Thursday, March 02, 2006

Innovation in Outdoor Gear

There's an excellent article on Backpacking Light about the lack of innovation in outdoor equipment in recent years. The site's editor, Ryan Jordan, writes, "I've come to realize after reviewing hundreds of new products every year that the true test for innovation is simple: the product (or technology) serves more functions better with fewer sacrifices than the products or technologies it intends to replace." He argues, for example, that tube-based hydration systems don't make the grade, nor do soft-shell garments, because each comes with its own set of sacrifices that causes it to fall short of true innovation, compared with the product it's designed to replace. Jordan cites some truly innovative products, such as the superlight Alpacka rafts, along with some that seem to me not so groundbreaking. Finally, in the most interesting part of his story, Jordan and his contributors craft a long list of innovations the outdoor industry has failed to deliver—a fascinating wish list.

Get Outdoors rants that most innovation in outdoor gear is irrelevant—that it's all about driving fractional gains in market share, with the counterproductive result that equipment seems too complicated and makes outdoor sports seem harder and more inaccessible ("extreme") than they actually are. But what about modern ice-climbing gear, which is so easy to use that huge numbers of climbers have been lured to the sport? What about shaped skis and lightweight alpine-touring gear? Or suspension systems on mountain bikes? Initially such developments seem like the overcomplicated and overhyped product of the industry's marketing arm, designed to prematurely obsolesce your quiver of equipment. Hell, I resisted sticky-rubber climbing shoes for a while. ("Just a fad.") It's true, as Backpacking Light argues, that most "innovations" today do nothing to advance the sports. But once in a while a true breakthrough not only allows the best skiers, climbers, paddlers, etc., to push a little higher and harder, but also makes getting outdoors more fun for the rest of us.

My dream product? Lightweight and efficient systems to actively (probably electrically) warm gloves, core garments and sleeping bags. Nothing developed yet has come close to meeting Backpacking Light's standard for innovation ("serves more functions better with fewer sacrifices than the products or technologies it intends to replace"), to say nothing of reasonable price. All it would take is about 10 degrees of added heat to make an ice-climbing glove that would eliminate the screaming barfies forever. Now that's an innovation I would celebrate!


Anonymous said...

wow, lot here to agree and disagree with, pardon my dangling preposition. 'huge' numbers of climbers to ice climbing? there has been very little change in axes over the years, if any since chounaird introduced the bent shaft and the intro of the reverse pick. sure lighter materials, but different, no way. leashless is different, so are express screws, but these are not tools for the masses, they are tools for the elite. the elite have benefitted from these advances, not the newsbies. in addition, yes, lighter and warmer materials are developed and needed, but again, at the end of the day, how much different can you make a backpack, a stove, or a tent from year to year? the fundamental designs are still the same, the only additions are small bells and whistles that are nice, but not mindblowing, nor industry shaking - we all know that. mind you, once in a while a design comes along that does this - parabolics, jetboil - but on a yearly basis, no way. innovation is not dead in the outdoor industry, it is just at a state where the gear is already incredible for the 99% of the people, it's the 1% the ech ... humars of the world that truly need the innovation. love, the bomb

Anonymous said...

I dunno. As somebody making packs for his living, I think there's been a lot of innovation in the past couple of years. I'm not so sure that a lot of it makes any sense though. Innovation for the sake of innovating is a symptom of the turnover driven world of retail.

On the other hand, I also personally believe that the drop in weight, better dampening and drytooling in general has brought a lot more people into ice climbing. Perhaps advances in boot technology have played a greater role, but Chouinard's is no longer a test piece. The Black Dike is scary, but it's not 'futuristic'...and I think a lot of that has to do with the technology used in modern gear.

So it becomes two different things for me: technology application versus innovative design. Sure, I can make a piezo electric hand warmer like you describe fairly easily. And that would actually be innovation + technology. But most things I see are applications of technology or market driven innovation.

btw, truly excellent blog & thanks for your AAC work(that's a very cogent piece of writing).

graham crackers

Anonymous said...

graham, don't get me wrong, i think your gear looks great and i'd love to try one of your alpine packs out. in addition, i respect and admire your efforts in/with turkey. true innovation these days in almost solely contingent upon technology, with the advances in materials and contruction being the drivers. again, i haven't tested your pack, but how different is it from fabrizio's pack at the magic line, the andinista? it's a sack, with two arm straps, a few straps here and there. it's hard for me to see a backpack for anything more than it is and the innovation is lost on me. love, the bomb

Anonymous said...

No other pack on the market can do:
this kind of compression which is what makes them pretty unique.

Being able to radically rearrange the way that the relatively simple thing (those two straps for your shoulders etcetera...) is different.

I agree that within the fabric and the idea of a pack there is not a lot of room for innovation. But that doesn't mean there is none...