In the pre-internet age, the arrival of a mail-order catalog brought with it a sense of anticipation and the unknown. The 1966 REI catalog invoked such feelings in many who received it.
The 1960s saw a vast expansion in the number of people engaged in outdoor activities. The burgeoning environmental movement and the 1964 Wilderness Act helped shift popular perceptions of the wilderness. High profile climbs like the 1963 American ascent of Mount Everest helped inspire the movement. Increasing numbers of college students headed outside to hike and camp. Rock climbing, once the sport of a fringe group of misfits, was becoming more mainstream. Hiking, skiing, and backpacking were becoming popular. Many of these required gear, some of it specialized, that was at times hard to get and often expensive. The arrival of the 1966 REI catalog helped accommodate the growing enthusiasm for outdoor recreation across the northwest and the nation.
Jim Whittaker on the summit of Everest, from LIFE magazine, 1963.
REI was not only outfitting adventurers around the globe, their employees were grabbing headlines as well. The highest profile employee was Jim Whittaker. Jim was REI's first employee and the first American on the summit of Everest.
Jim used his clout to outfit the 1963 Everest expedition with gear, some of which was hand-picked from REI's shelves. REI was soon outfitting expeditions to peaks across the country and around the globe.
Northwest mountaineering legend Fred Beckey also helped fuel the fever for climbing and REI's growth. Beckey's book Challenge of the North Cascades, published in 1969, chronicled his more than 250 climbs, many of them first ascents. Along with others, these two high profile individuals inspired more and more people to embrace outdoor recreation.
The 1966 REI catalog was not only a product of the times but also a driver of the outdoor recreation movement. Each year’s catalog introduced new products or features that improved on the previous years. The new products were lighter, easier to use, and more efficient at protecting the user from the elements. The 1966 catalog sold many products we now take for granted such as waterproof pants, down jackets, Vibram boots, and aluminum frame backpacks, to name a few.