Summer 2000: A Gear Odyssey

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Summer 2000: A Gear Odyssey
This year, at least, there wasn't a tornado.

A twister that struck before opening day became the biggest story out of last year's Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in Salt Lake City. But this year, new gear made the news. And there was lots of it, given that some 925 companies were showing bucket-loads of stuff in 3,000 booths. Some of it even is worth considering for your outdoor gear stash. Some of it, alas, is not.

Heads of the Class

You'll notice I said 3,000 booths. I spend three days at the show, half of it in scheduled appointments with manufacturers, half of it trolling the floor show, another half of...wait, scratch that. The point is, I didn't see it all. It's simply too big a show to get a grip on.

Nonetheless, I came away fairly convinced that I had seen more new stuff, and more new interesting stuff, than I did at last summer's show. Foremost among them, quite honestly, was something fairly mundane: A new stove. It's the Nova from Optimus, the company that makes the Svea 123 stove, which for decades has remained unchanged as a compact, reliable outdoor stove. The Nova looks much like other current-generation liquid-fuel stoves, with a burner unit, fuel bottle, and fuel line connecting the two. But two things set it apart. One is the extensive use of aluminum and brass in the stove, which should result in a more durable stove than models such as the MSR Whisperlite. The other is a specially designed fitting inside the burner that transfers heat from priming and burning to a small chamber where the fuel is vaporized before exiting the burn nozzle. The result is easier priming and hotter burning —- the Nova is billed as capable of boiling a quart of water in three minutes, 30 seconds. It also simmers nicely, thanks to a very precise fuel control. And it will burn any liquid fuel —- white gas, kerosene, auto fuel, you name it.

It's not cheap, however: About $140. That alone may make it difficult for the Nova to make much headway in the market. Optimus, after all, came out with the much-anticipated Explorer stove five years ago, which has now been discontinued due to slow sales and a hard-to-use design. I hope to have a Nova in hand for an eight-day bike tour planned for September.

Kayakers, meanwhile, will be interested in the new SmartTrack rudder system from Cascade Designs' SealLine division. The SmartTrack can be retrofitted to your current touring kayak, or added to a new one either by you or the manufacturer. It has a couple of advantages over existing rudder systems. One is that it's designed so you can adjust the foot pedals when you're in the boat, rather than having to get out of the boat (difficult when you are on the water), reach inside, and fiddle with them. The pedals themselves also are an improvement — the toe pedals are separate from the footrests, and seem easier to manage. And the rudder is designed along airfoil designs for less drag. All in all, very nice. About $250 for the complete setup.


The other interesting thing —- less a single product than a broad trend -— was a real push toward lighter gear. "Lightpacking" was a big thing during the early 1980s. Back then, the stuff did indeed weigh less than comparable "standard" gear. But it also wore out in about half the time. Newer, better materials and improved designs may eliminate that problem.

Among the "light" offerings are new sleeping bags from a new company called Big Agnes. They're taking another stab at the so-called "half-bag" concept, which I've discussed in the Gear Guy column recently. A half bag is essentially a regular sleeping bag, but with insulation on the top half only. A sleeping pad underneath provides insulation there. The concept makes sense, because you're crushing the bottom insulation in a bag anyway, rendering it all but useless. But the idea has been a tough sell in the past, with companies such as Marmot and Cascade Designs trying, and failing, to make a go of it. Big Agnes thinks their bag is different, and is hoping that the market is now ready for the concept and some design tricks they're using -— such as the fact any 20-inch pad will work with their bags -— will help move buyers their way. Big Agnes was showing bags with both down and synthetic fills, in the $200 to $350 price range.

One of the leaders in the light-packing movement, of course, is GoLite, a company whose products are inspired by ultra-light advocate Ray Jardine. GoLite was showing new two-person sleeping systems rated to 20 degrees or 40 degrees and weighing as little as 26 ounces. Prices will range from $295 to $345. GoLite also was showing the Den 2 ($275), a two-person tent that weighs only three pounds -— poles included.

The Rest

A zillion other things, of course. Here are some highlights:

LEDs —- light emitting diodes —- are big. That is, they're SMALL, so they're big with companies trying to make more compact headlamps and flashlights. LedLite, for instance, was showing a seven-LED headlamp called the TorchLED 700. By using one or all seven LEDs, you can adjust brightness as well as extend battery life for up to 150 hours on three AA batteries. Price will be $59.95.

Marmot, Mountain Hardwear, and Sierra Designs all were showing new tents. I'm most taken with Marmot's new Loft ($299), a seven-pound, three-season tent with vestibules on each side big enough to accommodate a bicycle. Mountain Hardwear is introducing a lighter line of tents, including the Tri-Light 2 ($325), which sleeps two and weighs just over four pounds. Sierra Designs, meanwhile, wash showing its new "Jake's Corner" reinforcing system. Named for the guy who came up with the idea, the Jane's Corner is a triangular pole system that attaches to the ground-level corners of a tent, increasing resistance to wind by 40 percent (SD says) while adding only seven ounces of weight.

Osprey has completely revamped its pack line, with a new, easy-to-adjust suspension, a curved strut system to transfer weight to the hip belt, and a re-designed hip belt system. The flagship pack is the Crescent 110 ($459), with 6,700 cubic inches of capacity in a medium. Mountainsmith was showing a new line of travel packs, as well as a new pack called the Ghost, which has 3,100 cubic inches of capacity, weighs only two pounds, six ounces, and will sell for $179. Frugal packers could use it for an overnight trip.

Several interesting new shoes were on display. Asolo, for instance, is introducing a line called the Fusion, which promises big-boot support and protection with less weight and at a lower price. The new line includes the Fusion 95, a leather hiker with a Gore-Tex bootie that will sell for $169. For really serious backpacking, Tecnica is introducing a boot called the Ascend Bio-Flex TCY ($215), with a synthetic upper of Kevlar and nylon, and crampon compatibility.

Lots of new clothing. Outdoor Research is introducing a new line of high-end Gore-Tex rainwear that will run up to $400 and is said to have much better arm freedom than other designs. Whether the world needs another Gore-Tex parka remains to be seen. Wool is making a comeback through companies such as Ibex, which is designing performance-oriented wool pieces such as the loden-wool Berg Jacket ($235). As a bonus, the stuff is not dorky looking. And several companies are introducing underwear lines based on Polartec's new PowerDry, a bi-component (two layer) fabric that may have the best wicking properties of anything on the market.

Whew. There was more. Lots more. But that will do it for now. I'll be discussing other new products in answers to future Gear Guy questions.

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