I like to think of Adventure 16 (or A16, as it's oft-abbreviated) as the Starbucks of outdoor-gear purveyors. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more urban-sprawl-y location than where the 405 meets the 10 in West LA, but somehow that's where you'll find the Los Angeles location of this Southern California travel-outfitters chain (they have 4 locations in SoCal). And just as Starbucks strives to create a coffee-shop oasis no matter where they plant their flag, A16 manages to make even parking your car in their lot feel like you're ALREADY CAMPING.
Seriously, there are only maybe 10 parking spots near the front door, wedged around towering conifers (there's additional parking around the back, but that ruins the experience a little). Push open the heavy wooden front door, and suddenly you're overcome by a fresh, cool, piñon-scented breeze. Your first steps into the store take you into a Disney-esque rustic diorama, accented by a looping video of all the adventures you are THIS CLOSE to having.
Friendly employers who look like they just got back from a hike welcome you to their wonderland of outdoor paraphernalia and offer you a free cup of coffee from the station thoughtfully set out atop a vintage stove. You're not in Los Angeles anymore, my friend...you are in a cabin/trading post in the Sierra Nevadas. Grab a cuppa joe and peruse the dry goods, won't you?
The company website declares that "our dedication to providing Customers with the finest products, first hand and accurate information, and plenty of inspiration has guided us since our origin in 1962," and honestly, they do exactly that. A16 is the kind of place that inspires you to think "I definitely should start hiking every weekend, and honestly, why don't I go camping more often?? Ooh, look, a rock wall! I've always wanted to try climbing..." Seriously, it's just really fun to shop here.
Whether it's true or not, A16 seems more of a "locals' spot" than REI (which seems rather corporate by comparison--don't get me wrong, I'm a card-carrying REI member, but there's a difference). It's got history and a sense of community--a display case near the front of the store preserves artifacts from the store's history (including a photo showing the very store you're in as it looked in 1974), while a large map/corkboard introduces you to the A16 employees. Various challenges hosted by the store give customers an opportunity to be a part of the gang. For example, the A16 3-Peak Challenge encourages shoppers to "hike each of the three tallest mountains (the Three Saints) in SoCal: San Antonio (Mt. Baldy), San Gorgonio, and San Jacinto between May 8 and October 15, 2015" to win prizes and public mention on the website, where leaderboards track everyone's progress.
And the employees are all pretty awesome. While I was there, a very elderly (and very hard-of-hearing) man was wandering around, regaling anyone who would listen with his own outdoor experiences. Everyone was super cool to him, and it warmed my heart to see great customer service in action.
Also customer-service-oriented is the A16 rentals program. This is actually how I first found the store--I wanted to rent a camping stove for a camping trip years ago, before I was convinced that overnight camping was something I'd do more than once. They have pretty much all of the necessities for a camping trip available for rental, and the best part is that up to 5 nights of rental fees can be applied towards the purchase of a similar item! So if you spend 5 nights in a 3-person rental tent and have such a great time that you've decided you need a tent of your very own, you now qualify for $100 off your very own 3-person tent! Interestingly, they no longer list camping stoves on their list of rental equipment, so give them a call if you need something they don't list.
The inventory itself is almost overwhelming--fortunately, there are trailmarker-style signposts to help you navigate from department to department. They have a wide selection of books and maps, separate sections dedicated to both children and dogs, a sundries department that will make you want to spend the rest of your life eating out of collapsible bowls over a camping stove, and I'm pretty sure they carry every clothing line that boasts any level of weather-resistance.
Is it the most cost-effective place to get outfitted for your adventures? Hardly. But it's also not the worst. If you're more than a just a weekend warrior, you probably have been indulging in your outdoor-sport-of-choice for long enough to have assembled all the right gear at good prices--you've gotten hand-me-downs from friends perhaps, or you've hit up REI's Garage Sale. You've certainly taken advantage of off-season sales and possibly even Craigslist.
But if you've just signed yourself up for a 4-day excursion with the Rock Creek Pack Station in the Eastern Sierras (which I HIGHLY recommend), and you're not exactly sure what all you need for such an adventure, A16 is a great place to start.
Now, I didn't look at many prices with an eye to do doing a price-comparison because I assumed I'd be able to find their prices online. WRONG. Which is actually pretty annoying. That's why I say to START here. It's a great place to be inspired by the amazing displays and knowledgeable salespeople. Then, make a wishlist and check prices at other retailers, like REI and Amazon. You may well end up just buying at Adventure 16, but make sure you're getting a fair price first.
What little recon I did will give you an idea of what I mean. They had several racks of clothes on sale or clearance, but nothing was SO discounted I was prompted to buy (and you know I love a good deal). Then, in every department they had little baskets of "clearance" items, with the clearance price indicated by a yellow price sticker. I am a sucker for clearance items, so when I saw one lone Ex-Officio Bugsaway Paisley Bandana in red (I have two, one in pink and one in orange, and I LOVE THEM) in a basket with a yellow sticker declaring $12.00, I snatched it up. When I wandered into the clothing section, however, I found a whole display of bandanas at regular price. Which was...$12! WTF?
Feeling a little cheated, I put the bandana back. But when I checked the price on Amazon after I got home, it was--you guessed it--$12.
So then I realized I had taken photos of the price tags on some of the items in their dog section (yeah, that's another bonus--you get all inspired to turn your dog into White Fang). Comparing them against Amazon yielded encouraging results: the Ruffwear Palisades Pack was $149.95 both at A16 and on Amazon, and in fact the Ruffwear Grip Trex booties that were on sale at A16 for $41.97 were still only available on Amazon for the full A16 price of $69.95.
What does this mean for cost-conscious adventurer? A16 isn't the worst place to shop, and if the clearance stuff is ACTUALLY on clearance, you can snag some good deals. Unfortunately, without the ability to compare prices online, it's probably best that your first trip to A16 be just a fact-finding one.
Perhaps the best part of shopping at A16 is the return policy. Everything they sell (with some notable exceptions) is subject to their satisfaction guarantee--if you're not happy with a product's performance, bring it back to the store with the original receipt and they'll return the item. While normal wear and tear isn't subject to the guarantee, if a product just isn't performing how you expected, A16 wants you to be happy and they'll work with you to make it right. Per the website, "there is a 90-Day limit on electronics, unopened software & footwear fit," but on everything else, there's no time limit.
After an hour of browsing the store, I left with a map of the Southern Sierras in 3D topographic relief by Summit Terragraphics for $39.95 (a quick in-store price comparison revealed that this map isn't available on Amazon and is sold for the same price on the Summit Terragraphics website), and the renewed desire to do more hiking and camping in the near future.
Can't put a price on inspiration!