Jansport magazine from the Outdoor Recreation Archive
(Photo/Utah State University Outdoor Recreation Archive)

Massive ‘Outdoor Recreation Archive’ Houses Thousands of Gear Catalogs From the ’60s to Today

The vast library of gear catalogs offers a wealth of insights into the outdoor recreation industry’s cultural, commercial, and ecological impacts from the early 20th century forward.

A few years back, Utah State University professor Sean Michael had an idea: What if you could chart and preserve the history of outdoor gear through a dedicated collection of old outfitter catalogs and magazines?

Michael approached Clint Pumphrey, curator for the university’s Special Collections and Archives (SCA), who took the idea and ran it by Chase Anderson, program director for the school’s Outdoor Product Design and Development program (OPDD).

The two departments forged a partnership that would focus on amassing and curating publications focused on outdoor recreational gear.

The Gear Archive’s Growth & Potential

(Image/Utah State University Outdoor Recreation Archive)
(Image/Utah State University Outdoor Recreation Archive)

By 2018, the partnership ball was rolling fiercely. And in March 2019, the SCA/OPDD gear anthology officially launched. At its inception, Pumphrey and Anderson focused on curating outfitter catalogs and magazines from the 1960s onward — Chouinard (later rebranded as Patagonia), Eddie Bauer, and L.L.Bean were rudimentary.

But the once-humble trove has since given rise to a massive and inimitable library, the outdoor gear archive. A single donation of 1,200 catalogs seeded the project back in 2018. By March 2021, it had grown to house nearly 3,000 volumes from 200 publishers.

And that’s to say nothing of its fledgling photo, manuscript, and book collections. In September 2021, the archive acquired patents, footage, and original artwork belonging to the late Bill Moss of Moss Tent Works.

“With its explosive growth over the last few decades, the outdoor industry has firmly positioned itself as a significant part of the commercial, environmental, and social fabric of the country,” the Outdoor Catalogs & Magazines page explains.

“One way to examine this impact is through gear catalogs, which represent the culmination of a company’s work, from the design and development of the products to marketing and promotion of the brand, and how this process changed over time.”

The Outdoor Recreation Archive Gains Notoriety

(Image/Utah State University Outdoor Recreation Archive)
(Image/Utah State University Outdoor Recreation Archive)

Pumphrey and Anderson have brought the entirety of the outdoor recreation archive alongside the SCA’s recreation collection, curated since the 1970s, online. Together, the gear and rec compilations make up USU’s now-renowned Outdoor Recreation Archive (ORA). As of December 2021, the ORA is nothing short of goliathan — over 10,000 catalogs and magazines from 800 or more sources line its filing cabinets.

A litany of the collection’s most prized artifacts, latest additions, and announcements populate the archive’s Instagram page, which enjoys a sizable following — 14,500 followers at the time of writing.

“The archive’s Instagram following is bigger than OPDD’s and the [university] library’s. It’s been a really powerful tool. It’s helped us connect with many industry professionals,” said Anderson. “Reaching national publications and having so many people access the collection, it’s really a dream come true.”

“We’ve definitely exceeded our own expectations and generated more interest than we initially anticipated,” Pumphrey remarked. “That’s a pretty good problem to have.”

To access Utah State University’s Outdoor Recreation Archive, head to libguides.usu.edu/outdoorcatalogs. A digital exhibit dedicated to the outdoor catalogs and magazines collection is available at exhibits.usu.edu.

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Jilli Cluff
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Jilli grew up in the rural southern Colorado mountains, later moving to Texas for college. After seven years in corporate consulting, she was introduced to sport climbing. In 2020, Jilli left her corporate position to pursue an outdoor-oriented life. She now works as a contributor, gear tester, and editor for GearJunkie and other outlets within the AllGear network. She is based out of Austin, Texas, where she takes up residence with her climbing gear and one-eared blue heeler, George Michael.