REI Reflections: Seeking (n)ature Amidst Gear

That funny combination of inspiration and frustration

I’ve had a funny relationship with REI over the years. At times it’s felt like a magical place, a toy store full of ideas and inspiration that really did help me get outdoors. But at other times, the stores, the catalogues, the videos, blogs, and digital marketing campaigns (#OptOutside…) have felt like a sort of mockery of the reality of my life.

Collectively, REI’s footprint often feels like a reminder of activities and things I can’t afford or don’t seem to have the time for while making my urban/suburban life seem all the further from the ideal nature I feel drawn to. I know this may be true of ALL marketing… but it feels particularly disorienting from REI because the outdoors is such a personal and important area in my own stories of what’s been most meaningful in my past, and what my present may be lacking.

Disclaimer: So yes – this essay is probably annoyingly narcissistic and really a description of my own mental deficits. But I’m guessing that if all of this messes with my head and heart in pretty serious and fundamental ways… that our modern Walden-work may have something to do with dealing with our relationship to the commercial mediation of outdoor experience. And yes, I did consider Media Studies as a masters degree, and never thought about making money when I was in college studying literature and etc.


In my younger years, REI equipped me for backpacking, trail building, family and college adventures of all sorts. Both high school and college graduation were marked by significant gear purchases: I arrived at college with a new Marmot tent and a fancy altimeter watch (ironically, I returned BOTH of those gifts years later for new gear — before the lenient satisfaction guarantee was amended to a single year), and I used college graduation gift money to buy the most expensive backpacking pack REI had at the time (the Arctryx Bora 95– a truly ungainly beast of a pack that served me extremely well for 3+ years of outdoor work… but weighs nearly 15 pounds empty!).

As I’ve grown older and settled into a suburban career and family commuting lifestyle, I’ve had less time for adventure and less disposable income — just as Instagram has increased the constant exposure to visions of outdoor adventures and #vanlife refuges from the 9-to-5 world.

Collectively, I think this has created more frustration than inspiration for me.

Of course, it’s just a store, a place to buy outdoors things. The marketing, the sum total of it all serves to create demand for the products. My reactions are really my own… and say more about me than the company.

So what does this old frustration say about me? What can I learn from it?

Holiday shopping ‘feels’: inspiration and misguided cravings

Since moving further away from REI, I no longer use it as a proxy for the outdoors. When I lived nearby, it was an easy destination for those many times I ‘needed to get out of the house’ but didn’t know where to go or what to do.

So, I haven’ t recently spent too much time in the odd tension of inspiration and frustration inspired by the store. I just haven’t been going there. But, for my Christmas shopping, REI always seems like a much better all-in-one destination than the mall.

And I must admit… It’s a bit of vicarious thrill to buy jackets and other outdoorsy tidbits for other people when I have way too-many of my own. A cozy fleece or down layer is one of my go-to gifts for all family members.

So… after a long break, I returned to REI, this time with wife and toddler, and revisited the outdoors toy store.

It really was exciting after being away so long. Of course there’s the excitement of things – of new products, styles, and technologies. But there’s also the reminder of places I’ve been, past adventures large and small, the sum of my outdoors life served back up to me on a platter. Though, with a price tag – wow! – a larger price tag than I remember.

And that I think is at the core of my issue. It is too easy for me to be distracted by the price tag, too easy to confuse new gear and equipment as necessary for adventure.

Back in college, or when I worked outdoors, I often had minimal living expenses and outdoor adventures and jobs at a scale to warrant serious investments. I could justify a $400 + Western Mountaineering sleeping bag because it comprised 50% or more of my ‘home’ for multiple summers (when I had no rent or mortgage to pay for my tent site below the stars).

Now, as an adult, I have much less discretionary income to speak of, and any that I manage to bring home seems reckless not to store away for the next major home, auto, or health expenses that seem to come up annually, if not seasonally.

So that’s why I say “misguided cravings.” All the gloss and allure of gear creates this false sense of needing more, or simply new things in order to get outdoors.

