Top 5 reasons why REI is not a soul-stealing outdoor gear behemoth

I’ve been to enough wilderness medicine courses, backcountry hotspots and generally interact with enough dirtbags to know that in the trenches of the outdoor adventure sect, somewhere around where dreadlocks start to appear below the shoulder on white people, that REI is looked upon as some sort of cutthroat, outdoor product body snatcher, an unholy, ever-present strip-center testament to everything the outdoor spirit doesn’t embody.

Well, I’d like to exorcise those demons. And here are five vindications for the great unwashed who preach such nonsense (I’m talking about people who literally don’t ever wash) to consider the next time they land at the trailhead with a broken french-press or shattered headlamp.

#1: Locations just about everywhere
Any business with a ubiquitous major market presence, like Cheesecake Factory or Ross, is automatically lumped into the imaginary “big business” cabal sent from planet Deep Pockets to plunder precious pot and beer money from the change-purses of poor, van-dwelling rock climbers broken down along CA 395. (Somehow Apple and Starbucks dodge this stereotype.) Look kids, market presence is a good thing. REI’s ability to lease space close to the Wal-Marts and terrible taco chains of the world means that when you forget something, you probably won’t have to go too far to get it. I see last minute and emergency shoppers in my Vegas REI every time I’m there. (I don’t need to ask, but the odor and climbing capris are usually evident enough indicators.) However, if you leave Denver proper and don’t discover you need a can of fuel until you’re rockies deep into the mountains, well then have fun paying Grand Lake mark-up on your IsoPro.

#2: Whatever you need
We gear nerds have some unique needs. Like titanium sporks and tent footprints for a Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2. (Although anyone silly enough to pay what’s charged for tent footprints anywhere shouldn’t be complaining about price. Ever.) I love small locally-owned gear shops. Many of them have stuff that is of much higher quality than what REI’s primary demo is willing to lift from the rack. Like, serious mountaineering garb and aid climbing gadgets. However, many of them just don’t have the shelf space for the goofy gear amenities a lot of us have been suckered into thinking we need, like those folding butterfly chairs. Once it becomes part of our pack’s standing inventory, we’ll find a reason to bring it along. And thank you REI, for having it in stock when we leave it in the garage.

#3: Return policy
Just as every manager of a highway-exit hotel chain location is cursing the day Holiday Inn Express made us all believe a night’s stay must include a waffle maker and rubbery half-moon omelets folded over some lukewarm cheese product, every other outdoor gear store in the industry laments the day REI’s return policy became the baseline for adequate customer service. Absolutely people abuse its magnanimous take-back strategy, but if it was eroding the co-op’s revenue, limits would be put in place. Fact is, it’s super gracious of the company to do so. And lest we forget, all those returns get fed right back to the hungry gear-buying public come quarterly garage sales, which are way safer for discounted gear than meeting some sketchy dude in jean shorts from Craigslist in back of a CVS to buy his “used-once” 20° down bag. (Shudder.)

#4: It’s a Co-Op
Take that, corporate America. All the anti-Wall Street 99%ers should take themselves a quick lesson in business operating structures before assailing the nation’s largest retail organization of its kind. It was started by a bunch of mountain climbers who held the same belief about business that most of its modern-day detractors currently espouse. That little $20 piece of flat plastic members keep in their wallets actually means something. Co-ops are considered by the conscious capitalism set as the answer for big business tyranny. It’s a clearly transparent organization (try uncovering the contact information of Apple’s board members) that also gives tens of millions every year to environmental causes.

#5: The dividend
Yep, fully aware that it goes right back into the next pair of Smartwool socks or Prana flannel. But that makes it a rolling investment. Spend a lot one year and your dividend goes up. Larger dividend, the more spent next year. There is without question some bonafide retail marketing ju-ju going on here, as your very presence in the store with money in hand pretty much scripts in blood that you’ll spend more than what’s on your mailer. Every other gear retailer sounds the sale alarm come early spring to coincide with REI’s annual give-back. Backcountry.com, Moosejaw.com, Altrec.com and Campmor all hop on the 20% off bandwagon. Like Super 8 does with the dry cereal and weak coffee.

