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‘Toxic Gear Culture’: How One Small Retailer Is Combatting the Industry’s Darker Half

Isella Outdoor gear consignmentPhoto credit: @angvswild and Isella Outdoor
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Do you remember your first time with a full-suspension mountain bike, ultralight rack, or fat skis on pow? Gear can elevate any outdoor experience, but it can also be a barrier. One company aims to hook more people up with gear and make the industry more inclusive at the same time.

It’s a life-changing experience to have access to the right gear. It can mean the difference between having the time of your life outside and being in pain because products don’t fit. But gear is expensive, and because of that, it’s inaccessible to many people.

If you have been lucky enough to have access to the right gear from the get-go, you may not know what it feels like to have the “wrong” gear. But no one thinks the best gear should be a gatekeeper to the outdoors.

Having the “wrong” gear could mean wearing sneakers on a hike instead of waterproof boots. Or it could mean buying off-brand gear at a thrift or big-box store because that’s what you can afford. So how do people access gear that elevates an outdoor experience if it’s always been out of reach?

Enter Isella Outdoor (and founder Mallorie Estenson), which offers a glimpse of a potential solution.

Isella Outdoor
Photo credit: Kelsey Lee and Isella Outdoor

What Is Toxic Gear Culture?

What qualifies some gear as right or wrong? And at what point is the industry keeping people out instead of welcoming everyone in?

In my own experience, for the first year that I started climbing, I used my school backpack as a climbing pack because I couldn’t afford a dedicated climbing pack. It was awkward, not big enough, and my gear was always poking me in the back. Still, somehow I crammed all my climbing gear into that 26L pack.

At the crag, I felt pressured, out of place. I received strange looks and offhand comments about the bag. Honestly, it probably wasn’t meant maliciously, but it still made me feel that my gear was “wrong.”

This feeling has a name: toxic gear culture. It refers to the suggestion that some people don’t have the right to belong in outdoor spaces unless they have the highest-quality, or proper, gear. If you have ever judged someone for wearing jeans at a ski resort, or sneakers while hiking, you have — albeit unknowingly — contributed to toxic gear culture.

I’ll admit it: I’ve done it. I’ve also been a victim of it. And I still sometimes catch myself feeling that some gear is better than others. I make excuses for my love of gear (heck, I write about gear for a living). But I’ve also felt the sting of not belonging because I couldn’t afford the right gear.

Note: There is no such thing as “the best” gear — a Walmart-brand hiking boot might be fine for hiking in moderate climates or beginner hikers, as long as the boots fit well, have a good tread, and provide some durability.

But sometimes, that $200 SCARPA or Lowa (a more technical brand boot) is the best for the terrain and your needs, and in that case might be the “right” gear. Brand recognition alone shouldn’t dictate decisions on gear. Find what fits the sport and fits you well.

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Isella Outdoor: Gear for Everyone

Aspiring guide and customer service rep for Cascade Designs, Mallorie Estenson was inspired by an Instagram post about toxic gear culture.

“It made me acutely aware of a lot of privilege, assets, and opportunity that I possess,” she said. “And also ways that I could kind of give back knowledge, experience, and even equipment that I have to folks who could do great things with these items that were just kind of wasting away in my closet.”

So in August of this year, she started an online gear and consignment store for women and nonbinary folks called Isella Outdoor. It started on Instagram. Estenson would post pictures of secondhand gear and people would comment, like, and buy.

It quickly took off — in just over a month, Isella Outdoor has amassed more than 6,000 followers on Instagram and even launched a website, completing about 200 sales since going live.

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It was pretty obvious to Estenson this was something that people wanted. To build on the momentum of accessibility and inclusion, Isella announced a “gear scholarship giveaway” for people who had experienced barriers getting into outdoor spaces. The brand received more than 50 applicants in the first 48 hours. Three winners received a kit of backpacks, tents, sleeping bags, and pads.

Priority for the giveaway was given to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) folks and women. And Isella is already planning a climbing giveaway for October to provide two people with sport racks and one person with a trad rack.

“Everyone who comes to us gets hooked up — the seller gets a fair price, and if you’re a buyer, you get gear at a good deal. And any proceeds that come from that get funneled into increas[ing] access, opportunity, and breaking down barriers to entry,” Estenson said.

Isella Outdoor website

What’s Next

For now, Estenson is focusing on making Isella Outdoor into a sustainable business. Over the past month, her apartment has become a post office, full of her own (and other people’s) gear. She continues to dream about future goals for the business, such as becoming a nonprofit or expanding into educational initiatives.

“We exist to hook everyone up,” she said. She wants people to feel the squish of a full-suspension mountain bike, to know the magic of riding the pow on fat skis. She wants people to experience the best gear out there so they can know how good it — and they — can be if given the opportunity.

Thanks to Isella Outdoor, that opportunity is now reaching more people.

Isella outdoor female hiker
Photo credit: @katiefromcanada and Isella Outdoor

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