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The Wait for Lightweight (Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2008)

Will the mass market ever embrace the lightweight philosophy, or has it already?

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by Ryan Gardner | 2008-08-08 00:00:00-06


Last weekend my wife and I were on our way back from spending a night at beautiful Lake Blanche in Utah's Wasatch Mountains. As we bounced down the trail, we passed a large scout group on their way up to the same lake. I noticed one of the kids was wearing a GoLite pack, and feeling a sense of kinship, I pointed to my hat and pack and gave an enthusiastic, "GoLite! Right on!" It was obvious that I was much more excited about this moment than he was. As we passed the leader bringing up the rear, I couldn't help but notice his orange external frame pack with an enormous sleeping bag lashed to the back. Something about this scene jarred my memory. It was then that I recalled my earliest memory of backpacking.

The Wait for Lightweight (Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2008) - 1
The author on an early-in-life backpacking trip.

I must have been nine or ten-years-old when my Dad decided to take my brother and me on the most thrilling adventure our little minds could imagine. We loaded our orange external frame packs with all the gear we could carry and set off for the mountains. Army surplus cookware, a heavy tent, and cloth sleeping bags made for quite the load on our backs. With nightfall approaching and our destination still distant, we set up our tent right on the trail. The night was spent huddled together as thunder cracked all around us. I don't think we ever made it to the summit, but we didn't need to. That trip was the high point of my young life.

Let's fast forward to the present. Look how far things have come! Fabrics, insulation, metals and plastics have all seen major advances in technology. We are seeing more and more mainstream companies offer products that fall in the lightweight category. Has the mass market finally moved from "traditional" to "lightweight" status, and could this trend continue into the ultralight realm? Will I ever walk into my local gear shop and browse the shelves for sub-10 oz backpacks? Will I ever get to pull a quilt off the wall and lay under a tarp before I buy it? How much lighter can a piece of gear go and still remain feasible for the mass market? To answer these questions, I spoke with representatives from Golite, Osprey, and Prolite Gear.

The Manufacturer Viewpoint

What are a manufacturer's primary considerations when designing a piece of gear? For Golite, the first priority is function. Demetri "Coup" Coupounas, founder and President of Golite, says, "I think generally people assume that our number one criterion is weight. But the first syllable in Golite is 'go' for a reason. The stuff has to do something." Gareth Martins, Director of Marketing for Osprey, echoes this same philosophy. "Our primary consideration is suspension and fit. Without this, you're not going to have a good experience."

The second priority for Golite is durability. "If the product isn't reasonably durable, it won't perform its function over a long enough period. It needs to give the customer enough confidence over the course of any given trip." Gareth brings up the same concern. "There is a durability issue," he says. "That's why we have generally avoided using superlight sil fabrics, because the weight difference is really negligible compared to the durability."

Making the jump from major manufacturer to cottage manufacturer does not necessarily mean a sacrifice in durability. Several cottage companies offer gear that most lightweight and ultralight backpackers would consider fairly robust. At the same time, these companies are able to offer ultralight shelters and packs using silnylon and Cuben fiber. Unfortunately, major manufacturers must be consistent across their entire line. "We want to help millions of people all over the globe lighten up as much as possible and enjoy the outdoors," says Coup. "We can't do that in a way where we say, 'We can warranty this ninety percent of our line, but not this ten percent of our line.' That doesn't work."

The Retail Store Viewpoint

"I think one of the things that's happening is a real graying of these well-defined categories of traditional backpacker and lightweight backpacker," says Craig Delger, founder of Prolite Gear. "We work with a lot of baby boomers that are buying a Golite pack. They're buying a Big Agnes SL2 and a sleeping bag from Montbell. I wouldn't consider these people hardcore backpackers, but yet they're buying things that fall squarely in the category of lightweight backpacking equipment."

Craig recognizes that there will always be the "early adopters", those people on the cutting edge of product innovation. He feels that they will always be considered a market niche. When asked whether or not mainstream stores will ever provide this cutting edge gear, he says, "These stores are constantly moving in the direction of lighter weight and more innovative stuff, but that's been going on for thirty years. I don't think we're going to see any major changes in the dynamics of this whole market. I think there's always going to be that group that wants the stuff that isn't considered mainstream."

The Wait for Lightweight (Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2008) - 2
The author a mere twenty years later, embracing the lighter side of life.

