Cairn Subscription Box

Expand your gear stash

MSRP $25
Gender Unisex
Best Uses Gift, discovery tool

I have fond childhood memories of rolling up to an accessories store at the mall, handing over a hard-won dollar bill, and receiving a small paper bag in return – the infamous “grab bag,” filled with who-knows-what, the most clearancy of clearance items, anyone’s guess. It barely mattered what plastic tchotchkes lay inside – I loved the element of surprise.

The grab bags of yore have been replaced with the subscription boxes of today; pay a monthly fee and wait for the mail carrier to deposit a box of goodies at your door. Birchbox is widely regarded as the vanguard, sending out sample-size (and sometimes even full-size – the joy!) beauty products, serving up goodies with a “treat yourself” mentality. The service has many competitors today, but you’ll also find boxes for pet lovers, organic snackers, clotheshounds, babies (or their product-testing parents)…and even outdoorsfolk. Enter Cairn.

Lauded as the first subscription box service for outdoor enthusiasts, Cairn launched in 2014, hatched by two classmates at the University of Pennsylvania’s vaunted Wharton School as a platform to “disrupt the way outdoor brands and consumers interact.” Each box contains a sampling of items – food, gadgets, skincare, wearables, and the like – that offers the buyer the opportunity to try something hopefully new to them, and the brands, a chance to get their products in front of plenty of adventure-loving eyes – and hopefully receive user feedback.

The subscription cost is $25 per month (including shipping) for a box containing 4-5 items, and each package is valued at $35 or higher; you receive a card detailing each item and its retail price, so you can math it out for yourself. Unlike some subscription services, you can choose a single month, 6 months, or a year (the latter two offering discounts); having been stuck with other subscription services in the past, I appreciate the flexibility of choosing a single month (also great for gift-giving) and the ability to cancel at any time. For big spenders, the quarterly Obsidian package offers a reported $300 in value (for a spend of $199).

During the quick sign-up, you’ll answer a few optional questions to create a “profile” of your interests – clothing sizes, recreation frequency, a ranking of your favorite outdoor activities, whether you’d like to receive alcohol-related accessories, coffee, children’s items, and so on. You’ll receive an email when your box ships – mine arrived within a few days of signup. Let the fun begin!

cairn box 1

BOX #1
This box contained a $44 value – a Cairn patch, UST Brands Heat-Up Hand Warmers, New Grounds Foods Mocha Latte CoffeeBar, Sierra Sage Green Goo Dry Skin Stick, and Power Practical Lithium 4400. The hand warmers felt like the only “throwaway” item, although I’ll certainly use them during an upcoming snow excursion. The rest of the brands were all new to me, and the products were intriguing. The Green Goo balm – the size of a fat chapstick or glue stick – smells great and will come in handy (pun totally intended) after paw-drying climbing sessions, the CoffeeBar was really tasty (and had me completely wired for a while), and the Power Practical lantern / phone charger combo is alone worth the price of the box for someone who doesn’t already own a similar item (I, however, do). This isn’t an anomaly – each box tends to have one “big” item that typically accounts for the total box price – everything else is the fun icing on the gear cake.

cairn box 2

BOX #2
This box contained a $38.50 value – Rip Van Wafels Traditional Waffle, Little Red Wagon Geo Coffee, NiteIze BetterBand 12″, and Aquamira Frontier Pro Ultralight Water Filter. I was familiar with all of the brands, except for the coffee – a one-time use sachet that I’ll test out on an upcoming backpacking trip. My sensitive system won’t tolerate the gluten-containing waffle, so that’s being donated to a friend (one gripe: while you can say whether or not you eat meat, there are no options in the sign-up process to delineate other dietary restrictions or preferences). The cording is one of those everyday use kind of items that I might not normally buy, especially since I already own bungees and the like, and the Aquamira filter is cool, but I already own several water filters, so this will be donated out, as well.

cairn interior

If you have cash to spare every month, this is a fun way to treat yourself with a surprise “grab box” of outdoorsy goodies. However, $25 is no chump change, so while you truly do receive your money’s worth in the items’ cumulative value, the price tag may give people some pause. The box is a great way to add new products to your rotation, especially if your existing gear stash is fairly small. However, if you’re already a gear junkie, you may find the offerings less than exciting. We were provided these boxes at no cost for reviewing purposes, but had I spent a collective $50 to receive a few snacks and doubles of mid-range gear items I already own (water filter, lantern/battery pack), I would have been sorely disappointed. The upside is that you have the opportunity to discover new and emerging brands from time to time – I guarantee that if that Green Goo stick continues to perform as it has been, it’s going to have a permanent home in my climbing bag, especially given the 20% coupon included with my box.

Ultimately, I personally wouldn’t subscribe, only because I already own an entire REI’s worth of outdoor stuff, but I would heartily recommend the service to anyone who’s looking to expand their gear drawer, expand their snack repertoire, and/or discover new brands – and to anyone who’s looking to gift their outdoorsy friends…or their outdoorsy self.

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