Words and photos by Andy Dappen
Every winter the Outdoor Retailer Show packs 1000-plus manufacturers of skiing, climbing, snowshoeing, backpacking, and camping equipment into the Salt Palace at Salt Lake City to sell their wares to retailers. Media guys like me also show up because we want to know what’s new in the gear world and speculate about trends we might see developing.
This year I came away from the show with only two product that really blew my next-to-skin layers off. There were, however, dozens of products with small tweaks, changes, and improvements that keep gear on an ever-improving curve, and that keep many of us lusting for equipment that’s fractionally better than what we already own. Meanwhile, there were trends I observed and found interesting. The difficulty with trends, however, is knowing whether the trend actually exists or whether it’s simply a conclusion shaped by the small window we happen to observe. Something I report as a trend could easily be a case of me putting two and two together to equal six. So, reader beware: take in the ten observations below with a healthy degree of skepticism.
Photo: Most Americans seem to have come to the conclusion that fixing the heel really does fix such problems as skiing gloppy snow with a heavy pack.
1) Trend: Bye, Bye Miss Tele Pie. Telemark skiing looks like a Deadman Walking. At the Utah resorts (and here in the Northwest) the number of telemark skiers are shrinking toward the zero mark, and doing so quickly. It’s not just on the ski hills that you notice this. The number of telemark products for sale at the show, and the number of new developments in telemark boots or bindings, is close to the number of new developments seen on cassette tape decks a decade after CDs had flooded the market: zero. Over the past few OR Shows all the buzz has instead centered around new fixed-heel technology for AT and/or sidecountry gear.
2) Wow: The One-Pound Boot. The hefty size of its cuff deceived me, so when I picked up this randonnee rally race boot from La Sportiva, I expected it to resist me to the tune of 2.5 or 3 pounds. Instead, the boot flew skyward as I grabbed it. It happened so fast my shoulder might have dislocated were I normal mortal. Fortunately, I train for these kinds of mishaps and my incredibly tuned body survived with naught but a lump on my head from where the boot thumped me. The actual weight of one Stratos boot is a ridiculous 525 grams (1.15 pounds). On top of that, racers report this carbon paw is actually stiff enough for decent skiing. Not that you or I are going to be using the Stratos any time soon---the one thing that’s obscenely fat about this skinny sucker is its price. If you want the lightest ski boot out there, be ready to cough up $1,500 …per boot. I suspect you and I will wait a few years until the technology from this lightweight sucker trickles into consumer boots and we can score a deal – like a pair of boots that weigh a few ounces more but only cost $1500 per pair.
3) Trend: Supersize me. The girth of skis continues to go the way of the American waistline. For difficult conditions (breakable crusts, ripping cruds at speed) fatter is better. But for backcountry skiing where you must actually power the skis uphill and where spring mountain conditions have you climbing and descending icy slopes, some of us believe there is a point of diminishing returns when fatter just becomes fatter. If you’re a quiver skier, super fat boards for deep winter conditions are a beautiful luxury. However, if you want one board that is a good compromise for most days, look for a ski that’s between 87mm and 95 mm at the waist if you mainly ski the east slopes of the Cascades, and 95 to 105 mm underfoot if you mainly ski up on the Cascade Crest.
4) Trend: Fire and Flame. Manufacturers seem to have tapped into my paranoia of late and have designed products meant to soothe my survival anxieties. I’ve been increasingly interested in figuring out how a skier can make fire in a deep snowpack for warmth and make water in the face of emergencies (e.g., injury, getting lost, losing a ski…). Either lots of other folks are suddenly aware of this conundrum or my antenna was simply tuned to what’s out there. Either way, I noticed lots of new emergency fire starters, stoves, heat sources, and flaming fuels. Most of them flunked out on weight, convenience, or cost but the UtilityFlame passed the test. A little packet of Utility Flame gel (1.25 ounces) burns 20 minutes, will boil a few small pots of water and leaves behind a pile of sand when it’s spent. One version of the product ($10) comes with 3 utility packs and a super light metal strip that wraps around into a circular stove that screens out wind and holds a pot. For only 4 additional ounces in the pack, the Utility Flame will let users heat water into soup, melt snow into water, and survive a night out.
5) Cool: More Fire and Flame. Better still in the all-season emergency fire department is the Emberlit titanium stove (5 ounces, $80). Titanium packs a bit of a financial ouch factor, but this little wood burner was still one of my favorite finds of the show. It folds completely flat so its miniscule weight and volume won’t tempt users to leave it behind on day trips. Unpacked, this stove folds into a little cooker that efficiently converts small sticks and twigs into usable heat for melting water and surviving cold weather. And because the stove holds it coals in a self-contained pan that can be placed on sticks above the snow, the stove won’t flame itself into oblivion as it melts down a snow tunnel. For trips below timberline, the Emberlit provides a reliable and potentially life-saving heat source. Even near timberline it can be efficiently powered by a supply of twigs and small branches.
