The Things They Carry: Sustainability, Diversity, and Equipment

This essay was originally published in the NOLS Staff Newsletter.

by Jeff Wagner
            When I see people in the backcountry, sometimes I try to guess how much time they spend out there by the appearance of their equipment. If it’s well-loved and covered in patches, they usually measure time outdoors in weeks rather than days. It’s harder to tell with new gear though. They might have just bought a new backpack to replace the one that was a patchwork quilt. They could be the type who picked up an REI catalog and bought the uniform to confront their nearest national park. Or, they could be a NOLS student out in the woods for the first time.

            Stepping into a NOLS issue room, students are already learning a way to interact with wild places. The simple, non-material thread that runs through our mission, values, rations, facilities, and field work isn’t totally there during that first shopping spree. While I want my students to carry quality equipment, I ask what sort of environmental, social, and commercial habits we’re supporting by asking them to purchase lots of expensive new gear.

            What happens after the adventure to the gear our students buy? I like to imagine a world where former students are using that gear while climbing mountains, biking around town, and watching sunrises from wild places. I’m sure that fleece jackets and wool hats often live happy lives after NOLS, but I’m less optimistic about more specialized items like gaiters, heavy hiking boots, and puffy pants. Those might lay forgotten at the bottom of closet or may have found their way, as all things do, into a landfill. Some gear doesn’t even make it home; I’ve pulled gaiters and hydration bladders out of the trash on de-issue day. I hate to think that students treat their equipment as single-use.

            Pick up any outdoors-oriented magazine and you’ll see a barrage of brand names in every photo. As our society grows more disconnected from our natural environment, companies sell us bright-colored gear with technical-sounding names to protect us from big bad nature. It’s hard to visit popular trailheads around the western states without feeling like you’re walking through a catalog photo shoot. Looking back at the army surplus wool days, it’s a pretty big contrast. The media sends the message that you need to dress a certain way to be in the outdoors, and those fancy-name jackets don’t come cheap. Expensive equipment and exclusive fashion present big barriers to diversity in the outdoors.

            Looking at the price for a NOLS course is daunting, and in comparison, the equipment deposits seem manageable. But if a student comes to NOLS without any of their own gear, that deposit won’t go very far. In outfitting for a typical midsummer WRW, the equipment list says they will hand over at least $1100, more than a quarter of the tuition.

            Money aside, we cannot take lightly the environmental impact of producing outdoor equipment. Even if we recycle our base layers into new ones, we still encourage the original extraction of raw materials, production of waste, and use of energy. Tanning the leather for your boots requires heavy metals like chromium. Synthetic chemicals like polytetrafluoroethylene (gore-tex), polyethylene terephthalate (fleece), and polyamides (nylon) are all manufactured out of toxic compounds, including perfluorooctanoic acid (carcinogen and endocrine disruptor) and ethylene glycol (better known as anti-freeze). At the end of the production process, that toxic industrial waste has nowhere to go but into the air, water, or leaking landfills.

            Outdoor education isn’t too focused on equipment, but you might not know that from a tour of a NOLS branch. Personally, I find the retail aspect of our issue rooms intimidating (all that shiny gear with big price tags!), and I know that some students must share that view. When students come to NOLS and purchase piles of new gear, are we helping to promote the attitude that you need plenty of money and brand-name equipment to be in the wilderness?

             The attitude we should support is that it doesn’t so much matter what you have, it matters how you use it. I propose some steps we can take to both improve our sustainability and offer more accessible ways to get people in the outdoors with quality gear.

            First, we could rent more items. Nobody wants to rent their underwear to save money, but what about rain jackets and gaiters? Gaiters aren’t available for rent at any NOLS branch, but I imagine they’re hardly used when students take them home. If the strap durability is a concern, adding a few grommets would allow students to make new straps from parachute cord in the field. I’m sure adding rental items is frequently suggested and presents logistical problems, but it would be a good step to take.

            Second, we could help facilitate the exchange of used gear among students. One idea is to put out collection bins for different types of gear on de-issue days. By catching students in the mindset of handing over their gear, I bet the bins would do better than donation bins in places like the Nobel Hotel. Part of preparing in the field for de-issue should be having students ask themselves, “do I need all the gear I have right now?” We could offer gear collected on de-issue day to students who received scholarships.

            Third, we could encourage students to consider buying used gear for their course. We have “preferred” retailers where we ask our students to shop. Why not “prefer” them to buy used gear from second-hand outdoors shops or thrift stores? If a student is struggling to pay for their NOLS course, I would “prefer” them to wear a five-dollar wool sweater rather than a hundred-dollar fleece jacket. Plenty of great stores deal in used outdoor equipment, and any thrift store could have fleece or rain jackets. We might even provide a short guide on what to look for in used outdoor equipment.

            One final idea is to move more items into the realm of group gear. Common items like screw-top Nalgene bowls and even metal spoons issued as group gear could be washed and returned on de-issue day along with pots and fry-bakes.

            In our efforts towards a more sustainable and inclusive school, issuing gear for students can’t be overlooked. Any new models we try will only be successful with support and awareness from instructors, administrators, and students. There is no one answer for the issues I bring up with student equipment, but I hope to encourage discussions about steps we can take towards improvement.

-Terlingua, TX, October 2012

© Copyright 2012 Jeff Wagner