“At some point the innovation game becomes a sickness and is there for its own sake and not people. People just become obstacles in the way of innovation after awhile, and that is what people feel coming through Ryan's editorial maybe. That's what I feel anyway. There's plenty of innovation - what there is not enough of is time to appreciate all of it.”
This innovation thread has been pounding my brain ever since I got back from vacation, and the few posts I made don’t convey all my thoughts. Perhaps I can’t wrap my head around it. I know the cottage industry is innovative, will continue to be so, and I also know that innovation is driven by consumer demand for what is needed or desired by the marketplace. The other disturbing thought is that last year’s or the previous year’s new innovative product are no longer any good or not up to speed with innovation; that we constantly need something that is brighter, shinier, lighter, more efficient, etc. It is like the spoiled child who tires of his new toy and demands something new.
So what is innovation anyway? Is it a flash in the pan product that fades away in a short period of time? Or is it something that lasts in the marketplace a long time, is imitated and refined by those who follow? To me an innovative product it the one that stands the test of time. And products which stand the test of time provide usefulness and value to those who purchase them. As pointed out earlier by another member, the innovation often includes service and product support… the personal touch that the cottage manufacturers excel at. Heck you can communicate directly with such innovators like McHale, Shires, Moak, Bell, Velsco, Marshall and host of others easily by phone or email. Try that with Patagonia, MSR, et al!
Over the past couple of months I have been directed by the “Boss” to clean and consolidate the storage areas of our garage. And a lot of this storage is camping and hiking gear. Gear that is spread all over our house and storage areas is now moving to a designated area. Some of this gear is “vintage” and is still used occasionally; some I forgot about and will rotate back into use, other stuff is good but will go to charity where it can be used more frequently. One of the reasons it is taking so long is my perchance to tinker, rebuild, and restore old things. Along with this restoration, organization, and purging has been a lot of thought and memories in regard to innovation, technology, and good old “it works” thinking. So I thought I would share some of my thoughts.
Key to equipment is fabrics and materials. Without them, the cottage industry cannot build excellent products for us to use because for the most part, our cottage industry excels in design and construction, not scientific research. Where would we be without wool, nylon, Spectra, down, aluminum, titanium, stainless steel, brass, needles, thread, sewing machines, fuel, etc.?
I recently gave away the first down sleeping bag I bought (in 1971). It worked well for over twenty years but was heavy by today’s standards. Down has been used for how long as insulation? A long time. We owe a lot to that first person who used it to insulate. Along with new shell materials, higher fill, and design modifications, how much can we improve on it? And how can we praise a single manufacturer as having the most innovative bag or quilt. They are all variations on a theme. WM, Nunatak, Marshall, Katabalic, and a cast of many all make great products. All are a variation on a theme. The variations work well for different people and are innovative of themselves. In my mind none have taken the world by storm, but each has unique properties that bring value to their customers. I happen to have three favorite brands, three different systems for different needs. But I don’t see any earth shattering innovation in this area, and I am not mentally demanding that someone makes a better one. What I have works well, is light enough and spending additional money to test the newest and greatest is not logical to me.
Part of my reorganization has focused on stoves. I have a few and have spent many evenings the past couple of months cleaning and rebuilding some of them. Most I use occasionally and some newer ones I use most of the time. But all of them are truly innovative in some manner. Are all of them light enough for my needs, and should I be searching for stove nirvana every single year? For the most part the answer is yes to the first and a definite “no” to the last. I just finished rebuilding my two Svea 123 stoves (they are the non-self cleaning models). Rebuilding is really a misnomer; there is nothing to go wrong other than replacing the fuel cap gasket. The design is more than a 100 years old, doesn’t break, is aesthetically pleasing and easy to use once you learn how. After I polished them, they look like works of art and perform like new. And fuel for them is readily available. The next two stoves in my inventory are canisters; an Optimus 731 and a Gaz Globe Trotter. Very light for their time, worked well, and now obsolete because the fuel canisters are no longer available. But they will remain in my inventory because of the fondness I have for them and the memories of many good trips. Both, in my opinion, were innovative products of their time. One of the most famous stoves of all time, is my 1980s MSR Whisperlite. A true workhorse and wonderful snow melter. For me it is finicky and takes too much maintenance compared to the Svea, but it has served me well for over two decades and it does work better in serious snow conditions than the Svea. And now for a variation on a theme, my Gaz TriStar remote canister. I Don’t know who made the first remote canister, but this one solved the problem of wind in the desert along with the convenience of a canister. Not the lightest stove, but it works well. I have a Snow Peak GS-100 and it is light, but in my mind not innovative unless you consider weight and efficiency (without wind)… the innovation came long before this stove, but it made improvements. Last is the stove I use most… the Trail Designs Caldera Cone GVP. This stove is a variation of several themes and integrates pot, drinking cup, stove stand, windscreen, multiple fuels, compactness, and light weight. Can’t simmer with it, not great for cold temperatures, but it does what I need for three seasons of the year. This is truly an innovative product and I see no need to continuous searching for a better stove. What’s the point? I can save the time needed to research new stoves (time is a limited commodity – each of us will run out of it at some point), and I can save my money. Cooking with wood is going backwards in my opinion, and I just leave all the wood I see on the ground where it belongs. So, a few years ago the Caldera Cone was the most innovative product to many people, and it is no longer innovative? It is one of those products that will more than likely pass the test of time along with the Svea and the Whisperlite.
