Youth Outside | Expanding Access to The Mountaineers Gear Library

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, Associate Youth Outreach Manager Hannah Tennent talks about The Gear Library, a community resource aimed at breaking down barriers to getting outside.
Hannah Tennent Hannah Tennent
Associate Youth Outreach Manager
July 17, 2021

This past January, Satish Shanmugasundaram was thinking about what resolutions to set for 2021 and getting outside more was at the top of the list. One of the first adventures inspired by his resolution was a snowshoe trip to the banks of Lake Kachess. There, he first learned about The Mountaineers. “I was struggling with the directions and I saw a group. One of them told me that they were from The Mountaineers, and I immediately signed up.

After that, almost every Saturday and Sunday, I’ve been on trips,” shared Satish. In the winter, he took the Basic Snowshoe Course and the Winter Camping Course, which both require specialized gear to stay warm and access winter environments. Through these courses and the course leaders, Satish heard about The Mountaineers Gear Library. On his first snowshoe trip with the Everett Branch, Satish’s snowshoe broke and the trip leader, Hillary Shearer, recommended the library as an avenue to explore different types of gear. Since becoming a Gear Library cardholder, Satish has borrowed gear for Mountaineers courses and activities, as well as personal outings with his two sons.

Gear for everyone

Housed in the basement of the Seattle Program Center, The Mountaineers Gear Library aims to make outdoor activities more accessible by providing low cost gear to anyone. Living in the Pacific Northwest can be an outdoor enthusiast’s dream come true, but outdoor recreation isn’t easy for all to access. Gear can be a barrier because it can be expensive, tricky to use without the know-how, and limited by stores that don’t carry a full range of sizes. You don’t need to have the most expensive or most commonly advertised equipment to have safe outdoor trips, but functional gear is important. It’s easier to travel through deep, fresh snow with snowshoes. It’s safer to hike in the rain when you’re protected from becoming hypothermic. And it’s possible to go backpacking if you have access to a tent and a backpacking stove. For those in our community who experience barriers to outdoor recreation – from a lack of representational mentors to a history of outdoor trauma – our hope is that the Gear Library makes it easier to get outside. When it was founded in 2018, our Gear Library only outfitted Mountain Workshop participants and youth groups. The gear has traveled around Washington State with students of all ages – from camping and climbing trips in Vantage to cross-country ski outings off I-90. In January 2021, the library expanded to support individuals, families, and adult groups too. We knew youth weren’t the only audience that could benefit from affordable, high-quality gear! Now, any Mountaineers member can become a Gear Library cardholder and borrow gear for hiking, backpacking, and camping trips. Students of Mountaineers courses and graduates with snowshoe or ski badges can also borrow the snowshoes and cross-country skis for winter recreation. The gear can be checked out, utilized, and then returned for the next person! Satish shared one piece of why it worked well for him, personally: “I don’t do winter camping often, but I did want to experience winter camping, and a zero-degree sleeping bag is a costly option. It’s not going to work for the rest of the seasons. And therein lies the rub.”

Gear Library partnerships

Our Mountaineers Gear Library was founded in the model of the Outdoors Empowered Network (OEN) and luckily, we had a founding member of OEN nearby to learn from. Washington Trails Association’s (WTA) Gear Library was founded in 2013 to provide gear to local youth groups. Along with gear, they host a robust outdoor leadership training program to educate teachers and other youth leaders on outdoor skills in hiking, camping, backpacking, and snowshoeing. Currently, any group leaders using our Gear Library are required to attend one of WTA’s workshops, with the exception of cross-country skiing. Packed with information, the workshops are excellent for beginners who will gain the skills they need to safely take a group out. They are also a wonderful community space for experienced outdoor educators to network and share their skills. Within these workshops, WTA has trained over 350 educators since founding, which has led to over 7,690 youth and 3,310 adults to have outdoor experiences supported by their gear. We have plans to offer cross-country skiing workshops next winter. The Mountaineers and WTA’s expansion throughout the years demonstrates the success of this model and the need for affordable gear in the Puget Sound area. In 2017, WTA’s Gear Library moved to a larger space in Seattle’s Atlantic neighborhood, and WTA is currently working on opening a second location in Pierce County. “As we have trained more and more leaders from the South Puget Sound, we’ve received feedback that a barrier to accessibility was the location of the Seattle gear library. Many schools and programs don’t have the capacity to send a staff member to Seattle for the day to pick up gear,” said Jean Bartholomew, Outdoor Leadership Training Manager. “I love hearing testimony from our partners about the impacts their trips have on youth, and the joy they find from discovering something new,” Jean said. “I’ve heard about how outings help students and teachers form better relationships, which improves classroom interactions. Also, participants are in awe at discovering the Milky Way for the first time.”

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Looking forward

For much of 2020, the Gear Library was quiet as people stayed home, stayed safe, and refrained from group gatherings. As we’ve learned more about how to recreate outdoors responsibly in the time of COVID, groups and individuals are returning to borrow gear. I’ve been thrilled to support Mountaineers students in cross-country ski, snowshoe, winter camping, and backpacking trips as they find affordable ways to participate in the courses, try out different styles of gear, and then borrow gear to take their families out with their newfound skills. Being able to gather and spend time together outside is an experience I won’t take for granted again. As Satish shared, The Mountaineers is a unique community where it’s possible to expand our knowledge while having a good time: “The thing I like about Mountaineers is it’s not the usual spots, so you get to meet these great people who’ve gone ahead and checked out places, and then come up with exciting things to do. [In March] we went to the east Baker Lake hike and there were like 40, 50 trees that were in the way. It was like an obstacle course. It was so much fun.” The Gear Library is a community resource aimed at breaking down barriers to getting outside so that everyone can enjoy these outdoor obstacle courses. We’re happy to play a small role in introducing the outdoors to more people, and in watching their spirits come alive through outdoor play. 

ACCESS OUR GEAR LIBRARY

Whether you’re a brand-new Mountaineers member or an active volunteer, check out our Gear Library! We hold orientations monthly that detail what we currently stock and how you can check it out. Send us an email at gearlibrary@mountaineers.org and come learn about how to make your outdoor adventure goals come true.


This article originally appeared in our Summer 2021 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our  magazine archive.

Lead image of Camp stove from our gear library.