That's an interesting question, Anthony. My friend Lyn and I were talking about that just last week, after a quick hike up Tiger Mountain (just east of Seattle) in the pouring rain and snow. Years ago, we would have been cold, soaked, and redolent of the smell of wet wool. As it was, we stayed pretty dry and comfortable, with very few light layers on. Pretty impressive.
A lot of gear development has been very evolutionary, with minor improvements made over many years. But clearly there have been a handful of innovations that changed the game the second they were introduced. I've thought about this for a bit, and my by-no-means-complete list would go like this:
Five Great Outdoor Innovations
1. Vibram soles
It's hard to believe that until the 1940s people more or less "made" their own climbing/hiking boot soles by nailing various hooks and knobs to the bottom of the boots. That all changed with the introduction of Vibram soles. They were developed by Italian climber Vitale Bramani as a reaction to the deaths of six of his friends, a tragedy he attributed to poor footwear. Vibram soles made it possible to hike and climb on all sorts of terrain easily and safely.
2. Closed-cell foam pads
Seriously, the humble blue "Ensolite" pads that became so ubiquitous in the 1970s were a huge step forward. Their insulating capabilities changed what it meant to be warm and comfortable when sleeping on snow and ice, and they opened up new possibilities as to where people could go.
Clothing has seen a lot of changes, but Gore-Tex probably is the biggest single thing to come along in recent decades. When it was patented in 1976, truly waterproof and comfortable rainwear was at last possible.
4. Kelty frame pack
Dick Kelty's aluminum-frame pack, first sold in the early 1950s, changed the pack game. It was light, comfortable, and rugged. Every pack sold since thenincluding internal-frame modelsowes something to it.
5. MSR Whisperlite Stove
I cut my outdoor-cooking teeth on the classic Svea 123, a stove that hasnt changed much since the early 1900s. They were hot, all right, but also hard to start, balky in cold temperatures, and noisy. MSR's Whisperlite, which came out 1984, was reliable, easy to use, and quiet. The woods haven't sounded the same since.
I'd like to hear from readers as to what they think has been an innovation in outdoor gear that "changed their life." Click on Ask the Gear Guy below and give me your thoughts. I'll compile them and post them in a few weeks.