Getting outdoors once required little more than a pair of sturdy boots and a warm-ish jacket—perhaps a hat for the really serious adventurer—but in the past three decades ads and branding have told us that heavy cotton and worsted wool won’t cut it, and technical equipment is the way to go. Off out for a day of wet-weather fly fishing? A hydrophobic outer layer, a set of Gore-Tex waders, gum boots, and a sturdy pair of neoprene gloves are essential. Setting off on a Sunday stroll with the dogs? Don’t leave without merino base and mid-layers, a soft-shell, hard case, nano-puff… you take my point.
To convince consumers to get all their gear, brands have indulged in ever more aspirational marketing, sending ambassadors up the Matterhorn to sport this season’s must-have micro fleece, or out to sea on a year-long yachting campaign to prove the longevity of a new water-resistant webbing. These aren’t the type of expeditions you or I will ever experience, and a growing number of young, design-led outdoors brands are wise to that fact. To nurture our adventurous dreams while acknowledging our sedentary realities they’ve sought to create offerings that make the outdoors feel accessible once more, without the need for 200 feet of rope and a team of sherpas.
“The chances of me ending up at the top of a massive cliff face are pretty minimal,” says Alec Farmer, founder of Scottish backpack brand Trakke. “The North Face makes money from a couple of jackets that are really popular, but they’re selling an aspirational lifestyle about this extreme adventure when realistically, their mass market is dog walkers.
“I realized that early on, and I thought, that’s silly, although this marketing they’re using is aspirational, I find it exclusive. I do a lot of outdoor stuff, and I can ski reasonably well, but some of the stuff you see in adverts is just so crazy that I can’t identify with it. I suppose I thought there must be other people feeling like this, so what if you’re just really straight up about that fact? You say ‘Hey, we know you like the outdoors, but you’re probably not going to be backflipping off a mountain any time soon.’ What unifies people, really, is heading out with friends, having a good time and exploring new places—that feeling of the unknown and doing something different from your day job, I suppose. Whatever you’re doing, whether it’s climbing a tree or climbing a mountain, if you get that little tingle, then that’s an adventure.”
“You can just go to the woods and make a cup of coffee,” says Andrew Groves of Miscellaneous Adventures, whose handmade wooden products and woodland workshops have found favour with young outdoor enthusiasts. “Even for someone like me or my wife—we’re pretty hardcore outdoors people—a lot of the time it’s still out of reach for us, financially; all these trips are very expensive and I think that does put a lot of people off.” What Farmer and Groves propose is a much more laid-back approach to adventure that can be found in their own back yards, and has as much to do with the origins of their brands as it does their personal philosophies.
Groves founded Miscellaneous Adventures as a side project while pursuing a career in illustration. When he and his girlfriend decided to leave the city they found themselves living on a woodland estate. Groves was taught how to coppice and became more interested in the outdoors, eventually deciding it was how he wanted to make his living. “I started learning about all of these traditional techniques and outdoor skills,” he says, “but all the aesthetic of it was so folky and it didn’t really appeal to my visual sensibility. I felt like a lot of other people were missing out on learning about really interesting things just because of the way things looked, and that if I mixed in some good graphics then maybe we could spread out to a wider audience. I think it’s worked.”
Farmer set up Trakke under very different circumstances, as the offshoot of a business begun while studying graphic design at university. He and a friend would go out scavenging raw materials from dumpsters, manufacturing bags from whatever offcuts they could find. As their products grew in popularity he realised he had a brand on his hands, and needed to carve out a new position for himself within the marketplace. “I’ve always had this idea that a British made outdoor product should talk about modern British outdoor culture. There seems to be a gap for that. The Americans are very good at talking about Yosemite and that kind of thing, and that’s awesome, but for a long time British outdoor culture was very much about rambling, and kind of a middle-aged pursuit. I just felt like there was a way to talk about young people doing it, and getting out from behind your computer screen and engaging with nature.”
To spur this engagement, Trakke, Miscellaneous Adventures and the slightly more established Cornish surf company, Finisterre, produce a large volume of self-directed editorial, video, photography, and other communications that try to humanize their brands and encourage customers to get outside. In lieu of polar expeditions or big wave surfing, Trakke’s photo shoots take place on the side of Scottish hills, Miscellaneous Adventures’ in the woods of West Sussex and Finisterre’s in the driving rain of the Cornish coast—the stories they tell reflect the reality of their founders and staff. While this seems like a weighty addition to the workload, Groves maintains that lifestyle documentation is central to the success of their brand.
“For us it just kind of is authentic—I get really annoyed at the word authentic—but that word pops up so often. When other brands want to work with us, they tell us it’s because we’re authentic. It’s not something we’ve tried to be, which I guess is the definition. We live in the woods, so by default, our weekends are spent outside. We do cook our dinner on campfires and we do catch rabbits and we do go hiking, and we are keen to document what we do. I don’t think it’s necessarily driven by big marketing. It’s something that we feel we like to do.”
“When we do photo shoots we just get a bunch of friends together on a trip and take photos,” says Farmer. “It’s not like we’re employing professional models. It gives us stories to tell, and that’s where people really begin to engage. Our photography isn’t always perfect—it rains and we get surrounded by clouds of midges. We look like we’ve just been dragged off a hill, and that’s okay because that’s real life.”
For Finisterre creative director David Gray, the editorial is an opportunity to showcase the talent around him. In recent stories he’s profiled members of his local coastguard as a nod to the work they do keeping Cornish surfers safe. His latest series, Guardians of the Sea, “is about people who are protecting our oceans in one way or the other, raising awareness of the environment and the ocean, or looking after green habitats.”
Being an outdoor brand now demands an ethical stance, and a strict set of guidelines under which products are manufactured. Gray is acutely aware of how important ethics have become to Finisterre’s customers, and at times has underestimated this to its detriment. A move of its manufacturing hub from the UK to Asia almost finished off the company, but ever since environmental concerns have been at the heart of the brand.
“The environmental thing is interesting,” he says. “When we first did it we were just on the cusp of the environmental movement. That’s changed over the years and now we feel it’s just the way things should be done as a brand, and as someone who is a responsible, level-headed human who recycles and thinks about what they purchase. We try to educate the customer about their role too; washing at 30 degrees and washing less often. We’re trying to work out how we message all that.”
For Farmer, those ethics come down to producing each element of his product in the UK, and avoiding the pitfalls of cheap foreign labor. “The high street is just full of crap,” he says. “People always say that our gear’s expensive, and I say you could buy a backpack from somewhere else for a lot cheaper, but you’ll probably buy another one next year, and another one the year after, because either it’ll go out of fashion, or it’ll break.
“We try and make things as strong as we can, so they don’t break. If it does break we promise that we’ll fix it. We want everything to just be out there being used all the time—that’s the important thing. It’s just about saying to people that it’s an investment in something they’re buying, something that was worth making in the first place, something that’s worth using, rather than some cheap shit made in China.
“I never started a business because I was really interested in making loads of money. If I had, I’d probably have done quite a different thing. I suppose we do this because we really enjoy making and selling something worthwhile. Although our bags are expensive, it’s not like we’re sitting here rolling around in pools of cash. We’re doing things we love doing, and I think that’s important.”