Long in the Tooth

Working with Outdoor Research and Backcountry Access has gotten me thinking about realistic expectations for the absolute lifetime of clothing and backpacks.  And I'm starting to wonder if we have conflicting wants and needs for our gear.  Like, we'd all like our backpacks to fit perfectly, weigh next to nothing unloaded, and is exactly what we need for a day hike, a day at the crag, an alpine climbing weekend, AND the week-long ski tour.  Oh, and keep working for 10 years.  And cost less than $100.00.

But that ignores the fact that I don't need a precisely fitting pack for a day hike, but I do for a 50 mile trail run.  Or that a 55lbs load needs a different suspension system from a 20lbs load.  Or that to get a lighter pack I need to use lighter fabrics that either 1) aren't as durable or 2) are as durable but cost twice as much to use in the pack, driving up the cost.  We're ignoring that a crag pack needs to be much more robust and durable than my trail running pack, or even my expedition pack.  And I'm forgetting that UV damage will make the stitches and the fabric in this pack fail a lot sooner than 10 years from now, irregardless of how many patches and repairs jobs I perform.  Packs that do last that longer are made out of heavy-weight cordura, not sil fabric.

This carries over to our clothes too.  We seem to want one outfit for winter, one for summer.  Period.  That works in all temp ranges, in all conditions, that breathes out to let me make as much heat as I want on the uphill, but that insulates me when I'm standing still, and keeps me dry when its raining.  And fit me exactly.  And last a lifetime.  And weigh next to nothing.  And cost less than $100.00 (see a trend here?).

We're ignoring that something simply can't let heat out at one moment and then insulate the next.  Goretex - or whatever else waterproof whatever you're using - eventually breaks down, no matter how many times you re-treat with that bottle from Nik-wax.  And that for something to be truly water-proof, it physically cannot be breathable.  But on any rain-proof "breathable" anything and run uphill for 10 minutes, if it doesn't feel clammy on the inside against your arm, tell me what miracle fabric you're using.

Unless you're 175 lbs, 5'9", with a neutral ape index and a 17" back, most things won't fit you exactly.  I'm 185 lbs, 6'1", with an 18.5" back and a +5 ape index, and I'm constantly having to decide if I want my shirt to fit my shoulders but be short on my wrists, or fit my arms and be baggy.  Even then, most things won't fit you exactly, and I've learned from trial and error that just because one pair of pants fit me well it doesn't mean that every pair of pants from that company will fit me well too.  Most will - but there's always little nuances in the cut, and today outdoor manufacturers actually distinguish between a trim/athletic/slim fit (nice for base or single-layer systems); a regular/standard fit (nice for colder or two layer systems); and loose (great for belay parkas).  I am not exactly a trim fellow, so some people's idea of "athletic" sucks for me.

For the superior gender, breasts and hips make this exponentially harder, and you have my fullest sympathies.

Stuff wears out, but I'm starting to think that outdoor manufacturers make things to last for around 100 days.  I know they don't use that as a metric, but think about it - the average climber gets outside may be one full weekend a month, hopefully two more day-trips too, and a week a year.  The weekend-warrior/reservist routine.  Not slamming on it, these are the folks who buy enough product to make it financially viable to produce sil fabric tents and ultralite anything - because they need it to maximize their time off.  So that means in a give year, that softshell pant may be worn 50 days - assuming they wear it every time they go out, which isn't a realistic expectation.  Even less if we're talking about a goretex jacket.  So let's assume they wear it half the time - 25 days.  That's four years of life using my 100 day rule, which seems like a reasonable expectation to me for something to last until the knees or the elbows or the straps start to fail.

Its nice to know that somethings do have a lifetime warranty.  Like zippers.  And that companies like Patagonia and Outdoor Research that are offering lifetime manufacturing guarantees.  But I think we need to realistically expect things to wear out in about 4-5 years of use, less if you get after it more.  And we shouldn't bitch about it - the alternative is to have things that cost too much to invest in, or simply have fewer choices.

And we need to have reasonable expectations of what we do buy.  If we purchase an ultralite backpack and then go climb a chimney in red rocks with it - or use it roughly in any way, than you're shortening its useable life.  Ditto for clothes.  So plan on it, budget for it, if you can't afford to replace that ultralite pack next year, maybe get the next-heavier choice that will last a year longer.  Or if most of your time is spent at the crag, get a burly pack that can withstand the abuse of getting dumped in the dirt, the rocks, and the parking lot multiple times a day, for a lot of days.

I guess that's what it boils down to - creating a reasonable expectation of what you need, filling it with the appropriate piece, and replacing it as needed.