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 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 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.