Outdoor Provisions: Fuelling adventureGear Survive
Meet the ‘Fresh Air Heads’ behind start-up hill-fuel company, Outdoor Provisions: two friends who decided they could do things better by bringing a sustainable conscience to the way we eat on the go.
Written by Tom Hill // Photography by Luke Douglas
We are sitting outside the Honesty Box. The green-painted shed with a window is incongruous at the top of a steep lane, way above the town of Hebden Bridge. The unmanned ‘café’ has a kettle, coffee, tea, cake, and freshly laid eggs, although not much else. On what feels like the first bright day of the winter, it’s a pleasure to feel the sun against our faces after weeks of Lowry-esque rain and grey skies. The Calder Valley cuts a deep notch through Pennine moorland. The sun barely reaches the roofs at the base of the valley at this time of year. We’d met at the train station, arriving from different directions and wrapped in multiple layers. Looking up felt like staring through a skylight, the blue sky above contrasting with the claustrophobic valley walls. There was a precise moment during our ‘direct’ journey upwards when the unfiltered sunbeams threw light into our eyes, bringing colour to the mossy, shadowy tones of lower down. It coincided with arriving at the cobbled track that leads up to the home of the Honesty Box. Grooves are worn into the gritstone setts – centuries of use leaving their mark. It always surprises me how grippy even wet gritstone is, the greenest of rock still providing friction under foot or wheel. We had padded our way upwards, sucking in cut-glass air. Our conversation reduced to short sentences. (Interviewer’s tip: open-ended questions are your friend in these scenarios.)
There’s amazing industrial heritage in the valley, and its post-industrial landscape still tells the story of the past. Mills and chimneys stand proud in locations that seem unlikely, until you realise that most are positioned next to the many streams that once drove the waterwheels that were replaced by steam engines. It feels like a fitting location to meet Luke and Christian, now nearly six months into their joint venture, Outdoor Provisions. Their vision is simple: to create a range of all-natural, tasty, nutritional hill food using sustainable packaging. They launched in summer 2019 with two flavours and another two quickly following up. In a cute nod to the national parks in which many of us in the UK enjoy our outdoor time, the flavours are inspired by the Peak District, Yorkshire Dales, Lake District, and Snowdonia.
As we started running, my first question was barely necessary on such a beautiful mid-week day. Why did they decide to go it alone and set up Outdoor Provisions? The opportunity to step away from the desk and spend more time outside was undoubtedly part of the draw. More than that, though, both were growing frustrated working for others (Christian for a multinational food manufacturer, Luke for a marketing and design agency). They had an idea – and as with all the best ideas, the seeds were planted during a long ride – and the passion to see it through.
The pair’s backgrounds clearly complement each other. Christian brings knowledge of industrial-scale food production, Luke the marketing and creative skills. Today, he also brings with him his photography know-how. As with any small company, both are having to muck in, though – whether that be packaging up orders (each with its own handwritten ‘thank you’) or just getting out there and selling product. Later in the run, Christian spots a mountain bike rider climbing towards us, and quickly grabs a few bars to thrust into his hand. ‘Outdoor Provisions, let us know what you think!’ Luke smiles; this isn’t Christian’s comfort zone, but he’s learning. They are both learning. Long before they made the leap and left their careers, they were experimenting with recipes in the kitchen, trying to find the right balance between flavour, texture, and shelf life using natural vegan ingredients. Apparently they made 40 recipe revisions across the current range before they hit on the final products.
The lads ended up working with a factory in the north-east to produce the bars. They drove up to see the first come off the production line. They celebrated with fish and chips on the beach, the moment only slightly tarnished by picking up a parking ticket when returning to their car. There go the profits on the first few boxes, then…
The December northerly breeze quickly wicks away any heat built up by our rapid height gain, so we push on, still climbing. Our target quickly comes into sight, a small obelisk on the horizon. The current Stoodley Pike monument was built in 1856, replacing an earlier one finished in 1815 to mark the defeat of Napoleon. Hewn from the same local stone as the factories it towers above, it could be mistaken for a chimney at first glance. We continue along a walled track until we are just 50m or so below the base of the angular construction. A glimpse at the map reveals a multitude of rights of way crisscrossing the moor above. The last time I came this way, the final approach to the monument was through bog and over bedrock. A surfaced path has been laid since, a golden thread leading to the base of the needle.
On a summer weekend, the hillside would be bustling. Today, though, we have it to ourselves. We climb into the monument, and ascend the pitch-black spiral steps, outside hand running up the rough walls to guide the way. We exit into the ephemeral winter light, the gentle breeze of earlier now rushing across the tops with more urgency. After a lap of the balcony, we congregate on the south-eastern corner, cold fingertips ripping open an Outdoor Provisions bar. We might not quite be in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, but Yorkshire parkin flavour feels most fitting. The bar manages to tread the balance of compact calories and tasting like ‘real food’ well. It is real food, after all. Sultanas, oats, bananas, and almonds are supplemented by date syrup and spices. Luke and Christian see the bars appealing to what they call ‘Fresh Air Heads’: folk who simply love spending time outdoors. The bars may not win racers over from an energy gel, but they are more portable than a sandwich.
I tuck the wrapper back in my pack as we quickly ready ourselves to flee the fellside for the promise of a warm pub. One of Outdoor Provisions’ three ‘signposts’ is to operate with a conscience (the others are to develop products specifically for outdoor use, and to give back to organisations and initiatives that protect the environment). In this case, that means wrappers that are completely compostable, and boxes that are recyclable. It’s a subject that Christian in particular speaks passionately about. If a small company like theirs can take this standpoint, there’s no reason the big players can’t. He’s sat in too many meetings where profit margins are put before environmental responsibility.
We join the Pennine Way for our descent back to the valley, opening legs and allowing gravity to assist our return home. There’s little conversation initially as we focus on placing our feet, arms spread wide for balance, as if hung by an invisible puppeteer’s strings. We haven’t covered much ground, or been out that long, but the sun is already low on the horizon to our left. True darkness is still an hour or two away, but the air temperature is already dropping under clear skies. The last leg of our run is along the canal, and we return to the theme of sustainability. This time, we talk about what makes a business financially sustainable. While the lads do have sales targets, they aren’t seeking growth at all costs. Their intention is to only sell through independent retailers. You won’t find Outdoor Provisions in your local Asda in the future. You will hopefully find them at your local climbing wall, outdoors shop, bike retailer, or fellside café. It’s a strong message: big ideas, delivered with love, passion, and ethics. Doing the right thing put before maximising profits.
Sitting in the pub, and less than a month before a general election, our conversation inevitably drifts to politics – the divisions being driven by many politicians and the media, while the real issues of climate emergency and basic humanity are forgotten. An energy bar company isn’t going to change the world, but they are still disrupting the norm in their own quiet way. If they can keep doing that while sneaking out for a run or a ride on company time every now and then, you get the feeling that Luke and Christian will achieve their own definition of success. Fortunately that means tasty hill snacks for us, and a relatively small cost to the rest of the planet.