The Real Survival Reality Show

The hell with avalanches and snake eating; Survive Outdoor Retailer!
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The hell with avalanches and snake eating; Survive Outdoor Retailer!

If you believe certain reality shows, the most rigorous test of survival is to be caught naked in the high Alps by a chance plane crash that somehow never triggered a search, so you'd have to make it through the weeks by crawling down deadly ice runnels in the glacier to get sips of water.

Dumb scenario? You bet! But it doesn't matter. I know I can survive the worst, and that's because the most rigorous test of hiking survival isn't the outdoors, it's the "Oh-Arr" Show or, to be proper, the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market.

The twice annual OR Trade Shows held in Salt Lake City are where outdoor gear manufacturers trot out their new stuff for next year. That means right now we're fondling cool toys that won't be on store shelves until spring of 2009. It's quite titillating - in a gear sense anyway - or it would be if the show itself wasn't so overwhelming.

This is barely controlled madness, 30,000 people wandering lost through roughly 2,500 booths spread across several city blocks. Megaphones blare, videos flicker, signs flash for attention, and for sheer hellish walking, "The Show" is gnarly. This is where arches and vertebrae come to die.

I've survived about 30 OR Shows at this point, but it's never a sure thing. OR mileage is fierce because we're all basically lost, wandering and backtracking through the hallways trying to find the company we're scheduled to meet. Orienteers flounder. GPS doesn't work. It's like getting cast adrift in a giant WalMart where everyone's in a hurry but all the products want to talk. It's like a running of the bulls where everyone's a bull, and we're all looking for a red scarf to trample.

It's only 3pm on the first day, and my feet are pounded way worse than day 10 of a stony trail, thanks to the Salt Palace's concrete floor, barely overlain by a token veneer of carpet. All the crowd dodging and weaving doesn't help much either. Most show veterans change footwear every day. I bring the cushiest shoes and insoles I can find and chew Ibuprofen like M&Ms.

My pack's no picnic either. Since the doors opened I've gathered 40 lbs of catalogs, and they carry like boulders. I'm walking bent over in a knuckle-dragging hunch. I could use tougher vertebrae, stronger stomach muscles and, ahhh hell, four legs not two. So much for evolution. You can take back the opposable thumbs too; They're what got us into this.

To get food or water you have to sprint across the current of humanity, then stand in line for seeming hours. Powerful flourescent lights buzz high overhead until your eyes quit focusing and you feel like some potted plant in a Dutch guy's closet. And then there are the women. Outdoor industry women are far too beautiful, healthy and tanned. It's hard on an honest, unsuspecting guy. Personally, I think burkhas might help.

All these harsh challenges add up to a real-world survival scenario not even Grylls or Stroud could live through. Hell, I don't even think Hunter Thompson would make it here. --Steve Howe