Subscribe Contribute Advertise Facebook Twitter Instagram Forums Newsletter

State of the Market for Backpacking Gear: Innovation, Broken Promises, and Hope

An analysis of the evolution of backpacking gear in the context of real innovation.

Print Jump to Reader Comments

by Ryan Jordan | 2006-01-31 03:00:00-07

State of the Market for Backpacking Gear: Innovation, Broken Promises, and Hope

Photo: "Innovations in outdoor materials and technologies allow me to go on a winter backpacking trek with less than five pounds of gear, something I could have never dreamed of only five years ago. However, innovation requires more than weight savings. It requires a wholesale replacement of yesterday's design philosophy so that your gear allows you to do things that could not be accomplished before..." - Ryan Jordan

Being innovative is defined as "producing something like nothing done or experienced or created before..."

Unfortunately, innovation is a buzzword tossed around by virtually every manufacturer (heck, we'll admit to being guilty of this) when describing their products. After no less than a few hundred presentations of new products with "innovative" features at this winter's Outdoor Retailer Show, I'm about innovated out. The coolest thing I saw on Day 1 was a kite and today, I'm pretty jazzed about a concentrated coffee extract in a single serving packet and the prospect of falling asleep tonight while listening to Shooter Jennings plugged into my iPod just to drown out the background noise of repetitive industry marketing speak.

I've come to realize after reviewing hundreds of new products every year that the true test for innovation is simple: the product (or technology) serves more functions better with fewer sacrifices than the products or technologies it intends to replace.

Michael Lee of the Outdoor Industry Association claims that hydration systems are one of the greatest innovations of the current decade.

"It has completely changed how we view hydration", Lee says. However, hydration systems (defined here as collapsible bladders placed deep inside a backpack with a drinking tube and bite valve accessible to the hiker without resting) suffer intrinsic problems: water levels are difficult to monitor, even well-insulated hoses tend to freeze during cold conditions, they are harder to clean, and the bladders are not simple to access and replace while refilling on the trail. And so, while hydration systems keep water more accessible and do contribute to better hydration practices than hard-sided water bottles (the products they presumably intend to replace), they come with a host of sacrifices. They are not innovative.

I do think that there is an opportunity to create truly innovative hydration products. Backpacks with pockets that allow a water bottle (and specifically, an ultralight collapsible bottle) to remain accessible without taking off the pack would be one of them. Too simple for this industry perhaps, but that's part of the problem: it's a feature not obviously identifiable by an uninformed consumer who's been blasted with "hydration system innovations" for the past five years.

What about the guy who invited the pop-top bottle spout? Platypus makes one for their collapsible bottles. Innovative!

Adventure racers have hydration systems dialed in pretty good: strap a sports bottle to the shoulder straps with bungee cords and add a big straw. Brilliant. Now, if we can just reduce the weight of those bottles...

Three years ago, all the buzz at Outdoor Retailer focused on the soft shell revolution. Retailers and manufacturers, however, were cautious to warn that soft shell fabrics should not replace waterproof breathable fabrics in wet conditions. Thus, there was a cost to the higher breathability of softshells: more weight, less water resistance, more water absorption, and slow drying times. And, despite the fact that most of the industry's core users own and use soft shell apparel (I certainly do), they may fail the innovation test because they cannot replace a waterproof-breathable garment in most backcountry conditions where you are faced with the choice of one shell. Because of this, soft-shell fans take two shells in fringe seasons: a soft shell and a rain jacket. Is it innovative to add weight to your pack?

With soft shells also being touted as "better than fleece" it prompted many folks in the early days to think that soft shells were insulating pieces. Unfortunately, most soft shells were colder (not enough loft for winter conditions) and heavier than lightweight fleece, and in spite of the temptation to replace a fleece layer and a rain shell with a soft shell, it never really happened once users began to understand how soft shells really performed in expedition conditions. Now, we have soft shells that are fleece lined and soft shells with waterproof membranes and taped seams. And they are all too warm for high exertion activities in all but colder winter conditions.

Do soft shells have their place? Sure. Innovations? No. My breathable-nylon shelled and fleece-lined circa 1984 Patagonia shelled Synchilla jacket is still four ounces lighter, warmer, and more breathable than my Arc'Teryx Gamma SV. What has the soft shell really brought to our gear kit that wasn't available twenty years ago (other than more choice, more colors, more fashion, and more weight)? I'd argue that a 100 weight fleece and a windshirt, or the Pertex-and-microfibre pile of 15 years ago will outperform most of today's softshell fabrics for less weight when it comes down to its core functions: water resistance, wind resistance, and breathability.

