I first became enamoured with Britain’s hills and mountains when I was a student. My friend Mike took me up Ben Nevis and we camped near the top, eating one of those ready-cooked and still-warm supermarket roast chickens.
Mike seemed such an expert. He had an ice axe! We camped on snow! This was epic adventure on a totally new scale for me. (Mike also had a mobile phone, something I had never used before. This was the ancient dark days of the last millennium. And so I made my first ever mobile phone call from Ben Nevis. “Hi Dad, you’ll never guess where I am…!”)
I began reading catalogues from outdoor stores and brands, learning wonders about things like base layers, and wondering how I had ever coped without something called a “spork”. I was agog at the epic adventures in the photographs of these brochures. You know the ones – bearded blokes and portaledge sufferfests, or beautiful girls sunning themselves in their base layers or cheerfully wielding a spork in a blissfully non-smelly-looking tent. I was hooked!
I bought my first item of GoreTex shortly after, purely because it was GoreTex and slashed to a fraction of its ticket price. Little matter that the trousers were XXXL and I could never actually wear them. I was on my way! I dreamed of one day owning a down jacket. I fingered the luxurious sleeping bags in the shops, incredulous at the cost. I had my list of favourite brands, the ones whose catalogues best portrayed the adventurous life I was dreaming of. Like all addicts, I wanted more.
Fast forward a couple of decades. I’ve got my own ice axes these days, my own mobile phone too. Much has changed, though I still am partial to running up a hill with a rotisserie chicken for my tea.
These days photographs from my own adventures feature in those envy-inducing outdoor catalogues. I even have a gear sponsor which is the most ridiculously cool, all my Christmases at once thing imaginable! (Thank you, HaglÃ¶fs.) Through freezing Arctic nights I have given thanks for those giant down sleeping bags I used to gaze at. Top of the range waterproofs have kept me alive. Pricey tents have held their own in violent storms. Expensive outdoor gear has, at times, been worth every penny.
But my life in adventure has taken a big change in direction since my days of expeditions to the Karakorams, Patagonia or the Arctic Ocean. These days I am far more likely to be found in the modest but marvellous Mendips, or in a river running just a few miles from a city’s shopping centre. Time and again I say, “Look! Adventure is everywhere. Adventure is not only for “adventurers”. Get out there and do stuff!”
So is the outdoor industry raising barriers to entry for people, rather than facilitating getting people into the hills for the first time?
You do not need to go to the Andes for an adventure. Similarly, you do not always need to be dressed in a grand’s worth of gear merely to go for a walk. There are times when the best equipment is crucial. And having lighter, comfier stuff makes all trips more pleasant. But many people are put off from participating in outdoor sports because they perceive it to be prohibitively expensive. That is wrong. Hill walking first became popular precisely because it was cheap. Working class men and women used to escape from the cities at weekends to enjoy the free entertainment of walking in the hills. Nobody on Kinder Scout in 1932 was wearing breathable GoreTex. Don Whillans did OK with his flat cap (and cigarette)!
Give an experienced mountain walker a cheap raincoat, some boots with decent grip and send her up most mountains in Britain on most days of the year and she will be absolutely fine. How can those of us connected to the Outdoor Industry convey that message? Know your skills and limits, yes. Learn to navigate, yes. But no to anything that makes people feel ostracised from the joys and benefits of walking in the hills on the grounds of cost. Let me know your thoughts via @al_humphreys on Twitter.
I am sure that many of us will be hoping that Father Christmas delivers a shiny new outdoor toy or two. For those of us lucky enough to have plenty of equipment, this is an opportune time to cull our gear cupboard. Charities such as Gift Your Gear or the Youth Adventure Trust do a fine job of helping more people experience the hills that we love and, perhaps, take for granted. And finally, keep your eye out for the first woodland primrose, a beautiful splash of winter colour.
This piece originally appeared in Trail Magazine.