Tucked into one of historic downtown Bellingham’s charming buildings is Backcountry Essentials outdoors store.
Dozens of recreation backpacks find homes on the exposed brick walls, along with rows of skis and boots. From the wood rafters hang hammocks and tents. Even the creaky staircase, which leads customers to the used merchandise section, holds shelves of guidebooks and racks of maps. Every inch of Backcountry Essentials is utilized to capacity, much like gear for sale. This is a different type of retail experience.
Chris Gerston opened Backcountry Essentials with his wife, Erica, in 2006, when similar recreation retailers in Bellingham had closed. The two saw an opportunity to provide their community with a service that was no longer available — a hub for outdoor enthusiasts. Gerston’s background in mental health now drives him to think differently than most shop owners. “What we do here, through retail, it is mental health,” he said. Backcountry Essentials is a place for people to connect with the same part of their brain that is stimulated on the trail, even if it is just for 15 minutes of browsing. While the couple has to sell to stay open, the store is about more than the numbers.
Backcountry Essentials hosts meetings for nonprofits like Conservation Northwest and Whatcom Land Trust as well as local recreation groups. The store also holds monthly educational clinics on navigation and avalanche safety, and even features community movie nights. “We want people to come here and find a group of like-minded people, friends basically,” Gerston said. The gear is certainly an important part of business, but not the only focus.
For outdoor enthusiasts on the hunt for quality products, Backcountry Essentials carries an array of new and used recreational gear selected specifically for the Pacific Northwest.
With the winter sports season ramping up and Mount Baker just an hour-and-a-half away, skis are the ticket. Backcountry Essentials carries skis and boots for all kinds of skiers, from alpine to backcountry and volcano skis. For Gerston, it is all about finding a balance between lightweight gear for the way up that doesn’t sacrifice the fun of skiing back down. His personal favorites for “volcano skiing,” skiing on mountains like Mount Baker, Rainier, Hood, or St. Helens, add up to just 12.5 lbs. total for skis, bindings, and boots.
Though he is well-versed in the technical lingo and knowledge of the backcountry, Gerston stressed the importance of creating a welcoming shop for all skill levels. “I train my staff to be nice, ask questions, and remember that everyone was a beginner at some point,” Gerston said. Beyond ski gear, customers can expect to find plenty for the rest of the year. The store sells backpacks of all sizes and uses, from mountaineering to a simple day pack, camping necessities, climbing gear, athletic wear, and even beer. Best of all, the second level houses entirely used and discounted gear and clothing.
Knowledgeable staffers are committed to giving each customer the best experience in the store so they can get outside quicker and more comfortably. “I think we have only taken back one [ski] boot in our 11 years. If we do our job right, we aren’t taking boots back,” Gerston said. Stop by Backcountry Essentials for an educational seminar, movie, ski tune-up, or just for 15 minutes of relaxing browsing.