond the preclusion of possible outdoor enthusiasts (frightened into exile by ‘sticker-shock’), the application of corporate consumerist tactics to outdoor goods results in a diminished outdoors experience:

First comes the surprise in discovering the tent is ‘out-of-date’ (whatever that might mean). Second comes the envy in recognizing the newer model, equivalent in every way but color or name. Third is the rationalization for buying the new model whilst simultaneously admitting the older one won’t be going anywhere. Finally appears the more cluttered garage or closet, which, upon reflection, is now fuller without reason.

A genuine need for clothing and gear exists, but the advance of corporate aspirations has malaffected the spirit of recreation. Outdoors goods have created a dizzying consumerist spiral through two artificial markets: first, the single-purpose, specialized product; second, the creation of luxury prices.

Trailside conversation vaults into the consumer’s challenges, not the outdoor experience. The latter is more fulfilling. The former is increasingly routine.

I’d rather my mountaintop not become disposable fashion.

Creative Commons Photo