Don’t Let a Lack of Gear Keep You From Enjoying The Maine Woods

A new breed of libraries is making the great outdoors even more accessible to Mainers.

Maine GearShare library in Brunswick, Maine
Maine GearShare is packed to the rafters with outdoorsy supplies, including hiking boots, self-inflating mattresses, and sleeping bags belayed to the ceiling framing.
By Nora Saks
Photos by Mat Trogner
From our May 2024 issue

Three years ago, Josh Bossin was leading a backpacking trip for students from Vermont’s Sterling College when he noticed one of them could barely walk. She had borrowed her mom’s old, ill-fitting boots, and when she took them off, “it was worse than I imagined,” Bossin recalls. “Blisters rubbed raw, blood, the whole thing.” The student managed to finish the hike, but “that experience affirmed her opinion that this wasn’t something she wanted to do,” Bossin says.

As an outdoor educator and guide, Bossin has seen, time and again, how having the right equipment, or not, can make or break a person’s experience on a hiking trail or at a campsite. “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 a barrier.” Bossin realized he could help more people enjoy the outdoors if he could hook them up with comfortable, good-quality apparel and equipment. He started a student-run gear-rental and -repair service at Sterling, which caught the attention of trip-leading organizations, funders, and outdoor brands in Maine that were trying to expand access to the state’s mountains, lakes, and coastline through a system of shared sports paraphernalia. In 2023, they tapped him to lead Maine GearShare, in Brunswick.

The nonprofit is one of several gear-lending libraries across the state, where individuals and groups can borrow or rent backpacks, tents, outerwear, hiking boots, snowshoes, and more, rather than front big bucks to buy them. Skowhegan Outdoors loans clothing and equipment to Somerset County residents for free, and also runs summer camps and rec clinics. Katahdin Gear Library, founded by the Millinocket Memorial Library (a conventional lender of books), rents out equipment like mountain bikes, kayaks, canoes, and cross-country skis. And Portland’s Kindling Collective, which hosts outdoor excursions and workshops for queer people and people of color, opened last year with a gear library too.

Among the growing number of these outdoorsy lending institutions, Maine GearShare stands out for the sheer volume of its inventory. Neat rows of freshly laundered sleeping bags, ultralight backpacks, and puffy jackets, stacks of self-inflating mattresses, and bins stuffed with fleeces and base layers fill a timber-frame, woodstove-heated warehouse with a shop dog named Topper. Certain nonprofit, school, and community groups can outfit groups 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, plus restring tent poles.

Bossin estimates the library can fully equip up to 125 people for hiking and camping trips at any one time. And not in somebody’s smelly, beat-up hand-me-downs. All the items he stocks are new or gently used, so borrowers don’t get stuck with broken zippers or mildewy sleeping bags. (After a year in rotation, items head to a consignment shop.) “The best outdoor gear is invisible,” Bossin says. “If it’s doing its job, you won’t be talking or thinking about it; you’ll be focusing on the experience.”

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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