In Praise of Specialty Outdoor Stores

It’s the season of holiday shopping, and I’d wager that most of you are doing a fair bit of it online. Online shopping has many benefits: a wider selection of gear, the ability to compare prices, convenience.

But don’t forget your local specialty outdoor store. A good one with knowledgeable salespeople can offer an extraordinary level of personal service. They can help fit you with the right gear for you and your adventures, answer questions, and help with customer service.

I was reminded of this on Saturday afternoon. I’ve needed new skis for a long while and was in the market for an AT ski setup. This meant selecting skis, bindings, boots, and skins—pretty serious, and expensive, gear choices in my book. I did not want to mess this up.

I’d done my research beforehand, consulting numerous reviews and manufacturers’ info, and while I was leaning toward a certain pair of skis, I knew that buying ski boots meant a trip to a specialty store. Plus, I wanted to run my gear inclinations by some experts. So I headed to Aardvark Outfitters here in Maine.

Both the very knowledgeable salesman and owner of Aardvark Outfitters spent several hours with me—asking and answering questions, measuring and fitting, having me try on different boots and liners, all to ensure a proper fit and the right gear for me. They were willing to call company reps for more info on specific bindings and despite my monopolizing a large chunk of their time, put no pressure on me for a sale. They also promised that they’d fit me, no matter what. So if, despite all our best efforts, the boots they've ordered aren’t quite right for my feet when they arrive, they’ll make them right, or find me another pair that is.

I left the store confident in my choices, and very excited and eager to get into the mountains and put my new equipment to use. That’s what buying outdoor gear should be like.

So, if you’ll be buying any gear gifts this season, consider taking a trip to your local outdoor store and supporting the local economy. The men and women who own and work at these shops are often the same ones you’ll see at your local mountain or trailhead. And if you get good, or even great, service, tell others.

Filed under: Gear News


Bill S
4,404 reviewer rep
6,006 forum posts
December 15, 2008 at 5:16 p.m. (EST)

AMEN!! If it is anything beyond some simple item I already know (usually replacing something I have used and liked, but lost/broke/loaned out and never got back/etc), I find it is essential to go to a local specialty shop. This holds whether it is outdoor gear, electronics, or whatever. Even when I am an "expert", it pays to get a second opinion from someone who might well know about an alternative I haven't seem yet, or who can give me a few hints on how to make something work better.

Unfortunately, the local specialty shop is a disappearing breed. Here in the SFBay Area, 30-40 years ago we had a dozen excellent climbing/backpacking/backcountry ski shops and another dozen good ones. Currently, we have 2 excellent shops, plus 10 REIs with too many inexperienced clerks and 3 or 4 knowledgable people, a dozen Any Mountains and Sports Authorities and Sports Basements (with clerks who don't know which hand the baseball glove goes on or the pressure to pump a soccer ball), plus several chains of Big Box sports stores.

Support your local specialty shop!

2 reviewer rep
169 forum posts
December 16, 2008 at 10:30 p.m. (EST)

I agree, Bill. When I can - the store is a long ride away from where I live, too long for a quick visit - I shoot across Boston to the North Shore and to Moor and Mountain. Straight and experienced talk.

mountainblue (guest)
December 18, 2008 at 10:35 a.m. (EST)

Couldn't agree more. And if you are new to an area ask around at trailhead/fireside chats, the local ski patrol/MSAR members, etc and get a few opinions. Then, as with any major decision on outdoor equipment, use your best judgment and shop around then buy when you are comfortable with the people, the shop, and the equipment. Expensive gear will not necessarily save your life but cheap gear may cost you - your life.

What you buy is no one's fault but yours so own your decisions. If you’re ever in Boise, Idaho you can count on Greenwood’s Ski Haus (since the 50's when I was a teen) and The Benchmark (since the 60's; mountaineering, bkpking, and general outdoors-ie stuff).

Enjoy God's handy work and let it snow, let it snow, LET IT SNOW !!!

33 reviewer rep
202 forum posts
December 21, 2008 at 2:21 p.m. (EST)

This is a great article and prompts the question.

Could we create a list of specialty stores to be featured somewhere on the site? You could have a submit thread and then only allow admin to expand the list. This would not be an endorsement of any particular store but allow Trailspace users to find local specialty stores they may have been unaware of.

Dave MacLeay (Dave)
346 reviewer rep
982 forum posts
December 30, 2008 at 9:06 p.m. (EST)

BigSmoke, sorry I missed your post earlier. I think that's a great idea! Ultimately I can see having it as a structured, searchable database, but we could easily get the ball rolling with a thread in the forums. Maybe under Gear Selection?

1,663 reviewer rep
3,956 forum posts
December 31, 2008 at 3:40 p.m. (EST)

I am happy to report that the Charleston SC area now has two outdoor specialty stores, Half Moon Outfitters & The Backpacker.
For a while we didn't have one at all, I had to drive two hours to The Backpacker in Columbia SC.
I really appreciate our local stores.

848 reviewer rep
3,897 forum posts
January 7, 2009 at 5:33 p.m. (EST)

Thanks for all the comments and to BigSmoke for the excellent suggestion.

For now I've made a thread at the top of the Gear Selection forum for store recommendations:

This could become a very useful tool. Please add your own recommendations with details there.

Eventually we'll aim to move it into a database format for greater usability, but this should get it started.


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