When I first decided to thru hike the AT in 2012, I decided I needed a new backpack. Everyone I knew had an Osprey pack and I decided I needed one too, despite having a perfectly functioning backpack already. I ran down to a local outfitter, grabbed the pack off the shelf and was "fitted" by an employee. By fitted, I mean he put it on me, put a 20 lb sandbag in the pack, and told me it looked great. I paid (a lot) for the pack and took it home to load it up. After putting all my gear inside, the pack felt really wonky. I took photos of myself and sent them to a few friends who all agreed I looked like a 5-year-old wearing a grown up pack. It was enormous and didn't fit me at all. When I took it back to the store, they recommended instead of returning it I order the small instead. When it came in, the pack didn't fit much better than the regular size did. I ended up returning it also. I looked more closely at the pack I already owned and customized it, being that it had an adjustable frame - something I didn't even realize. With the help of the internet and some googling, it fit like a glove and I never looked back.
As a hiking guide, I see a lot of people who tell me their pack fits them just because an employee told them it did. Meanwhile, they've got all the straps adjusted to their smallest, tightest setting and the pack still gaps and stands inches away from their backs. I tell them all the same thing - get a sewing tape and measure your own torso. Then, get in touch with customer service to return the pack they own and get one that fits better. After learning from my mistakes, I'm here to make my case for why I love shopping for my gear in the cottage industry - and why you should too!
When I first started seriously getting into hiking about eight years ago my town didn't have any "big box"-type outfitters. We had a few local outfitters who had been in business for many years. I spent nearly every weekend in their stores, looking at gear, talking to employees about local trails and hikes, and trying on hiking clothes. It seems like so much has changed since then. We now have so many big stores - Dick's, Gander Mountain, Cabellas, Bass Pro Shops, Academy Sports, and the biggest name out there - REI. Some of the stores I loved shopping in have either gone entirely out of business or have switched to focus more on outdoor "fashion" - carrying mostly clothes and only one or two brands of packs. The biggest thing that I've really noticed is the quality of employees. Now instead of talking to knowledgeable trail hikers, I'm talking to college students selling Patagonia hoodies. Gone are the days of properly being fitted for a pack in my town. The big box stores are even worse, with many employees cross-trained to work different departments and focusing more on selling membership cards than teaching you how to light that new stove you want to buy.
After my thru hike of the Appalachian Trail I was more informed about gear than I had ever been. It seemed many hikers had packs I'd never heard of before - Hyperlite Mountain Gear, Gossamear Gear, ULA. They had cuben fiber stuff sacks and I even saw a Sawyer filter for the first time. Where was all this gear? It was all online. I had decided to upgrade my pack after 2200 miles on the AT due to the smell alone, and remembering that experience I had before leaving for the trail I decided to take matters into my own hands. I researched gear for months. I watched videos of how to fit myself for a pack, read about pack weight and suspension systems, learned all about new materials. I finally decided to go with Gossamer Gear because I liked their customization options and light weight. I went from carrying a 3 lb., 8 oz. pack with a 40-lb capacity (which I should NEVER be carrying on my tiny frame anyway), to a 1 lb., 2 oz. pack with a 30 lb. capacity (which I've not hit since before my thru hike). Not only was I saving weight, I was buying from a small company.
Shopping small is a big deal here in the States. More and more people are starting to shy away from the Big Box Super Stores and turn to local business. When you're supporting a small business, you're supporting a person and not a corporation. You're supporting a fair wage to an American worker. You're supporting their families and helping them put food on the table. You're not supporting buying overseas materials and assembly, where wages are low and working conditions are abysmal. When you're buying cottage industry gear, you're supporting a fellow adventurer.
My absolute favorite thing about cottage industry gear isn't just that it's usually made by people who participate in the same activities I do, it's personal. And by personal I mean just that. When I was deciding between a Gossamer Gear pack and a ULA pack after my thru hike I called the companies with questions I had during my research process. In both cases I was talking to the man who created the packs. They both went as far as putting me in touch with other hikers who used their packs to get honest opinions. Every time I've ever called one of these cottage companies, I've ALWAYS spoken directly to the owner and creator of the company without expecting it or even asking to. They answer the phone directly without a long complicated phone system. Cottage industry gear often means passionate people working to help.
And what happens when something goes wrong with your special order item? Well, when our Tarp Tent tore on our second night our Benton MacKaye Trail thru hike we emailed the company. Unfortunately, we only had cell signal a handful of times in the 20 days it took us to hike, but when we got back to my parents house in Tennessee, we were able to mail the tent to them, where they fixed it in ONE day and mailed it back to our house in New York. They had our tent less than a week, repaired it, and sent it back with no questions asked. That's amazing service!
When I talk to people about buying gear online without ever trying it first they're usually incredibly hesitant and I totally understand that. When you're working with a cottage industry company though it's so incredibly easy to get quality help with your purchase that it's just not something I worry about. The people working in these places are passionate about gear and any question you have someone in that building can answer it for you - I promise!
The final thing I want to talk about is price. Yes, cottage industry gear can be expensive. A lot of times it's the higher quality materials and handmade nature of the product that can be more expensive. Yes, you can buy a 3-pack of stuff sacks at Walmart for about $10. Those bags will probably break after a thorough use (all of mine have) and you'll need to replace them anyway. When you spend the extra money for a cuben fiber bag or an Ursack you're investing in your gear. You're going to get the customer service necessary to make it right if it does break instead of shelling out more money to replace the bags. This is the time when you have to go back and think about supporting small business though. Honestly, my Gossamear Gear pack ended up costing less than that Osprey pack did anyway! Wait for a sale on that item you're coveting if you really need a lower price - or consider buying it used on Ebay or from a hiker flea market Facebook group. You can find great cottage industry gear for sale if you search.
Finally, I've found a list over on Appalachian Trials where you can see companies who make and produce their gear here in the USA. You can check that link out here: http://appalachiantrials.com/camping-hiking-gear-made-in-america/. Of course, I also realize that we can't always get everything we're looking for at a small company and that's okay too! We will always have to buy some piece of gear down at the big box store - and maybe that's what you prefer to do. No judgement here - none of us are perfect!
Do you own any cottage industry gear? Would you be more willing to try it for the first time after reading this post? Leave me a comment or catch me over on Facebook to get the conversation started!