Outdoor gear changes every year, but some changes are crucial enough to make everything now in stores old-fashioned. Think: adding spandex to denim to create stretch jeans. Old-fashioned-ization is what will happen when new products from the recent Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City hit stores in 2012. New technical fabrics, new concepts in outerwear and new buzzwords will change almost everything.
Take just one small detail that has been growing for the past few years: jacket pockets, which have evolved from fewer outside pockets to (this year) none in some brands. It’s not just the sleek outline for on-slope fashion, but for serious trekkers, it means no extraneous fabric or pockets that never get used.
The new buzzword for outerwear is “efficiency.” The Mountain Hardwear brand has the concept mastered. The whole trend is minimal—lightweight and no bulk. Aside from pocket elimination, there’s no Velcro or elastic on cuffs. Instead, an internal knit cuff on jackets gives a seal without bulk. Pant insulation stops at the boot level, fitting snugly to the boot, so skis, snowboard or crampons don’t shred the bulky fabric around the other ankle.
The company also made radical fabric innovations. One new fabric offers a “jade effect.” Jade, as a stone, is always cool because of a special hardening on the surface. Mountain Hardwear put that property into a yarn for its cross-training line, so it will last for the life of a garment, helping to ward off overheating while running or hiking.
Another innovation, the “Ghost Whisperer” jacket is made of a new kind of nylon, woven so tightly that it protects as much against wind and cold as some insulated jackets without bulk and is startlingly lightweight—less than 2 ounces. The pale, white fabric is so thin it’s nearly see-through and crushes down to fit into an attached sack, as small as a ping-pong ball. It will cost $135.
The company hired famous mountain climber Ueli Steck to advise the designers of the new line. Alex Baires, Mountain Hardwear’s backpack designer, used that advice to eliminate excess features in backpacks. Compression straps, normally used to compact a pack, are now made of detachable webbing, offering a choice of whether to use them or not—or whether to use them for some other purpose on a backpacking trip.
Mountain Hardware’s new backpacks are expensive—$150 for the daypack size. But Baires explains that the price comes from the expensive new fabric used. The bottom of the bag, white in color, will stay white. “It’s our most durable material, essentially a woven plastic that’s thin, durable and lightweight. Backpacks that you carry around every day get more use than, say, one used only for backpacking, so everyday packs with this fabric for city use will be popular—put your laptop and some clothing in it,” he says.
This year’s show was the largest one yet. A large pavilion of new exhibitors offered new products like “Da Brim,” a stiffened, fabric hat brim without the hat, designed to fit on any kind of helmet to offer cooling shade. “PeakWaggers” offered dehydrated dog food sealed in shrink plastic to make it non-bulky and waterproof so it’s easier to feed your pooch on a camping trip. New camcorder products were everywhere, including one line with cameras built into the frames of sunglasses.
Also new: innovations like a self-heating can that provides hot coffee, cappuccino, hot chocolate or lemon tea in three minutes. There’s a new “alarm ring” with a button to press if there’s an emergency. The button broadcasts your latitude and longitude, who you are and your medical history. It sells for $149, with a monthly fee of $10 for the security service—half the price of security for the “senior alarm” sold on TV for those who have “fallen and can’t get up.”
The OR show always gives out tons of swag, and one popular giveaway was the “Survival Strap,” a woven bracelet that unravels into 14 feet of parachute cord that will support 550 pounds. The clasp of the bracelet is a small metal shackle that will support over 2,000 pounds.
“Survival” was the biggest new keyword of the show. The word was seen everywhere, and the concept featured in a surprising number of products: “Our (firestarter, tent, floatation device, etc.) will help you survive!” Expect to see more of this; the idea of survival in the wilderness is growing in consumer appeal, as it often does in times of economic uncertainty.
Also notable: non-outdoor brands launching new outdoor lines. Samsonite displayed its new backpack line for travelers who want durable, lightweight luggage designed to make passing though TSA easier. It allows travelers to organize products especially for ease of inspection. Dr. Scholl’s showed its new outdoor footwear aids to non-blistered comfort. When was the last time you saw a Zippo lighter? You may want one now; Zippo’s new windproof and waterproof “Outdoors” line is perfect for starting a campfire on reluctant wood and will even ignite under water, should you feel the urge to light a lighter under water.
The invasion of urban brands isn’t surprising. The outdoor industry continues to grow exponentially, despite the economy. It’s not only because the outdoors is (relatively) free, but because fashion is trending toward looking cool while wearing or using wilderness products in the city. Outdoor industry purists may lament, but these products will start showing up at big box stores next spring. Buyers from Costco, T.J. Maxx and Walmart were at the show, ready to place orders. After all, lightweight dehydrated dog food is just as good for a long car trip with your four-legged friend as it is for a long backpacking trip in the wilderness.