Major innovations in outdoor gear in the past three decades have focused as much on materials and technology than individual products. Examples include waterproof-breathable fabrics and lighter aluminum tent poles (1980s), which forever altered the nature of outerwear and shelter design.

Why were these true innovations? Because waterproof-breathable fabrics were both more waterproof and more breathable, and thus, more comfortable, than the coated nylons they replaced.

7000-series aluminum tent poles were lighter, stronger, more elastic, and more compact than than the fiberglass and lesser grade aluminums that they replaced. In other words, there were no tradeoffs.

But what about today? Is innovation all but dead in the outdoor industry? After more than 40 meetings with marketing professionals, I found myself asking this question. So, as a reality check, I consulted with some of my trusted colleages, co-workers, customers, and hiking companions, to get their perspective.

Specifically, I asked them what the greatest innovations of the last few years were.

Craig Meldred of the Anchorage Daily News identifies the Alpacka raft as "the item that most changed things here in the wilderness of the Far North". Alaskan adventurer Roman Dial calls it the "poor man's Super Cub". The Alpacka raft extended the range of ultralight wilderness travel in Alaska and the Yukon by orders of magnitude, a claim that may not even be valid for Gore-Tex fabrics or Easton poles, and certainly not a claim that could be claimed by Camelbak or the "inventor" of the soft shell (who was that again?). Brett Tucker (owner of the cottage manufacturer Simblissity), agrees: "although tangential to backpacking, no product has been more influential in opening up new possibilities in where - and how - we backpack". Dial takes the Alpacka one step further by adding the attachable spray deck offered by the company as an accessory: "it has raised packrafting standards by one whole whitewater grade". I'd have to agree. Since I started carrying an ice axe and crampons in the mountains, no other piece of backpacking gear has opened up opportunities for new backpacking routes than my Alpacka raft.

LED headlamps and micro-sized button lights were another favorite as one of the greatest innovations of the past few years. Meldred expounds their virtues in simple terms: "lighter, brighter, longer battery life, and more durable". Dave Olsen of Oware and Backpacking Light Section Editor Rick Dreher point to the rapid advances in LED technology that we never really saw with the incandascent or halogen lights of yesteryear: voltage regulation and incredible brightness. Dreher points squarely to Luxeon and other extremely bright LED's for their contribution to providing a whole lighting solution that is a viable alternative to halogen lighting. I tend to appreciate the opposite end of the Spectrum: the button sized LED lights provide all the lighting I could ever need on a casual backpacking trek. The Photon Freedom light (and it's earlier brethren) is one of the very few pieces of equipment that I've worn around my neck for as long as they've been on the market.

Backpacking Light Section Editor Will Rietveld believes in the happy marriage between tarps and tents - one of the few situations where a compromise in function caused by two products meeting "in the middle", so to speak, has revolutized the lightweight backpacking experience for the masses. Single wall, well-ventilated, breathable tarptents using trekking poles for structural support have single handedly caused the creation of a new category that will undoubtedly be explored in the coming years by larger manufacturers. Leading the charge? Six Moon Designs and TarpTent - two tiny cottage manufacturers that preserved summertime camping comfort in buggy, rainy conditions while shaving pounds off our backs.

Just as much as waterproof-breathable fabrics of the 1980's redefined the concept of outerwear, the rapidly decreasing weights of waterproof-breathable fabrics since 2001 is one of the hottest industry trends we've seen. Only four years ago, we were touting 12 ounce jackets as "revolutionary" and "groundbreaking". Can you believe that we are now seeing fully functional waterproof breathable jackets that are half that weight or more? How many other products have we been able to observe such dramatic reductions in weight for not-so-dramatic sacrifices in function? Dreher notes with no invented drama this his "venerable North Face Gore-Tex parka equals about the same as four of (my) 7-ounce Patagonia Specter jackets - in both bulk and weight. Brian Frankle of ULA Equipment speculates that further weight and bulk reductions in waterproof-breathable apparel will occur as welded and glued-seam construction costs come down and become increasingly available as standard options on ultralight waterproof breathable fabrics. I predict that the next major innovation step to reduce weight in breathable fabrics must occur at the fundamental technology levels: with scientific advancements in polymers, film constructions, and membrane technologies leading the way. The era of reducing weight by weaving finer denier fibers (which require higher fiber densities, thus negating any meaningful weight reductions from smaller fibers) into performance fabrics is all but over. Changes need to be made in the fundamental structure of fibers and films, and not in weaving technology or fiber extrusion processes.

