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The Wrap (Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2006)

Closing comments and new gear from the slowest show in years leaves us already planning (hoping) for a more exciting Summer Market, still seven months away.

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by Ryan Jordan | 2006-02-01 03:00:00-07

The Wrap (Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2006)

"Promoting" the outdoor industry for the sake of maintaining a perception of enthusiasm to the consumer public has never been one of my strong suits.

Naturally, most spokespersons for the outdoor industry (public relations firms and marketing professionals come to mind) will flood us and other media with a variety of metrics and "rah rah" lingo to let us know that the "buzz on the floor of Outdoor Retailer" indicates that the industry is alive and well with great hope for the future.

Heck, if I were smart, I'd join in. After all, I'd love to increase the subscriber base of Backpacking Light Magazine. An enthusiastic consumer community is a consumer community that spends a lot of money and is more motivated to participate in the activities they love.

But sugar coating is not really one of my strong suits either.

Backpacking Light Magazine readers have historically demanded the dissolution of sugar coatings and the communication of reality.

So here you go.

As you read, if you become discouraged, saddened, heartbroken, or depressed, don't fret - we simply welcome you to a smaller island we're happy to call home. It's an island where product innovation is still demanded by its users and the wilderness backcountry experience is still held sacred.

Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2006 has now come to a close. Thank God, finally. It should have ended two days ago.

More so than any other Outdoor Retailer show I've attended, it has to be characterized as relatively uneventful for many core participants of outdoor sports, whether your passions are skiing, snowshoeing, backpacking, or hiking.

Manufacturers introduced a lot of ho-hum gear that elicited generally positive, but unspectacular reactions from me.

Few products achieved new performance-to-weight benchmarks and little real innovation was apparent. Add-ons, accessories, and minor changes to older designs generally resulted in positive forward progress.

But heck, even slugs move forward.

The rate at which innovative, paradigm-shifting technologies and products are appearing - or for that matter, being adopted - remains slow. This seems true not only in our core interest market of lightweight backpacking gear, but in outdoor gear in general. There were exceptions, of course, but they were fewer and farther between than I've seen in the past 20 years.

The past few years have brought some exciting product launches to market: GPS watches you can wear on your wrist (Suunto), 12 ounce satellite phones (Qualcomm), an integrated cooking system (Jetboil), a one pound sleeping bag that actually keeps you warm at night (Marmot), carbon fiber trekking poles (MSR), waterproof-breathable jackets that weigh less than half a pound (Patagonia), chemical water treatment that kills cysts (Aqua Mira), pole-less tents suitable for alpine expedition use (Nemo), and endurance-worthy shoes made of non-absorbent materials that actively drain water (Timberland). There's been more, of course.

But, as much as I'd like to take the position of the show's sponsor, Outdoor Retailer (and the palace full of manufacturers that launched their new products), and give you a glowing press release that these are exciting times for the industry and its new products, I'll have to leave you with some yawning instead as we mosey into the 2006 season.

I'm not alone - really. My conversations with others in the media, pro athletes sponsored by attending companies, and in a surprising number of cases - manufacturer sales reps themselves - the underlying theme was a common one: "doesn't seem to be much happening this season".

One of the retailers that wrote to me after the show:

"Your team did a great job covering the show. I echo your feelings 100%. I was only there for a day and a half and was bored by the majority of what I saw. I started moving up my appointments so that I could get out of there early on Sunday. I think an industry shake out has to happen at some point. Too many manufacturers sell similar products. Almost every new apparel product I saw was a "me-too" piece, a re-name of an existing product, or a non-technical "lifestyle" product. I was really disappointed by the clothing from what used to be the industry's core brands: Arc'Teryx, Mountain Hardwear, etc.). They are going very strong into lifestyle, with nothing exciting in technical apparel. I realize that "lifestyle" is where they make the money...but it was still disappointing to see. Every manufacturer that took us through their product line made a point of saying what was "new", and then went on to explain the new color option, or new color blocking in old technical products, and then quickly moving into their new lifestyle products. They are no longer "specialty" brands... they are trying to be mass market consumer brands. There were a few interesting things...which your team did a great job finding...but for the most part this show lacked true innovation, and therefore was not exciting for me."

