Outdoor Gear

Outdoor Gear – Comical Thoughts Courtesy of Bill Bryson. Below is a passage from Bill Bryson’s book, A Walk in the Woods, which I read prior before embarking on my Appalachian Trail thru hike in 2009. In this passage Bryson stops in at his local Mountain Outfitter local to purchase gear for his trek. Enjoy …

“My first inkling of just how daunting an undertaking it was going to be came when I went to our local outfitters, the Dartmouth Co-Op, to purchase equipment. My son had just gotten an after-school job there, so I was under strict instructions of good behavior. Specifically, I was not to say or do anything stupid, try on anything that would require me to expose my stomach, say “Are you shitting me?” when informed of the price of a product, be conspicuously inattentive when a sales assistant was explaining the correct maintenance or aftercare of a product, and above all don anything inappropriate, like a woman’s ski hat, in an attempt to amuse.

I was told to ask for Dave Mengle because he had walked large parts of the trail himself and was something of an encyclopedia of outdoor knowledge. A kindly and deferential sort of fellow, Mengle could talk for perhaps four days solid, with interest, about any aspect of hiking equipment.

I have never been so simultaneously impressed and bewildered. We spent a whole afternoon going through his stock. He would say things to me like: “Now this has a 70-denier high-density abrasion-resistant fly with a ripstop weave. On the other hand, and I’ll be frank with you here” — and he would lean to me and reduce his voice to a low, candid tone, as if disclosing that it had once been arrested in a public toilet with a sailor–“the seams are lap felled rather than bias taped and the vestibule is a little cramped.”

I think because I mentioned that I had done a bit of hiking in England, he assumed some measure of competence on my part. I didn’t wish to alarm or disappoint him, so when he asked me questions like “What’s your view on carbon fiber stays?” I would shake my head with a rueful chuckle, in recognition of the famous variability of views on this perennially thorny issue, and say, “You know, Dave, I’ve never been able to make up my mind on that one — what do you think?”

Together we discussed and gravely considered the relative merits of side compression straps, spindrift collars, crampon patches, load transfer differentials, air-flow channels, webbing loops, and something called the occipital cutout ratio. We went through that with every item. Even an aluminum cookset offered considerations of weight, compactness, thermal dynamics, and general utility that could occupy a mind for hours.

In between there was lots of discussion about hiking generally, mostly to do with hazards like rockfalls, bear encounters, cookstove explosions, and snakebites, which he described with a certain misty-eyed fondness before coming back to the topic at hand.

With everything, he talked a lot about weight. It seemed to me a trifle overfastidious to choose one sleeping bag over another because it weighed three ounces less, but as equipment piled up around us I began to appreciate how ounces accumulate into pounds. I hadn’t expected to buy so much — I already owned hiking boots, a Swiss army knife, and a plastic map pouch that you wear around your neck on a piece of string, so I had felt I was pretty well there — but the more I talked to Dave the more I realized that I was shopping for an expedition.

The two big shocks were how expensive everything was — each time Dave dodged into the storeroom or went off to confirm a denier rating, I stole looks at price tags and was invariably appalled — and how every piece of equipment appeared to require some further piece of equipment. If you bought a sleeping bag, then you needed a stuff sack for it. The stuff sack cost $29. I found this an increasingly difficult concept to warm to.

When, after much solemn consideration, I settled on a backpack — a very expensive Gregory, top-of-the-range, no-point-in-stinting-here sort of thing — he said, “Now what kind of straps do you want with that?”

“I beg your pardon?” I said, and recognized at once that I was on the brink of a dangerous condition known as retail burnout. No more now would I blithely say, “Better give me half a dozen of those, Dave. Oh, and I’ll take eight of these — what the heck, make it a dozen. You only live once, eh?” The mound of provisions that a minute ago had looked so pleasingly abundant and exciting — all new! all mine! — suddenly seemed burdensome and extravagant.

“Straps,” Dave explained. “You know, to tie on your sleeping bag and lash things down.”

“It doesn’t come with straps?” I said in a new, level tone.

“Oh, no.” He surveyed a wall of products and touched a finger to his nose. “You’ll need a raincover too, of course.”

I blinked. “A raincover? Why?”

“To keep out the rain.”

“The backpack’s not rainproof?”

He grimaced as if making an exceptionally delicate distinction. “Well, not a hundred percent….”

This was extraordinary to me. “Really? Did it not occur to the manufacturer that people might want to take their packs outdoors from time to time? Perhaps even go camping with them. How much is this pack anyway?”

“Two hundred and fifty dollars.”

“Two hundred and fifty dollars! Are you shi—-,” I paused and put on a new voice. “Are you saying, Dave, that I pay $250 for a pack and it doesn’t have straps and it isn’t waterproof?”

He nodded.

“Does it have a bottom in it?”

Mengle smiled uneasily. It was not in his nature to grow critical or weary in the rich, promising world of camping equipment. “The straps come in a choice of six colors,” he offered helpfully.

I ended up with enough equipment to bring full employment to a vale of sherpas — a three-season tent, self-inflating sleeping pad, nested pots and pans, collapsible eating utensils, plastic dish and cup, complicated pump-action water purifier, stuff sacks in a rainbow of colors, seam sealer, patching kit, sleeping bag, bungee cords, water bottles, waterproof poncho, waterproof matches, pack cover, a rather nifty compass/thermometer keyring, a little collapsible stove that looked frankly like trouble, gas bottle and spare gas bottle, a hands-free flashlight that you wore on your head like a miner’s lamp (this I liked very much), a big knife for killing bears and hillbillies, insulated long johns and undershirts, four bandannas, and lots of other stuff, for some of which I had to go back again and ask what it was for exactly. I drew the line at buying a designer groundcloth for $59.95, knowing I could acquire a lawn tarp at Kmart for $5. I also said no to a first-aid kit, sewing kit, anti-snake-bite kit, $12 emergency whistle, and small orange plastic shovel for burying one’s poop, on the grounds that these were unnecessary, too expensive, or invited ridicule. The orange spade in particular seemed to shout: “Greenhorn! Sissy! Make way for Mr. Buttercup!”

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