A price tag isn’t everything
In 2004, my friend Nick and I went on a 10-day road trip, from Montana to Phoenix, where I was moving after graduate school. I bought a tent on sale from Campmor and a cheap sleeping bag, and the least expensive backpacking stove I could find. Neither of us had camped or hiked all that much prior to the trip, and it was an education. We drove down the west coast, visiting Olympic National Park, Smith Rock, Redwood National Park, Yosemite, Zion, and the Grand Canyon. We hiked in cotton clothing, slept terribly, and didn’t know shit about anything. It was one of the best trips I’ve ever taken, and the crappiest outdoor gear I’ve ever used.
Have you ever heard a couple reminisce about the early years of their marriage or relationship, fondly talking about their first tiny apartment filled with thrift store furniture, and how they barely scraped by, eating ramen noodles, and despite not having anything, managed to fall in love? I think that’s what most of us do in the outdoors, too.
Nick and I hiked to the top of Half Dome, up Angels Landing, and through the Tall Trees Trail. I used the backpack I’d used to carry my notebooks to class for the past couple years in grad school, and carried the one Nalgene water bottle I owned (which I sometimes clipped to the outside of the backpack with a carabiner, as if that made it easier to access than putting it inside the pack itself). I carried a rain jacket that I’d bought at a used gear swap (which turned out to not actually be that waterproof), and instead of a puffy jacket (an expensive luxury I hadn’t even heard of at that point), I covered myself in non-technical layers that I’d bought at thrift stores in Missoula.
I can remember my first “really nice” sleeping bag, a middle-of-the-road down bag that retailed at $199, and my first legit backpacking pack, which was nothing special, but was magical just because it enabled me to spend more than one consecutive night sleeping under the stars (without tying stuff to the outside of my pack!). Now a decade and a half after that, I’m in a little bit better of a financial situation than my recent-college-graduate self, and I’ve owned a few different backpacks, tents, and sleeping bags. And they’ve almost all been great, each one better than the last one, but not quite as memorable as all that crappy stuff I first bought when I had no money and no experience in the outdoors. You will probably always remember the first car you ever owned that was all yours, even if it was a piece of junk. My 1985 Pontiac Sunbird, that I bought for $500 in high school, was ugly, loud, and smelled a little funky, but it represented freedom—the first time I could drive wherever I wanted. My third car? Nicer, but not as special.
Now, I have nothing against quality outdoor gear. I love gear that I don’t have to think about—stuff that does its job, lasts a long time, and doesn’t make my backpack feel like it’s full of sandbags. I don’t miss that first bulky, heavy sleeping bag, or the sale tent with only one door on it, or that janky backpacking stove. But every once in a while, I think about them, because they remind me of the time when everything beyond the trailhead was new—what it might look like, what it might feel like, how I would handle it. Like it or not, experience seems to shrink things, including your sense of wonder, as you check new places off your list and collect photos. Maybe it’s just me, but I think some of the best memories coincide with some of the crappiest gear, and I think we’d all do well to focus more on that state of new, shiny wonder we had back then, and less on new, shiny gear.
But I’m definitely never going back to that not-so-waterproof secondhand rain shell.