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Cottage Stagnation and Recent Gems
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Jim Sweeney
(swimjay) - MLife

Locale: Northern California
Rising Expectations on 12/28/2011 15:37:46 MST Print View

About the only downside of things getting better is that we come to expect that they'll continue to get better, at the same or a faster rate. The last 4 or 5 years have seen general substantial improvement in function/durability vs weight throughout the industry at all price points. There's no intrinsic reason why this improvement (which came after many years of stagnation) should continue at the same rate. That's not a problem, or the result of complacency; it's just the way things go. Probably work is being done now which, when various insights coalesce, will produce game-changing improvements similar to carbon fiber poles, Cuben fiber packs, and all the tent innovations we've seen. But it won't be as much in the realm of weight, as there just isn't that much more weight to be saved.

That said, for me the last year has seen significant improvements--among them Z-Packs' sleeping bags, packs, and shelters, the new JetBoil, and, though I haven't used it, the new Back Country boiler Ryan referred to.

Edited by swimjay on 12/28/2011 15:38:54 MST.

dan mchale
(wildlife) - MLife

Locale: Cascadia
a number of fabrics on 12/28/2011 15:44:11 MST Print View

Ryan, it is not correct to generalize about how a 'McHale' absorbs more water than an HMG pack since I make Cuben packs also. Please compare apples to apples. The same goes with Spectra Grid. All of my packs are not made of Spectra Grid, or full dyneema, or cordura, or mixes of Cuben and polyester or spectra. These are choices the customer makes. I do not recall having any issues with customers regarding coatings on Spectra grid. I can't recall one, it has not been an issue. You have certainly never brought it up, yet you choose to for the first time in public?

Edited by wildlife on 12/28/2011 16:45:45 MST.

Dave -
(FamilyGuy) - F

Locale: Up there
Re: a number of fabrics on 12/28/2011 16:45:20 MST Print View

"Ryan, it is not correct to generalize about how a 'McHale' absorbs more water than an HMG pack since I make Cuben packs also."

He didn't generalize. He said, "The HMG pack absorbs less water than my McHale as a % of pack weight" He also indicates that it appears to be most attributable to the harness. HIS pack as a percentage of pack weight.

dan mchale
(wildlife) - MLife

Locale: Cascadia
coatings on 12/28/2011 16:55:46 MST Print View

Ryan did generalize. He got caught making yet another statement without really thinking about what he's saying. It would have been far more appropriate to say Cuben Packs do not absorb as much water as woven Fabric packs rather than getting into a stupid HMG Vs McHale claim that is irrelevant. It's also funny how instead of addressing his untruths about spectra grid, he attacks the coating. This is pretty entertaining. Cuben Fiber costs at least twice as much as spectra grid fabric. Does Ryan expect these 2 very different materials to perform the same? How much has Ryan used Cuben packs? Can he see into the future regarding how well they will hold up? (I in no way mean to disparage Cuben here - am just pointing out that Ryan has less field time probably with Cuben than Grid).

Edited by wildlife on 12/29/2011 09:10:57 MST.

David Wills
(willspower3) - F
Stagnation on 12/28/2011 17:11:18 MST Print View

I must admit that I was a bit concerned with what I perceived as a lack of innovation after not being a regular on BPL for almost a year back in 2009-2010. Upon returning, I looked around hard to see what cool new stuff had come out in that year assuming that the pace would stay the same and all sorts of new goodies would be at my fingertips. Sadly innovation seemed to have plateaued. It was all basically reiterations and tweaks of previously designed stuff, plus lots of designs redone in the unsuitable .35oz/yd variety of cuben that has since nearly vanished. At the time, I was sad. I didn't think BPL could possibly keep my attention or that there was anywhere left for the industry to go strictly regarding backpacking. While I still believe we have hit a plateau where refinements trump large changes, I can't say that it's a bad thing.

I think 2009 and 2010 was a time when the collective group started rebounding/retreating from pushing the UL ideal to the limits of practicality. People started to focus more on improving efficiency of their 8 or 15 pound load instead of seeing if they can sleep on a 1/8" foam mat. I feel the cottage industry has responded accordingly, appropriately, and predictably to the momentum of the market we are all a part of. They are meeting the demands of the people.

