The bow tie and top hat might have been a bit much. It made the barista stand out, for sure. In the midst of puffy jacket- and plaid-clad wanderers in Salt Lake City’s convention center for the twice annual Outdoor Retailer trade show, he was pulling espresso shots for the line of people stacking up in the new, hip, Venture Out section. And the funny thing was, he didn’t stand out nearly as much as he would have in the past. Perfectly groomed beards, tucked in button-down shirts and old-school leather hiking boots seemed to mark the new cool kids on the block while the eye-catching new marketing materials looked straight from Instagram and Pinterest. If this is the future of the outdoors, what does this say about our relationship with nature and adventure?
I imagine a number of old timers might have been sitting back laughing at how “outdoorsy” is the new cool, chuckling about how often any of these hip young bucks and does actually climb a rock, paddle a creek or pitch a tent. Of all the booths stacked with vintage-looking or avant-garde new styles, few of them were super practical. These new brands seem to represent something new. Maybe an “outdoors light,” things you buy with the idea of looking or feeling outdoorsy but maybe without the super lightweight, highly technical look and function some of the core outdoor brands are holding to.
Certainly there will always be a place for the uber-technical items. Extreme skiers and hardcore alpinists will continue to require top-of-the-line gear and apparel. But what does this explosion of “outdoor light” products say about us as a culture? Two things: One, we love to buy new, cool things. And two, on some level we might be beginning to value nature and the outdoors a bit more than we used to.
I’m not immune to the lure of the sexy new styles. I follow my fair share of lumbersexual Instagram accounts, and I’m a sucker for vintage-looking hikers. So this fresh wave of stylish offerings is a test of my espoused value of minimalism and personal struggle with consumerism. If we value simplicity, where should these nice-looking, semi-functional items fit into our lives? The upside is, with more variety to choose from, we should be able to select our wardrobes and gear closets with items we like even more than before. It might just take a little more curating effort.
Social media and marketing are changing the way we think about and experience the outdoors. Van life and car camping might be cool the way going to a club was a few years ago. Our relationship to nature looks different than it ever has before, and it certainly warrants examination. But maybe it’s a good thing that young people are thinking about nature at all, whether they wear Poler, The North Face or a t-shirt from Goodwill.