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Are Expensive Outdoor Brands Damaging Our View of the Outdoors?

The University of Maine is composed of a rather outdoorsy student body, to put it lightly. From headlamp-lit races through the university trail system or group hikes to the top of Mt. Katahdin during peak fall foliage, one does not have to look far to find an exciting outdoor activity at our school. Just last year, UMaine was declared “The Most Outdoorsy School in the Northeast” in the aftermath of the nationwide “Outdoor Campus Challenge,” a competition in which students posted pictures of them participating in outdoor activities as a way to earn points and possibly prizes for their schools. While this adventurous, active image portrayed by much of our student body is something to be proud of, there is an aspect to this image and the way in which our culture has evolved to treat being outside that has actually served to discouraged underprivileged groups from getting outside.

A somewhat disheartening, but at the sametime unsurprising, trend that has arisen in the realm of outdoor recreation and “weekend warriors” — individuals that only have the motivation or the time to go and adventure on the weekend — is the perceived necessity of expensive equipment and clothing. This is mostly born of the meteoric popularity of outdoor brands such as North Face and Patagonia. These two brands particularly are know for extremely high quality clothes and equipment made to last in extreme conditions, as well as extremely high prices to match. Despite this, most consumers of these products — myself included — purchase these brands not for the utility, but for the brand itself.

In a study published in the Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences Journal, researchers noted that individuals purchase certain brands as a way to reaffirm their own perception of themselves and “to signal to others the kind of person they are.” If one takes a look at the list of North Face ambassadors, the list is comprised of everything from ultra-distance trail runners to big mountain freeskiers to free-solo climbers; these individuals push themselves and the act of playing in the outdoors to the limit, and thus they need top notch equipment. The fact that these clothes are made for these sort of individuals enables consumers to not only reaffirm their image of themselves as “outdoorsy,” but to actually expound upon it.

Ultra-runner and North Face athlete Dean Karnazes refers to this effect as “the aspirational aspect” of North Face gear, and while it may seem harmless, both the consumers and the marketing ploys used to reach them could result in some unanticipated effects. There is an issue that national parks have long faced but have rarely openly advertised; a distinct lack in diversity.

In 2011, the University of Wyoming found that only 1 in 5 visitors to a national park site are non-white, and the proportions only grow more slanted with regard to national forests, to which 95 percent of visitors were white between the years of 2009 and 2012. While there certainly isn’t a catch-all reason for this disparity, it’s difficult not to acknowledge the price of some of these activities. Travel and camping fees can already reach disquieting heights in popular locals, and with high prices of the outdoor equipment brands that are advertised in the media, in can be easy to make the assumption that many outdoor activities simply aren’t for those outside of a certain income bracket.

A 2013 New York Times article revealed that many minorities worry that they won’t be welcome in the outdoor sphere due to general lack of minorities partaking in these activities. From this, one can begin to see a sort of cycle begin to form. In the face of advertising that makes going outside look more dangerous than fun, many individuals determine that their vacation days are better spent at resorts and not in forests. Now I’m certainly not saying that purchasing gear from Patagonia is ruining our culture’s perception of the outdoors, but I am saying that if we collectively loosen our grip on our more materialistic tendencies, then perhaps we can begin to craft an image of outdoor adventure that can be both exciting and relaxing.

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