When Mike Donohue started working at Outdoor Gear Exchange in Burlington, Vermont, it was, to put it lightly, a small operation. “It was tiny — maybe 800-square-feet — a real hole-in-the-wall,” he describes it. Most of the gear it offered to passing customers was used, and nothing was guaranteed to be in stock; an Army Surplus for hikers.
Donohue wandered in toward the end of his sophomore year at the University of Vermont just up the hill with what spare cash he had and picked up some used ice climbing tools. About a month later, the store’s founder, Marc Sherman, offered him a job. In the years since, Outdoor Gear Exchange has grown in both square footage and size — it now occupies two floors totaling roughly 48,000 square feet and employs 120 staff members — and Donohue has joined Sherman in its ownership.
Outdoor Gear Exchange’s success is a testament and a counterpoint to our tendency to imagine outdoor adventure in North America through images of the west: the granite of Yosemite, the red rock pillars of Utah, the snow-covered spires of the Rocky Mountains. The forests, mountains, lakes and rivers surrounding Burlington and expanding throughout New England have always been and always will be an epicenter for recreation in all seasons. It’s only natural that the region would serve as home to one of best gear shops in the country.
In his tenure at OGE (as the locals know it), Donohue has witnessed multiple evolutions of skiing, mountain biking, climbing, hiking equipment and much more. Here are the ten items that he considers essential right now.
Salomon S/Lab Shift MNC Ski Binding
“I had a long-term demo towards the end of the season last year. It’s a brand new product, and I think it’s a total game-changer, especially for East Coast skiers who like to do everything and are traveling out west.”
Yeti SB100 Mountain Bike
“They built it to do the BC bike race, so it’s not a featherlight, super-wispy, riding-circles-around-a-track bike; it’s longer, lower, slacker, more durable. It’s a bike that someone’s racing the Enduro World Series on it even though it’s not designed for that, but it’s totally capable of doing that.”
Sea to Summit Sleeping Pads
“These inflate with just a couple breaths and they’re double-sided, which is great for a longer trip because if you were to get a puncture, you’d still have some insulation. In Vermont, even though it’s been crazy hot this summer, we finally had a temperature break, and an insulated pad is a good call.”
Sea to Summit Premium Stretch Knit Expander Sleeping Bag Liner
“If you have a super nice bag, or are winter camping, or are kind of sweaty, a sleeping bag liner will save your bag and prevent body oils from going into it. In the summer when you might not need a bag, you can use it as a sheet.”
Osprey Exos Backpack
“Exos is amazing. Osprey’s superlight pack, the Levity, is definitely for somebody who wants to go superlight, but with just one step up you get a little more durability, a little more load-carrying capacity, the ability to go with a friend who might not be as fit and carry a bit more gear.”
Black Diamond Spot and Storm Headlamps
“Headlamps are kind of amazing. When we started 20 years ago, we had Petzl Micro which had this incandescent beam that was dull and lasted six hours max. Now in the palm of your hand, you can get a lamp that’ll last all summer and is way brighter and has multiple modes and different colors, etc. Black Diamond’s Spot and Storm have been my go-tos.”
Western Mountaineering UltraLite 20 Degree Sleeping Bag
“There hasn’t been a huge amount of change with down. If you get a lightweight sleeping bag with the best quality down, that’s the kind of thing that can be a lifetime purchase, like a good canoe.”
Therm-a-Rest Compressible Pillow
“I’ve tried to do distance hiking without a pillow because you have all this extra clothing you can use, but it doesn’t work out that well. You need to be able to sleep well because if you’re rolling around all night, you’re not going to recover. I’m always on the lookout for a better pillow.”
Silky Saws BIGBOY 2000
“I do a fair amount of trail work, and when I stay local a lot of times I bring this saw. The sharpness is unbelievable. It can replace a chainsaw for cutting things down that are six or eight or ten inches around, and it’s way easier than hauling a chainsaw and gas and oil.”
Tecnica Forge Hiking Boot
“It’s a custom-molded boot, so it’s like ski boot technology in a hiking boot. I’ve been wearing ankle-height boots less and less over the years as gear’s gotten lighter and this is now the only ankle-high boot I wear to do things outdoors. They’re still pretty light, and the fit is fantastic.”