In July 2022, eight students in the UNC Gillings School of Public Health’s MPH program started a non-profit to ensure that the outdoors would be accessible, inclusive, safe, and affordable for all people. Two years later, the Switchback Gear Collective is planning on launching a lending library where you can check out camping gear as easily as you can check out a book. They also routinely hold events where people can learn the basics of camping and pick up really cheap gear.

This combines many things I like: being outside, creating spaces where people feel comfortable hiking and biking outside, and ensuring that people have the knowledge they need to get started.

So I reached out to Amy Kryston, co founder and current president with the Switchback Gear Collective, to learn more about them and how they created an inclusive, community-focused lending library that helps lower the barrier of entry for camping.

How the gear collective got started

The eight leaders who started the collective were all in the global health concentration, and all shared the same passion for the outdoors, health equity, and public health. Moreover, they all appreciated the health benefits of being outside, both personally and from what they learned in their coursework.

Switchback Gear Board
Switchback Gear Collective Founders

But things really kicked off when Abby, who now lives in Alaska, and remains on the leadership team, noticed that there weren’t many options for purchasing secondhand rock climbing gear in the Triangle. Rock climbing gear is expensive.

Abby checked out REI’s second hand program, Re/Supply, which has garage sales for secondhand items that are reduced price. But even at reduced prices the costs of camping and outdoor equipment were really still quite high.

Abby and her colleagues were enrolled in a course at Gillings called Design Thinking for the Public Good.  The course challenged them to design with empathy, and to think about the needs of the end user.

Abby and friends envisioned a future where experiencing the outdoors is accessible, inclusive, safe, and affordable for all people. But there were lots of barriers to advancing equity in outdoor spaces:

  • Exclusivity: The outdoor community is a largely white and able-bodied space. People are at risk of experiencing sexism, racism, ableism, and other forms of discrimination when recreating outside.
  • Cost: Gear’s expensive.
  • Lack of knowledge: If you’ve never been camping, it’s hard to know where to begin.

The collective started collecting unused gear from people – they pick up, for free – and began a volunteer program for gear librarians, who clean and organize camping gear before people check it out.

Their current focus

The collective is currently focused on camping. They’ve created PDFs and video guides for camping spots in the Triangle, how to set up your gear, and what to bring with you. They also provide gear and guidance. Their next event is at Hi-Wire Brewing in Durham on January 18th from 6-8pm.

Over the long-term, they want to build out their gear library. This is inspired by the Kindling Collective in Maine, which has a similar goal to make enjoying the outdoors equitable to everyone.

How you can help

There are a few ways you can get involved with the collective.

Donate gear

The team is currently collecting outdoor gear related to camping, hiking, boating, outdoor sports. They can’t accept is climbing ropes and harnesses, knives, cooking stoves or gas cannisters. You can donate here.

Donate your time

Like to sort gear? Want to help run a pop-up gear sale? You can sign up to volunteer.

Donate your space

Outdoor gear takes up a lot of space. If you have space to conduct workshops or conduct the popups, you can reach out. (The collective has worked with the Chapel Hill-Carrboro YMCA and the Triangle Land Conservatory.)

Switchback Gear Collective pop up event
Switchback Gear Collective pop up event

Donate your money

Startup costs have come from UNC and through a grant from Strowd Roses. That has helped them advertise and host their pop-up gear sales. With each event, they’ve learned more. With future funds, they plan to build out the gear library and do more education.

You can donate here.

Do you want to go hiking, but can’t afford a quality pair of boots? They have you covered. Do you HAVE a gently used pair that you aren’t using? They will take them. Do you have a passion for the outdoors and want to share your skills and experience? They can use your help.

Check them out, The Switchback Gear Collective!

John Rees lives in Chapel Hill. His day job is an enterprise architect for a big IT company. He was, until very recently, a member of the Chapel Hill Planning Commission and former chair. He serves on...