Gearing Up and Getting Out

Boots and backpacks, tents and tarpaulins, sleeping bags and socks – the gear library for Big City Mountaineers is as well stocked as any outdoor retail store. That’s as it should be. 

Gear is a big factor in the success of any outdoor excursion. Staying warm and dry, safe and comfortable is key to enjoying the great outdoors. That’s even more true for Big City Mountaineers’ youth participants, most of whom are getting out in the backcountry for the first time. A positive first experience can lead to a lifetime spent in nature. Bonus: Sporting great gear can provide a big boost in confidence, which can ultimately help to overcome some of the historical equity gaps in outdoor recreation.

Shelf stacked with boxes of hiking boots

As part of its mission to provide outdoor experiences to young people who may face barriers to access, Big City Mountaineers fully outfits its participants. Depending on the region and its weather, that may include backpacks, tents, canoes, walking sticks, down jackets, rain jackets, warm base layers, socks, and boots. And while the outer wear and equipment is returned after the excursion to be used again, the boots are gifted to the participants. “We hope that the boots spur our participants on to their next trek,” said Hillary Chavez, volunteer coordinator and director of the national overflow gear library in Arvada, Colorado.

Big City Mountaineers has gear libraries in or near each of its six regions: Birmingham, Alabama; Boston, Massachusetts; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Denver, Colorado; San Francisco Bay Area, California; and Seattle, Washington. While Hillary is charged with the national overflow gear library, which supplements gear to any region that might be running short, each regional program manager is in charge of their region’s equipment. The Arvada warehouse is a shared space for Colorado and the national overflow program.  

The gear is used throughout the season for each BCM cohort of participants. The program activities vary by region, but usually includes a day hike, followed approximately a month later by an overnight camping trip, and a month after that by the flagship week-long backpacking or canoeing trip. The gradual nature of the program helps the youth participants grow into the outdoors and, according to Hillary, sometimes grow right out of their gear. “We have had to provide new boots or clothes during a season because the kids are growing,” she said. “It’s not a problem, we overestimate the needs of each program as much as possible.”

string of BCM program flags

Donations with a Heart and Purpose

The outdoor gear is free to participants and is donated by a long list of brands with a history of high-quality products. The gear library is BCM’s largest cash value asset, coming in at nearly $500,000 in the Colorado warehouse alone. Sponsors like Smartwool, Osprey, Merrell, Keen, and many others donate gear in a variety of sizes to help outfit BCM participants. 

In addition, sponsors provide high-end gear as incentives for the Adventure for Someone fundraising program. Brand partners in this year’s incentives program include Big Agnes, Gregory, GSI, Helly Hansen, Mountain Hardwear, Nemo, Optic Nerve, OR, Osprey, Patagonia, Thermacell, and Yeti.  See the Adventure for Someone page for more information on the fundraising opportunity. 


It all started with JanSport, the first brand partner to donate backpacks to BCM in the early 1990s. And, now, as of its most recent audit in December 2023,  BCM manages 18,662.5 total pieces of gear across the nation. And, it’s a detailed accounting; the .5 represents one missing shoe from an otherwise complete pair of Crocs. All agree it couldn’t have wandered far…  

That large inventory requires not only annual audits, but constant organizing as donated gear comes in and expedition supplies go out. Items have to be correctly logged in each region and each region has slightly different needs. “We have multiple locations across the nation with similar and varying needs for gear,” Hillary said. “Seattle has more puffy jackets and winter gloves, while our Minneapolis region has canoe gear and accessories to track.” And, that amount of gear requires a decent amount of unloading, unpacking, shelving, and inventorying – tasks taken on by BCM Front Country Volunteers, including some of the corporate sponsors themselves.   

As testament to the environmental pillar of the BCM program, once equipment has run its useful life with BCM, it is often repurposed. In Colorado, for example, BCM works with Out&Back, an online platform for  buying and selling used outdoor gear. If gear is too used for retail, it can be gifted to the BCM youth agency partners for students to continue to use or donated to unhoused communities. The gear keeps on giving. 

For more information on in-kind and other avenues to donate to Big City Mountaineers, please email

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