I really had my act together. I had gone beyond the ultimate. I now had a 2-1/2 pound pack, 1-1/2 pound bag, and 2-1/2 pound tent. Now, there was no question, the vicious buy/sell cycle was over. There could be no further improvement. From here on out, priorities would change. Incidentally, have you heard about the new, ultralight boots that . . . .
—Anonymous (found on Backpacking.net website)
You are only over-equipped if you never do anything.
—ad for Gerber brand combination tools
I personally fall in the 7 to 9 pound range [base pack weight]. I don't want to sacrifice a good night sleep. If I don't sleep well, I'm not hiking well. Still, if i could get my weight down without sacrificing, I would. For me it is an obsession. Sometimes I wonder if I'm more of a shopper than a hiker (I love gear). I often find myself spending lots of time and money trying to reduce my pack weight by a few ounces all while sitting at my computer putting on extra pounds reading the latest posts and eating handfuls of gorp.
—Mike Hinsley, “How light is light enough?”
Central Issues Addressed in This Article
Do you ever wonder whether you or your friends are gear addicts/gearaholics? What behaviors distinguish and define the gear addict? What are their common beliefs and values? When is gear addiction a negative personality trait? What is a healthy relationship to outdoor gear? What is the best way to deal with an unhealthy relationship towards outdoor gear?
Those having close and intense relationships with outdoor gear are often given or take on labels like the following: gear head, gear girl, gear chic, gear guy, gear addict, gear nerd, gear glutton, gear junkie, gear slut, gear freak, gearaholic, gear expert, gadget-o-holic, state-of-the-art packer, techno-packer, technoholic, flash packer—to name most of them. The fact that there are so many labels being tossed around is interesting in its own right and suggests that many outdoor enthusiasts might have problems in this area. In this article, “gear addict” will be used as an umbrella term to cover the whole range, unless otherwise noted. Many of these terms carry negative connotations. My starting point is to be as neutral and descriptive as possible, not making personal judgments until the end of this article.
Definitions of a Gear Addict
What does the label “gear addict” actually mean? Probably the best way to define this phrase is by looking at behaviors common to those fitting these labels. As might be expected, there is a whole range of behaviors covering a wide continuum. On the milder end of the spectrum there are behaviors like the following:
· Spends a lot of spare time buying, selling, organizing, cleaning, repairing, modifying and making gear.
· Subscribes to magazines, Internet groups, chat rooms, etc., specifically because they review and discuss pieces of outdoor gear.
· Pays close attention to the yearly outdoor recreation retailer shows; is quite knowledgeable about the latest trends and the greatest new gear items.
· Develops computerized gear lists for most overnight or longer backpacking trips.
· Involved in a never-ending search for the simplest, most functional and lightest pieces of gear.
· Does a lot of comparative shopping before buying new gear; develops electronic spreadsheets on specific gear options before making purchases.
· Spends considerable time testing and evaluating new gear in the field.
On the more extreme end of the spectrum there are behaviors like the following:
· Spends more time buying, selling, organizing, cleaning, repairing, modifying and making gear than communing with nature or fellow hikers.
· Knows exactly how much each piece of owned gear weighs.
· Develops an extensive master gear list (including weights, models and functionality) that includes gear currently used, gear no longer used, and gear coveted for future purchase.
· Develops subsystem gear lists (e.g., sleeping systems, clothing systems, navigation systems), comparing one potential set of subsystem gear against another; concerned with how specific pieces of gear in a subsystem interact with each other.
· Reads most advertisements for new gear; carefully peruses gear guides and goes online to search out more information.
· The walls of gear storage areas and home living areas are decorated with favorite pieces of gear from past eras.
· Understands the capabilities of all pieces of owned high-tech electronic gear; uses some high-tech electronics on all trips.
· Purchases gear that is not really needed because it was on sale; it was such a good deal.
· Goes to REI, but can't find anything to buy.
· Writes newspaper columns, magazine articles or Internet blogs featuring new outdoor gear.
· Has a whole room is dedicated to the highly organized storage of gear (e.g., all the cooking gear on one shelf; backpacking food on another). The storage area contains many examples of the same piece of gear (i.e., a half-dozen each of sleeping bags, tents, packs, boots, etc.).
· Total value of current outdoor gear is worth more than current automobile.
Many more behaviors could be added to those above, but there should be enough to provide a relatively clear definition of a “gear addict” and to realize that there is a continuum of this personality trait.
