'The Hiker Box'
Outside Business Journal

Retailer Spotlight: The Hiker Box in Eagle River, Wisconsin

Four-legged “employees,” a trail town vibe, and an obsession with maps are some of the things that make this store unique

Ryan Wichelns

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Shop dogs are nothing new in the outdoor industry. In fact, they’re almost a prerequisite for the coolest and most popular specialty retailers. But The Hiker Box in Eagle River, Wisconsin takes it to a whole new level, playing host to upwards of five dogs and even litters of kittens in the short three-plus years since the shop has opened.

And they do it for a good cause. None of The Hiker Box’s four-legged residents are permanent. All are temporary fosters that owners Jessica and Tom Allen have taken in for a little extra love in this unique, big-hearted gear shop.

Jessica Allen began fostering dogs over 20 years ago. When the couple met in 2005 in Tampa, Florida, they kept up the practice together. Jessica, originally from Chicago, was working as a software engineer and Tom, from Georgia, as a warehouse operations manager. It was traveling regularly together to Wisconsin for vacations, that the couple fell in love with the outdoors.

Hiker Box owners
Jessica and Tom Allen, owners of The Hiker Box. (Photo: The Hiker Box)

“As a little girl, instead of going to camp, my grandparents would take me to their cabin in Eagle River for the summer,” said Jessica. Years later, she says hiking and backpacking became an activity she and Tom could both share. That eventually morphed into the desire to move to the area and to work for themselves. The need for a gear shop nearby prodded them into outdoor retail.

“There was a big learning curve, definitely,” said Jessica. Without any retail background, the couple dedicated themselves to research, figuring out on their own how to do everything from making connections with vendors to filling a retail space. In 2014, The Hiker Box opened, filled with hiking and backpacking hard goods, a handful of technical apparel pieces…and, of course, a dog.

Hiker Box dog
The Allens’ current foster dog, Barkley, is slowly warming up to socialization with help from store customers. (Photo: The Hiker Box)

Creating a Trail Town Feel

The Allen’s passion for long-distance thru-hiking has always been hampered by the fact that there’s little of it around their area of the Midwest. The couple’s solution? Build their own trail town community, even if they don’t have an AT-style trail in their back yard. Step one: build in trail town traditions.

Around long distance trails, it’s not uncommon to find a collection of small containers—hiker boxes—at outfitters, hostels, and other spots frequented by hikers. The boxes will fill with extra food items, left over from hikers’ resupplies—medical supplies, toiletries, and even small pieces of camping equipment—all for passing travelers to take and replace as needed.

“We feel that a hiker box promotes a friendly community spirit of helping others, which is why we chose to name the store after hiker boxes,” said Jessica. But aside from naming their shop after the friendly resupply spot, they’ve built their own container in the store. “Since we aren’t near any long-distance trails, we ‘seed’ our box with a few example items,” said Jessica. A handful of the shops’s more regular customers will regularly interact with the box, but for most it’s an interesting look into hiking’s more hardcore genres. “People just passing thru enjoy reading about it and learning a bit more about the community of long-distance hiking,” Jessica said.

The Customers’ Best Friend

But the box of goodies isn’t generally what brings customers in the doors.

“Having a dog in the store has always been the plan,” Jessica said about opening the shop. “We knew we weren’t going to have our weekends to volunteer or do any big projects for the local community but fostering animals was something that we could do, and it fits perfectly.”

The couple only takes in one dog at a time, but with the exception of short breaks in between fosters, they’ve had five dogs in the three years that shop has been open, and customers have noticed, routinely coming into the shop specifically for the animals. “We have regulars that are not coming in for the gear, they’re coming in for the dogs,” Jessica joked, but she won’t be turning away dog-lovers any time soon. The animals quickly become local celebrities, turn the shop into a hot spot in town, and grant it some local publicity. Plus it’s not uncommon that someone comes in looking to pet a dog and leaves with a new piece of gear, Jessica said.

Having the dogs in the store isn’t just a for the sake of their limited time or as a marketing ploy. It helps the dogs socialize, increases their bond with people, and offers the couple more opportunities to train them. Not to mention, the dogs get noticed. “Dogs have been adopted because they’ve been seen here,” Jessica said.

The Map to Customer Service

But The Hiker Box isn’t only known for its furry fixtures. When customers come in for something other than the dogs, it’s often for the shop’s mapping expertise. Alongside a slew of local cartography including maps from local mapmaker Art Dorwin, the Allens specialize in creating custom maps for visitors.

This isn’t your typical map rack. The Hiker Box stocks a huge number of local maps from a handful of brands, including custom double-sized USGS quads from local mapmaker Art Dorwin. (Photo: The Hiker Box)

“Let’s say someone wants a map of a specific lake,” Jessica explained. “We’ll go and look at the standard USGS quadrant and their lake is over in a corner or split between quadrants.” The solution? By using online services like MyTopo, The Hiker Box will design and order individual solutions for their customers and have them shipped right to the store.

“Some people may know that they could do this at home, but they’re not comfortable with it or the area,” said Jessica, adding that, as locals, they also often have a better feel for what would make the best map.

The Hiker Box doesn’t charge for this service, nor does it have any kind of partnership with MyTopo or any other websites, but Jessica said that providing this added assistance to her customers is an important part of maintaining the shop’s credibility.

“If you’re a store that carries a lot of maps and is known for maps, and then someone comes in that wants one specific map, you don’t want to send that person away,” Jessica explained. According to her, when a customer shows up looking for something that doesn’t exist, it would be easy (and not unreasonable) to apologize, explain the situation and turn them away, or at the very least inform them how to use the web service themselves. But instead, “You want to say ‘I can get that for you.”

Whether it’s with dogs or above-and-beyond customer service, at The Hiker Box, it all comes back to making customers feel warm and fuzzy.