Worldwide backpacking trip shaped Rachel Gross' deep look at outdoor gear

Rachel S. Gross is a historian of the outdoor industry and an assistant professor of history at the University of Colorado Denver. She is the author of “Shopping All the Way to the Woods: How the Outdoor Industry Sold Nature to America” (Yale University Press, 2024). In this book, Gross explores how the outdoor industry developed in tandem with outdoor recreation, and how American outdoorspeople have had similar anxieties about buying too much gear getting in the way of their authentic engagement with nature.

Gross’s interest in the topic was sparked by her experiences backpacking around the world at 22. She realized that the ideas behind the gear she thought would keep her warm and dry were so very American. As she traveled, she reflected on why she thought acquiring the right gear would turn her into the person she wanted to be, and these questions would shape her academic research for the next decade.

The book is organized around the theme of how the outdoor industry has shaped the way Americans engage with nature. Gross draws on a wide range of sources, including oral histories, corporate archives, and personal journals, to examine the ways in which the outdoor industry has sold nature to America. She explores how the outdoor industry has responded to changing cultural attitudes towards the environment, and how it has helped to create the popular image of the outdoors as a place of adventure and escape.

According to Gross, one of the most important lessons that readers should take from the book is that the idea of a “simple” or “natural” relationship with nature is a myth. Instead, the outdoor industry has played a significant role in shaping American attitudes towards the outdoors and influencing the way that people engage with nature.

Gross has been working on the book since 2011, and she has conducted research at more than 25 libraries and archives in more than 10 states. She writes in various locations, including quiet libraries, noisy coffee shops, and her couch. She says that editing is her favorite part of the writing process.

In addition to “Shopping All the Way to the Woods,” Gross is also working on a project about the Auraria higher education campus in Denver, which was built on a mostly Chicano neighborhood that was razed by the Denver Urban Renewal Authority 50 years ago. She is working with a community group to give history tours of the campus and to share the story of the displaced Aurarians.

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