What Does the Future Hold?

"I think the day will come when it is very difficult to find traditional overbuilt gear," says Coup. "The main paradigm for a long time in American consumer culture has been more, more, more, bigger, bigger, bigger. America is realizing that smaller is better, that lighter is better, that sleeker is better."

Craig noted that there seems to be a trend taking place. "It's similar to what's happening with the eco-friendly movement - they call it green-washing. We've seen a lot of different online sites pop up and try to 'light-wash' themselves, and we've seen a lot of existing players try and introduce a lightweight or an ultralight category. But it's really just window treatment." Coup mentions this same thing. "There is an awful lot of posturing and phoniness in this industry when it comes to lightweight gear," he says. "But I don't view that as bad, I view it as a baby step in the right direction. When I see a traditional company making a bunch of overbuilt gear and calling it lightweight, I rejoice, because it's only a matter of time before they either transform the products they are making or go out of business."

When asked whether or not he feels that the lightweight market is expanding, Coup says, "You see a lot more lightweight functional gear than you used to see in this market. We're growing; the cottage industry is growing. Some companies are, with some real integrity, expanding their lightweight offerings."

One question to consider is who is driving this market, the manufacturers or the consumers? "I think it's a little bit of both," says Craig. "Markets move due to what consumers are wanting, but they also move based on what manufacturers are able to provide." Are manufacturers reluctant to move into the lightweight realm, or are consumers sending the wrong message? "I used to think very negatively about the companies that were making traditional overbuilt gear for forcing this upon the public," says Coup. "A decade into this, I've realized that it's a symbiotic problem. Often when customers go to evaluate products, a company may well have produced a very thoughtful, lighter, clean version of a product, but our consumer culture says that heavier and more expensive is better, and the customer evaluation reflects this."

Although durability is high on the list of priorities for manufacturers, technological advances are constantly allowing companies to produce lighter products without compromising durability. "Look at silnylon," says Craig. "That used to be a real niche product. Now we see silnylon being used in quite a few different products. Same with dyneema. These things that are cutting edge one year are part of mainstream products three or four years down the road."


Let's go back to the original question: Will the mass market ever embrace the lightweight philosophy? I think it is on its way. The industry has made leaps and bounds in providing lightweight gear for the average consumer. Advances in technology are creating stronger and more durable materials for the same weight. Although not all companies are offering truly lightweight gear, most seem to be recognizing that there is potential for tapping into the lightweight market. While these trends seem to be steps in the right direction, five minutes in any "big-box" outdoor store will show that there is plenty of room for improvement.

Continuing to educate consumers about the benefits of lightweight backpacking will help this segment of the market expand, which will in turn entice major manufacturers to produce even lighter gear. Maybe one day when my son is old enough to go on his first scout trip, I can tell him about the gear I first used. Hopefully he'll look at me in amazement and appreciate how far things have come.


"The Wait for Lightweight (Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2008)," by Ryan Gardner. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2008-08-08 00:00:00-06.


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The Wait for Lightweight (Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2008)
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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
The Wait for Lightweight (Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2008) on 08/08/2008 20:41:25 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

The Wait for Lightweight (Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2008)

Miguel Arboleda
(butuki) - MLife

Locale: Kanto Plain, Japan
Re: The Wait for Lightweight (Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2008) on 08/08/2008 23:43:47 MDT Print View

A thoughtful evaluation of what is happening with the UL market. I like the way you interspersed the story with anecdotes from childhood and people you've talked to and met. Made the whole story more accessible and personalized.

Perhaps one way to look at why it is that people don't embrace the lightweight philosophy more is revealed in your story about going on your first backpacking trip: I think most people haven't had enough experience out there and so still see the wilderness and the weather outdoors with the same untried eyes that you did as a child, when "I don't think we ever made it to the summit, but we didn't need to. That trip was the high point of my young life. I think those of us who have spent more time out there forget just how scary it can be at first. I still get quite nervous when heading up into completely unfamiliar mountains or even cities!

I'm curious, Ryan, what is that blue shirt you're wearing?

Edited by butuki on 08/08/2008 23:44:29 MDT.

Ryan Gardner
(splproductions) - F - M

Locale: Salt Lake City, UT
Re: Re: The Wait for Lightweight (Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2008) on 08/09/2008 06:45:35 MDT Print View

Thanks Miguel. I also think when people don't have the right gear it turns them off to camping in general. Bad gear makes for a bad experience.

