The end of elite

We can’t continue to leak, Barker says, or fewer people will experience the outdoors, appreciate it, and advocate for its protection. That’s where Walmart could come in. “There’s always been a variety of entry levels for the consumer wanting to get into camping,” Barker adds. “If Walmart is having that conversation, then we need to engage them at a deeper level.”

But Rich Hill[21], president of Grassroots Outdoor Alliance[22], points out that having a good first experience with the outdoors is paramount for new customers—that’s the reason they keep coming back—but that’s something Walmart or Amazon can’t offer. Moreover, Hill says big-box retailers could put the entire industry at risk[23] because they don’t understand how safety equipment works. “A store like Amazon or Walmart is going to get someone killed,” he says.

Hill realizes that sounds elitist, but, in his view, the outdoor industry has a responsibility to keep people safe. “If that excludes some people from getting into the outdoors,” he says, “then so be it.”

While the connection between those who use the outdoors and those who advocate for it is notoriously difficult to quantify, there is no other widely accepted rationale for why it’s important to bring more people to our public lands. So let me offer one: All us lovers of the outdoors share something in common. Our connection to the wilds has to be earned individual by individual. But once it is, it doesn’t really go away. The world can do worse than to have more people feeling the outdoors in their chests and wearing it on their bodies—and the future of the industry likely depends on it, too.

In the end, there’s probably room for both elitism and mass consumerism in the outdoor industry without one devouring the other. We’re just going to need a bigger tent. 

This article originally appeared in the first issue of The Voice. Initial information in this article noted that Merrell has a campaign and tagline related to its ambassador program. This was incorrect and falsely portrayed the brand’s efforts.[24]

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