The sad part is, this won't necessarily be a wakeup call to the industry. They seem perfectly content to shelve innovation in technology and product for core outdoor activities in lieu of innovations that might improve their lifestyle apparel and footwear sales (e.g., the biggest buzz of the show continues to be Bemis Seamfree technology).

By the afternoon of Day 3, the show floor was as empty of buyers, browsers, and media, as I've ever seen.

Now, do hear me right: I am genuinely excited about a few products, and have a positive impression of many. However, unlike most OR shows I've attended in the past, this one lacked any meaningful "knock your socks off" innovations in technology, and few products that would elicit a response of "WOW! That's really going to improve my outdoor experience!" For an industry that has been characterized by cyclic tendencies towards innovation, it sure feels like a lull in the cycle.

But it's not all about the gear.

A continuing dilution of backcountry focus by the American public and the Outdoor Industry that responds to its behavioral trends is also discouraging. Plenty of new opportunities are available for outdoor companies, for sure. The outdoor industry will redefine itself in the coming years to impress its ideology of the outdoor lifestyle upon seemingly every member of the American public (cf. 2006 OIA State of the Industry Report). As OIA spokesman Michael Lee commented to me while I interviewed him about the industry's future, "this is the future of the outdoor industry," pointing to the cover spread of this year's annual report, featuring a youth bouldering in Central Park. Ten years ago, that cover might have shown a backpacker silhouetted against alpenglow reflecting off the west face of the Grand Teton.

I am writing this on the long drive from Salt Lake to Bozeman (don't worry, I'm not driving) and am particularly inspired to change the course of this letter as we cross the Continental Divide near Spencer, Idaho. The image in my mind as we crest: Walkin' Jim Stoltz hiking the Centennial Range reflecting on the soul-deep experiences resulting from his engagement with Montana's mountain wilderness, probably dreaming up some new folk song lyric. (By the way, we hear rumors that even Jim's packing a little lighter these days). I doubt that Jim's engaging writing and songs would have been inspired in an environment buzzing with traffic and pigeons.

And so, driving down the other side into Montana towards Lima (a favorite resupply town), across the Beaverhead River (a favorite fishing hole), and Dillon (home of a Patagonia Outlet store), my mood is brightening. Not because we, as a core backcountry community, seem stranded on a lonely island while the rest of the outdoor industry drives its barges towards solving global trade issues and creating marketing solutions for X-Boxers, but because we now inhabit an island of tremendous opportunity.

You see, there are innovative technologies that remain available to us (e.g., ultralight fabrics and materials), but few companies are willing to exploit their performance-to-weight benefits by creating out-of-the-box designs that can still shave pounds off of the packweight of the mass market consumer without significant sacrifices in comfort, durability, or safety. For the first time in perhaps 20 years, product development - not technology development - is the bottleneck for innovation in outdoor gear. Cottage industry and smaller manufacturers, who by the very nature of their community focus among the industry's core users, are best positioned to take the biggest risks, try remarkable things, and drive innovation in their market segments.

So, while I leave the show relatively uninspired about what I saw, I also leave with a newfound hope for what's on the horizon. Innovation runs in cycles. We've ridden a technology innovation since 1980 or so. Now, it's time for product innovations that employ creative and risky incarnations of the technologies available to us today.

As mentioned earlier, the show was not without its highlights. I hope you find some time to review what we found to be at least "interesting" in most cases and "very cool" in others. We intentionally tried to ignore new products that clearly sucked or were embarrassingly overweight, but omission from our coverage doesn't imply that some new products not appearing here didn't deserve to be.

One item worth keeping an eye on, because it represents a shift in paradigm for the mass market (the cottage industry already pioneered the concept and validated a proving ground a few years ago) is the presence of single piece carbon fiber trekking poles. Three cottage companies now offer them. Gossamer Gear Lightreks are too weak for serious use, the design of Luxury Lite TrailStiks doesn't lend itself to off-trail trekking, and Bozeman Mountain Works' Stix are way too expensive. Life-Link is the only company actively marketing a pair to the masses, and while they're durable and strong, they are not particularly light and thus, don't afford the greatest potential advantages of a single piece carbon pole. So you may have to look outside the box. Leki's new Carbon 12, 10, and 8 series ski poles will be on the market in August 2006 and are light while being strong enough at a fair price. Leki warns us: don't use them for trekking. But after examining these beauties, let me fill you in on a secret: they will suit most of you (ultralight backpackers) just fine (you'll have to buy these covertly to avoid The Lecture).