The shirt I'm wearing is a RailRiders Adventure Top.

Franco Darioli
(Franco) - M

Locale: @Tarptent
The Wait for Lightweight (Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2008 on 08/09/2008 17:31:45 MDT Print View

"The right gear"
Yes, that is why I get annoyed when some recommend tarp/bivvy and the like solutions to beginners. I have noticed that several experienced hikers have difficulties setting up tents like the Contrail/Lunar Solo/The One, how is a beginner supposed to set up a tarp ?

John Smith
(jcar3305) - F

Locale: East of Cascades
Fear of the unknown on 08/10/2008 13:23:50 MDT Print View

Growing up in 'Bush' Alaska I don't go to sleep at night outdoors in fear of bears yet almost every one always asks me about my solo trips, "Aren't you afraid of the bears?" At the rate I get asked that question you would think there are two bears for every tree in the woods and they all are salivating over their next hiker.

In my opinion the fear of the unknown motivates what most people carry with them. I don't know how a tarp will keep me dry in wet weather so I better take a tent. I don't know if this pack will stand up to an accidental drop so I better get the sturdier one. I don't know if that will be enough fuel for a trip so I better carry two bottles of fuel. I don't know if this first aid kit will do the job by itself so I should carry two.

The lists of unknowns goes on and on and the fears compound as well.

OTOH, when I accompany a group of youth out camping I will often take a tarp and have someone help me set it up. 'See that wasn't so bad.' "Well John, what do you do if is blowing rain?" Then I show them how to adjust it. When it is clear out I sleep outside the shelter most nights unless bugs are bad. (I really should get a bug shelter). 'See a night outside is comfortable and look how much less gear I had to carry.'

The big trick to convincing others to go light or ultralight is to first SHOW them that it can be done. Then help them do it and finally let them do it and then they will teach others.

Edited by jcar3305 on 08/10/2008 13:25:08 MDT.

Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F

Locale: Somewhere out there
The Wait for Lightweight on 08/13/2008 21:47:57 MDT Print View

Having been at OR this year doing research for the NOLS Lightweight program, I was impressed with the quantity of lightweight outerwear and even the footwear available from major manufacturers. At the same time I was amazed to not be able to connect with vendors in the lightweight industry. Prior to the show, I made a list of the companies I absolutely wanted to check out and connect with. Of those only a handful were represented at OR.

I think Ryan's summary of the state of the industry is excellent, and we are seeing more options for lightweight gear in all aspects of the industry. I would have been excited to see more than one manufacturer of alcohol stoves (ETOWAH) but that is certainly a start.

It is interesting to note, that when I asked footwear manufacturers to show me a shoe that could be used on a two week trip with 25-30# packs in on and off trail terrain, that most still presented me with a mostly leather high top boot. These too are coming down in weight, but when I pointed to my feet and the Hardrocks that I wore for two weeks in the Wind Rivers only a week earlier, most vendors gave a confused look and then turned slowly back to the display to get a trail runner. Innov8 was the stand out exception to this trend.

Perhaps it is time for folks involved in the lightweight industry to offer an outdoor industry skills seminar on lightweight backpacking. BPL could host...

Sam Haraldson
(sharalds) - MLife

Locale: Gallatin Range
The Wait for Lightweight (Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2008) on 08/14/2008 08:41:00 MDT Print View

Ryan H,

I should probably leave it to our education expert here at BPL but he's not as regular a forum user as I so I will comment that as you know BPL is working closely with NOLS on their lightweight program. Ideally, educating younger outdoor enthusiasts in the art and science of going light will have a long term effect that will ripple through the industry.

Although I'm not as positive this will happen as I like to be. Industry is a juggernaut and grinds onward seemingly outside the perspective of its individual parts.

I too stopped and talked to Paul at Etowah, Jack and Jack at Jack 'R Better and also ran into George of AGG. They are all in relative infancy to the outdoor market and they represent American bred and American made products designed in with lightweight and minimalism amongst the top of their values.

This became a bit of a winded post but I feel there is hope for he lightweight community and BPL is proud to be there as both a media voice and a provider of ultralight goods.

Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F

Locale: Somewhere out there
Re: The Wait for Lightweight (Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2008) on 08/15/2008 20:25:04 MDT Print View

Thanks Sam,
I was just adding some more perspective on the "Wait for lightweight" at OR. As you know, I have been involved in the NOLS lightweight program since it's inception, and I agree wholeheartedly that education is paramount to the growth of lightweight backpacking.

I think it will happen. There will always be heavier gear, but we are also seeing a movement towards lighter gear in all aspects of the industry. I wish I had known George was there, I didn't see him on the vendor list, and we have only had the privilege of talking on the phone so I can't pick him out of a crowd. Paul was a pleasure to talk to, and I hope we can work with him in the future, as he has some significant experience working with institutions from what he was telling me.

One of the greatest benefits of the NOLS/BPL relationship has been having Ryan J, Carol and Don come to Instructor seminars. I hope this aspect continues, and maybe I can start to work on an even bigger gathering of lightweight players to talk about the benefits of these techniques in the Outdoor Education Industry. One of my favorite pieces of the NOLS lightweight program is the collaborative efforts of different locations and staff in making it happen. That is also a reason I come to the BPL site, to share and learn ideas with and from other members.

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: The Wait for Lightweight on 08/16/2008 01:54:46 MDT Print View

> It is interesting to note, that when I asked footwear manufacturers to show me a shoe that could be used on a two week trip with 25-30# packs in on and off trail terrain, that most still presented me with a mostly leather high top boot.

Also bear in mind that the profit margin on a pair of big leather boots is much higher. My favourite KT-26s sell for ~$30 and Big-W or Target - not a lot of incentive there!

Ryan Hutchins
(ryan_hutchins) - F

Locale: Somewhere out there
Re: Re: The Wait for Lightweight on 08/16/2008 14:13:33 MDT Print View

"Also bear in mind that the profit margin on a pair of big leather boots is much higher. My favourite KT-26s sell for ~$30 and Big-W or Target - not a lot of incentive there!"

Good point Roger. Of course, I have bought one pair of heavy boots that have lasted about ten years with lots of use and am on my third pair of lightweight shoes in 1.5 years. At that rate the shoe companys will be making a pretty big profit off me in the years to come!

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: Re: Re: The Wait for Lightweight on 08/16/2008 15:51:38 MDT Print View

> I have bought one pair of heavy boots that have lasted about ten years with lots of use and am on my third pair of lightweight shoes in 1.5 years.
Oh sure, big heavy leather boots last longer than UL shoes. BUT, what is your goal?

For example, my KT-26s cost me ~$30 a pair and a pair lasts me maybe 4 months. (I do a lot of walking though.) I did some sums a while ago which showed that wearing KTs cost me just as much as buying leather boots. There was no financial gain at all.

OK, fine - but in the meantime I have these UL shoes with a super grip on my feet, and I am enjoying the freedom they bring. Frankly, the lighter weight on my feet would have me wearing the KTs even if they worked out *twice* as dear as heavy leather boots over time. And this is our message at BPL.


Ivan Bertrand
(ibertrand) - F
Mass market going to UL on 09/22/2008 05:56:29 MDT Print View

I think this is an interesting information :

So far, it's the first information about trade mark proposal going to comprehensive UL approach.

Interesting is that Fjallraven first issued the Pak5
And then they reduce it to Pak2. It seems to be a UL down load process as well.

Ashley Brown
(ashleyb) - F
Roger's KT's on 09/22/2008 06:30:26 MDT Print View

Roger you make me giggle every time you mention your KT26's. I was brought up wearing them, and everyone in my family wore them. I have old photos of us all standing around in our KT's. Sometimes there would be 8-10 pairs sitting outside our front door. However... that was the 80s! ;-) My girlfriend banned me from wearing them because they were far too uncool. LOL. I have had great pleasure in telling her that the folks in the know at BPL reckon it is a great lightweight hiking shoe! Needless to say she is unconvinced. My dad has never been troubled by fashion concerns however, and he still wears them.

Funnily enough they became kind of "retro" cool about 5 or so years ago and you could buy special edition KTs which were gold in colour. Looking back I wish I'd bought some cause I would have had the ultimate combination of trendy, lightweight and performance.

Anyway, just thought I'd share because my family has a long history with KT26's. There are very few shoes that have been around that long and remained essentially unchanged. And I can confirm they are super-comfy and mould to your feet really well. And dang they are cheap!!

Edited by ashleyb on 09/22/2008 06:31:40 MDT.