Dirtbags Climbing: Giving Old Gear a Second Life, Sustainably

The climber’s paradox

The equipment that keeps us safe has an expiration date for its usefulness and eventually has to be retired. What to do with the gear?

You can’t recycle it, not in a traditional sense anyway. So we throw away these once indispensables. All that technical matter that let’s us enjoy the outdoors—dashed and trashed—an eye sore filling in the very nature we love.




Jennifer Wood comes from a long-line of climbers. But she wasn’t one of them. A break in the chain, until she met James Dickinson.

Jennifer and James weren’t entrepreneurs. But they knew how to be resourceful, to work with their hands, to fix things up. Then Jennifer found out she was pregnant. Idle hands and an artist’s creativity bred something reimagined.

The young couple didn’t have a lot of money. They begged and borrowed and cleverly sourced materials to renovate their home. Instead of contributing to the growing mounds of trash they found they could help reduce it. 



A bump and a business

A Dirtbags mat for clean climbing. Photo source: dirtbagsclimbing.co.uk


Dirtbags Climbing began out of a reluctance to throw away old climbing gear. They didn’t want to perpetuate the problem of single use, one-and-done products anymore. 

“The outdoor industry, at the end of the day, is really a polluting industry because it uses lots of plastic based materials: polypropylene, nylon, all these fibers that go into equipment. You can’t melt down the fibers in climbing ropes. It’s extremely difficult to recycle them. They will remain on the planet forever,” James elaborates one of the contradictions of outdoor sports.

Jennifer and James encountered the challenge directly: They had old ropes lying around. Past trips were wound into the frayed threads and they were reluctant to toss them; they were mementos of places, people, trips.

They decided to turn the ropes into rugs: Cut out the core (new drying lines!), iron the sheathing flat, zigzag stitch it up and hey, that looks like fabric. Turned out other people liked the idea, and the designs.

Old climbing ropes given new life. Photo source: dirtbagsclimbing.co.uk



A circular economy in Cumbria

The 1968 Singer sewing machine Model 239 whirls to life and taps away with drumbeat precision: thump-thump-thump-thump. Pastel cords are braided along a hanging rack like melted Crayola crayons, an oozing kaleidoscope down the wall. The large front window emanates the artistic spirit from within, and welcomes the petering day’s light towards the craft perched on the workbench.

One of their many refurbished sewing machines. Photo source: dirtbagsclimbing.co.uk


Through and through, the Dirtbags workshop is the embodiment of the company’s mission: It is made entirely from recycled materials sourced from construction sites, as local as they can get it, and is solar powered.  Everything made within is from materials otherwise sent to landfill.

“We don’t want to be just another brand,” James enumerates. “The fact that it’s made in the Lake District, our customers learn where the ‘raw’ materials come from, they know us. Each piece is unique. We’re not churning out 25 of the same bag.”

For Jennifer, a self-described introvert, she enjoys that the artistic expression of her inner world emerges through the materials and helps form a connection with the customer: “I like that it’s just tools in a shed, that our customers can call us up with a custom order and it’s us they talk to, that it’s very personal.” 

Around the community, they have a symbiotic relationship with the local businesses. There are many outdoor companies that caters to the tourism in the Lake District. Year over year they generate waste with cast off material: old life jackets (waterproof material, buckles, straps!), rucksacks (fabric, zippers!), ropes (see above!), etc.

These businesses are happy to give Dirtbags their waste to turn into beautiful “new” goods, which goes back into the Lake District economy. Around and around.




A new reality

If we want to enjoy climbing sustainably, we need to alter our consumption patterns from an environmental to economic perspective.

“We are part of that generation where our parent’s feel privileged that they can constantly add to their wardrobes, buy new cars, [you name it]. We can’t keep up with that, and we don’t want to keep up with that,” Jennifer chuckles, though conveying a serious new reality.

Partly circumstance, partly self-determination, and partly living a life they are proud of, Jennifer and James “get a great sense of satisfaction by doing everything ourselves.”

They continue, “It comes from not having a lot of money. It’s out of necessity. We have been lucky to learn a lot of skills; James’ dad was an engineer, built houses. You acquire craft skills, wood work, metal work. Makes you realize how resourceful you can be.”

Sewing it up. Photo source: dirtbagsclimbing.co.uk


Anyone can make a small change to their habits. 

“Be mindful of the way you use products and materials,” Jennifer urges. “Don’t throw things away that you can use or that someone else can make use of. If things continue as is we’ll be living in a very polluted world.” Each small action adds up.