Which brings us to fiber-reinforced film "fabrics", such as that represented in our own "Nano fabric" line of stuff sacks, bivy sacks, and tarps. Dial calls this fabric "amazing" and Maurer thinks that the coolest innovations are "how materials (like Nano) have affected gear, not necessarily the gear itself." I see Nano as representative of the next revolution in waterproof fabrics, with tremendous opportunities for innovation to make it breathable, more supple, and more durable. How will that happen? Advances in polymers, not fibers. Maybe in ten years, we'll be dispatching news from Outdoor Retailer about film-based fabrics used in wind shirts, rain jackets, tents, and backpacks! The potential for weight reduction using films instead of woven fabrics is tremendous.

Carbon fiber is another material worhty of mention. Manufacturing techniques have not necessarily improved in major ways in recent years. It's just that their costs have decreased, and the Outdoor Industry has figured out how to incorporate it into things like tent poles, trekking poles, and snowshoe frames without charging a small fortune to its consumers. Maurer notes, "I'm thrilled at the advancement in carbon fiber use in trekking poles...I don't think there any carbon poles a few years ago." After MSR introduced their Overland carbon trekking pole five years ago, no less than six other manufacturers have entered the market with carbon or carbon-aluminum trekking poles. Whether it's an innovation or not is arguable, but the incremental advances over aluminum poles offer significant advantages: carbon poles are stiffer, stronger, and lighter.

Lighter chemical water treatment alternatives to iodine tablets and bleach drops have taken the outdoor market by storm since the introduction of Aqua Mira and its Canadian counterpart, Pristine. Chlorine dioxide gained a scientifically-sound following in municipal water treatment across Europe, and its adoption by US treatment plants is increasing. It's faster, more effective, and leaves water tasting better than iodine or bleach. Now available in no-mix formulations as tablets (from Potable Aqua and Katadyn) or as pre-mixed liquids (from Klearwater), it now competes with iodine tablets and chlorine bleach for simplicity. Don Ladigin, author of Lighten Up!, appreciates the newfound simplicity of these new formulations, noting that we take "health and well-being products" for granted and "they are more important than many people think". I'll add that a change in mentality from dependence on three-pound kits full of toiletries, water filters (and repair kits), sundries, emergency gear, and first aid items, to dependence on simplicity of function in these categories, as one of the great freedoms of ultralight backpacking.

And, we cannot deny that the rate at which we (as core consumers) are learning techniques, staying abreast of new innovations, and changing our habits for the better, is increasing. In part, it's a result of newfound enthusiasm in the way we approach our favorite activities. That is in turn fueled by the availability of new innovations, but more so in the availability of information that empowers us. Only five years ago, you'd read about Outdoor Retailer's new products in print magazines a few months down the road. Now, you can read about them online the day they are announced. Information is fed to us in real-time, which means we have more time and more data available to process buying decisions as the new products hit the market. In turn, that means we are better able to desensitive ourselves to the marketing claims and sift real innovations from the massive chaff of new gear released twice a year.

And what about the Outdoor Industry Association and their members? What role do they see innovation playing in their bottom line?

The 2006 State of the Industry Report published by the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) features a sidebar (p. 25) summarizing data that places innovation in new designs, new materials, and fabrics as having a low level of significance relative to other business metrics: global trade issues (#1), targeted marketing (#2), acceptance of outdoor fashion by the mainstream (#3), and increased participation in outdoor activities (#4).

"Groundbreaking new products have been the industry's mainstay for more than 40 years. From sticky rubber to synthetic fleece to hydration systems, Outdoor Industry companies and participants have redefined the way people get outdoors - and the comfort they have while they're out there. Looking forward, innovation within our industry may take a different form. Industry professionals see innovation coming in a variety of ways in the future." - Outdoor Industry Association

A Note to Our Readers: Backpacking Light Magazine is a member of the OIA. However, we see it differently. Innovation in our products, and specifically, the magazine and services we provide via BackpackingLight.com, are unequivocally our number one priority. Customers - and outdoor users - deserve to have the very best products a manufacturer can bring to them. While we believe that marketing is important, we vow to market the benefits of our products and not the psychological importance of our "brand". We vow to improve our productivity, so we can pass cost savings to you, not increase our profit margins. We feel that increased participation in outdoor activities is good for the industry, but not at the expense of marketing mediocre products and services to the newbies. And while global trade concerns can protect the vitality of American outdoor companies, we'd rather think that our energies are best spent in creating truly innovative products and services, and tending to our passionate customer community. - Ryan Jordan, Publisher, Backpacking Light Magazine