6) Trend: Sunspots. New LED lights just keep upping the lumens shining out of the same old batteries. If the trend continues, in a few billion years when the sun blinks outs, one flashlight, with one set of batteries, will replace the sun itself. We’re still a few billion years away from that miracle but the new Black Diamond Icon ($80, 8 ounces) now produces a blazing 200 lumens of light for nighttime hiking, mountaineering, or skiing---twice the old Icon’s 100-lumen output. The new light also dials down to a scant 4-lumen output for contending with camp chores while preserving battery life. If you don’t really expect to spend hours navigating through the darkness but need to occasionally see your way out of a pickle, the Black Diamond ReVolt 110 ($60, 4 ounces) offers a smaller and lighter alternative. The ReVolt puts out 110 lumens of light on high, dials back to 4 lumens on low, runs on four AAA batteries and can be purchased with a rechargeable battery set that allows for the light itself to plug into a charger. It’s lightweight, bright, simple, and green. Finally, for a beefier illumination source, the Black Black Diamond Voyager is a multi-functional flashlight/lantern for backpacking and car camping. Use it as a lantern around camp, as a hand-held flashlight for walking a trail, or with both the area lantern and flashlight beam burning to diagnose an engine problem should the car croak on the return from a trip.
7) Trend: Airbags Galore. The silver lining of our high-profile Tunnel Creek avalanche accident last February: it proved to be good for airbag business. More consumers are plunking down the big dollars ($700 to $1000) for packs with airbags. That has more manufacturers jumping into the fray, which should be good for the development of better, lighter, and cheaper packs. Some of the manufacturers who will be producing airbag packs for next winter (2013/2014) include: ABS, Backcountry Access, Dakine, Mammut, and Ortovox. The bad news of having these packs more universally used? Smooth-brained yahoos will rely more heavily on airbags than cerebral wrinkles to keep themselves safe.
8) Cool. Down stays dry. DriDown is a hydrophobic treatment applied to the down inside coats and sleeping bags. It was introduced to the market a year ago by Sierra Designs. The hype says that once treated, DriDown will maintain most of its loft and much of its warmth, even if wet. In other words, DriDown is said to eliminate the downside of down. WenatcheeOutdoors has yet to test this insulation so we can’t give first-hand reports about what’s hype and what’s not. We can say you should keep your eye on this product category. More companies are coming out with hydrophobic down treatments and if objective tests and reviews show the treatment works, you should be asking yourself whether a DriDown-type treatment is worth additional expense. The need and cost isn’t there for an around-town coat but for anyone headed into the deep mountains (e.g., mountaineers, backcountry skiers, ice climbers, winter campers, even three-season backpackers) the difference between fluffy wet down and matted wet down could be a life saver.
9) Trend. Snowshoes galore. Snowshoeing is being touted as the fastest growing winter sport -- maybe because it is so easy, maybe because there are tons of summer hikers who can walk in winter on snowshoes, maybe because it’s cheap to get into, maybe because one journalist somewhere wrote this and the rest of us are looking for something to write about. The fact that more and more manufacturers with more and more models of snowshoes are showing up at the OR Show, however, would indicate that this is more than a trend journalists made up. WenatcheeOutdoors has listed quite of number of snowshoes we’ve used, tested, and liked here. The bindings of newer snowshoes are getting progressively easier to get on and off with one-pull straps. Bindings are also getting more form fitting to boots and are being made with better torsional rigidity, giving users better control of the snowhoes and of their footing on steeper traverses. One snowshoe manufacturer that we thought had well-designed, lightweight snowshoe that were considerably more affordable than most competitors were those made by Faber Snowshoes. We particularly liked and want to test these models: Sommets ($140, 3.5 lbs) and North Cliffs ($100, $3.6 lbs).
10) Trend: Conservation, sustainability, reducing impact. We’re all hypocrites… and in many ways. Those of us who love the outdoors still tend to use resources as quickly as the next Joe. We, too, continue driving, living in big homes, and filling those homes with non-essential stuff. Furthermore, we like new toys that make the outdoors easier and more comfortable to survive. This clashes with the notion of using the outdoors to test our mettle, and consumes resources that plunder the natural world we profess to love. More and more outdoor companies are addressing the plundering problem by adopting practices that move them toward greater sustainability. They alter production systems to reduce their carbon footprint, reduce or eliminate packaging, extend product lifespan, eliminate toxic chemicals from the manufacturing processes, craft products from recycled materials or make sure their products are recyclable.
Some companies are joining the sustainability bandwagon because they are believers; others because they think it will improve their market share. Regardless of the motive, a favorable step is still a favorable step. Of course if the consumer takes all this to heart and takes favorable steps, not all businesses will rejoice. If we want to live sustainably and reduce our footprint, we first and foremost need to reduce our consumption. When we deem purchases necessary, we need to buy items providing years of service, purchase equipment we can eventually recycle, avoid items sold with wasteful packaging, avoid items whose destructive production means were simply outsourced overseas, and more. Such behaviors would pressure businesses to clean up their acts, but discouraging consumerism would also put many businesses out of businesses. Fortunately for business, we are all hypocrites. For a multiplicity of reasons (convenience, coolness, fun) we all want our stuff.