Reader Participation: Personal Relationship to Outdoor Gear
First, add any behaviors I might have missed that you think might describe yourself as a gear addict. Second, go back and circle those behaviors that best describe you, especially from the perspective of a friend who knows you well. Third, rate yourself overall from 0-10 regarding gear addiction, with 10 being the most severely addicted ______. Fourth, evaluate yourself from 0-10 regarding your satisfaction with your relationship to outdoor gear (with “10” indicating the highest level of satisfaction and “0” indicating totally out of control) ______. In this last evaluation, consider the possibility that being highly addicted to outdoor gear is not necessarily a negative.
Author’s Evaluation of His Own Gear Addiction
I admit it. I am a gear addict. Given the behaviors listed at the top of this article, I rate my gear addiction as a 6 or 7 (out of 10). Currently, I have eleven pairs of hiking boots and trail shoes, twelve packs, six pairs of snowshoes and skis, eight tents and tarps, eight sleeping pads and mattresses, six sleeping bags and quilts, and a full dozen insulated jackets, parkas and vests. My equipment storage room currently has 15 boxes and chests of various sizes to store everything. I am not totally a lost soul. I own only four stove setups, three pairs of traction devices, three headlamps and five sets of trekking poles. Then there are my other hobbies. Fortunately, I recently sold my sailboat and got rid of several boxes of sailing gear in the process.
Even though I admit to being a gear addict, I don’t see it as a serious problem in my own life (but I have been known to be wrong in some of my self-assessments). I rate my level of gear addiction as a 6 or 7 (out of ten). I rate my level of satisfaction with my gear addiction as a 7 or 8 (with zero being totally unacceptable behavior). To give myself a fairly high satisfaction rating, I rationalize (?) my extensive hiking gear closet as follows:
· I believe I need lots of gear options for the wide variety of hiking trips I take: day trail trips, day climbs and scrambles, quick overnights, week-long jaunts, winter trips sometimes in extreme weather. Sometimes I go ultralight light and other times I pack most of the comforts for some base camping.
· I hang on to old gear that I seldom use believing that I will loan it out to newbies (although this seldom happens).
· I love to experiment with the latest and greatest gear innovation.
· I don’t splurge on gear purchases for any of my other hobbies and recreational activities.
· I generally live simply with minimal material possessions.
Beliefs and Values Underlying Common Gear Behaviors
The “gear addict” behaviors listed earlier are usually based in specific values and beliefs about life in general. Here are some examples:
Inherent tinker and experimenter
Needs to do thorough research and analysis before making purchases
First-hand personal experience important; believes 2nd or 3rd hand experience should generally not be trusted
Comfort and security are important to happiness
Feeling safe and secure is a strong personal need
Appreciates quality and functionality in material possessions
Place high value on the simplest, lightest and most compact
Values organization and efficiency
Flexibility is important; likes to have many options to deal with whatever comes up
Prioritizes things over people
Uses people to obtain things
Considers technological progress is praiseworthy
Appreciates the history of technological advances
Believes science and technology will cure most of planet’s ills
Believes that whoever has the most toys at time of death wins
Believes it is important to contribute to grow the national economy
Reader Participation: Acknowledging Values Relating to Gear
First, consider adding more values and beliefs that fit with this topic, especially those held dear. Second, circle those values and beliefs above that best describe your personality, your way of looking at the world.
When Is Gear Addiction a Negative Personality Trait?
The title of this article refers to addiction, specifically gear addiction. Some will see addiction of any kind as a negative, but is this fair and defensible? I think not. For example, some have an addiction to unselfish behavior (like regularly giving away some of their gear to others who can not afford to purchase it). Some have an addiction to exercise. Others are obsessed with buying only organic and locally produced food; others are addicted to chocolate and ice cream. And still others to hiking and backpacking (one of my personal addictions). I maintain that addiction is not inherently bad. By itself it is neither right nor wrong, but a fact of human behavior. The degree and context of the specific addiction makes it positive or negative.
When the word “addiction” is used to describe certain behaviors, the reference is often to a person who goes to extremes, who focuses on one thing to the exclusion of most everything else. For example, the person who goes deep into debt to finance gear purchases, the person who ignores their family to focus on gear, the person who focuses on their gear to the detriment of the well-being and safety of their hiking party. These extreme behaviors are generally negative and often seen as morally wrong. I am inclined to go further and attach a psychological disorder label to these kinds of gear additions: obsessive gear disorder (OGD).