As long as we've seen moleskin, we've had blisters. Kind of ironic, isn't it? Think about the innovations in blister products and treatment we've seen in recent years: Compeed, super glue, and now, the Blist-O-Ban from SAM Medical which takes a completely different approach to blister prevention by eliminating any contact whatsoever with the surface of a blister, something that moleskin, and even mole foam, could never quite accomplish. However, before you get all giddy about a new blister product, think of the real innovation in blister prevention in the past few years: lighter packs and softer shoes. Huh...

For all the hype about tarps and tarp camping (hey, I'm guilty), they still suffer in inclement conditions. They simply are not the most effective shelter against mosquitoes, high winds, wild rains, and snowy blizzards. Tarp tents are great alternatives, but aren't exactly expedition worthy. Sometimes, you appreciate a real tent. Interestingly, real tents are overly complicated, prone to failure (poles), and heavy. Nemo, a company that only a few years ago I thought offered overtly goofy and heavy solutions with inflatable air beams for structural support, is starting to do great things in lightweight gear. The Nemo Hypno PQ Tent weighs less than three pounds, provides real storm protection, space for two people, and doesn't use poles. Remarkable.

Socks, socks, socks, blah blah blah. I'm so sick and tired of sock company lectures I usually skip them. Wool here, blends there, fiber density gradients, toe isolation, antimicrobial treatments, holey moley, spare me the BS. But I couldn't resist the temptation to investigate a company that charges upwards of $47 for a pair of socks and $350 for a base layer set. Check out X-Socks. I cautiously listened to their spiel this morning and am yearning for more. They are one of the very, very few companies that have solid thermoregulation science behind their designs, provide the most aggressive solution to antimicrobial technology I've ever seen, and work to solve the moisture regulation problem in a shoe-encased foot by really paying attention to the weave structure of the sock, rather than touting the particular benefits of the latest wonder fibers. In the long run, who knows, they may be a dud in real world conditions. But for now, they are offering less bull and a more rational basis for their claims than any sock company I've seen. And they have to - you're be ridiculed to the hilt if your hiking buddies found out you were wearing fifty dollar socks. I can't help but applaud their guts to make absurdly expensive and largely consumable clothing (socks). But, and here's the truly remarkable part: the technology is available to them and they are going for it...

I love bothy bags: European versions of day shelters you can toss on the ground and crawl into for a lunch or rest break while seeking refuge from the storm. Now, two companies are making them in the U.S.: Integral Designs (Ski Guides Tarp) and Outdoor Research (LightHaven). Both are suitable for groups of four or more skiers. The concept of a simple, fully-enclosed day shelter is pretty revolutionary. It adds so much comfort - and a huge margin of safety - for backcountry day tours (for skiers and snowshoers alike) that carrying one can extend the comfortable range of any party. On very long summertime day hikes, I've even carried a solo sized version for refuge from the rain or wind when I absolutely need to stop for a rest. The trick now is to reduce their weight. The very lightest and smallest day shelters are around 12 ounces, a price that's too much to pay for most solo hikers with the ultralight mentality.

Simplicity is elegance, especially with respect to cooking systems. The market is now so littered with various types of cookware that supposedly astute backpackers must evaluate the pieces based on their feature sets. Does it nest with other pots? Do the handles fold away? How strong is the metal? Will it burn my food? (Answer: no, dummy, I can burn my own food just fine.) Whatever happened to a plain old pot? OK, the old ones were heavy, cooked food did stick to it, the pot lifters were tricky to use, and they dented up after one trip. Thin-walled titanium, like that which is used on the new Vargo Nonstick cookware and some models from Evernew, are simple and light. Why is it that no one can give us a 20-ounce handleless cooking cup with lid that weighs less than two ounces made from this stuff, in spite of the fact that ultralight solo cook kits have been built around the cup concept for at least five years?

