A version of this story first appeared in Gear Patrol Magazine. Subscribe today for more stories like this one, plus receive a $15 gift card to the Gear Patrol Store.
Utah State University's Special Collections division wants your junk mail. No, really — a bevy of shelves in the Merrill-Cazier Library's lower level are now home to 2,700 catalogs from L.L. Bean, REI, Coleman and over 400 more outdoor gear companies.
It's become Clint Pumphrey's go-to line: "I collect people's junk mail." Pumphrey is the manuscript curator at USU's Special Collections and Archives, a role that entails managing the school's historical document collections, most of which relate to the history of its surrounding region of northern Utah and southern Idaho. But ever since administrators from the university's Outdoor Product Design and Development (OPDD) program approached the library in 2018 with a request to build an archive relating to a unique curriculum that preps students to make gear, he's been gathering catalogs and magazines that date back to the 1960s, too.
Nowadays, company promotions beam into our inboxes, where the common fate is instant banishment to a spam folder or an eternity of remaining unread. But in the not-so-distant past, an announcement of a new season's camping equipment showed up in your real mailbox as a well-designed, photo-filled book folded and stapled down the middle. Rescued and subsequently digitized, they're revealing: decades-old Abercrombie & Fitch catalogs expose the brand's now-forgotten outdoor roots, while those for Snow Leopard and Cloudveil eulogize companies that no longer exist.
Just about every cover, it turns out, makes for a great Instagram post. Chase Anderson, the program coordinator for OPDD, has given the archive a second life that few if any such collections get by posting cover scans to @outdoorrecarchive at a moment when curator accounts and vintage outdoor ephemera are en vogue. "We need to reach people where they're looking for design inspiration," he says.
Anderson notes that most fans of the account aren't directly connected to camping or climbing — "We have a big hypebeast community," he says — a detail that speaks to the timeless universality of the outdoors. It's that transcendent and, okay, cool quality that allows a 40-year-old catalog cover to serve student researchers and Insta fiends at the same time.