May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, October 1997


A visual history of all the gear we couldn't — and still can't — do without
By Andrew Tilin and Mike Grudowski

  The Best of Toys,
    the Worst of Toys

Endless Summer
Solar Sauna

In giddy, pre-melanoma-scare 1983, Energy Innovations unveiled this combination tent/Jiffy Pop pan, roofed with clear plastic to "welcome" the sun's heat and UV rays. On a clear day, even with temperatures in the twenties, the company suggested, the ambience inside would all but whisk the occupant off to St. Bart's. Recent attempts to locate the designers, perhaps jittery about potential class-action suits, proved futile.

In 1974, a visionary rigged an enclosed fairing to a bike that a rider then pedaled to a record 43 miles an hour and...nobody cared. But the oddball human-powered-vehicle movement was born, with manically churning folks going ever faster, at times prone, like the uncomfy gent shown here. "You don't just say, 'I think I'll set the world recumbent record today,'" says Bill Gaines of the International Human Powered Vehicle Association. "No no no. It takes years of designing and hard work." And a good chiropractor.

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The Kryptonite Lock

Partial credit goes to a lowly subway vending machine: New York City bike-wrencher Stan Kaplan noticed that metal brackets shielded the machine's padlock, so that's how he armored his 1971 Kryptonite U-Lock. Once in a great while you can still spot one of the original versions manning its post — probably having outlived several of the bikes it protected.

Shower in a Can
This product appeared, with little explanation, in a camping article in Outside more than a decade ago, but now it can be told: There was never really any Shower in a Can; it was just a bit of satire we lifted from a book called Philip Garner's Better Living Catalog. We apologize to any longtime readers who hunted for it on store shelves. For what it's worth, Clairol does offer a somewhat similar product, a shampoo requiring no water, sold under the name Psssssst. If only we could get our hands on both products: the orgy of backcountry hygiene that would result! Alas, we can only dream.

Bulletproof Couture
Up until 1983, an adventurer hankering to bushwhack during hunting season or trek with the local junta had to leave his fashion savvy back home. That changed when EMGO U.S.A. released its dapper line of bulletproof jackets and pants, fitted with Kevlar for protection against "unnatural elements," as the company's president put it. Despite a packed launch party at Manhattan's superswank Playboy Club, the guerrillawear has vanished from the racks. "There were the hurdles of cleaning the clothes and finding things to match," says bulletproof-clothing connoisseur Rick Armellino of American Body Armor. "And the garments felt like they could stop bullets."

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The Nikonos

You couldn't invent a better genesis: The idea of an underwater camera came from the man-fish himself, and four years after Jacques Cousteau codeveloped the technology, the Nikonos I made its 1963 splashdown. Today's Nikonos V costs $800, four times the original. But you can swap lenses between them, and the original rubber O-ring still keeps the celluloid dry 160 feet down. Hey, blowfish: Smile!

The Puma RS Computer
The only running shoe ever sold with a circuit board and software in the box. For $200 a pair, an "inertia switch" on the right shoe counted heel strikes. Postjog, you plugged it into a Commodore 64 — whoa, flashback! — which spat out useful tidbits like distance and speed. Consumers of 1986 greeted the sneaks with a resounding smirk. "You had to be a real computer guy to be interested," says Barry Hallenbeck, Puma's director of research and development. "Runners weren't enthused."

Loved Ones
Outdoorspeople eager to crank up the north-woods glamour in their wardrobes shouted hallelujah in the early eighties, when these goose-down-insulated jockstraps and brassieres debuted. Pitched with the delightfully tasteful slogan "Keep your Loved Ones warm," the toasty unmentionables were probably best suited to cold but sedentary activities, such as watching someone put chains on your tires, lest you get overheated. In any case, Loved Ones appear to have been yet another bit of progress the buying public wasn't quite ready for; in 1997, the company's phone number in Carmel, California, was answered by a Spanish-speaking woman who pleaded ignorance.

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The Nalgene Bottle

It was around 1970 when scientists at Nalge, a lab-supply outfit, surmised that if their leakproof bottles could survive chemicals and tumbling off counters, they could handle water and jostling hikes. The next year, the nicely graspable polyethylene quarts hit the trail. Anyone who thinks that's not a milestone never shouldered a pack with a drooling container two days from nowhere.

Wilson Camping/Backpacking
Nutrition Program

If you think vitamins designed especially for campers sound like a reach, you're not alone. Health-food stores no longer stock the pills formulated to "combat insects...and the greasy food associated with outdoor cooking." And Wilson Sporting Goods, the company that brainstormed this market niche into existence in 1983, is in outright denial. "We never did anything like that," said an assistant to the president at the Chicago headquarters. But Outside's photographic proof eventually won the day. "Those vitamins were a mistake from the start," confesses 40-year Wilson customer-service vet Bud Nichols. "If they had marketed a single-malt Scotch with the W on it, I might have been enthusiastic."