In reality, I have such a complete set of gear from my past adventures that I could easily outfit an entire small expedition with tents, backpacks, sleeping bags, and random layers. And I often fantasize about doing just that, recruiting people to come join my own expedition and recreate the original joy of traveling in the backcountry with my college’s outdoor program, Outward Bound, or on the trail building or wilderness therapy expeditions that I led.

It’s just 1) easy to forget that I own it all, and 2) there’s not the same excitement and glamour digging through the cobwebs of my basement and garage to piece it all together. And 3) boy… does it all need a good cleaning after years of full-time use!

How does one harness the inspiration and get over consumer confusions?

So far I’ve mostly complained, and blamed, and not been thankful for the sparkly world that REI and the Outdoor Industry in general has built in my imagination. I know this is silly, and I know this has far more to do with understanding my own frail psychology and habits than accusing these businesses of any sort of impropriety.

But I also think it’s absolutely worth remembering that it is an Industry with a capital “I,” with lobbyist, Customer Acquisition Costs, Lifetime Customer Value metrics, and a single bottom line of profiting off of the urge to go outdoors – despite the serious and significant charitable work being done by REI, Patagonia, the Outdoor Industry Association, and to a degree, probably the majority of outdoor businesses (it’s sort of a necessity at this point).

What I’ve been seeking in my own life is Walden with a capital “W,” or even just nature with a very, very lowercase “n.” The stuff that’s all around me, the little moments and vignettes of life that are just inches outside of my suburban routine, or right there underfoot when I’m not paying attention.

My tendency is to think that I need to shift my life to become an ultra-runner… after simply watching a video like “How to Run 100 Miles.” And then to start looking at gear, ultra-light vests, trekking poles, special shoes… for what may become a passing interest, or a lasting commercial experience that has me searching for deals and learning about brands and etc. AH! The gear rabbit hole… one of my great weaknesses. And the delusion of thinking those purchases are the start of the path to running 100 miles, not the minutes and hours spent jogging and jogging and jogging in whatever shoes happen to get the job done.

So, my goal is simply to glean the inspiration of the marketing world, of these nice videos, of the catalogues that keep coming to my door… but to put on the shoes I already have, and give my sleeping bag a good wash, and start planning adventures at my own appropriate scale.

To take my wife and daughters camping, to share with them that part of myself that I’ve developed in the backcountry, to share the joy of simply being away from it all – outside in open air, feeling the time pass as it only does when each fluctuation of temperature, wind, and light is so keenly felt.

At 35 years old, it’s time for me to grow up a little. I’ve often been a participant, tagging along with my parents, signing up for college trips… a largely passive experience, following along wherever the driver is headed.

Now, I get to take on a new role, to begin planning intentionally for the bits and pieces of free time that we can gather.

I may not need to spend money on gear, but I will need to spend mental energy on planning ahead, committing to schedule time off of work, committing to finding new campgrounds and trails and forests to explore nearby where adventure is literally at our doorstep.

I’m feeling a sort of heroic energy now as I bring this reflection to a positive end… the excitement of food-planning and stove cleaning, the urgency of tightening guy-lines as an evening storm starts to whip up the flaps of the tent… the thrill of waking up to pee in the middle of the night to find the stars spilled in the billions like marbles.

There’s my nature with a little “n”… there’s the energy that I get from my own self, from my memories and experiences, not catalogues and pictures. So that’s where I need to orient myself, my personal compass for getting outdoors… by tapping into my own memories and inspiration rather than looking outward.

Update: Months later…EASIER SAID THAN DONE

It’s funny how easy it is to bring a short piece of writing to a happy and perhaps somewhat trite conclusion. The reality is that in the time since writing this, I’ve come no closer to actualizing this vision.

Summer has begun and it’s really time to commit to getting myself outdoors, despite time limitations or anything else.

My next step is to think about how I can overcome my own path-of-least-resistance impulses to actually get myself out the door and in to the mountains. Alone. With friends. And with family.

That should be my next essay and focus here… AND the whole point of why I stared this blog in the first place!

If you have any advice on how you plan and get yourself out the door… perhaps this is natural to you and you take for granted how awesome you are for doing it… leave a comment and let us know how you get it done 🙂

Even better, say hello on twitter @jrdavids… I’d love to chat on this and connect. Cheers!

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