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

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Home Forums Campfire Editor’s Roundtable State of the Market for Backpacking Gear: Innovation, Broken Promises, and Hope

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    Ryan Jordan


    Locale: Central Rockies
    Ryan Faulkner


    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?


    Steven Sergeant


    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


    Locale: Mythical State of Jefferson

    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.

    Roger Caffin
    BPL Member


    Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe

    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.


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

    J R


    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
    BPL Member


    Locale: Pacific Northwest

    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


    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


    Locale: Isle of Man

    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!

    Glenn Roberts


    Locale: Southwestern Ohio

    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


    Locale: North Cascades


    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


    Locale: Colorado Rockies


    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
    BPL Member


    Locale: MN

    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

    Vick Hines


    Locale: Central Texas


    Vick Hines


    Locale: Central Texas

    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


    Locale: South West US

    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


    Locale: Southwestern Ohio

    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


    Locale: New Hampshire

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

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