More packs with light suspension are coming from companies that wouldn't have considered it in 2008 or 2009 and are the new frontier cottage pack makers are working towards. Heck, even BPL came out with the Absoroka Pack not terribly long after articles promoting sub 5 lb packs were all the rage. People are interested in carrying real loads comfortably in a light pack. We should see more in the coming year. From what I have seen, I think your accusation that cottage packs are ugly and poorly made is generally unfounded. There is a reason more people use ULA than any other pack on thru hikes. However, there is one cottage company whose packs I have seen being repaired trailside, and I have seen several from that company.

Shelters are trending towards either full coverage with modular bug protection (TT, SMD, MLD, HMG, BPWWD) and/or being tweaks the old Nomad design (Lightheart, SMD, Suluk ALLWEPT, TT). People are raving about the Stratospire and Solong 6 not because of weight barriers, but because they provide more value per ounce. More room and full protection at less weight. SMD even has a 34 oz $125 roomy, full coverage shelter. It's what the people want, so that's where creative efforts are going. Sorry if it doesn't excite you Ryan.

We already have a huge range of titanium pots to cook in and efficient stoves to cook with. How many ways can you make water hot? If people demanded a better way, the market would respond. Many of the cottage manufacturers and UL Ambassadors like Skurka just use a supercat and call it a day. For the limited people in the market for a wood stove, efficiencies and ease of use can be pushed a little higher, sure. If there was a significant enough demand for wood stoves, more companies would be more interested in making new awesome ones.

Sleeping pads are moving along nicely both from big companies and cottage ones. Bender is making highly regarded mats that are three times as warm as my old BA insulated aircore for about the same weight. The barrier to entry for making something like the new super warm neoair (R value of 5 i think?) is pretty high though. To say that cottage companies should accept the risk involved with something like this or sonic welding is pretty bold. Outsource a sonic welded backpack? Could work. The big companies have the ability to do this much more easily and efficiently than the cottage industry though, which is why they do.

With sleeping bags, you can see cost and weight savings instituted by Tim Marshall using karo baffles in his down quilts. Zpacks designed a strange but awesome quilt/sleeping bag hybrid. Titanium Goat and Thru Hiker are continuing to optimize fabric options. A breathable cuben is on the way too, although I don't see much point in it since breathable fabric tend to require little in the way of tensile strength, but more abrasion resistance. Either way, they are all moving forward. There are several other down quilt makers from the hammock world as well who provide alternatives to the expensive company that remains unmentioned. What sort of progress could you be looking for in this department?

One area that has been slow to develop is clothing. This is also an area where the big industries have a huge competitive advantage, so the cottage industry is wise to stay away from it. Midsize companies continue to be competitive though, like WM and FF. Clothing isn't going to change much and it isn't nearly as specialized as gear.

While saying economists don't have solutions may be true, it isn't their goal. I believe they focus more on understanding and explaining behavior from people and businesses. People's need for innovation is lower now than in 2008 when things were full speed ahead. As a market, we have settled on a desire to have our packs reasonably light with well performing, comfortable gear. The cottage industry is supplying us with that. They innovate and produce to meet our demands, not just for the sake of doing it.

Ryan, I am really sorry the cottage industry is not making strides to entertain you when you review gear. Are you worried that lack of excitement will hamper BPL popularity? There must be some serious cognitive dissonance going on since you are condescending to the cottages for not innovating whilst simultaneously patronizing the members of the community that drive the demand for innovation and support the cottage industry. I find it especially odd for you to say this when you and BPL have the history, resources, connections, and built in audience to be one of those innovators you seek others to be.

End of rant. Time to breathe, pack up my gear and head out for a trip tomorrow!

Edited by willspower3 on 12/28/2011 17:21:33 MST.

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
packs & fabrics & gridstop oh my on 12/28/2011 17:21:12 MST Print View

"Ryan did generalize. He got caught making yet another statement without really thinking about what he's saying."

