The Economics of the Outdoors

The dirtbag nature of many outdoor people is often noticeable upon first meeting them before any climbing, skiing, or venturing into the mountains even takes place. Arriving in the parking lot, you will first notice their threadbare t-shirt with the name and logo of whoever gave the shirt to them for free slowly fading from the front. Their pants have bike grease stains or dirt so ground into the material that it would take more than a mere trip through the washing machine to remove it. Those same pants are ripping or tearing at the knees and/or in the back from knee barring, scumming, butt sliding, and occasionally crashing. Depending on the season, the ensemble is rounded out with a pair of grimy flip-flops or trail runners deemed not suitable for “real” use, but perfectly acceptable for around town. A free hat from an event tops off the dirtbag outfit—unless there is cool weather, in which case the appearance of a hoodie that has seen far better days is highly likely.

The irony is that, in spite of looking one step above homeless due to the poor shape of their attire, when arriving at the trailhead, crag, or mountain, these questionably clothed individuals quickly replace their haggard threads with some of the most expensive and advanced garments you can find. Base layers made with high-tech synthetic fibers and fine merino wool replace stained and disintegrating tees and pants while costing far more than their everyday equivalent, and alternate layers made of high-priced innovative fabrics and insulations such as Gore-Tex, Schoeller, and Primaloft are stuffed into top-of-the-line backpacks. It’s fair to assume that a single set of clothes many of these people wear into mountains costs far more than the entirety of the rest of their wardrobe.

Crazier still is that these people’s clothes are, in many cases, their least expensive purchase. Ask any fashionista and they will tell you that shoes make the outfit. While I wouldn’t dream of buying a pair of shoes to wear in everyday life (I am still wearing the same dress shoes I bought over a decade ago in college), I have purchased numerous pairs of expensive climbing shoes for everything from trad climbing to sport climbing to bouldering. Furthermore, I have a shelf full of high-priced ski boots, and an assortment of equally pricey boots for mountaineering and ice climbing. Throw in specialized shoes such as trail runners, road runners, bike shoes, and approach shoes, among numerous others, and there is an apparent misalignment of priorities.

As I sit here writing this blog while sitting on my hand-me-down couch that I have been using for the last seven years, with my computer sitting on an equally old hand-me-down coffee table, I realize the outdoor economics extend well past wardrobes. While I would never consider replacing the ancient living room furniture surrounding me, my gaze shifts to the carbon fiber Felt road bike hanging on the wall opposite me, and I find myself wondering if it’s time for an upgrade. Never mind that the bike on the wall costs twice what new living room furniture would. The same could be said of my closet full of skis, the bin full of climbing gear, and the expensive ice climbing tools. I would never consider buying new sheets for my bed, yet I have sleeping bags ranging in temperature from -40º to 40º and a host of sleeping pads to use with them. New pots and pans for the kitchen? No way! But we have two fancy backpacking stoves and a small army of titanium pots, pans, and silverware to go along with them. In fact, I have recently begun to wonder if the combined value of my wife’s and my gear is more than the apartment in which we currently live.

Over the past few months, my wife and I have started looking into buying a house, but even here strange dirtbag economics have come into play. Taxes, land, neighbors? Ehh…we are thinking about the important things like proximity to a rock gym, a ski mountain, and the availability of good running and bike riding. Roof, plumbing, electric? More like, is there room for a home bouldering wall, a ski tuning bench, and a gear room? Perhaps someday I will start thinking of my finances like a responsible adult…or, if I’m lucky, I can find a good accountant who moonlights at EMS or REI and understands dirtbag economics.

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