From Mountain Khakis

What Stuff Means to Us: Your Old Outdoor Gear



Ok, I’m going to sell it. Really. I mean it. I even went so far to clean it and everything.

Even now, I’m hesitating. It’s an iconic piece of gear built to survive an apocalypse. I’ve shared many adventures with it. Never mind that it’s been sitting in the closet unused for years and is unlikely to be used anytime soon.

What Old Gear Says
What gear we keep sell says a lot about us, and more than just whether or not we’re packrats. I had no compunction about selling my old camping stove from my first backpacking trips as a kid in the 80s, despite many fond memories of melting snow for morning coffee high in Alaska, the Rockies, Scottish Highlands, Cascades and Sierras, nearly igniting a picnic table, and waking up people with it’s inimitable roar that sounds like the space shuttle blasting off. Childhood tent? Gone. Old fleece jacket? Gone.

In this case it’s my old Nikon F4, the rugged camera the gold standard for photojournalists and pro photographers from 1988 to 1998 or so. People waited months to pay four-digit sums for it. Like the brick of Fuji Velvia still on my fridge, it’s been long-since surpassed by digital. I’ve always rationalized keeping it in various ways: I could still shoot film (I have 2 others film cameras), it might be a collectible someday (unlikely), and it’s a hassle to sell (not really) In reality, I just love the way it fits in my hands.

We rely on some gear: climbing ropes and hardware to save our lives, PFDs to keep us afloat through boiling rapids, tent poles to hold up in a gale. I rely on my camera gear to work without a hitch on photo shoots in rugged conditions. The F4 fits my hands so well that using it is fast and easy, allowing me to quickly adjust focus and exposure to catch action or fleeting light. It’s sealed enough to shoot in a hard rain. That’s why it excelled as a photojournalist’s workhorse. It just happens to excel in an obsolete medium. But that doesn’t explain our reluctance to part with some of our gear either.

Sensory Experiences Drive the Outdoors Experience
The sound of skis schussing along, the smell of pines, the bite of wind. Our gear is a part of that experience, since we feel the snow through our skis, the water with our paddles, the cold mountain air through our sleeping bags.

But it’s not as simple as that. Some of that sensory experience is directly linked to gear that provides very tactile control, like how well our skis carve. But most is something else: the sleeping bag is simply what allows me to sleep under the stars on a cold night, but it’s not the experience itself. So that doesn’t explain my reluctance either.

But a 19th-century Russian named can. His name is Ivan Petrovich Pavlov. The psychologist conditioned dogs by ringing bells before dinnertime until their minds failed to differentiate between the bell and the food and they’d drool as soon as they heard the bell. For those of us who crave the outdoors as much as a dog craves food, gear is Pavlov’s bell. When I was a kid, we camped in an ancient canvas tent that got soaked and packed away wet countless times. I associated the smell of mildew with camping (I may have been the only kid on the planet to have a deep positive association with the smell of mildew.) Now the pavlovian sounds that make me smile are the telltale snick of a hip belt being fastened or a two-part kayak paddle being assembled, the very last sounds before setting off down the trail or out into the sea.

For the F4, Pavlov’s bell is the distinctive slapping sound of the shutter at 8 frames per second. One quick blast of that sound brings me back to firing away at paddlers kayakers descending Crystal, Hermit, Granite, and Horn Creek rapids on the Colorado and watching a lighting storm brew over the rim of Mable Canyon.

And other memories, too. That rapidfire slapping reminds me of something I no longer have to indulge in: hours at a light table, squinting at 35mm slides thorough a loupe. And for that matter, it reminds me of spending a ton of money. At 8 frames a second, the F4 eats through an entire roll of film in 4.5 seconds. I certainly don’t miss the cost of all that film and developing. I guess I’m ready sell the F4 after all.

By Neil Schulman