Dirtbags Climbing is giving back to the sport they love, through the community they live in, in order to create a more sustainable environment.
 
“We live in a beautiful area, and it’s frustrating when you find rubbish about. You realize this is a special place that you need to keep special,” James punctuates with a final note.

We all need to do our part to keep it special, for generations to come.



You can learn more about the work of Dirtbags Climbing (and/ or buy one of their products), explore their community partners, and get inspiration for how to recycle some of your own climbing gear on their website: dirtbagsclimbing.co.uk

I for one felt compelled to make my own bouldering brush after our call. What will your project be?

Boulder brush I made from scrap wood.

Where to Get Cheap Mountaineering Gear: The Beg, Borrow, and Steal List

Series: How to Start Mountaineering Cheaply



“The mountains are calling, and I must go [cheaply].” *

– John Muir


Mountaineering is an expensive sport. And I’m poor. 

Or that was the excuse I told myself. Have you ever wanted to try something but gave up before you really got going?

Some excuse or another always seems to pop up: It’s not practical, you don’t have the time, you might look like an idiot. You know the drill.

Frankly, the prospect of exuberant cost has held me back for years. Buying all brand new gear, just for the essentials (boots, crampons, ice axe, puffy, hard shell top and bottom, gloves), you could easily clear $1,500 by purchasing top-of-the-line products. 

So I hemmed and hawed and let the sticker shock stop me. It became an exaggerated impediment, like making a Mont Blanc of a molehill, and I needed to recalibrate this mental hurdle in order to move forward.

This past year I got into sports climbing (and progressively bought a harness, draws, a rope,) and realized what everyone else already knew: You should build your kit over time.

And also, you can do this the expensive way, or the “keep an eye out for deals” way.

Photo source: elvesandmagic

What was different between climbing and mountaineering?

Honestly, I just started climbing and got hooked.

Now, because gear has been a crux, this post will focus on ways to get gear cheaply. 

We’ll talk about what gear you need in a future post. And yes, I recognize that focusing on gear first is starting out of order. Bear with me.

In the end, this will be a series about “How To Start Mountaineering Cheaply” covering topics such as scoping out beginner-friendly mountains, affordable guides and courses, requisite skills, training, and more.

Let’s take the first step towards our high-altitude goal.




Photo source: wer.ena

Beg & Borrow

The best place to start is to have friends that mountaineer.

Shit out of luck on that front? Join local mountaineering clubs or seek out forums like Mountain Project to partner up. The clubs might have a gear depot (university programs typically do), and people who are into the sport likely have extras of things.

You can also rent equipment (better to spend $100 for two days of rental gear to try things out before dropping the big dollars).

North America

American Alpine Club
Established in 1902, the AAC is the premiere high-altitude outdoor club in the U.S. Membership provides discounts at major retailers and brands (such as Outdoor Research, Rab, and Backcountry), at climbing gyms, and guide services. With an introductory membership cost of $45, this is bound to pay for itself in no time.

The Mountaineers (PNW)
A nonprofit outdoor community of 13,000+ active members in the Pacific Northwest. They offer trips, courses, events, and have lodges. They are the publishers of the renowned, Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills.

Mazamas (PNW)
A nonprofit mountaineering education organization based in Portland, Oregon. They were “founded in 1894 on the summit of Mt. Hood,” and offer outdoor education and organized activities for every skill and fitness level.

Colorado Mountain Club
There are over 15 regional clubs that offer ways to meet potential partners through courses and group events.

Appalachian Mountain Club (East Coast)
Founded in 1876, the AMC manages the well known trails of America’s Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions (such as the Appalachian Trail). They have ample member-led events that make it easy to get outside and meet partners.

Mountain Project Partner Forum (U.S.)
There are 21,626 climbers in the Partner Finder as of this post. Search away, reach out, post and do your darndest to be charming.

Europe

I’ll save my breath here.

The Chamois Mountaineering Club (UK): They have compiled an extensive list of over 439 mountaineering clubs from across Europe and beyond.

(Is that cheating?)




Photo source: rirofal

Steal*

*In the, “it’s so cheap it’s like stealing” sense.

Used gear

Because there are plenty of enthusiasts who use their stuff a handful of times and never again. Conserve people, conserve!

Mountain Project: For Sale / For Free / Want to Buy Forum
MP is a U.S.-centric resource for finding routes and partners, sharing beta, and selling used gear. Used climbing shoes seem to be overpriced for some reason, but most other equipment tends to offer deals.

