What’s the advantage of a multi-fuel stove over a canister version? What’s the most appropriate paddle for day tripping in a sea kayak? Isn’t wool still itchy?

Thoughtfully addressing questions like these is the fundamental reason outdoor specialty retailers will continue to play a central role in outdoor recreation for as long as people hike, paddle, camp and climb.

I remember what the search for answers was like before the Internet arrived. Subscriptions to Outside and Backpacker delivered new product information once a month. If you wanted more information about a company’s product line, all you had to do was call the convenient 800 number during business hours, ask for a catalog, and wait patiently for 10 days for a thick book of colorful pages to arrive in the mail.

Today, we have access to more information than ever before. When you see a friend wearing a new pair of trail running shoes during a Saturday morning run, you can compile shoe specifications, where to buy information, and user reviews from the web in less time than it takes to drink a liter of Gatorade on the way home.

Manufacturers’ websites provide detailed information about proprietary technologies, fabrics, weight, color options, sizes and suggested retail prices. Beautifully crafted images show the equipment in use in an environment so compelling that site visitors often feel drawn to experience that scene for themselves. Accompanying product photography reveals the smallest details-just click for a larger image. Most sites also provide information about the closest retailer, and many offer to sell direct. Equipment review sites and user forums offer real world feedback to temper the marketing messages.

But access to more information doesn’t necessarily translate into a better-informed buyer. Like movie reviews in which one man’s “four stars” stands next to another’s “thumbs down” recommendation, the range of opinions about a single piece of equipment can be as wide as the Grand Canyon.

Armed with the results of a thorough Google search, some buyers feel comfortable selecting one brand or model over another. A few clicks later, the buyer’s credit card is a little closer to its limit and the shipping process is underway.

I’ve done that myself, when that shipment arrives, there still seems to be something missing. For me, the most satisfying purchasing experience comes from hearing someone I find knowledgeable and credible joining me in a debate over the options available to me.

Manufacturers commit substantial resources to training outdoor specialty sales people about their products. Many of these sales people work at specialty stores because it allows them to stay close to the sports they enjoy. They know what they’re talking about because they just finished that activity the weekend before.

Not every camping trip ends with good stories. It’s the same with conversations with a salesperson. I prefer to visit my local specialty stores when I know they aren’t busy. With my homework finished, I’ll track down someone working in the appropriate department to ask my questions. My queries are usually met with friendly banter and good recommendations. But once in a while, lightning will strike. I’ll find myself standing feet apart, arms crossed, lost in the personal tales of a passionate brand ambassador. Their voices get a little louder, and their hands move deftly, offering a tour of the product. “Here’s why this is best; be careful to watch for this; if you are going there, better bring this along.”

Time slips as the conversation circles the product, the trip, and the experiences of buyer and seller.

No website or brochure, no matter how professionally created, can match the personal enthusiasm of someone who has “been there, done that.”

The gear I carry home after those conversations brings with it a little soul passed on from one enthusiast to another. As long as people find peace outside, specialty retailers will be there to answer the eternal question, “What should I buy?”