And what about the state of innovation now? Here's my pick for the most innovative from the past two Outdoor Retailer shows (Summer Market 2006 and Winter Market 2006):

  • Kahtoola Snowshoes and Shoeboards: representative of companies having the guts to be aggressive about multi-use gear in a meaningful way.
  • GoLite and Sierra Designs: for getting back to the roots of simplicity and function with fully taped rain jackets that weigh less than six ounces (GoLite Virga and Sierra Designs Isotope).
  • Nemo Tents: for eliminating the inherent failures and complexities of tent poles without increasing weights or sacrificing durability.
  • Darn Tough Socks: for putting a lifetime warranty on a consumable item.
  • Timberland Delirion Pro: shoes that drain water, don't absorb it, and are still built for endurance sports
  • Bemis Seamfree: construction techniques that increase seam strength and water resistance.

But our desires remain far ahead of what the industry has been able to deliver. We remained hopeful, like little kids on December 24, that the OR elves would satiate our deepest needs to round out our kits with just one last really cool piece of gear:

  • Lighter poles for pyramid shelters (Roman Dial)
  • Fabric as breathable as eVENT but lighter than 1 oz/yd2 (Mike Maurer)
  • Water purification systems that are as simple and as light as a single tablet, dissolves as fast as a liquid formulation, works as rapidly against cysts as UV light, and is as effective as a billion dollar European treatment facility (Ryan Jordan, Mike Maurer)
  • Synthetic insulation that is lighter, more compressible, faster drying, and warmer than high fill down (Don Ladigin, Matt Colon)
  • Lighter solar powered panels for charging electronics while hiking, and coupled to mechanisms for storing energy that can be delivered as heat to clothing and sleep systems in cold conditions (Will Rietveld).
  • Merino wool fibers with surface treatments that absorb less water and dry faster without sacrificing the comfort, odor resistance, and thermoregulation properties inherent to merino wool (Ryan Jordan)
  • Truly ultralight, ultrapackable tents that are very stormworthy and very breathable (Rick Dreher, Don Ladigin)
  • Old designs in new fabrics (e.g., an ultralight waterproof-breathable and well-vented cagoule, Dave Olsen)
  • Seam-free construction in lightweight packs and shelters (Brian Frankle)
  • Fine denier 100% Spectra fabrics for use in racing sails (or, heck, how about backpacks? Ryan Jordan)
  • Wrist-wearable GPS unit with the functionality, speed, and usability of the Garmin Geko 301 and the size and form factor of the Suunto X9 or smaller (Alan Dixon).
  • Pack fabrics as light as spinnaker, as waterproof as film fabrics, and as tough as Spectra (Will Rietveld)

Citation

"State of the Market for Backpacking Gear: Innovation, Broken Promises, and Hope," by Ryan Jordan. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/innovation_orwm2006_jordan.html, 2006-01-31 03:00:00-07.

Print

Reader Comments

You must login to post comments.

New Visitors: Create a new account
Username:
Password:
Remember my login info.

State of the Market for Backpacking Gear: Innovation, Broken Promises, and Hope
Display Avatars
Sort By:
Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
State of the Market for Backpacking Gear: Innovation, Broken Promises, and Hope on 01/30/2006 22:56:10 MST Print View

Companion forum thread to:

State of the Market for Backpacking Gear: Innovation, Broken Promises, and Hope

Ryan Faulkner
(ryanf) - F

Locale: Mid atlantic, No. Cal
State of the Market for Backpacking Gear: Innovation, Broken Promises, and Hope on 01/31/2006 13:08:06 MST Print View

I havent read the whole article yet, but I have one quick question.

The picture at the top says you are now able to hike in the winter with less than 5 lbs of gear.

is that a picture of you on the SUL winter challenge trip?

I was gone this weekend skiing, did you go while I was gone?

thanks
RF

Steven Sergeant
(SteveSgt) - F
Everyday innovations? on 01/31/2006 13:23:24 MST Print View

I found your commentary interesting, but clearly targeted at fanatics. Many of us eventually become disillusioned but the quest for the latest gear. We accept that it's really about getting out there, rather than what we take with us. The average person I meet on a trail is NOT a gear fanatic.

