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.

Why do we love outdoor product catalogs?

I use the short walk to the mailbox every day as a reason to give the dog a chance to sniff and lift and my recovering knee a reprieve from the confines of 90-degree desk life. Then as I get close, I grow ever so slightly giddy with hope that at least a portion of its contents will be for me. Maybe—probably—there’s a new outdoor product catalog waiting.

Bill. Insurance claim notification. Coupons on MRIs (I get a lot of those now). A check. (Finally.) Bill. Cable company “bundle to save” postcard. REI Winter Sale. Yes!

Truthfully, I’m not sure why I enjoy getting catalogs. Gear lust maybe? Good marketing ideas? REI sends one for every holiday, regardless of how insignificant, triggering a direct-mail barrage of competing sales announcements, like in honor of Columbus Day or something. I suppose that’s outdoorsy; he was an explorer.

Patagonia mails the gold standard in outdoor product catalogs, without question. Captivating photography accompanied by riveting product ambassador chronicles cleverly (or not so) entwined with images of a Capilene layering system or new Live Simply shirts highlighted on the opposite page. I don’t care though. I know what marketing is all about. And Chouinard is a genius at it.

I’ve grown to really like Eddie Bauer’s new print mailings, especially the recent First Ascent/Expedition Outfitter edition, even though the company is trying way too hard to remind us that it was the “original expedition outfitter.” (We get it.) Anyway, the surprise vertical layouts, QR codes and full page gear spreads managed to keep me page turning like a14-year-old boy who came across his old man’s garage porn stash. The pinnacle of the one that arrived a few weeks ago was easily the “Ed’s Pack” spread, which presented us with a smiling, Antarctic-ready Viesturs proudly climbing through a presumptuous check-list of his expedition pack items for us to peruse, the numbers for which match up with each item in an intricate opposite page photo titled “Ed’s Pack Unpacked.” Brilliant. There was even a half-eaten Hersey bar. And man, that Microtherm Down Shirt is sweet.

Mountain Gear’s catalog is a return to basics: pure gear love. Screw the esoteric J. Peterman diatribes and pretentious attempts to lull me into anoesis with slick jargon about new material and breathability and just give me the goods, man. I can flip through this saddle-stitched circular ten times over and see a new piece of swag every time. Sweet. Do I need a Selk Bag? The fall sale edition was a bit thin compared to previous years.

Evo sells mainly ski and snowboard gear and its catalog is pretty cool. It’s well-designed, showcases what matters and even throws in some real life case studies of Evo athletes struggling like the rest of us with the nine-to-five grind in between slope time. (Patagonia’s stories are great, but who really has time to spend six months trout fishing in South America?) The employees posing with outerwear in the waning pages was a little contrived but I’ll give them points for their model selection. Cute, real-women types. I don’t get the whole candy tie-in. But I don’t care, because I need new snowboard boots this year. And I bought my helmet from Evo, too.

As much as I hate paper and try to avoid clutter in my life, especially around my writing desk, I always give a pass to the gear catalog and make room for it. They become coffee-ringed references for buying decisions and oases of justification for post-purchase regret. “See? I knew I bought the right shell. It has this cool anti-abrasion coating on it. You can’t not have that … ”

So, keep ’em coming Patagonia, Eddie Bauer and happy Boxing Day REI. You can keep my address on file too Ibex, even though you’ve taught me more about wool thickness than I ever thought I would care to know. I’m digging your Shak line. And that piece on Vermont flooding because of Irene was solid, short and compelling. Can we get more of that and maybe fewer math lessons? When am I ever going to need to know how to use a micron?