By Sara Wolman
"I'm a media and design specialist for Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I make graphics, videos, and publications to help educate the public on how awesome our National Wildlife Refuges are, especially the Arctic. My job takes me all over the refuge, sometimes by small plane or raft, to document endless mountains, rivers, and wildlife." When she's not working, she's... usually drawing or painting, or rafting, climbing, gathering medicinal plants or being with her son.
A few weeks ago, a longtime friend hit me up for some advice. She was about to climb Mt.Washington and was super excited but hadn't a clue what to bring. For the past decade, I've been sort of an outdoor guide for my friends. For so many of us, diving into the outdoor gear world is very intimidating. Sure, those of us that have been in the outdoor life bubble are like "duh, just go check out REI or other "insert outdoor company here."" But what if you weren't aware of these companies? What if you truly did not know where to start?
Pfff, you may scoff, how could you not know what some huge conglomerate like REI is? Well, I didn’t. When I first jumped into the world of the great outdoors circa 2010, I was a fresh-out-of-liberal-arts college city girl. I was born and raised in a mega metropolitan area, even when I moved away I was only two hours from it. I will say, the outdoors had always intrigued me as trees were scares and cement was abundant where I came from. After years of living the liberal arts life (and hating the internships), I did what every early 20 something decides to do: take a hard left and do something completely opposite. This city girl was about to join a backcountry trail crew and live out of a tent on the Pacific Crest Trail for six whole months. I don’t even know why they hired me to be completely honest. Perhaps they saw in me what I see in so many, a will to just do it.
I was given a list of items I would need for my grand 20 something self’s first big solo adventure. What do you mean rain PANTS? That exists? Do I REALLY need a sleeping pad? What even is a three season tent? A headlamp? Is that like different than a flashlight? Yes I had all of these thoughts. I also had absolutely no idea where to get them. I was literally starting from square one.
So I went, with a mish mosh of what I thought was adequate gear. I was on a trail crew with insane climbers (I didn’t even know that was a thing), thru hikers, and people that had been wielding chainsaws for years; meanwhile, I was still clinging to my grunge twitter. When you start at the bottom, the only way to go is up.
I won’t lie, it was hard at first. My gear was cheap and broke often. My backpack ended up being duct taped for most of the season. My tent was chewed through on day three because I left food inside. I learned that yes, sleeping pads and rain pants were extremely necessary. Yes, if you have your sleeping bag touching the side of the tent as it downpours you will get soaked. I slowly started to figure it out, day after day, mistake after mistake. I cried, but I learned.
Ok, OK, I know, am I going to actually tell you what works? Not only will I tell you, I’ll tell you the secret I wish I had when I first started. Giant disclaimer before I go on, I have worked in rainy, windy, alpine, icy, remote, and generally cold climates. If you ask me anything about the desert you’re going to die because I know nothing of desert life.
First and foremost, you need to figure out what you’re actually planning on doing. You don’t need an intense alpine jacket (costing $500+) for a quick jaunt up a hill. Secondly, do not go hiking in subpar shoes even if you think they work.
Shoes. There are millions of options. What you need to ask yourself is will you be wearing these a couple of times in the summer or every single day? Most marketed hiking shoes, especially for women, fall apart really easily if you are wearing them constantly (I have tried most of these so I’m telling you from experience). I started out with secondhand boots and my heels were destroyed. No one wants massive blisters. Sneakers really lack the ankle support you need while on trails or bushwacking. Sorry sandals fans, but unless you really want to destroy your feet, doing any major hikes in sandals is probably a bad idea. Now you don’t need to get crazy and get mountaineering boots (unless you’re climbing a mountain of course), but you do want to spend some extra dollars on shoes that really fit an work for you. And please do not wear your shoes on the trail fresh out of the booth, your feet will hate you. Wear them around town, your house, anywhere before hand to break them in.
Jackets. I always die a little inside when I see that I’m spending the majority of a paycheck on a coat, but then again I live just south of the arctic circle so I need it. But even when I lived in the continental US, a good jacket will save your life. When it comes to puffy jackets, second hand can actually be pretty awesome. So long as it’s still puffy then it’ll get the job done. Where you want to focus your money is the hard shell. This is your lifeline in the cold and wet. Yes they are not cheap. But if you take care of it and don’t wear it on hikes you don’t need to, you’ll have it for a really long time. I would not recommend getting these second hand (unless you really find a unicorn), but keep your eyes posted for sales. This is a piece of gear that that is entirely worth the money because it could save your life.
The secret I wish I knew about: pro deals. You can get up to 80% off on a ton of different brands, some just starting out and some more established. How does one get these magical deals? It depends, if you work for an outdoor company or public land agency like myself, your email will usually suffice. If not, there’s slightly more work to be done but it’s doable. Contact companies direct with a letter talking about who you are and what you do. If you sell yourself well, they will likely offer you a deal. To be honest, I haven’t heard of someone not getting a pro deal if they put the effort in. Another way is to join “expert” websites such as outdoorprolink or expertvoice. Again, if you don’t have a usable work email, you usually just need to validate your interest in a letter.
There’s also a million gear sharing websites out there. I will caution again however, if you are buying gear necessary for your protection and warmth, it is better to buy it new. Gortex wears out as do shoes, and you could end up doing long term damage to yourself. Again, I could go on for ages about gear, but here are my basics that you really need to research and make sure they are right for you.
I hope that I managed to break down the gate a little bit at least that surrounds the world of outdoor gear. There are so many more resources available than when I started, but it always takes a little bit of scrappiness to figure it all out. The outside community can be intimidating, but know there are many people who are working to break down the barriers. If my broke inexperienced twenty year old self managed months in backcountry, then you are completely capable. You will find confidence in your decisions, and know they are YOUR decisions, and not what some flashy company is telling you.
As for my friend at the beginning of this story, some of my suggestions she took and some she didn’t. Did she mess up and wish she had other things? She sure did. And she had a super kick ass time doing it. Now go outside and listen to what it tells you do, it knows better than I anyway.