Don't let a lack of equipment stop you from enjoying the woods of Maine

By Nora Saks
Photos by Mat Trogner
From our May 2024 issue

Three years ago, Josh Bossin was leading a backpacking trip for students at Sterling College in Vermont when he noticed that one of them could barely walk. She had borrowed her mother's old, ill-fitting boots, and when she took them off, “it was worse than I imagined,” Bossin recalls. “Blisters, rubbed raw, blood, all that stuff.” The student managed to complete the hike, but “the experience confirmed her opinion that this was not something she wanted to do,” Bossin says.

As an outdoor educator and guide, Bossin has seen time and time again how having the right gear (or not) can make or break a person's experience on a trail or at a campground. “Then there are the people we don't see because they don't come,” he says. “They look at the activity and decide the gear is too much of an obstacle.” Bossin realized he could help more people enjoy the outdoors if he could outfit them with comfortable, quality clothing and gear. He started a student-run gear rental and repair service in Sterling that caught the attention of Maine travel organizations, funders and outdoor brands seeking to expand access to the state's mountains, lakes and coast through a system of shared sporting equipment. In 2023, they tapped him to run Maine GearShare in Brunswick.

The nonprofit is one of several lending libraries across the state where individuals and groups can borrow or rent backpacks, tents, outerwear, hiking boots, snowshoes, and more instead of spending a lot of money to buy them. Skowhegan Outdoors lends clothing and gear to Somerset County residents for free and also runs summer camps and recreational clinics. The Katahdin Gear Library, founded by the Millinocket Memorial Library (a conventional book lending facility), lends out gear like mountain bikes, kayaks, canoes, and cross-country skis. And the Kindling Collective in Portland, which hosts outdoor field trips and workshops for queer people and people of color, also opened a gear library last year.

Among the growing number of such outdoor rental companies, Maine GearShare stands out for its massive inventory. Neatly lined up freshly laundered sleeping bags, ultralight backpacks and puffer jackets, stacks of self-inflating mattresses and bins full of fleece and base layers fill a wood-stove-heated warehouse with a shop dog named Topper. Certain nonprofit, school and community groups can outfit groups with gear over the course of a year for a discounted annual fee. Individuals pay a daily rate that ranges from $1 for a pair of hiking socks to $20 for a five-person tent. Bossin and his team can also repair seams, zippers, fasteners and holes on customers' personal gear, as well as re-string tent poles.

Bossin estimates the library can outfit up to 125 people at a time for hiking and camping trips. And not in anyone's smelly, worn-out cast-offs. All of the items he stocks are new or gently used, so borrowers won't be left with broken zippers or moldy sleeping bags. (After a year of rotation, the items go to a thrift store.) “The best outdoor gear is invisible,” says Bossin. “If it serves its purpose, you won't talk about it or think about it; you'll focus on the experience.”

May 2024, Down East MagazineMay 2024, Down East Magazine

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