Looking for a mildly depressing stat to start your day? Amazon collects 49% of all online sales in the U.S. That’s right, nearly half of the stuff bought online goes through a single company – and that percentage is growing. For comparison, Walmart, Apple, and eBay combine for less than 10% of the digital retail space.
While Amazon continues to challenge our collective definition of a monopoly, there are several smaller, local options available. Places with friendly people to talk to, sage advice about gear, and shelves stocked with useful products, not just race-to-the-bottom shit. Many of these shops have been around for decades, standing the test of time due to their ingenuity, investment in community, and adaptability.
My distaste with Amazon is fairly obvious – the rise of the online warehouse correlates with the decline of the specialty climbing, skiing, paddling, and mountaineering shops across the country. And with the loss of these technicians, tuners, and pack fitters, we also lose their hands-on experience and knowledge. Thus, if you’re near a small gear shop that offers a product at a fair price, I encourage you to buy local.
This iconic shop was the real catalyst for writing this story. When I heard that Ascent was closing this May, I was really bummed. In my mind, it’s always been one of the last bastions of buying gear local, widely known for its friendly staff, quality rental gear, and endless advice. Fortunately, it was acquired and re-opened just a few months later. Based in Ballard, the shop focused on activities such as backpacking, camping, climbing, trail running, skiing, and biking.
Lone Pine, California
This small and unassuming gear shop in the parallel small and unassuming town of Lone Pine is an absolute hidden gem. The floor space is compact and almost always cluttered, just like your gear closet at home. Based at the doorstep of the Eastern Sierra with direct views of Mt. Whitney, the shop focuses mostly on rock climbing, hiking, and mountaineering. If you’re driving 395 on the backside of the Sierra, it’s always worth a visit just for the used gear rack.
A true mountain shop, located in the shadow of the Flatirons. Neptune has rooted itself in the Front Range community thanks to reliable advice, without spin or trendy hype. The staff has ample hands-on experience and the shop carries a wide variety of products for almost any activity you’ll want to do in Colorado.
If the company’s website is any evidence, Pagan cares very little about fancy marketing. This local, home-grown, rocking climbing shop is run by climbers, mostly for climbers. The staff has first-hand experience with related activities like mountaineering, canyoneering, backpacking, rafting, kayaking, mountain biking, and base jumping. Based in downtown Moab, the shop offers great info on climbing in the area and suggestions for other fun activities when the weather isn’t right.
Founded in 1937, Mountain Shop has the most seniority on this list – and the oldest local outdoor shop in the country. They offer gear for camping, climbing, hiking, and skiing, plus rental packagers, demos, equipment repair, and local knowledge.
Over its four-plus decades in business, Piragis has become a home away from home for lots of people as they begin trips into the Boundary Waters. Based in Ely, Minnesota, Piragis strives to the paddlers’ best friend up north, having the right stuff in stock and greeting everybody who walks through the door. Founded by newlyweds in 1979, the store includes outdoor clothing, Northwoods gifts, camping equipment, a full-service bookstore, and an outlet store, as well as guiding canoe trip in the BWCA wilderness.
For the last 35 years, Rutabaga has been a paddler-owned-and-operated specialty shop in the hub of Madison, Wisconsin. The company sells, services and rents the best paddling equipment, ranging from canoes, kayaks, paddleboards, and more. Their outdoor programs constitute the largest flat-water paddling school in the country, with classes for all ages and skill levels, multiple certifications, and masterclasses.
Providing locals and visitors inspiration and knowledge since 1979, Alpenglow offers a wide variety of equipment to help you get outside. The shop caters to cross country and backcountry skiing, trail running, hiking and camping, and rock climbing. It takes pride in being a community, socially, and environmentally responsible to ensure Lake Tahoe stays one of the best places to play in the county.
Pack Rat Outdoor Center
The shop loves two things – helping neighbors have amazing adventures and giving back to the community. It invests heavily in sustainable business practices, including renewable energy resources, reducing the consumption of single-use plastics, leading stewardship events, and recycling all waste possible. Oh, and Pack Rat offers gear for all kinds of activities like hiking, running, camping, paddling, and biking.
Started as a partnership between friends in 1974, Trail Head found its footing by selling and servicing backpacking and camping gear in the 70s and 80s. Since then the shop has gradually grown to include other sports like climbing, running, and skiing. Trail Head’s mission is to create trust between buyers and sellers and enhance the opportunities for everyone in the outdoors. The shop provides technical equipment, clothing, informational resources, and service to the region.
Although the name may be a bit of a misnomer, the advice I’ve gotten in Midwest Mountaineering is some of the best I’ve ever received. Founded in 1970 and still true to its roots, the shop is best known for offering high-end technical gear and advice, often being able to speak from personal adventures they’ve been on. They offer backpacking, canoeing, cross country skiing, hiking, snowshoeing, dog sledding, and trail running products.
Mt. Shasta, California
Fifth Season specializes in just skiing, snowboarding, and mountaineering for a reason – so that the company can do it exceedingly well. Fifth Season honors suggested retail prices and does not discount often. They do not sell into a gray market or offer products without a warranty. They offer some of the best service I’ve experienced, and are trusted by elite skiers and alpinists all over the state.
Taos Mountain Outfitters
Taos, New Mexico
First opened in 1969, Taos Mountain has been selling apparel and footwear to customers for a half century. Instead of focusing on hundreds of stores across the country, the company sells stuff specifically for Taos – the best boots for Wheeler Peak, camping gear for high altitude, and water shoes for rafting the Taos Box. The company offers advice on running and biking trails, weather conditions, ski areas, camping spots, and possible risks.
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