Yes on both accounts. I do it all the time.

"It's also funny how instead of addressing his untruths about spectra grid, he attacks the coating."

I actually thought the coatings have held up pretty well, given what I've put the packs through. I have no complaints about minor delamination of the coating. I also agree with you that Spectra grid does indeed prevent catastrophic blowouts. I just think this is an incredibly small risk for the norm of ultralight backpacking, and that it's pretty tough to sell a poorly constructed pack that's going to fail in the seams under loading duress based on the merits of this - or any - fabric - unless the fabric is going to be the failure point in the pack.

"This is pretty entertaining. Cuben Fiber costs at least twice as much as spectra grid fabric. Does Ryan expect these 2 very different materials to perform the same?"

Of course not.

I do like that I can get a pack made of a hybrid CF that has similar volume and load carrying comfort and at a lighter weight, and that fits well, absorbs less water, and also prevents the small possibility of catastrophic failure, without too high of investment, though. My pack was only $275, which seems a bargain for what it offers.

The only wild card I see with this hybrid CF fabric - and I do see it as a wild card - is its longevity. It's new, so that remains to be seen. At least with some of the Spectra grids, we know what to expect out of them, and for the most part, they hold up well enough for a long time.

Ross Bleakney
(rossbleakney) - MLife

Locale: Cascades
Re: Cottage Stagnation and Recent Gems on 12/28/2011 17:31:18 MST Print View

I think this article is a bit inconsistent, and I think Ryan's own preferences have crept into what he sees as stagnation. For example, he talks about tarps. Tarps are great, but I don't use them. 90% of the time, I hike in high bug season. Yes, I could deal with the bugs in a different manner, but I really prefer a tent. This is where the inconsistency comes in. It doesn't makes sense to say "you don't need to lighten your pack from 5.2 to 4.6 pounds" and then complain that there is no innovation. I agree, there probably isn't much innovation at that weight. That is because it is very difficult to make anything very different at that weight. You are pretty much assured of using a tarp, alcohol stove (or wood burner if allowed), etc. But once you expand the options, then things get more interesting. If you accept that a tent is a reasonable option, then the cottage gear makers were hugely innovative (again). The StratoSpire is a weird looking offset tent. Maybe someone has done something like that before, but you could say that about just about any innovation (for example software: Cloud Computing? Been there, done that a long time ago). My point is that the StatoSpire is an extremely innovative tent, and is just part of a long line of innovations in the world of tent making. Frankly, the big tent makers are simply behind, and remain behind in quality, price and value. It is rare to say that about any cottage industry, but it is true of tents.

I do agree that "the big boys" have made some big strides. It took them long enough. Many of the cottage tent makers, for example, were already moving on to Cuben, while some of the big tent makers finally decided to make a tent or two out of Silnylon. Yes, just making a product out of "the latest mylar sandwich" may not seem like innovation, but it goes along with designs that maximize its usefulness. The Hexamid tent jumps out in this regard, although there are other ones as well. You could say, for example, that YouTube is just a video sharing service made possible by the rapid decrease in hard drive cost -- no innovation there. Sure, but to someone who never shared their home movies to their cousin across the globe, it sure seems innovative.

In many ways, it is surprising how well the cottage gear makers have stayed ahead in many areas or kept close in others. One of the more innovative products in the last ten years is the NeoAir. This is an engineering marvel in a city known for that sort of thing (the company was formed by ex-Boeing guys). Nonetheless, this is an outlier. My guess is that if you polled most members of this site they would say that most of their gear is from cottage makers. Maybe they aren't interested in getting new stuff, but that is because the gear they have is so good, not because they think there is a lack of innovation.

Edited by rossbleakney on 12/28/2011 17:33:44 MST.