So I would suggest a different yardstick for innovation: What new, more affordable gear appeared that will make it safer and easier for the inexperienced and casual would-be adventurer to visit the backcountry? I'm talking about products that are likely to show up in more mass-market outlets like Walmart (or at least REI). What innovations are likely to democratize outdoor activities more, bringing out more people who will then discover thier own advocacy for the preservation of wild places?

kevin davidson
(kdesign) - F

Locale: Mythical State of Jefferson
Herr Jordan's whereabouts & fanaticism on 01/31/2006 13:29:27 MST Print View

He's been busy at the OR show, wrapping up today, so you didn't miss him doing any multi-day outings over the weekend.

Say, is Ryan wearing a softshell jacket in the photo in that op-ed piece? :-)>

Fanaticism(of a sort) is the driving force of innovation.
Sgt.---you've stumbled upon a veritable nest of gear fanatics. Thank goodness this fanaticism is not directed at the political or religious arenas but channeled into something healthy--insert smile and wink,here.
In the low growth industry of non-motorized outdoor equipment, I've heard that the UL backpacking equipment sector is the only area growing at something like a rapid clip. It's still a very young industry which has yet to become large enough to fully engage the larger players. So, there are economy of scale issues. Even so, there are not a few low cost options to equip oneself.

Innovation in Education rather than equipment is probably the key element to attract more and diverse people to the game.

Edited by kdesign on 01/31/2006 14:54:31 MST.

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Hardly innovation! on 02/01/2006 14:02:39 MST Print View

I was amused by the claim that hydration systems are an example of innovation. What a giggle.

Look, older walkers never even bother with these things. We walk, and when we want a drink, we stop to look at the view, take a quick break, and have a drink out of a cheap water bottle. A large PET soft drink bottle works fine, and costs nothing.

In fact, the whole concept is based on just two things. The first is that you have to worry about 'staying hydrated'. Since several generations of walkers never bothered about that, the concept is obviously flawed. It comes from a single research paper, long since debunked. The endurance racing community and the medical community have woken up the to potentially fatal hazards of over-hydration many years ago. People die from over-hydration; *experienced* walkers don't die from being thirsty. Being thirsty does no harm and does not impact performance. yes, I can quote research papers about this.

The second source for the concept is profit. If you can sell something to the public by convincing them they really need it, you make money. Thus hydration systems. But they don't wory me: it's YOUR money, no mine.

R Alsborg
(FastWalker) - MLife

Locale: Southwest
Innovation = Hype + New Paint Job on 02/06/2006 11:53:28 MST Print View

At last we’ve reached the point of dimensioning returns…

Edited by FastWalker on 02/06/2006 11:54:30 MST.

J R
(RavenUL) - F
Innovation on 02/06/2006 16:30:17 MST Print View

Main Entry: in·no·va·tion
Pronunciation: "i-n&-'vA-sh&n
Function: noun
1 : the introduction of something new
2 : a new idea, method, or device

By both standards, things like Camelbaks ARE innovative. But, like all things (ALL things) they have their time and place.

Just because something is new doesnt mean its the best, or that it fills all needs. In fact, I cant think of anything in the whole world that can be used for all activities under all conditions. Even something as fundamental as a t-shirt isnt ALWAYS appropriate - but when it is, it gets the job done better than anything else. Right?

Maybe... rather than approaching the concept of "innovation" from some elitist aspect like weight, cost, "does more things better", or any of that mumbo jumbo... one should approach the idea of innovation from the position of "does this item do X job better than its predecessors did in THIS SITUATION?" If it does, GREAT. If not, forget it.

When bombing a downhill run at 35mph on my bike, a waterbottle fixed between my knees does NOT fill my need for washing the gnats out of my grin nearly so well as a waterbladder on my back and a hose between my teeth... and Id say that was one heck of an innovation. It filled a need. It did it well. It did it better than anything else out there.

Does it fill every need? No... but dont try and fit a square peg into a round hole.

Dale Wambaugh
(dwambaugh) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Fresh air! on 02/06/2006 21:10:31 MST Print View

Nice to get a little fresh air! I was tickled to see the comment: "My breathable-nylon shelled and fleece-lined circa 1984 Patagonia shelled Synchilla jacket is still four ounces lighter, warmer, and more breathable than my Arc'Teryx Gamma SV. What has the soft shell really brought to our gear kit that wasn't available twenty years ago (other than more choice, more colors, more fashion, and more weight)? I'd argue that a 100 weight fleece and a windshirt, or the Pertex-and-microfibre pile of 15 years ago will outperform most of today's softshell fabrics for less weight when it comes down to its core functions: water resistance, wind resistance, and breathability."

I was shocked when I saw the prices for softshells and found they had little or no insulating value. They looked clammy, heavy, prone to snags and holding dirt. And the shelled fleece jackets are simple, easy to care for and downright cheap. One of the major online retailers has their house brand jacket for $29 and a Columbia brand is all of $35 on sale. That's amazing for a three season garment.

As to water bladders, our ancestors were hauling water and other beverages around in skins and gourds eons ago. We really don't know how long ago as they were really biodegradable. My guess is 30,000 years. The poly bladders probably taste better :)

scott gibson
(biggibowski) - F
finding innovation on 02/23/2006 13:22:11 MST Print View

Hat's off to looking for and trying to define innovation. I've browsed the article and you covered many bases, all recognizable names (I'm upset you missed my line but we are small and off radar). I like the last part describing where you believe there is room to improve. I identify with the feelings of oversaturation after an event like OR. It's a state of our consumer driven economy; more , spin , innovate, "new and improved", what is innovative? when does this all become too much and how much is it really worth in the end? I make (what I consider high performance/ innovative) hydration packs for adventure racing and yet I understand the comments advocating for a simple water bottle. Sometimes I want to break out the old kidney shaped wine flask at the next OR show and have that be our next innovation. Wouldn't it? It would at least give us all a little humility (sorely needed at that show)
So how do you define and find innovations? I think you keep an open mind. Innovation is really just a moment in time, after that it's not innovative anymore.

John Davis
(JNDavis) - F

Locale: Isle of Man
State of the Market for Backpacking Gear: Innovation, Broken Promises, and Hop on 02/28/2006 13:01:41 MST Print View

Backpacking in the 60s, before I encountered Goretex, was harder and much heavier. Synthetic inner layers have also been a tremendous boon in getting my packweight down. I still sweat enough to create condensation on the way up hill, but nowadays I dry out on the descent, even if the rain doesn't stop. That means no need for duplicate items of clothing, particularly when you consider how easy synthetic clothes are to care for in the field.

I ought to fit the word synergy in here, but will resist temptation. While synthetic thermal vests could have succeeded without Goretex - horrible thought going back to those old, PU-proofed Cagjacs - Goretex could not have succeeded without synthetic inner layers. A great many of the people who claimed Goretex didn't work for them (in the 70s) were using cotton inner layers.

So - here's to Damart and Helly Hansen. Cheers!

Edited by JNDavis on 02/28/2006 13:04:13 MST.

Glenn Roberts
(garkjr) - F

Locale: Southwestern Ohio
Perhaps the market is re-grouping on 02/28/2006 13:34:27 MST Print View

I think the market may simply be pausing to consolidate (or co-opt, depending on your politics) the innovations being made by cutting-edge companies like Gossamer Gear, TarpTent, SixMoonDesigns, and others too numerous to mention. I’ve tried cutting-edge ultralight, and found it didn’t suit my hiking and camping style. (That’s another thread, for another time.) I’m now back to a 12-pound base weight, composed entirely of “mainstream” gear (Granite Gear, MSR, Western Mountaineering, Patagonia, etc.) However, my foray into ultralighting (an 8-pound base load) exposed me to a few new ideas and a lot of new gear design concepts that I believe will eventually work their way into the mainstream. When they do, I’m betting that my base weight will drift back down to 10 pounds. So, I’m fearlessly predicting that, within 5 years, the “boutique” companies mentioned earlier will become mainstream manufacturers and/or mainstream manufacturers will incorporate their ultralight design features:

Packs: Materials will get lighter, in exchange for durability (but when was the last time you owned a pack for more than 3 or 4 years?) Sleeping pads will be incorporated into frames, probably using an arrangement like Ron Moak’s compartments to which shoulder straps attach. Load lifters may disappear (but maybe not.) Shoulder straps and hip belts may incorporate clothing as padding – or at least reduce the amount of padding. Typical acceptable pack weight will drop to a pound or pound and a half.

Stoves: Alcohol will go mainstream; MSR or Snow Peak will come out with a titanium version of the Clikstand/Trangia (financing Scott Reiner’s early retirement) – thereby allowing you to “turn off” your stove even though the fuel isn’t all gone. Alternatively, they will use a pressurized system to feed a 3-oz. alcohol burner directly from a fuel bottle. Total weight (stove, windscreen, support) will standardize at 5 oz.

