Like some of the best ideas, this one was hatched on the trail. The Appalachian Trail to be exact. Somewhere near the Virginia and Pennsylvania border, two thru-hikers known as Tundra Wookie and Ice Man (Joe White and Bryan Wolf) started pondering their futures. They wanted to be surrounded by people that inspire them. They wanted work and play to intersect on a daily basis. When Bryan’s cousin, Emily (trail name Karma) joined them for a section in North Carolina and Tennessee, the idea began to take root. (In fact, so did a romance: Emily and Joe would become engaged three months later.) In 2010, the hiking trio returned home from a trip in northern Vermont and discovered that their favorite local gear shop had closed. Six months later, Roads Rivers and Trails opened their doors for the first time. The store’s motto is “Dream, Plan, and Live” which is exactly how RRT came to fruition.
“We maxed out 13 credit cards between us to launch the store.”
It’s no small feat for three twenty-somethings to buy and renovate a tired building, find vendors willing to work with them, and finance the inventory needed just to open the doors. The Whites and Wolf leaned in, big time. The banks they approached wouldn’t give them loans because they were so young and unproven. But the banks did offer them credit cards: 13 between the three of them, each with interest rates between 7 and 22 percent. “We realized it was a risky way to fund a new business,” says Emily White. “But we suddenly were open to buy $100k in inventory.” And, they figured they had youth on their side. “We were young so if it all went wrong, we would have time to try something different if we needed to.”
At first, it was all night-shift work. The Wolfs each had full-time jobs and Bryan was still in school. They finished up at 5 p.m. and worked in the shop till 2 a.m., building displays and shelving, painting, sanding, and wiring. “We were on such an adrenaline high from starting the business that we barely needed to sleep or eat,” says Emily White. Wolf moved into the White’s basement to save money and share meals. “We lived a mile from the store so we could walk to work every day, and we lived on Ramen.”
“We’ve made it mandatory to take at least three weeks of travel time together per year.”
The Whites and Wolf walk the talk. To them, it’s essential that they continue to spend time out on the trail together each year. They’ve tackled the Haute Route in Switzerland, backpacked in the Canadian Rockies, and in 2016 they trekked the Laugavegur Trail in Iceland. “The inspiration that we create enables our customers to dream big and be more comfortable knowing they have a good resource that they can come talk to any time,” says Emily White. “Testing new equipment and being knowledgeable in outdoor adventure remains one of our biggest strengths, and it’s a reminder of how lucky we are to be a part of something bigger than us.” They plan on backpacking in Patagonia and Tanzania for 2018.
“We want to help make the outdoor industry stronger, year after year.”
After getting over their early hurdles and paying off all that plastic, RRT has set some lofty goals for themselves. “We kind of want to rewrite the way retail is done, make it a different experience,” says White. She and her partners used to feel an urgent need to start selling online, but not anymore. “It’s romantic to be a small business owner now. People want to shop local. Even Walmart has ads showing how local they are. We need to be constantly changing and giving customers something they can’t get anywhere else.”
White was not ready to elaborate on the big plans that RRT has simmering, but she hopes that it will be The Next Big Thing in retail. She says that RRT is deeply grateful for her Grassroots Outdoor Alliance membership resources, support, and inspiration. “Retail is changing and evolving,” she says. “We want to figure out that ‘next big thing’ to keep retail relevant and exciting. We miss that start-up rush.”