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
doubt it on 12/28/2011 17:47:07 MST Print View

My guess is that if you polled most members of this site they would say that most of their gear is from cottage makers.

i seriously doubt it ... while many, or even perhaps a majority may have a piece of gear here and there which is cottage ... i think it more likely that when everyone on this forums, members and non-members alike, total up all the pieces of gear ... many of them will find a substantial amount, if not a majority come from more mainstream sources

count clothing, shoes, poles, tents/tarps, sleeping bags, hats, gloves, stoves, even yr compass ... etc ...

the simple reason i suspect is that more mainstream gear is getting quite light, you can try it, and most importantly ... its frequently on sale

Edited by bearbreeder on 12/28/2011 17:47:37 MST.

Clayton Mauritzen
(GlacierRambler) - F

Locale: NW Montana
Re: coatings on 12/28/2011 18:01:59 MST Print View

Right or wrong, this is getting ugly. I have lost all interest in McHale packs.

Aaron Croft
(aaronufl) - M

Locale: Oregon
Mainstream on 12/28/2011 18:04:42 MST Print View

"the simple reason i suspect is that more mainstream gear is getting quite light, you can try it, and most importantly ... its frequently on sale."

Exactly. Not everyone can order 3 packs from cottage manufacturers and ship back the 2 they don't like (ah, the life of a poor grad student). On the other hand, since I live in Colorado, I can walk into a golite store, try on everything, and walk out with great gear at an extreme discount.

And honestly, there is something to be said for durability. Most of the larger companies have a lifetime warranty on their products, and while they may weigh more, they also (in my experience) last longer than *some* cottage products.

Kurt Lammers
(lammers8) - M

Locale: Pacific Northwest
BPL Innovation on 12/28/2011 18:06:21 MST Print View

"I find it especially odd for you to say this when you and BPL have the history, resources, connections, and built in audience to be one of those innovators you seek others to be."


As suggested parenthetically in my previous comment, I'm curious as to the direction this online magazine will take in 2012. I remain an avid supporter of this community, but am highly skeptical of the journalistic focus of the staff and its founder, never more so than today. I'm very hopeful that Ryan will address the results of the EOY survey and provide this community with a reason to believe that the stagnation that has reduced non-forum BPL content to a weekly topic and a Clelland! reprint will reverse course in 2012. Anyone else agree? Or am I the only one feeling confused that the founder is throwing rocks at glass shelters...

Ross Bleakney
(rossbleakney) - MLife

Locale: Cascades
Re: doubt it on 12/28/2011 18:10:39 MST Print View

I wouldn't count clothing as gear. I should have said as much. I meant to, but just forgot. You make a good point, though, that when you count all the stuff, a lot of it is not cottage gear (when you include things like stakes, compass, etc). But I don't really see the mainstream gear as catching up, with the exception of sleeping pads (which, for the most part, where never dominated by cottage gear makers). For the most part, the areas not dominated by cottage gear makers were never dominated by cottage gear makers. In general, they never even competed (e.g. compass). Off the top of my head, here are some areas where the cottage gear makers still make (in my opinion) not only the best stuff, but the stuff that is the best value (which again, is rare in any industry):

Shelter, Poles, Alcohol Stoves, Wood Burning Stoves, Cookware, Packs (although in the case of McHale, my "better value" may not be true, and be replaced by "you get what you pay for").

I'm sure I left out a few as well. In some areas (alcohol stoves, for example) I'm hard pressed to even think of examples of mainstream gear (i. e. gear you could buy at REI). OK, to be fair, after Googling, I did find one or two alcohol stove sold at REI (Vargo). But, no offense, isn't the "mainstream product" for that market a cottage stove (Caldera Cone)?

dan mchale
(wildlife) - MLife

Locale: Cascadia
failed on 12/28/2011 18:28:20 MST Print View

Ryan, I think you've outdone yourself this time. You should put your clothes back on.

Kurt Lammers
(lammers8) - M

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: doubt it on 12/28/2011 18:29:56 MST Print View

Since I admittedly went a bit off-topic with my previous comments (which I still hope will generate some discussion) I felt I should roll a bit positive with 8 cottage products each of which I have purchased and enjoyed in the past year:

- Lawson Equipment IronWire
- Klymit Inertia X frame pad
- Exotac nanoSTRIKER
- Lawson Equipment cuben pack liner
- simBLISSity LevaGaiters
- My man Robert Kelly's Ti cathole trowel
- Millair Instaflator
- Four Dogs Bushcooker

The latter of which I purchased from BPL :) None of these items invented the wheel, not all were recently conceived, but each is innovative, IMO, for having reinvented it in a way that works for me. That's the joy of gear discovery.

