The Nation's Pulse

The Best Things in Life Are Free — Almost

Gearing up for outdoor adventure sure isn't what it used to be.

By 4.9.10

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I have a storage unit here in Salmon, much of the contents of which looks like the back room of a sporting goods store. Packs and fishing rods hang from nails on the walls. In a corner is a large tent in a canvas carry-bag. There's a box with three pairs of hiking boots in various stages of decomposition, but still wearable. An extra sleeping bag here, a tackle box there. More boxes containing  clothes for particular seasons: a pullover hooded rain slicker; various vests, both nylon and polar fleece; sweatshirts, wool socks, caps, rubber river sandals. A pair of old ski poles useful as walking sticks hang from the rafters. This is just the overflow. Much of the above, not including the tent, can also be found littering two closets in my apartment. When friends visit from out-of-state, they needn't bring their own daypacks.

I've accumulated all this stuff while enjoying the outdoors for the past 35 years. From yard sales and thrift stores, or from friends moving who just gave things away. Way back then your "outfit" largely consisted of Army-Navy Store (does "War Surplus" even exist anymore?) stuff, got cheap. Olive drab canvas rucksacks sans waistbelts that always hurt your neck and shoulders if you carried a heavy load. Military-issue steel canteens sheathed in green canvas belt holders. Flimsy tin mess kits. Thin cloth sleeping bags that always guaranteed a shivering night. My first pair of "hiking boots" were black-- shiny Air Force issue with smooth soles and steel toes. They cost two bucks. The problem with steel-toed boots is that on a cold morning the steel gets cold, hence, so do your feet. And while I never tested the theory, I suppose they would have come in handy to kick a charging bear. I remember that twenty or thirty dollars covered the whole spree.

On a recent day in Missoula accompanying  friends intent on a variety of shopping chores, I found myself in a high-end outdoor "gearhead" store. A rustic multi-level layout of wood and brick walls festooned with framed posters of people practicing extreme sports such as whitewater kayaking or skiing off cliffs. While my friend Barbara tried on -- and eventually purchased -- a pair of hiking boots, I wandered through this large outdoor toys emporium curiously pricing merchandise.

There certainly were no two-dollar Air Force boots on display. The hiking boots I looked at -- depending on the brand name -- cost from $100 to $250 per pair. They were made of waterproofed leather and had thick-tread Vibram soles and Gore-Tex nylon linings. After a proper breaking-in period, they promised hundreds (thousands?) of miles of comfortable, blister-free hiking. On a rack nearby, thick wool socks guaranteed to withstand Arctic conditions went for $10 to $18 per pair. Nylon gloves ($25). A sturdy canvas long-visored cap ($18). Ten dollars for a plastic water bottle.

I wandered into another part of the store to continue the assembling of my mental outfit, and scribbled prices in a notepad.  Bright pastel colored daypacks -- with lots of zippers and pouches -- ran from $40 to $140. Some featured built-in water "bladders" with convenient hoses for drinking while walking. Larger framed backpacks designed for multi-day camping trips retailed for $125 to $375. Cozy, down-filled sleeping bags ($150 to $300). Nylon tents -- depending on size -- $180 to $400. A pair of lightweight titanium telescopic (length adjustable) "trekking poles" ($50 to $140). A hundred and forty bucks (or $70 a piece, if you will) for walking sticks!

I was assailed by pleasant salespeople; earnest college-age types very knowledgeable of the store's wares. "That's a popular pack," said one guy. "Not top-of-the-line, but a good everyday pack." I told him I was waiting for a friend and just looking. The kid gave me a quizzical look. "No problem," he said, and walked away. While I was looking at sleeping bags -- hanging from a rack in a long and wide multi-colored curtain -- a young woman approached. "Just looking," I said, while she was still twenty feet away. It was noontime on a weekday and the place was quiet. It seems that the current economic slowdown hasn't been kind to upscale outdoor gearhead toy stores. These kids were desperate to make a sale. Barbara had the undivided attention of another young woman as she tried on multiple pairs of boots. When I got home I tallied up the prices in the notepad, averaging their mid-range, and discovered that a weekend backpacking trip outfitted from that Missoula store (not counting food and miscellaneous small items) would cost roughly $1,300.

A few days later on the trail out of Wagonhammer Springs near Salmon with the hiking club, I spied with my binoculars a small herd of twenty elk camouflaged well against a tawny sagebrush ridge high above the trail. The binoculars (if bought in a store, $40 to $400, depending on optical sophistication) were black, heavy and old, and I had found them on a trail in Wyoming a few years ago, thanks to a careless, anonymous fellow hiker or hunter. I studied the elk with pleasure and as I did so, thought: "You really can't afford to do this."

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.