Recently, an old friend of mine took an evening walk on a quiet road near his home in the Southwest. He was carrying a camping lantern. Near the end of his stroll, an outdoorsy couple we both know drove by, said a quick hello, then went on their way. The hazing came via e-mail a short time later. “Nice lantern, bro,” wrote the outdoorsy guy. The woman followed up, gearsplaining that “there are these things called headlamps.”
My annoyed friend later griped to me that hardcore outdoor folks, who are supposed to be above base fashion concerns, are in fact the world’s most merciless fashion critics. To which I say, No duh, Lantern Boy.
Sure, a lantern lights your way as effectively as a headlamp, but we have never judged gear purely by its performance. We care about performance and style—and carrying Ichabod Crane’s lantern is a style don’t.
Gear policing is also a time-honored tradition. Take those zip-off “convertible” pants that started gaining traction in the nineties. Damn they work well on spring days when the noonday sun warms up the tour bus. At least I’m guessing they do, because I’ve never actually donned a computer programmer’s hiking kit. Nor would I dare show up to a group mountain-bike ride in a spandex bib, since this would inevitably earn me a round of “Wait, are we racing today?” sarcasm from the crew in baggies. Nordic skiers—of all people—love to rank on road cyclists who are out cross-training on skinny skis in their team jackets. The jackets work fine, but they scream hack. And because the roadies ski in a manner that’s both upright and gangly, with their poles flailing in front of them, the nordorks call them pterodactyls.
While this type of frat-boy dragging might bug my old friend with his lantern, it’s mostly harmless. Plus, outfit tracking can also be a kind of public service. It was just a few years ago that people were wearing those ghastly FiveFingers shoes into coffee shops. That infraction has thankfully been shamed away, but lately there’s the plague of male trail runners who think it’s OK to wear wispy short shorts to the acai-bowl counter. Fear not, the gear police have been dispatched.
And while I’m at it: the number you still have Sharpied on your skin from last weekend’s sprint triathlon—just like that avalanche transceiver and climbing harness you wore to the bar last winter—doesn’t say, “I’m in the club.” It says, “I’m trying too hard.” We’re snickering at you from the chairlift because of your egregious gaper gap. (If you don’t know what that is, check out @jerryoftheday.) We’re laughing loudly as we bike past because your cycling helmet is on backward.
“Is this guy being a bit too harsh?” you might be asking yourself right about now. Maybe. But in these hyperpolitical times, I’m not here to tell the outdoor world to stop making jokes at the expense of unsavvy rubes. Besides, the merely awkward are not a protected class—yet.
Still, I will concede that the rampant hazing has led to an unfortunate new development that I’ll call the uniform era, in which the fashion police double as timorous fashion victims who are afraid not to look like everybody else.
The origins of this scourge can be traced to the adventure-chic movement that took off about 15 years ago, when urbanites and outdoor-apparel makers fell madly in love with each other. Soon everyone in the Whole Foods parking lot was outfitted like expedition climbers. This squashed the lingering counter-culture ethos that had once defined the outdoor world—think bearded raft guides in cutoff jeans or Yosemite dirtbag climbers in ratty sweaters.
Then came the great homogenizing force of social media. Suddenly, you didn’t have to ski or bike or fly-fish 120 days a year to look the part. Instead you read a story about climber-photographer and Oscar winner Jimmy Chin and think, What a badass, I’ll follow him on Instagram. And hey, this ad for a puffy in my feed looks like something Chin was wearing on Lhotse last week. Tap. Ship. Multiply that by hundreds of thousands and we have uniformity. A friend of mine who has been an outdoor photographer in Utah since the eighties got it just right when he said that everyone looks cool now. I see this heightened fashion sense constantly in my role as an outdoor writer. It’s needlessly stressful—because I should be above the fray, too—but my heart rate spikes and I get sweaty when I’m about to interact with representatives from Red Bull or really anyone from the SoCal action-sports culture. Ditto when I’m at the Outdoor Retailer show in Denver, where the exhibition floor is invaded by a battalion of flannel-clad dudes wearing short beards and flat-brim trucker hats. Like all true mountain folk, I don’t even speak SoCal. Instead of uptalking, I’m a natural downtalker. I must remind them of their late grandpa. I think I was once passed over for a job because of tribal differences.
Of course, when everyone appears to be part of a tribe, it’s difficult to know who really is. So it is that insecure mega bros have become hypersensitive to any inconsistencies in the dress and actions of the mere mortal bros—and they gear-police them like Donald Sutherland in the final scene of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Forgive them. They’re simply clinging to their perceived and fleeting elitism.
It’s gotten so bad that some folks are going to extremes to stand apart. Not long ago, I was in Alaska on a press junket with another outdoor journalist I’ll call Gordon. The folks hosting us set everyone up with top-of-the-line waterproof-breathable pants. I’m talking $550 pants. And yet Gordon coveted a guide’s ratty trousers. Torn at the cuffs, scuffed with dirt, drenched in diesel fuel, they screamed authentic. So, on the spot, he traded his brand-new pair of pants for ’em. Filth is actually an insider look now. Just visit Silverton Mountain in Colorado if you don’t believe me.
This story is sad, but even sadder is the fact that the current era of unrestrained gear policing has largely consumed the weirdos and iconoclasts who have always made the outdoor world rich and diverse. We lose a bit of our soul when we have no mono-skiers or rollerbladers or jorts wearers. Which is why I was psyched to see some ranch boys out on my local ski hill in Montana this winter ripping around—well, exploding around—in Carhartt overalls, hatless. And having recently moved away from Colorado, I actually miss the folks we labeled IBMers, in their floppy sun hats and khaki pantaloons. The best insult ever hurled at former vice president Dick Cheney was a bumper sticker out of Wyoming that said he skied in jeans. Now I long for the days when a politician could be both evil and soggy—how unique.
But all is not lost. Across a range of outdoor sports, an anti-uniform rebellion is taking root.
In the freeride mountain-biking hub of Whistler, British Columbia, pros are bucking the baggy paradigm to ride in jeans despite the rain. In terrain parks all over, slopestyle skiers are donning cotton sweatshirts despite the snow. Or maybe that’s just a new uniform, who knows? But I do find hope in my 17-year-old son, who takes a special kind of pleasure in thumbing his nose at the fly-fishing set with their mustaches and their Buffs pulled up over their oh-so-perfectly weathered snapback caps. To tweak ’em, he spin-casts with his shirt off.
Going forward, I won’t abandon my own gear-policing habits—sorry, Ichabod, it’s just too much fun—but I will be taking cues from my son, who could give a shit what he wears on the ski hill or anywhere else. Montana, which is still chockablock with anachronistic weirdos and the fashion oblivious, is good for that. Heck, now that it’s cycling season again, I might even wear my full spandex race kit on the next casual trail ride. It’s better performing anyway.
On second thought, scrap that. I can take the ridicule. But I’d rather not take the bullet for a fashion don’t.