The Opti-Cap
Aquaman...is that you? In 1981, Speedo dove head-on into the theretofore untapped over-the-eyes swim-cap market. Sales figures for the innovation, shown here teamed with a natty prescription-goggles/nose-clips combo that could have doubled as a convincing swamp-mammal mask at costume parties, aren't available. In fact, swimwear-industry insiders deny any recollection of this "breakthrough." And frankly, who can blame them?

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The Fabiano Rio

Bored with his family's Boston shoemaking and cobbler shops, Andrew Fabiano listened to customers and took a stab at the boot trade. In 1957, one of the first waffle-stompers seen on these shores emerged, for $29. Now they go for an unapologetic $268, but history suggests that buys serious mileage. A New Hampshire woman just told the company she's planning a party for her 27-year-old Rios. And, hopefully, a few other guests.

Hitler's troops used them to scuttle across marshes, Skijak-history buffs say — surely a bad harbinger for any new outdoor product. But not until 1987 did these seaworthy slippers (pronounced "ski-yaks") make their way to American shelves. A Skijaker embarked by sticking his feet into the 11-foot polyethylene schooners, € la Krusty the Clown, then propelling himself atop the drink with a long paddle. A 155-mile "ski" down the Hudson drew coverage from CNN but sparked little demand for the $600 Skijaks, despite the sense of possibility they inspired. "I once took mine over a six-foot waterfall," says David Kiner, the Hudson navigator and sole North American distributor during their year on the market. "A really stupid thing to do."

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The Therm-a-Rest

After Seattle engineer Jim Lea was laid off from Boeing, campers everywhere rested easier. Lea zeroed in on the standard foam pad, which was skimpy and frumpy and often left users sleepy and dopey. With a valve and an airtight shell over foam, his self-inflating mattress whooshed to life in 1974. A bonus: One Therm-a-Rest allegedly kept a snoozer from frying when lightning zapped his tent.

Could our ever-growing caches of ultraspecialized sports toys possibly get any cooler or sleeker or higher-tech than they are today? Take skiwear. In the Fondue Era of the seventies, our friend at left in the clammy nylon wind shirt and Mark Spitz 'stache presented a dashing figure on the slopes of Squaw Valley, getting down to Frampton Comes Alive! on his Astraltunes tape-deck-on-a-string. That was all laughably pass‰ by the time the Sweater Years arrived, inspired by homeboy Olympians Phil and Steve Mahre and a Swede named Stenmark who never missed a gate; we dressed like them so...so it looked like we never missed a gate. But eventually we Goodwilled that stuff, too. Because now — now we've entered the Age of Gear Enlightenment. Our parkas that breathe according to body temperature, our billowy Gore-Tex trousers, our anti- shock portable disc players: This stuff will look great forever. Or at least until Party of Five gets canceled.

Look Out! Stampede!
"Comfort is the absence of notice," says Tinker Hatfield, Nike's vice-president of design and special projects, sounding awfully Emersonian for a guy talking about sneakers. "The most comfortable thing you can do is run barefoot in the grass." This from a man whose company invented words like Phylon and Foamposite, a man who has a hundred pairs of athletic shoes in a closet at home. You probably own a lot, too. It used to be so simple; in fact, much of today's staggering display of foot plumage stems from four archetypes: the Nike Waffle Trainer, its outsole inspired by track coach Bill Bowerman's sullying the family waffle iron; the generations-old, handmade Limmer backpacking boot; the Sidi Cycle Titanium, cobbled by Dino Signori in Maser, Italy; and the Teva Original, stitched together by Colorado River guide Mark Thatcher. A trend back toward the uncomplicated would be kind of refreshing — folks scaling cliffs in Chuck Taylors, that sort of thing — but don't bet on it. "Now when we design shoes, we look at the performance requirements and the cultural needs," says Hatfield. "They all help us proclaim our individuality."

Stick Shifts
In the early 1980s, long before the advent of suburban tongue piercings, rogue snowboarders got a Sorel in the ski-resort door. But a niggling problem remained: Their boards, tailored for rough-and-tumble backcountry, couldn't turn on machine-groomed snow. With features like fins and swallowtails to boost handling in powder, the plastic, deck-it-yourself Sims above (circa 1978) and the wooden Burton Perfomer (1983) typified the primitive crop. Then, an epiphany: Why not slap on grippy steel edges and a glidey P-tex base, making a board more like — of all things — a ski? "When I asked the manager at the Austrian ski factory if he could produce it, he looked at me funny and said, 'But skis are two,'" says Chris Sanders, cofounder of Avalanche, whose Flex 160 appeared in 1985. People quickly caught on, in such numbers that's it's pretty ludicrous for a boarder to attempt the rad-outlaw shtick anymore. "The sport has become so mainstream," says Paul Ferrel of Lib Tech, maker of the sidecut-happy board at left. "Pretty soon we'll all be wearing sleek Bogner outfits."