Edited by lammers8 on 12/28/2011 18:34:35 MST.

Dave -
(FamilyGuy) - F

Locale: Up there
Re: failed on 12/28/2011 18:36:54 MST Print View


Edited by FamilyGuy on 12/31/2011 10:13:26 MST.

Ross Bleakney
(rossbleakney) - MLife

Locale: Cascades
Re: Re: doubt it on 12/28/2011 18:41:52 MST Print View

Great list Kurt, I like it. The Klymit entry is a great one, and it makes for an interesting case study. If those guys every perfect their technology, or improve it to the point where it makes sense for most insulated gear, it will be a huge game changer. In some ways, it reminds me of that gas burner wafer technology that MSR was working on (which seems to be just around the corner, like fusion power). If you can get it work, it would be a huge change. The fact that MSR (a relatively big company in the gear world) has engineers working on this is not too surprising. The fact that a cottage gear maker is doing the same thing is. Another thing that is interesting is that if it does take off, then this company will no longer be "cottage". In other words, if those guys can make a breathable sleeping bag that weighs a pound (including inflator) but insulates like a -10 degree bag, then my guess is the company would become huge (bigger than MSR). In that regard, they might be like software, in that today's cottage company is tomorrow's big behemoth.

Kurt Lammers
(lammers8) - M

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Re: Re: Re: doubt it on 12/28/2011 19:10:44 MST Print View

Thanks Ross - just a sampler of my cottage gear but I do think Eric has a point, lots of brand name gear in my inventory too. Completely agree about Klymit, they certainly have the opportunity to move into the GoLite, MontBell et. al space if they continue to perfect the product...and I should say while I enjoy the Inertia, it still didn't join me for a week in the Olympics (NeoAir. Nuf said). My MLD cuben tarp was purchased this year to "replace" a SMD Gatewood Cape. Just nabbed a Rab Superlite Bivi to "replace" an OR alpine bivy. Been eyeing a Zpack to supplement my beloved MLD Burn...

The point here is that I couldn't disagree w/Ryan's article more, in that companies of all sizes continue year after year to provide items that improve - however incrementally - upon the items I already have and enjoy. (Some call that a habit). The Boilerwerks Backcountry looks awesome, and while I might dispute Ryan describing it as "on the market" currently, it's going to have to supplant my White Box stove...BPL Esbit wing stove...Venom stove, Bushcooker, Soto micro...each of which are ideal under very specific circumstances. To me, the state of the market is innovative and growing and I find the critical focus of the article that spawned this enjoyable debate to be misplaced. IMO.

Edited by lammers8 on 12/28/2011 19:14:55 MST.

jerry adams
(retiredjerry) - MLife

Locale: Oregon and Washington
Pockets on 12/28/2011 20:41:05 MST Print View

I see that Ryan's pack has no pockets on the outside

Pockets add weight, decrease strength, provide path for rain water to get inside your pack,...

John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: Pockets on 12/28/2011 21:02:43 MST Print View


Samuel C Farrington
(scfhome) - M

Locale: Chocorua NH, USA
whew! on 12/28/2011 21:45:32 MST Print View

We have a small tabloid here that draws readers by publishing the most outrageous letters and comments ('teletalk') it can without being sued, and recruiting columnists from different spectrums who are articulate, but edgy and confrontational.

It has been a successful busines model, oft repeated in ours and neighboring states.

Liked the old BPL better; but the forums and occasional gear review and trip articles continue to provide very useful info. Still worth the membership price.

Note to Dan McH: Your New Year's Resolution should be to lighten up and never personalize. If you can live up to it, we will all feel gooder.

Good Hiking and MYOG madness,