Once roughing it was the only way. Not anymore. (john jay cabuay for the washington post/john jay cabuay for the washington post)

After three days of hiking through torrential thunderstorms, as soaked as the Alpine sheep scurrying past me down the rocks, I arrived at a small inn tucked into the French mountainside under Mont Blanc.

And there before me, in the half-light between the darkening mountains and the glow of the refuge, were a dozen rolling suitcases, each one drier and more massive than imaginable for this isolated spot on the trail. Each, too, bearing a tag that read REI.

It turned out that, for about $5,000 per person, the American outfitting company REI was guiding novice hikers on the same 12-day hike around Europe’s highest peak that many of us weaving over the steep mountain passes were doing ourselves.

We all followed the same narrow path across rocky summits in France, through waist-high wildflowers in Italy and across snow fields in Switzerland. And many of us arrived at the same rustic refuges each evening, sharing wine and extra bandages. Yet the things — and the costs, between hundreds of dollars and thousands — we bore varied widely. And in that span lies much of the market for the outdoors industry.

I fell somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. I bought a new Gore-Tex raincoat for the trip, but duct-taped together my 15-year-old rain pants. I was hopeless at figuring out how to use the $40 UV water sterilizer I bought, yet felt confident enough to hike the route without a guide.

On the first night, I met two women who were running (running!) the entire route in four days, in part to save time and money. They carried tiny sacks with little more than a toothbrush and a well-worn windbreaker, and their only cost was the roughly $50 they paid each evening for a bunk, dinner and breakfast in one of the shelters.

I blushed at the thought of the $400 I had already spent on my two changes of fast-wicking clothes, a lightweight rucksack and a slew of emergency knickknacks. Not to mention the 10 nights of lodging costs still ahead.

So it was with a burst of wonder that several days and bruises later I saw those huge suitcases — and learned that they were delivered, by van and by mule, to the REI group’s destination each night. Suddenly I, with my lone drenched pack on my back, looked thrifty and rugged.

Hiking is still one of the best ways to escape from the screens and walk-in closets of our modern world. But if the range of hikers here on one of the world’s most popular long-distance trails is any indication, the need to “rough it” is lessening. Americans now spend $646 billion annually on outdoor recreation and related purchases (as comparison, that’s roughly what they spend on pharmaceuticals and vehicles combined), according to the Outdoor Industry Association. And outfitters such as REI, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Cabela’s have become key players in that market.

REI, for example, operates 135 stores across the United States, and a growing number of those are in urban centers. Its Manhattan shop, opened in late 2011, is three stories and 35,000 square feet — dwarfing even nearby luxury retailers like Vera Wang and Michael Kors in the upscale SoHo neighborhood where it sits. Since then, REI has opened 13 other stores, with three more to come this year in Knoxville, Tenn.; Columbus, Ohio; and the suburbs of Dallas.

Part of what’s changing is that as technology and connectivity have improved, the ruggedness barrier — as we’ll call it — has lowered. People can sleep under the stars while identifying constellations on an iPhone app. They can hike to a waterfall without missing an important e-mail.

“The idea of roughing it is now something you can opt into,” says Laura Swapp, a director at REI. “The outdoor market recognizes that the goal isn’t just to be disconnected, but to be connected while you’re out playing.”

Outfitters are also recognizing the dual benefits of organizing hiking trips like the one around Mont Blanc. They can bring in revenue from the tours, make money off the gear people buy ahead of the trip, and broaden their overall customer base to include the less independently intrepid. The same goes for day hiking, which, in a shift from decades past, is now far more popular than longer excursions.

At the heart of these trends is the budding reality that — as more Americans move into cities and as free time becomes a scarcer commodity in our society — escaping to nature for extended periods has become something of a luxury. And gear and apparel companies have capitalized on that mystique. A look at the streets of SoHo, one of the nation’s most expensive neighborhoods, gives some sense of it. In addition to REI, you will find retailers like Burton, the North Face, Eastern Mountain Sports and Patagonia, all within a few blocks of one another, and all catering to crowds who can hardly see the sky for the skyscrapers.

Roughly 35 million Americans say they hike, enough to make it an important category for retailers and apparel makers. And the most recent industry report found that the outdoor recreation economy grew roughly 5 percent each year from 2005 onward. Outdoor apparel, in particular, is benefiting from this trend. It’s the fastest-growing sportswear segment across the globe.

“Brands like Nike and Under Armour are going into outdoors more than ever before,” says Seth Sigman, an analyst at Credit Suisse. “Everyone is looking at outdoors as a new avenue for growth, probably because of the widening customer base.”

The proliferation of high-end outdoors products may be opening new markets among well-to-do city dwellers, but some in the industry are concerned that it’s keeping away other potential enthusiasts.

“There are a lot of marketing and imagery barriers,” says Gregory Miller, who is president of the American Hiking Society. “People look at all the outdoors ads with young, fit, white people and it’s like, ‘Holy moly, that’s not us.’ ”

Of particular concern, both among organizations like the American Hiking Society and companies like REI, is how to keep the outdoors attractive to the masses, even as luxury goods proliferate. As a result, these groups and others like the Department of the Interior have mounted several initiatives to address affordability and accessibility for low-income communities, especially those in urban areas.

“Hiking is something that’s so primal and simple, but now there are all these gadgets,” says Jolina Ruckert, a psychology researcher at the University of Washington who studies the intersection of technology and nature. “And the problem is the very first gadget you need is a car. You have to have access.”

Ruckert is examining the psychological benefits that exposure to nature brings humans, and to what extent technology can replicate, enhance or negate those effects. Her work builds off interesting earlier research. One example is the biophilia hypothesis, put forth by Edward Wilson in 1984, that asserts humans have a biological propensity to connect with nature. Another, called Attention Restoration Theory, has found evidence that being outdoors is one of the most effective ways to replenish cognitive functions like problem solving and the ability to focus.

“There are deep parts of us that respond to the natural world,” Ruckert says. “This is what our minds and bodies were born into.” Researchers, however, are just beginning to explore the question of whether we can still reap the full benefits of nature if we have cellphones in hand.

In a report produced last year by the Outdoor Foundation, 43 percent of survey respondents ages 18 to 24 said they use their smartphone when in the outdoors.

Miller’s leadership of the American Hiking Society has made him more sympathetic to that trend.

“They’re taking selfies near the waterfall, near the tree. It’s great,” he says. “This is our society. We can’t go back to the old days. We’ve got to figure out how to maximize technology.” Besides, he adds, when they share those photos online, it inspires a sort of escape envy in their friends as well.

It’s tough to tell whether increased connectivity and creature comforts —“domesticating the wild,” as Ruckert calls it — will help or hurt the conservation of our natural world. On the one hand, the more that companies succeed in marketing the outdoors in an age of Netflix and video games, the more people may come to care about preserving the wild places. On the other hand, those places may fast become less and less wild.

“That shift toward consumerism creeps its ugly head into the picture,” Ruckert says. “There’s this beautiful and ugly side to it all.”

I’ll admit I took a large digital camera, the heaviest thing I packed, and captured about 2,000 photos on my hike around Mont Blanc. I even posted images online to Instagram throughout the trek, whenever I reached a peak high enough to get a signal. But not a single picture captured the silence, the scent of wildflowers and the throbbing in my chest as I put one foot in front of the other, over and over, for 150 miles of sparkling greens and blues.


PHOTOS | Hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc