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The Viability of Lightweight Gear and Education as Industry Trends (Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2005)

Commentary on the growing trend of lightweight gear in the outdoor industry, and the identification of a rapidly growing need for meaningful education and awareness about lightweight techniques.


by Ryan Jordan | 2005-08-15 03:00:00-06

Lightweight Gear as a Viable Industry Trend

These are exciting times for all of us. Lightweight gear has evolved from a freak niche into a full-blown and viable industry trend in less than half a decade.

No longer the exclusive domain of obscure long distance hikers, lightweight gear is now found in the retail mainstream. In a recent REI catalog, "lightweight" and "ultralight" merchandising themes were found on 25 pages.

Major manufacturers are setting records in sales of their "lightweight" product lines. Traditionally slower (relative to the cottage industry) trend adopters such as Gregory, Marmot, Cascade Designs, The North Face, Kelty, Eureka!, Arc'Teryx, Mountain Hardwear, Sierra Designs, and (gasp!) even Dana Designs, among dozens of other gear manufacturers, have dramatically expanded their "lightweight" product lines in the past three years. Further, they are investing heavy marketing dollars into sales and merchandising strategies that draw attention to these products in ways we've not seen in the past. Bottom line: manufacturers are cashing in on the trend and banking on lightweight to show strong growth in the coming years.

In spite of lightweight gear gaining some polish and fineries from manufacturers experienced at knowing what products have visual appeal on a retail floor, we are continuing to see lightweight gear among individual categories merge common identities that make them extremely hard to distinguish from specifications alone. In other words, next year's gear is not really getting lighter, and it may not actually be performing better than last year's gear. The most dramatic changes we saw at this years' Outdoor Retailer Summer Market: slicker marketing to highlight features that did not necessarily reflect a product's differentiation in weight - or real performance - from other products in its class.

Product Highlights in the Lightweight Gear Trend

There were a few refreshing exceptions.

Sierra Designs pretty much shatters the barrier for the lightest rain jacket. A year ago, manufacturers such as Marmot (Essence), Patagonia (Specter), and Outdoor Research (Zealot) were offering highly competitive rain jackets in the 6-8 ounce weight class. This year, Sierra Designs comes in at 4.3 ounces with the Isotope Jacket - a remarkable innovation considering that the fabric is waterproof and breathable, and the jacket still offers a full zipper and hood.

Ultralight Outfitters ponied up some spit and polish to an old ultralight concept: solid fuel stoves. With a machine-formed wire cage pot stand as the core of a system that incorporates (of all things) a common beer can into an effective and compact cooking system - and having the guts to introduce it at the outdoor industry's largest trade show - this cottage company makes a bold statement: ultralight gear is here to stay.

Torso length pads, historically indicative of the degree to which an ultralighter wanted to remain ultra-uncomfortable, have gone big time thanks to Montbell. The TorsoLite (Bozeman Mountain Works), NightLight Torso (Gossamer Gear), and Uberlite (Pacific Outdoor Equipment) pads now have a friendly cousin: the 9.9 oz, 36-inch Montbell Self Inflating Pad. Somewhat refreshingly, they simply call it like it is: "'s a three foot self inflating pad" - no product branding, no fancy names, and no hype: just good gear. Pacific Outdoor Equipment has also expanded their torso pad line. Now this is good stuff!

How about saving fuel and still eating good food? Backpacker's Pantry took the hint and created cold cook freeze dried meals that taste as well as they fit into an ultralight ethic.

Even mass market consumer electronics companies, like Pentax, are paying very close attention to an outdoor crowd demanding tiny, but fully functional products. The Pentax Optio WP is a truly pocketable waterPROOF camera that offers more megapixels (5) than ounces (4.8), but just barely: this camera packs a punch.

And so, are these market trends or mere gimmicks? Backpacking Light readers are telling us that these are the hottest products of the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market: these products represent - far and away - the most heavily trafficked pages among's OR News coverage.

Other hot products that we (and our readers) are watching closely:

Retailer Challenges in Merchandising Lightweight Gear

In some ways, it's not as challenging to retail lightweight product lines now as it was five years ago: there is certainly more consumer awareness, and retailer competency. However, it's also becoming a more challenging exercise: differentiating features among lightweight gear that seems at first glance to come from a cookie cutter doesn't bode well for manufacturers trying to differentiate their products - or retailers trying to match their customers with the right product.

These challenges are a real concern to retailers: a terrific turnout came to Backpacking Light's retail merchandising seminar at the OR Summer Market this year - and the attendees continued to communicate to us throughout the weekend their biggest challenges: (1) how to understand the differences between all this gear (and more important, how those differences impact performance), and (2) how to convince customers that lightweight backpacking is effective, safe, comfortable, and fun. The latter may be the most difficult of all: too many manufacturers, retailers, and even the media - are still challenging these precepts. And we heard about it all weekend (one of the disadvantages of having a booth rather than being able to outrun manufacturers of heavy gear on the show floor).

Trend Vitality: Information and Outdoor Education About Lightweight Gear and Technique

Lightweight backpacking has still not arrived as "textbook" education, despite the fact that at least four major books are now in print on the subject (Beyond Backpacking (Jardine), Ultralight Backpacking (Kestenbaum), Lighten Up! (Ladigin), and Lightweight Backpacking & Camping (Jordan et al.)). With long lines and sold-out signings for both Lighten Up! and Lightweight Backpacking & Camping at ORSM'05, there's an indication that show attendees are not just casual observers of an ultralight fad: they desire to become engaged in the lightweight trend in a way that has not been seen in the past.

The most encouraging experiences for me at ORSM'05 were my meetings - both scheduled and impromptu - with educational organizations: Boy Scouts, NOLS, Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education, and others. Talking with these national leaders about the lightweight trend was both encouraging and inspiring: they didn't just view the adoption of lightweight gear and techniques as vital components for their programs' growth: they were encouraged by the prospective benefits that this lightweight trend can bring to their students.

That, of course, is good for Backpacking Light: we're in the business of lightweight gear and technique education. But it's better for the industry: lightweight is here to stay, and it's a healthy, growing trend that reflects consumer demand for a simpler, lighter, more comfortable existence in the wilderness.

So, before we complain too much about the lack of a backpack or shelter that blew our socks off at ORSM'05 by setting new ultralight weight records, we must rejoice in the fact that lightweight is - at the very least - a meaningful blip on the industry's vast radar of fads and trends. The long term implication of that is simple: more choices for the customer, more customers going light, and us all having more fun with less stuff in the wild places we enjoy.


"The Viability of Lightweight Gear and Education as Industry Trends (Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2005)," by Ryan Jordan. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2005-08-15 03:00:00-06.