How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Box
Can you outfit an entire trip with random scores from gear subscription boxes? Our writer gave it a shot.
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
By my count, I brought along some 40 pieces of gear on my last weekend camping trip, approximately zero of which I owned the week before. That’s 38 more pieces of shiny new outdoor equipment than I acquired the entire year prior, assuming you count both my skis separately.
It’s not that I’m a minimalist, per se; it’s just that I spend most of my money on diapers and beer. Plus I live in a small cottage—no extra room for outdoor bric-a-brac—and I don’t like to quit on my kit until it quits on me. I’ve had my sleeping bag since the Clinton administration. My cookware looks like I grave-robbed a 49er.
And not to get preachy, but the outdoor-rec crowd has always had an uncomfortable relationship with consumerism. As Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard has famously (and, yeah, hypocritically) pointed out, the production and disposal of our outdoor products have serious impacts on the outdoor places we love. We tell ourselves we need more of these products when, in fact, we do not. And our stockpiling of such gear tends to preempt our acquisition of practical skills and knowledge of the natural world (neither of which I have, of course, but I like the idea of them).
But I’ve wondered, how useful is this stuff? Isn’t it all cheapie flashlights and folding stove toasters and extendable fire pokers? Could you actually, say, outfit a weekend camping trip with nothing but boxed subscription swag that shows up on your doorstep?
So I have a pretty ingrained skepticism about any paid service that offers to send me a never-ending stream of things I didn’t ask for and was doing fine without. This view seems unpopular, however, as the subscription box industry apparently generates $5 billion annually, with outdoors and “survival” products comprising a significant niche. But I’ve wondered, how useful is this stuff? Isn’t it all cheapie flashlights and folding stove toasters and extendable fire pokers? Could you actually, say, outfit a weekend camping trip with nothing but boxed subscription swag that shows up on your doorstep?
Turns out you can! I requested sample boxes from BivySak, Cairn, Isle Box, and Nomadik, all of which graciously complied. For eats, I got a Weekender package from Fireside Provisions—not a subscription box, exactly, but a pre-portioned, packaged-to-order (and, honestly, pretty brilliant) camp-meal delivery service. Then I piled a tent, a toddler, and a dozen-ish cardboard boxes in the back of the Subie for a long weekend in the Maine north woods. (Oh, and in case the toddler got bored, I threw in an outdoor-themed Discovery Box from Green Kids Crafts.)
A few hours later, we pulled up to a primitive campsite next to a beaver flowage east of Katahdin, and I tore into my boxes. Instantly noticeable was a glut of items that seemed to share the theme “This Camping Trip Is Going to Go Poorly”: a 30-hour emergency-heat survival candle, a pocket outdoor survival guide, something called a “survival grenade,” which is apparently seven feet of paracord wrapped (in the shape of a grenade) around a loose knife blade and a bunch of fishing hooks and christ-only-knows-what-else because there’s no way I’m unraveling that thing with a toddler around.
There was a healthy number of chintzy items dangling from chintzy carabiners, the kind of stocking-stuffer tchotchke you get for someone you don’t like that much: a tiny dangling compass, a tiny dangling stainless-steel mug (the package of which helpfully notes, “Can be used for hot or cold beverages”). There were trinkety things I, grudgingly, found kind of charming: a Barbie-sized technical blanket from Rumpl (complete with stuff sack) for cozying your beer, a Flowfold minimalist wallet (for that conflicted minimalist who likes getting a box of stuff every few weeks).
I unboxed some staples (I’m good on sunscreen until 2020), a few things I don’t bother to use but I imagine someone does (camp soap?), and a couple of cruel, twisted jokes (multiple bags of freeze-dried ice cream, which I maintain is a crime against nature).
But let it be said: there was at least one legitimately useful item in each box—stuff that came in handy all weekend and stuff I’ll likely keep using for years: a thoroughly decent knife from BivySak; a bright solar lamp from Nomadik that lit our tent after hours; a sturdy Mountainsmith day pack from Isle Box.
The nicest, most genuinely useful gear came from Cairn—particularly that company’s handsomely designed, premium-level Obsidian boxes (which cost $200 a quarter but, um, kiiiinda bring out my inner alpha-consumer). I got away without a sleeping bag thanks to a Rumpl puffy blanket. Mornings were a bit chilly until I threw on my new Voormi merino base-layer hoodie. I cooked all weekend on a svelte BioLite CookStove with accompanying kettle pot.
My pork-fried rice bamboo bowl from the Fireside Provisions parcel? Better than any take-out I was going to order that weekend. I might start cooking out of pre-portioned baggies at home. And my kiddo is still talking about the Green Kids Crafts glow-in-the-dark owl he made out of a sock and some puffy paint while I cooked dinner.
So am I a subscription-box convert? Maybe sorta, with reservations. Yet unused after three days in the woods are three different varieties of fire starters, sourced from multiple boxes (including some zipper pulls that apparently ignite in an emergency and that I am somewhat nervous to wear). I can’t imagine why any gear-box subscriber would need fire starters—I’m currently sitting on enough cardboard and shredded-paper packing material to keep me in campfires the rest of the summer.