The Oxymoronic Outdoor Products Industry

Essay by Hal Clifford

Outdoor Recreation – October 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

CALL ME NAIVE, but I thought the outdoor experience was about being outdoors. If I’m to judge by the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, held in mid-August in Salt Lake City, it’s about the idea of the outdoors.

Salt Lake’s tornado notwithstanding, it was a huge event. By my guess about 400 retailers set up elaborate booths in the Salt Palace Convention Center. One account said 18,000 people — wholesalers and retailers — were expected. I was there on my publisher’s expense account to sign a book, but I snuck away to spend some time wandering the aisles. I wanted to know: What, exactly, are several hundred retailers trying to sell to us schmucks who consume the products of the outdoor industry (a fascinating term, if you think about it)?

Well, for example, there was the Macor De-Ticker, a tool for — you guessed it — getting ticks out of your hide.

There was a porcelain toilet adorned with beautiful images of trout swirling down the bowl. This item took the cake for Most Unintentionally Ironic Product.

And consider the Pacsafe, like a raincover for your backpack, but a mesh made of piano wire “to protect your pack from knife-wielding thieves.” Yikes!

AlpineAire Foods was demonstrating self-heating food. Pull a little string on your pouch of spaghetti and meatballs to release water onto a magnesium tablet. The resulting chemical reaction generates heat, and steam, which whistles out a little exhaust hole in the top of the unopened bag. When it’s done, dinner’s ready.

Spectrum Electronics was promoting the Thunder Bolt Storm Detector, which detects thunderstorms up to 60 miles away and calculates their range and approach speed within 10%. It even has a “connector for eternal alarm,” according to a brochure. I hope that was a typo, but you can’t be sure.

The marketers did not ignore the special recreational needs of women, either. A Vermont clothing company called Juno unveiled its new line of “Dew Drop” shorts, pants and raingear for women who don’t want to hassle with undoing their rock climbing harnesses or ski pants when they get the call of Nature. The garments all feature a nearly invisible full-crotch zipper called the “Split pea.”

A couple of bodacious young women in teeny bikinis strolled through the crowded aisles. I found them later at the Islander Kayaks booth. They were in lawn chairs with a hunky guy, lasciviously smearing on sun screen beneath the low fluorescent lights. A dozen men stood around gawking. One was videotaping. It was eco-smut.

But sex sells everything, and there’s no reason for the oxymoronic outdoor industry to be any different. The come-on by Islander Kayaks was intended to create the Me Want Now impulse in buyers — just like the kayak demos in the big pool set up in the center of the hall, and the sport climbing wall, and the fake rain running off the awning leading into the Timberland pavilion.

I make my living in part by writing about outdoor activities for publications that are supported by advertisers whose wares were peddled in Salt Lake. And I am damn glad for things like Gore-Tex and fleece and polarizing lenses. I’m no modern-day Thoreau eschewing technology.

Nevertheless, after a day at Outdoor Retailer I felt like I wanted to take a shower. The beautiful imagery decorating the booths; the sleek packaging; the hip people; the eco-friendly colors; the elegant design; the clever innovation — all of these things are simultaneously attractive and off-putting. Just as it is in the SUV ads, the marketing imagery is all about freedom and wilderness and self-discovery, but the reality is that buying this product — any product — will not get you those things.

I am as seduced as the next person by gear. But I try to remember that my old pack carries stuff just as well as a new one, and that no matter which boots I’m wearing it’s my legs that will get me up a trail, and that no amount of electronic gadgetry can explain the glory of the mountain sky.

Hal Clifford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colo. (http://www.hcn.org). He lives in Telluride.