Don't go changin'
And then there's you telemark skiers, with your ancient-history free-heel turns, genuflecting your way down mountainsides. So above the masses and their what's-new-this-season whims, so self-consciously retro with your year-round beards, your home-brew recipes, your...don't get us started. But you don't fool us. Just the other day we overheard one of you asking a sales clerk about the "torsional rigidity" of a pair of plastic boots, the ones called Terminators. Terminators! Nothin' granola about that.

Decent Vintage, Good Body, Nice Finish, and Just a Hint of Laminate
If a vision of the "next" ski comes to you one day midslope, get into a tuck and head for a phone — quick! The industry door is always open to a new shape. Around 1989, a ski-tour operator from Salzburg explained to the folks at Atomic his idea for the next logical silhouette. The big fat result was the Powder Plus, making anyone who could skid parallel turns an instant hero in the deep. "That only got ski engineers thinking again," says Atomic's David Donahue. "If you go wide here, take a little bit out there..." In the name of better performance, skis have gone under the knife as often as Helen Gurley Brown. Some of the tweaked shapes (like the parabolic) have made a difference; others seemed little more than gimmicks. But they inevitably made for lively chitchat in the lift line.

K2's midseventies Cheeseburger, marketed with a fast-food theme; came with a side of "fries" (poles). Went over like the McRib.

K2's 710FO, the girl next door that didn't change much and didn't need to. Phil Mahre won the silver in slalom with these at Lake Placid in 1980.

Salomon's S9000 Equipe, 1990, whose "monocoque" design purportedly beefed up edge control and undoubtedly made more room for cool graphics.

The Atomic Powder Plus, 1991, one of the first acknowledgments that skis could learn from their little brother, the snowboard.

Kneissl's Ergo, 1993, with the hourglass figure that caught the eye (and honed the turns) of intermediates and ringers alike.

The $10,000 ground control FSR looks like a bike, feels like a bike, even rides like one...at times. "You can't really climb with it, and you're lucky if it moves on the flats," says Tom Hillard, technical coordinator at Specialized. "But it sure goes downhill." Such are the peculiar bragging points of mountain biking's latest envy magnet, professional downhiller Shaun Palmer's custom aluminum one-trick pony, said to crack 60 mph. A quantum leap from the olden days? Well, the vintage-1977 12-speed Breezer, one contender for the elusive title of history's first mountain bike, weighed a portly 38 pounds. The Ground Control comes in at a not-much-svelter 33, and this at a time when traditional mountain bikes have been shedding pounds for years. But heft hardly matters to riders who, like Palmer, think of "uphill" as code for "chairlift." Says Hillard, "Shaun's not much of a pedaler." Ah, progress.

Joe Breeze's 1977 clunker (above), one of the charmingly crude contraptions that changed cyclery forever

Such a simple premise: make your footprint bigger and you can walk on crystallized water. After 6,000 years of wooden snowshoes and millions of contented customers, frustrated winter triathletes and industrial designers started shuffling up the development curve, and snowshoers responded enthusiastically: We can get bindings? Cool. Lighter frames made of aluminum? We'll buy it. By 1994, the next step seemed logical: the carbon-fiber, clipless-entry-system, high-speed, superheroish $349 Atlas Concept (above). The snowshoeing public's response was once again unanimous: What the hell is that thing? Sales floundered, and the Concept is no longer in stores. But the futurists don't intend to give up. "We're going to develop more freaking-radical snowshoes," says Perry Klebahn, Atlas's president. "And someday the whole world will wear them."

From: Sheep. To: Du Pont. Subject: Thanks!
The days when cloth could earn its keep in the outdoors just by looking nice are long gone: Now it has to do something. How on earth do campers ever get to sleep anymore, what with all the wicking, breathing, and unabashed hydrophilia going on around them? By the late 1970s, Gore-Tex, polypropylene, and Cordura had already established a beachhead for what soon became an invasion of preternatural fibers. These days we're niche-marketed right down to our skivvies, and you need a scorecard just to keep track of it all. But there's a sticky brown drawback to our nylon and polyester fetishes. "It's a pretty simple equation," says Joe Walkuski, director of textile R&D for Patagonia. "Comfort in the outdoors is based on oil refinement. It's not an easy issue."