So quit bitching people, REI is more than worthy of our business. And if you’re lucky enough to have nearby a local outfitter with tons of beta on what’s out back, then awesome, there’s a lot to be said for those guys. And by all means, give them your business. I do, every chance I get.

Just remember though, no one’s out to get you. They just want to get you outdoors.

Imus Geographics: superior map makers.

Detailed portion of Imus Geographics Sierre Nevada map

This image alone will keep you around a while.

The Sierra Nevada range is a vast, glacier-carved Shangri-La of outdoor recreation. Choosing a single place to visit amongst all that wilderness isn’t easy, especially when assigned to plan a weekend road trip from Las Vegas.

I like to think it is for trips exactly like this that Imus Geographics created its Sierra Nevada map. However, its pine needle precision and exceptionally coherent illustration suggest that these maps are probably best for framing. If John Muir needed a map, he would use this one.

Imus Geographics is a small, Eugene, OR-based company that makes maps. And man, do they make maps. The detail, quality and illustrated nuances of their work open up an area like no Rand McNally can. There is care in every topo line. For anyone who questions why I don’t carry a GPS (or even own one) I can confidently point to the work of Dave Imus, an artist/cartographer whose effort could never be replicated on a 3.5” screen.

The only drawback is that so much time and information goes in to creating an Imus map that he only has a few currently available. That doesn’t really matter, because by the time you’ve exhausted one, a new one will be ready.

I almost feel guilty allowing this thing to get a bit torn and flattened from use. Yet, the potential adventures it holds between its creases are just too great to leave compressed on a shelf. Since I bought it a few weeks ago, I have used it like many would a novel. I open it on a table and finger my way across one fantastic destination after the next, routing future weekends through the granite and Sequoia. I estimate distances and trace trails. “That’s where my tent should be. This road could get me there … ”

Maps just leave so much more open to the imagination than a satellite guided device packed with a timed, measured agenda. And what kind of adventure can you have without imagination?

Sometimes, you just can’t say goodbye to your best outdoor gear

REI_HalfDome

The REI Half Dome, and Jetboil PCS, during a 2005 Grand Canyon trip

It’s hard keeping up with every new piece of gear that hits the outdoor market. The incessant reviews, although we love them, aim to make us forget everything currently stuffed in our Action Packers and jump headlamp first into the next great “fast and light” series of shells, packs and shelters. It never ends. But alas, to love the outdoors is to love gear.

On the heels of the Summer 2011 Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake, I thought it worthwhile to consider what in my garage do I currently have no interest in upgrading? What piece of gear has yet to fail to me or give me a reason to post on Craigslist? I have quite a few. Here’s five.

1. CRKT M-16 knife. Still sharp, still super light and damn dependable. Owned for at least five years. I know there’s some encrusted trout scales on there at least that old.

2. REI Half Dome 2 tent. It’s been recently upgraded with more vertical walls I guess. But hell, I’m trying to hang picture in it. After six years, the only tear came courtesy of Delta Airlines. It’s patched. Stick that in your turbine and smoke it Delta.

3. Gregory Z-55 pack. I have a 105 liter and a 30 liter. By packing right, I don’t need either of the extreme end packs. Owned since they launched the line. It’s also been updated but I have no need to follow suit.

4. Jetboil PCS. Also purchased upon product launch. I’m not sure where Jetboil is heading with their line-up today but frankly, I don’t care. The original is still the best thing going in canister stoves. Not one repair; not to the ignition mechanisms, not to the stove base. Damn thing won’t quit.

5. Patagonia Guide Jacket. I have no idea what iteration Chouinard and team are on to now with this line but again, I don’t care. I have had it for years and it is still my go-to personal shelter for all kinds of weather and temperature. The range of conditions on this thing is broad enough for me to bring this on every trip in every season. It’s a mid-layer when snowboarding and a first-grab on cool summer nights. It fits under anything and above plenty. It’s simply the best jacket I’ve ever owned.

So what about you? Any longtime favorites you just can’t get pry out of the weekend line-up?