Carbon fiber is now being made in crazy shapes for outdoor gear, as evidenced in the GV Carbon Tech Solstice Snowshoe. The burly snowshoe frame in each of those shoes still weighs a pound, and they lop on another pound of bomber materials per foot. The result is a snowshoe that looks great but has a difficult time differentiating itself from other four-pounders on the market. But, there is an underlying promise that if built with out of the box design expectations and a healthy dose of management guts, this technology could blow away the market with a snowshoe that weighed less than two pounds per pair in a full-sized backcountry version. That would certainly be an innovative application of available technology. And, now that GV has proven that carbon fiber can be (reasonably) cost effective in custom shapes, look for this material to evolve into some incredible gear designs, especially as carbon fiber material production increases in response to demand in the next few years (currently, there is a shortage of fiber, and it's quite expensive). Pack frames, shoe parts, heat conducting clothing, sunglass frames, better tent stakes and poles, and even cook system components (carbon fiber formulations can have extremely high melting points) all come to mind as potential applications.

All is not lost, certainly. Slow seasons happen in every industry, and enough manufacturers talked to us about embargoed projects that we're more excited for Summer Market 2006 than dismayed over the show that just ended.

Stay Tuned, Godspeed, and Go Light.


"The Wrap (Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2006)," by Ryan Jordan. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2006-02-01 03:00:00-07.


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The Wrap (Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2006)
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Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
The Wrap (Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2006) on 02/01/2006 01:21:09 MST Print View

Companion forum thread to:

The Wrap (Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2006)

Lennox Nichols
(blue_grendel) - F
The Wrap on 02/01/2006 07:35:04 MST Print View what I think I'm hearing is that while there were no new products so innovative that I should dump something immediately, when something I'm using wears out, the replacement opportunities will be slightly better (lighter, stronger, etc.).

Miguel Arboleda
(butuki) - MLife

Locale: Kanto Plain, Japan
Re: The Wrap on 02/01/2006 08:12:15 MST Print View

I kept waiting for something to grip my attention and take a long hard look at, but there wasn't a single item that interested me. Unlike last year's exciting new ideas, this year seemed like nothing but upgrades.

What happened to the great ideas like Enlightened Gear's Malcontent Tent or all those tarps and singlewall shelters that were so prominant last summer?

Are ideas hitting a saturation point? Has ultralight come to the point where all the new gear is just reiterations of the initial radical concepts? Is, heaven forbid, ultralight going mainstream? How exactly should ultralight go from here?

paul johnson
(pj) - F

Locale: LazyBoy in my Den - miss the forest
Re: Re: The Wrap on 02/01/2006 08:42:17 MST Print View

Last year the Nemo offerings held absolutely zero intrigue for me, due to their weight.

However, this year's Nemo GoGo Bivy (other than the name) is quite intriguing. The weight at 31oz, while heavier than many simple bivy sacks, is the same as many other mainstream bivy shelters, e.g OR Advanced Bivy (pre-2006), ID eVENT Unishelter, Bibler Bipod Bivy (28 or 29 oz), and some others weighing in the 25-29 oz range. It's even lighter than some bivy shelters.

Due to it's double wall front and very interesting retractable front and vestibule, for me it's worth looking into. Solves a couple of issues that exist with other bivy shelters and sacks if used as a primary shelter without a tarp.

Edited by pj on 02/01/2006 08:46:27 MST.

Doug Johnson
(djohnson) - MLife

Locale: Washington State
Beyond OR on 02/01/2006 23:50:26 MST Print View

It's important to remember who WASN'T at OR. How about the latest from Tarptent, Six Moon Designs, Mountain Laurel Designs, Gossamer Gear, and Bozeman Mountain Works too. Add in Jacks R Better, Nunatak, Mini Bull Designs...I could go on and on. It's important to keep things in perspective- the cottage industry doesn't all show at OR...and we've known that many of the true innovations are coming from these guys.

Miguel Arboleda
(butuki) - MLife

Locale: Kanto Plain, Japan
Re: Beyond OR on 02/02/2006 00:29:36 MST Print View

Doug, that's very true. I actually rely on BPL to get the latest information about the most innovative products and ideas, and so OR just seems like dressing. I've just ordered Henry Shire's Rainbow Tent and for me that is one of the great new ideas. And there's the Six Moon's Designs new products, too. And all the other cottage industry designs. Most likely it's the people who don't fall into the big commercial traps, who stay out on the edge, who come up with the best ideas.