Farther, Faster, WEIRDER
Triathletes own half the world's gear and claim credit for the rest. "A lot of companies might not be here if it wasn't for triathlon," says Dan Empfield of Quintana Roo, a triathlon wetsuit and bicycle company. "Oakley? PowerBar? Where do you think Nike got that cross-training stuff? That was us." OK, we'll concede that triathletes' eagerness to "experiment" (i.e., buy anything) inspired people to wear lightweight helmets, crouch over aero bars, and just plain exercise. But the general public isn't entirely in lockstep with them. The one-piece men's bathing suit, cut like a women's one-piece for streamlining, has yet to trickle down to Coney Island, and even the FBI wouldn't be able to locate the "steering dampeners" that once helped keep bonking racers from cycling off course. On the other hand, there's still a place in a tri-geek's heart for gear nostalgia. "Used to be you just grabbed a ten-speed with toe clips and some tennis shoes and did it all," says Mike Pigg, a professional triathlete for 13 years and counting. "But my 'hydration system' is still a round bottle in the front cage."

And Now, a Moment of Silence for Hans Brinker
About 18 years ago, boredom with jogging had a fling with Roller Derby, and the odd couple soon gave birth to a prodigy named in-line skating. It was a rough delivery. "We used to skate with hockey sticks, and they weren't for training," says Brennan Olson, cofounder of Minnesota-based Rollerblade. "They were to discourage people from running us off the street." Nowadays drivers, as well as cyclists and dog walkers, seem a tad more willing to share the pavement, and the skates are easier to maneuver and easier to stop; heck, you could almost call them controllable. But all this didn't happen overnight. Step by step, lessons learned from other sports crossed over. Olson's 1983 Ultimate Street Skate (left), for instance, grafted a supportive plastic boot reminiscent of the slopes onto its chassis. A year later, the rink-inspired toe brake fell by the wayside. In 1994, K2 introduced soft boots (culminating in this year's Freedom model, right), which feel like basketball high-tops on wheels. Now that in-line skaters number 31 million, the specializing shows no sign of letup. You can buy models for racing, hockey, street. Next year K2 will up the ante even further by offering a skate especially for goalies. "We don't know how many goalies there are, but nobody else makes one," says the company's Shenna Fitzgerald. "It's a skate for people who don't really have to skate."

Jimmy Got No Carabiners? Jimmy Go Boom.
On its own, a carabiner isn't very exotic: a small metal oblong with a spring hinge on one side, as humdrum as a steel rivet. But without rivets we'd have no Eiffel Tower, and without carabiners none of mountaineering's great triumphs would have gotten off the flatland. Given that fact, the dark ages of the carabiner ended surprisingly recently. "In 1989 it would take us weeks to make one prototype," says Peter Metcalf, president of Black Diamond Equipment. "Then we'd have to pick up that work of art and put it on a breaking machine until...snap." Software has made R&D more genteel since then, but the attributes of a reliable 'biner haven't changed much: It needs to be light and strong and have a gate you're willing to entrust with your life, which explains why some climbers are slow to retire their trustworthy, time-tested rings. Nevertheless, modern carabiners are better than their predecessors for two main reasons: (1) the climbing gym, where indoor junkies fall seven or eight times each, um, pitch, and thus frequently send designers back to their computers, and (2) lawyers. "They're a constant presence," says Omega Pacific's Bert Atwater. "It's like they're sitting at the bottom of the cliffs."

Honey...a Marmot Just Made Off with Our Espresso Machine

Heavy man, heavy: We've progressed from carrying too much weight all the way to carrying too much weight.

"Carrying a big load in 1997," says Patry Loomis, president of Colorado's Lowe Alpine Systems, "isn't a whole lot easier than it was 30 years ago." Quite a confession from one of the nation's largest backpack manufacturers, but the packs shouldn't shoulder all the blame. After all, hikers could try harder to resist all the temptation clogging the racks of outdoor shops: Solar-heated showers! Portable ovens! Shortwave radios! Today's gear is undoubtedly lighter and stronger, but that only leads many hikers and campers to a perverse new conclusion: We can schlepp more stuff into the woods than ever before. For instance, take a gander at the happily camping Rollie Fingers lookalike in the upper-right photograph. He (and we) had enough goodies some 20 years ago: dome tents, adjustable packs, down sleeping bags. What more do you really need out there? A water filter, yes. But an espresso machine? The point is, there are ways to travel light if you put your mind to it-some of them quite creative. "I saw a guide cut off all of his backpack's spare webbing and buckles and toss them in a paper bag," says Skip Yowell, a founder of Jansport. "He couldn't carry as much, but the bag he left behind was full of nylon. Must've weighed a couple pounds."

The Illustrated History of Hat Head

Pssst. Hey, Buddy. You Wanna Buy a Barometer?

Photographs by Clay Ellis; Erik Butler; Rich Cruse; Chip Simons

Copyright 1997, Outside magazine


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