MEC Gear Swap
MEC is a retail co-operative (with over 5 million members!) based in Canada. They are kind of like the Canadian REI with a used gear section.

OutdoorGearLab ebay Store
The OutdoorGearLab’s mission is to create world’s best outdoor gear reviews. They are my favorite resource for gear reviews because they aim to be truly objective by avoiding the conflict of interest that comes with receiving free gear. Instead, they buy everything they test, and then put it up for sale on ebay.

Outdoor Gear Exchange (Burlington, VT)
Gearx offers an online discount outlet and has an extensive used gear section in their physical store (most of which is consignment). 

Outdoor Gear Exchange UK (Facebook group)
Mostly U.S. focused and a grab bag of gear. You have to search for deals but they are there. 

Backpacking Gear Flea Market (Facebook group)
The largest used gear exchange group in the UK.


Outdoor Gear Exchange (Burlington, VT)
Gearx offers an online discount outlet and has an extensive used gear section in their physical store (most of which is consignment). 

Outdoor Gear Exchange UK (Facebook group)
Mostly U.S. focused and a grab bag of gear. You have to search for deals but they are there. 

Backpacking Gear Flea Market (Facebook group)
The largest used gear exchange group in the UK.

Pro-tip: “I found most people sold their stuff at the end of the season, so you can get good deals then if you don’t mind it sitting in the cupboard till the next winter comes round like I did.” – u/connor2210 on reddit




Steeply Discounted

(WeighMyRack searches from a long list of retailers to source the best deals)

WeighMyRack
This should probably be your first stop when you start searching. They began because “we were super frustrated researching gear and sick of getting suckered into buying the ‘on sale” gear,’” Their frustration is your gain.

CamelCamelCamel
An easy to use, price tracking tool that provides price drop alerts and price history for products sold by Amazon. Unfortunately, they had a major “uh-oh” recently and their database server had three hard drives fail. Major catastrophe. It is unclear when the will be back online (but it is worth bookmarking for if/when they get back online) 😦

Backcountry.com
A major online retailer in the U.S. It’s best to wait for their bi-annual sales in February and August. This is usually accompanied by free shipping for orders over a certain amount.

Sierra Trading Post 
Free shipping when you sign up for their newsletter, which often includes coupons.

REI Outlet
If you poke around you can find some good deals in the 50% off section. On occasion they offer 70% off promotions and send 20% off coupons to members.

Pro-tip: A Super Duper List of Gear you can buy on Amazon
u/Jickled on reddit has compiled a fantastic list of gear you can buy at affordable prices. Many of the tips and gear configurations are well thought out “hacks,” such as using 3 season boots with a waterproof outer and boot liners for your (lower-altitude) mountaineering excursions. Well done, sir.




Manufacturer Outlets and Physical Retailer Sales

REI Garage Sale
The somewhat legendary sales–in which it is not uncommon for people to show up hours early–occur at the discretion of each store, but generally about once a month. Items are priced to sell and all sales are final. This is only available to members, but you can usually just buy your membership at checkout ($20). It is best to have a plan.

Pro-tip: “Best time to grab winter stuff though, is around July. Lots of warehouse sales from La Sportiva (check out their factory store), Scarpa, Sea to Summit, etc.” – Long Ranger on Mountain Project




Photo source: natebbrown

Bonus Option – Be in College

College Outside
The organization was started to help more students get outside. One of the perks is special discounts on outdoor gear.

Extra Bonus Option – Prodeals

I first learned of prodeals while attending Outdoor Retailer as a buyer for The Grommet.*

For personal reasons, I was scoping out the backpack section and started talking to Osprey. I was hoping to buy a showpiece bag for cheap during the closing hours of the show. That didn’t turn out, but the rep gave me a prodeal code which let me buy a bag online at ~10% below wholesale price (the price manufacturers sell their gear to retailers). In other words, about 60% off retail. In other other words, cheap.

Anywho, there are a variety of ways to qualify for prodeals. You can be a mountain guide, a ski patrol, an outdoor educator, an active member of the military, a fire and rescue professional, and many more options.

ExpertVoice and OutdoorProlink are options to try and access prodeals.

*(As an aside, the best way I’ve found to get cheap gear was to get free gear; The companies would give us their product to test, and usually let us keep it too. Jackpot).



*Author’s note: “Cheaply” added in, but Mr. Muir did walk from Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico (A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf) with little more than a small backpack, a wool blanket, the bible, and a walking stick.


Feature photo source: amanda.be