Ryan Jordan
(ryan) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Greater Yellowstone
ORWM Press Release - Can't Resist on 02/07/2006 15:58:41 MST Print View

Publisher's Note:See below, towards bottom: "Several attendees were eager to weigh in on their Winter Market experiences..." So was I, but wasn't asked :( So I told anyway, but wasn't quoted :(:(

Anyway, this is the press release from OIA.


2006 Opens with Record Breaking Outdoor Retailer Winter Market

Exhibitors and attendees focus on environmental sustainability, winter preparedness

and apparel for an active lifestyle

SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, CALIF. – More than 14,000 attendees traveled from all corners of the outdoor industry last week to attend Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2006, in Salt Lake City, Utah from January 28 - 31, 2006. A record breaking 754 exhibitors of all sizes attracted a wealth of retailers, buyers and over 362 media who spent the four days testing new products, taking in the fashion shows, attending industry seminars, networking and writing orders.

“This year’s show was a realistic representation of how the market is both changing and growing, as appointments and commitments were plentiful, media presence at the show grew, and the retail segment interest in this market is broadening” said Peter Devin, Group Show Director for Outdoor Retailer. “It is extremely gratifying to have so many quality-focused retailers and manufacturers interested, vested, and engaged in the Outdoor Retailer Shows.”

Environmental sustainability was emphasized throughout the Show and at the Annual OIA Breakfast with an inspiring speech by keynote speaker Ray Anderson, founder of Interface, Inc., a global manufacturer of floor-covering systems. Anderson deemed himself a “recovering plunderer,” and challenged an eager audience to take responsibility for improving corporate sustainability practices. Outdoor Retailer stepped up to this challenge by executing a cardboard collection program during set-up. Exhibitor and sponsor Mountain Hardwear enhanced the collection efforts, and together, OR and Mountain Hardwear collected an unprecedented quantity of recyclable packing materials.

Winter preparedness also proved to be a prevalent trend among exhibitors. Products geared toward preparedness were highlighted by exhibitors with technical apparel such as The North Face and Cloudveil, as well as gear companies such as Black Diamond.

“The Black Diamond brand is all about preparedness, said Craig Hatton, northwest sales representative for Black Diamond. “If you’re prepared, your chances of survival increase exponentially.”

Leading this charge was first-time Outdoor Retailer exhibitor Avalanche Backpack. The Avalanche Backpack System (ABS) keeps users on the surface of the snow in case of a running avalanche. “This product provides a 98% survival rate, so we are very encouraged to see that everyone from guides to training facilities to Snowcat operators are interested in this innovation,” said Anthony Sands, president of Avalanche Backpack.

Avalanche Backpack was one of 64 exhibitors to partake in the 3rd Annual Backcountry Base Camp, held at Brighton on January 27, 2006. Several inches of fresh powder welcomed more than 1,200 attendees to experience telemark ski jumping, snowshoe testing, beacon searching, Nordic activities, guided backcountry tours and more.

Throughout the Show, the tradeshow floor buzzed with talk of the 2nd Annual Fashion Show series. Sponsored by Aventura Clothing, ExOfficio, Gramicci and Spyder, the high-powered runway show attracted a standing-room only crowd twice daily. Models showcased new trends in performance apparel, technical wear and footwear, accessories and casual clothing and footwear in a wide array of colors and innovative fabrics.

Several attendees were eager to weigh in on their Winter Market experiences:

“We definitely benefited from the record turn out, as typically we run a pre-show appointment book of 90+ appointments, and this year we started with a pre-book of 130+ appointments and it only improved with walk-ups as the show progressed. Needless to say we are very satisfied," commented Jay Steere, vice president of global product management and outdoor performance for Timberland.

“After 11 years, this has been the most productive show we have ever had,” said Scott Leonard, CEO of Indigenous Designs. “It’s been gangbusters bell to bell.”

“Best show ever!” proclaimed Kenny Ballard, president of Kelty.

Edited by ryan on 02/07/2006 16:13:47 MST.

Mark Larson
(mlarson) - MLife

Locale: Southeast USA
Re: ORWM Press Release - Can't Resist on 02/07/2006 21:20:33 MST Print View

There was a fashion show??? Oh dear...