I can’t think of a single person who shaped backpacking more than Dick Kelty. Like the current crop of cottage manufacturers, he was an outdoorsman. He brought curved aluminum frames, nylon bags, and waist straps to market. It is arguable who did each of these first, but Kelty integrated them best. Heavy by today’s standards, generations of backpackers explored the wilderness with Keltys and the other external frames of the companies that followed. My first Kelty is over 40 years old, and was my main pack for 35 years. It passes the age test for innovation. And it still is in good condition. Today the external frame design has been supplanted by internal frames, of which Kelty built one of the first. I think Lowe actually invented it. I have owned several. The innovator here today is McHale, who integrates durability, functionality, longevity, suspension, comfort, and aesthetics into a single pleasing package. I expect it will last as long as my Kelty, but unfortunately I will not be around that long. All the others internals I have in inventory will be donated to good causes and will not remain in my garage. McHale packs pass the longevity test.
What about frameless packs? They have been around for decades, and the cycle repeats itself. They come out, people start putting small frames in them, they morph into internal frame packs, don’t last, and the cycle repeats itself. Have you noticed that MLD, Gossamer Gear, Six Moons, zPacks, and others are now following the cycle? This is not a lack of innovation, but companies that listen to what their customers want.
Clothing fabrics come and go. Polypropylene, polyesters, hybrids, GoreTex, eVent, other membranes, and everyone is waiting breathlessly for the next miracle fabric. Wool has been around for centuries and we still find that it is one of the best materials around. Shells that need to protect it come and go yearly and we still are searching for WB nirvana. My 1980s Sierra Designs wind jacket and pants breathe about as well as the current crop, have pockets, weight a little more and have been in use for over 20 years. I have owned a plethora of rain shells, and I constantly go back to the simple poncho. Breathes, holds up, and is inexpensive. There is a lot of innovation from the cottage manufacturers in this realm with multi-use configurations. Again variations on a theme.
I have owned very few tents until the past three of four years, as I drank the Tent Kool-Aid in search for nirvana. An innovative Tee Pee from Six Moons (Wild Oasis) replaced my 1980s Chouinard Tee Pee, which are all variations of a theme used by nomadic tribes for centuries. And the innovations continue with variations of this design, partial pyramids, and other structural shapes. This segment has integrated new fabrics and materials every single year. Again innovative variations of a theme. Let’s not forget the simple tarp and poncho/tarp either, the cottage manufactures tweak this design every year. The design is simple, needs little structural components and is multi-functional. Structure adds weight so there is only so far you can take it, and with the sub 6 oz offerings, how innovative must we be or can we be?
Boots and shoes. Not much from the cottage industry because the number of sizes requires a robust inventory, unless you built custom footwear. You can get a pair of customer Limmers, but the wait list is several years. But Vibram “reeks of” innovation when it comes to boots. Not UL, but influential and they past the age test. So we buy nylon shoes that fail in a few hundred miles and we fill up our landfills with the discarded carcasses. Not a good environmental model and I am probably the guiltiest of all, wearing out one or two pairs every year. And this critical piece of gear has huge impact on our wilderness experience (e.g., “a pound on the foot is worth five on the back”). This is the only segment of gear I would like to see a truly innovative product. Light, repairable, and lasts decades like my old heavy leather boots.
I think the article confuses “stagnation and innovation” with consumerism. Or maybe it is marketing new products with an eye to creating demand, all Madison Avenue? Or is BPL at risk without new products to review every year? Why not go back and give us an update on the gear reviewed in previous years; is it still good, does it fair better than expected? Why are Ryan’s innovative pieces of gear of the past no longer so? Why does he think we need new innovations every single year? Who will support it? – probably only the minority of backpackers who subscribe to the lightweight philosophy and already own last year’s innovation. Why would stewards of the environment encourage this incessant consumption and behavior? What drives us to even think we need more innovation to do something as simple as walking and sleeping in the wilderness? Why are we so willing to fill our dumps with discarded gear? There is much talk of LNT on BPL, and applying it to everyday life, so how does the demand for innovative gear every single year to replace last year’s innovation align to this philosophy of living?
Oh, and I have participated in the heroin-drip addiction too. So this decade will see me come back full circle and use my old gear, configure it to work well as to function and weight, and hike even more than I did in the past. Backpacking gear is just a means to an end, not the end unto itself.
So to those cottage companies I have purchased quality gear from in the past, I say thank you. You have done a stellar job. There are too many of you to list, but cumulatively you have helped enhance my walking, kept me dry and safe, lightened my load, and allowed me to continue this lifelong avocation at a level I did not think could possibly continue into my 60s and probably beyond. Good job ladies and gentlemen!!