Couple tours with advice on latest, greatest gear

Posted: Friday, September 17, 2004

BILLINGS People who meet Laura and Eric Poole automatically love the couple love to envy them, that is.

That's because the Pooles have the desirable job of driving across the country, exploring its national parks, forests and mountains, all while getting paid and being supplied with some of the latest and greatest outdoor gear.

How do two people get such a great job?

''Everybody asks what's our in,'' the 33-year old Eric said, ''are we cousins with the owners?''

But all the duo did along with hundreds of other applicants was answer an ad in the back pages of Backpacker Magazine that read ''get paid to travel the country.''

''We get really interesting people apply,'' said Tammy Hobar, a marketing director for Backpacker who leads the Pooles' nationwide ''Get Out More'' tour.

The program started four years ago as an editorial project.

''But it turned into a great way to get our message out on the road,'' Hobar said. ''Advertisers loved it.''

What's the message?

''Ultimately our goal is to recruit new hikers,'' Hobar added. ''We want to take the mystery and stress out of backcountry travel.''

After an intensive month of training and refining their educational presentation, the Pooles hit the road in April. Since then they have racked up 16,500 miles and visited 10 national parks. The plan is to keep crisscrossing the country until October, ending when they have logged around 30,000 miles on the sporty yellow and orange Nissan Xterra provided by the magazine.

Don't be fooled by all the glamour. Hobar said the job ''doesn't pay all that much.''

The Pooles are paid a salary and receive a per diem amount for food, gas and the occasional hotel room (about once a week).

''But they do get to keep all the gear,'' Hobar said. ''It's a way to see the United States on our dime. And for young people, it's a great way to network.''

It's not all hiking (more than 300 miles logged) and exploring, however. The Pooles have preplanned stops at sporting good dealers and mountain shops across the country where they give presentations on such topics as the use of outdoor gear, how to cook on a camp stove and tips on buying and caring for equipment. More than 60 stops were scheduled by the Pooles' bosses in 28 states. They've put on demonstrations in towns as small as 400 and at Cabela's and Bass Pro Shops' massive sporting goods stores.

''We get tons of questions on the new gear,'' Eric said. "'Cause we have all the new stuff how does it work? Do we like it? A lot of the questions originate from the presentations.''

Eric said the 20 sponsors hooked them up with some great gear clothing from Royal Robbins, water treatment from MSR, backpacks from Jansport and tents from Sierra Designs.

''We use the actual gear in our demonstrations, Eric said, ''so we know what we're talking about.''

The Pooles aren't yet road weary.

''It doesn't seem like that much because we take a lot of stops to play,'' said Laura, 28.

And although the couple has been married for four years, being cooped up in a jam-packed SUV for months on end has only strengthened their marital ties.

''Some people complain about not having enough time with their spouse,'' Laura said, but not the Pooles.

Their only bump in the road has been smoothing their presentation and dividing the duties, Eric said. Oh, there also was the wind while driving across Kansas.

''I think it's gotten easier the longer we've been on the road,'' Eric said.

This year's trip has been relatively problem free, Hobar said. In the past, ''Get Out More'' duos have had such mishaps as backing into a campground tree, driving through a tropical storm and losing gear after their roof rack came unlatched.

The Pooles only problem, other than California drivers, has been the inability of their wireless Internet system to connect in Montana. But for the most part, the wireless has been a blessing, Hobar said. It sure beats the old days, when roadtrippers had to rush from Kinko's copy shop to Kinko's to file photos and journal notes.

''That was a little stressful,'' she said.

In their other, somewhat more sedentary lives, Eric was a teacher and served 10 years in the Air Force. Laura was a certified personal trainer in Colorado Springs, Colo. Do they long for those less restless days?

Laura only pauses a second before revealing what she misses.

''My oven, cooking and baking,'' she said with a distant look, ''homemade brownies and cookies and lasagna.''

But on the bright side, Eric said they've learned a hundred different ways to prepare couscous.

The upbeat couple isn't bummed about the prospect of losing their dream jobs.

''We don't like to think if it as unemployment,'' Eric said. ''We think of it more as play time.''


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