Why are we such gear freaks in the NW?

Photos courtesy Museum of History & Industry and Charla Bear

By Charla Bear

In the Pacific Northwest, we know that yoga pants, polar fleece and hiking shoes are great for grocery shopping. But when we head into the great outdoors, we love to pile on the high-tech gear.

Sure, the weather here demands a certain level of protection from the elements. But what is it that compels people in the Pacific Northwest to want every piece of equipment out there?

High on gear

Wakefield sorting through her running clothes <em>Photo by Charla Bear</em>The Northwest is home to dozens of outdoor equipment manufacturers, from Filson to K2 Snowboards. Those companies know we’re a sucker for the stuff.

Take Mark VanVliet and Sarah Wakefield. Every floor of their Ballard home is stuffed with recreational gear. Here’s just a short list:

“We’ve got jackets and boots of all kinds,” says Wakefield. “Sailing shoes, climbing shoes, water shoes, crosscountry ski boots, downhill ski boots, backcountry ski boats, snowboarding boots, rollerblades…”

The list goes on. And that’s just upstairs. It’s nothing compared to the arsenal you’ll find in the basement. If they want to go kayaking, they’ve got six boats to choose from. Climbing? They’ve got enough for three separate set ups.

“I’ve become my own little, tiny Ballard REI,” says VanVliet.

They have so much stuff, it barely fits in their Subaru wagon. The bottom line for this couple is it’s all about being comfortable while roughing it in the great outdoors. 

“I don’t think it’s that ridiculous to have a queen size air mattress inside your six-person tent for two people to sleep in the woods,” says Wakefield.

In a tech frame of mind

Of course, none of us need this stuff to camp. It doesn’t require a portable espresso maker and a shower heated by the sun. But we sure like all these toys.

“It’s a lifestyle of always wanting to have the best and newest. Like the iPhone,” says Wakefield.

However we rationalize it, we are clearly obsessed. So much so, our addiction is an easy target for sketch comedy shows like Portlandia.



So why are we so enamored with gear? Maylon Hanold, lecturer in the Sport Administration and Leadership program at Seattle University, has tried to find out. One reason she points to is our “technical minds.”

“Between Boeing engineers and software engineers and research one institutions like UW, we have a lot of minds that are technically oriented.”

So when it comes to outdoor activities, she says we’re naturally interested in the technology that goes with it. 

She says it’s also about wanting to fit in ... in an outdoor-obsessed culture.

“This desire to be associated with sport is very powerful. So people will buy,” she says. “And they’ll never use it.”

Of course, she says there are some reasons we actually need more gear than you would a milder climate. 

“San Diego is 70 degrees 365 days a year,” she says. “It’s a pretty limited range of gear that one needs.”

Still, she says people here do tend to go a little overboard. 

Temptation central

Perhaps the best place to see that is where gearheads get their fix - REI’s flagship store.

Inside this homage to gear is a tent that’s six-feet tall, complete with an outdoor “garage.” There’s a plastic ball so you can make fresh ice cream at your campsite. You can even get a backpack for your dog.

Mead sitting in REI with an ice cream maker <em>Photo by Charla Bear</em>“We can get you a pack for your lapdog,” says Rick Mead, director of merchandise management for camping and climbing.

How useful that would be is another story. 

A few people are able to escape without something they probably don’t need, like customer Jeremy Davidson.

“I almost bought an oversized spork so I could take bigger bites,” he says.

It all stores well

Back at Mark Vanvliet and Sarah Wakefield’s home-slash-gear-storage space in Ballard, Mark admits there are a few things he’s never used.

“Actually, you’ve made me realize I should get rid of this junk,” he says with a laugh. 

His fiancé protests. Then the couple agrees that the only good reason to get rid of gear is to make room for new stuff.