Sleeping pads: Self inflaters will be offered in 30 and 40 inch lengths. Shaped stays and light straps will be incorporated directly into the pad, eliminating the need for a separate chair kit – and eliminating the need for stays (and maybe framesheets) in packs. Also, the foam used in the Gossamer Gear pads will replace the closed cell foam currently used in Ridgerest and Z-Lite pads. Scoring, to allow pads to be used as frame components with minimal thickness, will become standard. Stays may even be incorporated directly into closed-cell pads. Typical weights will drop to 10 ounces for self-inflaters, 8 ounces for closed-cell.

Raingear: Some clever fellow will incorporate a self-storing pack cover into a pouch on the back of a rain jacket, thereby eliminating the one shortcoming of the pack cover: allowing water to soak into the back of the pack.

Water filters: the standard for weight will be reduced to 8 ounces – where the Katadyn Mini Filter is now – with no sacrifice in ease of pumping. The jury’s still out on whether there will ever be a no-wait chemical treatment that will ring a death knell for filters.

Tents: Single-purpose poles will disappear. Tents will use hiking poles for support, or packs will use tent poles as stays – or both. (And Henry Shires will join Scott Reiner in early retirement.) Spinnaker cloth may become the material of choice here. Will double wall tents vanish? Don’t know – depends on whether the condensation/ventilation issues (significant in the east) can be resolved. Standard weight for a one-person tent will drop to 2 pounds; for a two-person tent, 3 pounds.

You may now proceed to tell me that my parents weren’t married.

David Bonn
(david_bonn) - F

Locale: North Cascades
Re: Perhaps the market is re-grouping on 02/28/2006 14:45:52 MST Print View

Glenn,

I've never met your parents.

Although I suspect a lot of your predictions will come true. One interesting reason I think that lighter gear will take off is that a generation of people who were really into outdoor activities are, um, advancing in years and if they want to keep playing outside they will certainly have to start carrying less. Whichever outdoor company figures out that demographic first will print some money.

And it will make for some very interesting advertising too.

Richard Matthews
(food) - F

Locale: Colorado Rockies
Re: Perhaps the market is re-grouping on 02/28/2006 15:04:33 MST Print View

Glenn,

Did you mean married to each other?

I think your predictions are very good. The traditional gear may not ever disappear. While the market is aging only a few people begin backpacking later in life. As we age we have more disposable income to afford state of the art equipment. Cheap traditional gear will continue to be the "gateway" gear until experience and knowlege reduce the pack weight.

The market may split into the hiking and climbing segments. But maybe climbing gear can get light enough for SUL packs. I would like to hear your vision of the future of the climbing market.

Jim Colten
(jcolten) - M

Locale: MN
Re: Perhaps the market is re-grouping on 02/28/2006 15:12:01 MST Print View

Glenn said ...
Raingear: Some clever fellow will incorporate a self-storing pack cover into a pouch on the back of a rain jacket, thereby eliminating the one shortcoming of the pack cover: allowing water to soak into the back of the pack.

Check out the Packa

Edited by jcolten on 02/28/2006 15:14:07 MST.

Vick Hines
(vickrhines) - F

Locale: Central Texas
Re: Perhaps the market is re-grouping on 02/28/2006 16:47:19 MST Print View

.

Edited by vickrhines on 02/28/2006 16:57:22 MST.

Vick Hines
(vickrhines) - F

Locale: Central Texas
Re: Perhaps the market is re-grouping on 02/28/2006 16:52:34 MST Print View

Glenn,
OK, I'm a MYOG and UL radical. Been there a while.

You outline one possible future. There are other possibilities. Ultralight has been reinvented every 10 or 15 years since WWII and the materials revolution.

As you point out, there are two things in favor of a continued UL revolution: better materials and better design. Every change in materials leads to rethinking design, so the industry tends to be materials driven. We couldn't even talk about titanium and carbon fiber 30 years ago. Now my knees are titanium.

However, I am skeptical as to whether UL will survive cooption by the major manufacturers. It's happened that way before. But the past is not destiny, only instructive, and if the MYOGers and cottage folks stay in business, this UL revolution may continue.

In previous ultralight periods, a single guru, then a group of enthusiasts pushed the UL idea - usually with a lot of make-your-own-gear. Then the established companies moved in, and provided their more widely distributed UL gear during the first market cycles. After that, the weight inched upward, probably to avoid returns and dissatisfied customers who wanted to, for example, throw loaded packs around and sit on them, set tents up without regard to prevailing conditions, and so on. Some companies actively advertised against UL, pushing bombproof gear and the idea that gear failure might kill you dead. This idea gets expressed frequently in BP mag.

