Gear shops have always played an essential role in the ecosystem of any outdoor community. Sure, online retailers might offer frequent sales and the convenience of shopping from home, but nothing quite replaces picking the brain of an employee or attending events at your local store. So we put out a survey asking you to share your favorites with us. These are the places that got the most love.
Neptune Mountaineering has specialized in climbing and skiing equipment since it opened its doors as a boot-repair shop in 1973. The boot-fitting operation is still there, just now alongside a full-service ski shop and shelves full of crampons, ropes, apparel, and avalanche-airbag packs. Neptune has also become a community hangout spot, with a three-tap bar and café and a communal table for people to read or work. But not all the gear is on sale—a veritable museum of historical mountaineering equipment is interspersed throughout the retail floor in glass cases. The collection includes the down suit Peter Habeler wore on the first ascent of Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen, original Chouinard Equipment pitons, and some of the first-ever wooden Rossignol skis. And athletes like Conrad Anker, Tommy Caldwell, and Lynn Hill swing by to give talks on their latest expeditions. “It’s about inspiration and bringing these heroes to life for our community,” says Skye Habberfield, the store’s marketing manager. “For folks to see and meet their idols.”
Outdoor Gear Exchange
On the street level of its 40,000-square-foot facility on Burlington’s main drag, Outdoor Gear Exchange (just OGE if you’re a local) has a wide assortment of apparel and equipment for camping, hiking, climbing, skiing, and cycling. In-house bike-, ski-, and gear-repair shops offer equipment tune-ups, builds, mounts, and fixes for everything from broken tent poles to ripped sleeping bags. Venture into the basement and you’ll find a consignment section almost as big as the upstairs. Though the used-gear business brings in customers from all over the country, OGE remains a true locals’ joint. The shop pays for 50 percent of employees’ school tuition costs up to $1,000 a year, including one-off continuing-education classes like avalanche certifications. And the consignment business helps support a microgrant fund (twice a year, OGE chooses three local nonprofits or recreation groups to receive $1,500). Customers can opt to donate a certain amount of what they consign to the fund, and the store matches all donations.
Hill City, South Dakota
Home to Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, and Custer State Park (known for its famous buffalo roundups), South Dakota’s Black Hills are an often overlooked adventure hub. Hill City and its small gear shop Granite Sports sit at the center of it. Aside from the usual selection of hiking, camping, and backpacking gear and apparel, the store is well stocked with climbing cams, quickdraws, rope bags, and harnesses. It makes sense, given the shop is within a couple hours of two well-known climbing destinations: the Needles and Devils Tower. When Granite Sports opened 20 years ago, no one else was catering to the tourists that come through each spring, summer, and fall to hike and climb. But what earned it the loudest praise in our survey was its community work. Every year, Granite Sports puts on a three-mile run and uses the proceeds to give $500 college scholarships to local high school seniors on the track team. “In small towns, it’s important to give back,” says Pat Wiederhold, Granite Sports’ owner. “If you’re doing well, you want to make sure you’re saying thank you and being good stewards of the graces that people have shown you by shopping at your store.”
Keene Valley, New York
The Adirondacks may not be the country’s biggest mountains, but the region is home to a shop that has outfitted people for some of the world’s highest peaks, like Everest and Kilimanjaro. Opened in 1975 in the same unassuming, shingled chalet it still occupies today, the Mountaineer has a reputation for expert staff and top-level, technical climbing and skiing gear (it sells the Dynafit Hoji boot, a high-end ski-touring boot that you’d only find at the most technical shops) that has spread far beyond the sleepy town of Keene Valley. Its walls are plastered with photos of customers on summits all around the world, big and small, with hand-written messages thanking employees for their help. One customer called out the staff’s “excellent trip advice” in our survey. Aside from selling gear and helping people plan trips, the Mountaineer hosts an annual ice-climbing festival and backcountry ski festival as well as The Great Adirondack Trail Run.
Chris Iverson started working at Eastside Sports in 1989, when she moved to the small mountain town of Bishop, California, to climb. Over the years, she took on the role of buyer, then store manager. In 2012, she and her husband, Todd Vogel, bought the place. The store specializes in hiking, backpacking, and climbing, which makes sense since Bishop is home to world-class bouldering and popular thru-hiking routes, like the John Muir Trail and Pacific Crest Trail. Because the town is relatively remote, people come in needing help they won’t be able to get for dozens more miles, so store staff do more than sell people new gear. “We’ve become known as a place where people can come in, ask questions [about the best places to hike, climb, etc.], and we will be really honest,” Iverson says. And when folks come through with broken or ill-fitted gear, Eastside Sports helps them get sorted. The store stocks many common replacement parts for tents, trekking poles, and apparel, and the staffers are experts in shoe fitting, a skill that’s in high demand with thru-hikers who come in with blisters. Iverson has even gone so far as to call up brands on behalf of customers with broken gear if she doesn’t have the tools to fix it herself.