What about somewhat less extreme behaviors? For example, what about those who spend considerably more time working with gear and various gear projects than actually using it in the field? Or the person who focuses on outdoor gear so much they seldom actually get out into the backcountry (as per the introductory quote)? This person is often a procrastinator or practices self-deception. Or the person who works two or three jobs to finance their gear addiction and in doing so shortchanges their health? These kinds of behaviors are usually seen as negative and maybe even neurotic. I offer these examples to illustrate that addiction is a matter of degree: some are positive, some negative but not extreme, others are extreme and maybe morally wrong.
Is gear addiction unhealthy and morally wrong? It sure can be—depending upon the specifics and who might be hurt by such behavior. For more thoughts about the moral aspects of this topic click on this link, On the Morality of Gear Addiction.
Towards a Healthier Relationship with Outdoor Gear
Assuming you have a less than satisfactory relationship to outdoor gear (say 0-5 on a scale of 0-10), what is the best way to change your behavior? Like any human addiction, there are many causes and many possible answers to this question that are outside the scope of this article. But most would agree that the first step must be to admit the problem to yourself. A concomitant step is to admit the problem to your closest friends and ask for help.
What is the best solution for the gear addict who admits to being totally out of control? Again, this topic is outside the scope of this article, but what about starting with the following:
· Exert your will power (e.g., decide to go cold turkey with no gear purchases for a full year).
· Let your spouse, partner or close friend have full control of all discretionary spending
· Give away half of your gear to those in need.
Relationship Between a Gear Addict and a Technophile
Technophiles and the gear addicts are closely related, but different. A person could be one, or the other, or both. For example, a gear addict could love to collect, create, experiment with outdoor gear, but not be much interested in the latest and greatest high-tech applications (i.e., be relatively “low-tech”). A second distinction is between theory and application. Again, one could be totally focused on theory (technophile), on practical application (gear addict), or both. A final distinction is that between “technique” and “technology.” A person could be interested in both, even addicted to both in some way. Technology and gear, not technique and skill, are the primary focus of this article.
For an in-depth examination of the relationship of technology to wilderness experiences, click on Technology in the Wilderness.
Some Final Thoughts
This article started as an attempt to address the question of personal gear addiction. It has evolved in many directions (technology and wilderness, ethics of addiction, emotional health and addiction, values and beliefs related to material possessions). Writing it has provided me with a more objective basis to make some judgments about my own relationship to outdoor gear. What about for you while reading about it?
For a last thought on this subject, I am sharing a recent quote from a well-respected gear reviewer and outdoorsman, Dave Chenault, on his blog site (Bedrock & Paradox, 11.21.13).
“Gear helps you do your activities of choice, but most of the crap we purchase is not of the new sort, it is of the better-than sort. Better than the quite similar thing we already have, and even the best gear upgrades don’t make us all that much better. I’m not talking about buying shoes which finally fit; I’m talking about a lighter down jacket or pack, fancier skis or bike, more precise rifle. In almost every case the amount of betterness is well down in the single percentiles. The primary purposes of most gear purchases is rather to nurse along our engagement until we’re once again in the field.”
Additional Issues For Reflection
1. What is the relationship between technology and wilderness experiences? How much does high-tech gear interfere with such experiences?
2. Can we draw a clear line on pathological behavior and sickness in relating to outdoor gear or is it generally a continuum, a matter of degree?
3. What about blaming others (e.g., parents, society, advertising) for being a gearaholic? Can a person blame others if they fully understand and accept the inappropriateness or wrongness of their behavior?
4. What is the best solution for the gear addict who admits to being out of control?
5. What about the technophobe—the person who fears, dislikes and is adamantly against new technologies? Is this kind of attitude pathological or praiseworthy or just a fact of life?
6. Can a person who owns a lot of outdoor gear be properly accused of contributing to some of contemporary society’s ills (e.g., pollution, climate change, overuse of credit, materialism, consumerism)?
7. Should I attempt to buy organic products when possible (e.g., clothing made from organic wool, cotton, bamboo)? Should I attempt to buy products from manufacturers who are seriously attempting to reduce their carbon footprint and recycle gear material? Should I attempt to buy products from retailers who are contributing some of their profits to environmental causes?
8. What is the relationship between advertisers in outdoor oriented magazines/websites and gear reviews published in these media? Is the relationship too cozy resulting in reviews that are too positive? What about the serious lack of reviews of small, “cottage industry” produced gear?