This cycle happened in the 1960s when Gerry Cunningham out of Boulder published his how-to book and started making what was UL at the time. His target for a 3-day trip in the Rockies in summertime was 18 pounds inclusive of food and other consumables. His gear was not UL by today's standards. Some of it is still going strong after over 30 years. Kelty made a magnesium UL frame and bag combo back then as well, and Stephenson Warmlight is still trucking along.

The next UL peak was in the early '80s when Sierra Designs and others made sortof UL packs (2.5 pounds) and Backpacker Mag talked about it. That blip was dead by '85 except for soreheads who knew their stuff.

One thing to watch for is what happens when (if) the current undeclared war ends. The market will flood with lots of heavy military gear. There will be a lot of heavy EPIC (3.5 oz) and other surplus fabric that hasn't been made into gear yet. So the majors will promote heavier gear. On the other hand, mills now producing Spectra and other advanced fibers exclusively for the military will need new markets, and super strong fibers will inevitably mean lighter fabrics. Imagine durable, tough, abrasion-resistant pack fabric in the 1 oz. range and strong tent/tarp fabric in the sub 5.0 oz. area - without the disadvantages of Cuben and spinnaker. Duck soup with more Spectra and/or aramid in the weave.

Useful things developed for the military such as MSR's capillary stove may change things for the better. This may also include lighter water filters available as surplus.

Also watch for waterproof breathable fabric that really works. I think you can expect to see W/B tent and tarp fabric in the sub 1 to 0.5 oz. range - which will obviate much further agonizing over double and single wall tents.

Your parents? Gee, I wish you hadn't brought that up, Glenn. We've been meaning to tell you....

R K
(oiboyroi)

Locale: South West US
Re: Re: Perhaps the market is re-grouping on 02/28/2006 23:01:45 MST Print View

I think UL is going to be a niche market for a long time to come. I work at REI and even among my co-workers many don't think its possible/practical/comfortable to go lightweight, let alone UL. Same with the customers. I will get to chatting with them about lightweight backpacking and get a wide variety resposnes. Very few seem to care. Many seem to believe I have no idea what I'm talking about. Anyhow...

I believe education is the true key for the UL market to grow. Unfortunately many publications, manufacturers and retailers fail to provide much useful info on UL, leaving it up to true enthusiest's to go and find out for themselves.

Glenn Roberts
(garkjr) - F

Locale: Southwestern Ohio
Good thoughts, all on 03/01/2006 06:33:28 MST Print View

Very interesting stuff. (Regarding the parents thing: I come from a small, rural, Southern Ohio county where everyone is about one marriage away from three-eyed kids.)

Richard: I don't climb, so I can't make any coherent comment on that market. Jim: the Packa is real close to what I had in mind - I was also intrigued by his StrapPack. Both are the first, evolutionary steps toward my predictions.

Two trends were pointed out that I think are right on: my generation is getting old(er) and doesn't appear likely to go gently into that good night. We'll want lighter gear just so we can keep playing. Our grandkids will want lighter gear because that's what Grandma and Grandpa use. (Our kids - well, they never did listen to us very well, so there will always be a market for traditional gear.) It may remain a niche market, but I think there will be some impact on the regular market too. (Colin Fletcher referred to ultralight not so much as a "new wave" but a "rising tide" if I recall correctly: it's never going to sweep aside the traditional, but the best ideas will get incorporated into the traditional gear. One example: thirty years ago, internal frame packs were used only by mountaineers and climbers; the "traditional" pack market was strictly external frames. Now, the "traditional" market is internal frames - who's to say how it will evolve in another thirty years?)

The second trend is the end of the "war on terror" - or "war for oil," or "most recent Crusade" depending on your perspective. It will release materials, and also creative energy. The "peace dividend" of the Cold War (the Big One that I'm a veteran of) came not only in the release of technology (GPS, etc.) and materials (titanium, etc.) but also in the release of creative energy: the very clever engineers who were miniaturizing/lightening weapons components so they'd fit in fighters and missile payloads suddenly found themselves in the consumer market - and tents, packs, cookware, and everything got smaller and lighter, even in the mainstream.

All in all, the only constant is change. Backpackers of the world, Unite! We have nothing to lose but weight!

(Sorry - sometimes it's fun to let the mouth run without the brain fully engaged.)

Caleab Spencer
(caleab) - F

Locale: New Hampshire
spectra packs on 03/29/2006 07:18:30 MST Print View

hey ryan go check out WildThings in New Hampshire for the packs