The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Gear

Why We Love the Runbell

Forget fitness trackers and smartphone mounts. The Runbell is currently the greatest fitness accessory on Kickstarter. Modeled after the classic brass bike bell, this mini finger dinger “solves the vexing problem of running in crowded areas where runners and pedestrians share the same path.”

I know what you’re thinking: “That’s solving a problem that doesn’t exist!” Au contraire, Shark Tank-educated investor, the problem most certainly does exist. Particularly in Tokyo, the birthplace of this invention, where courtesy is a cultural expectation and there are a lot of people on the sidewalk. In fact, the city of more than 13 million is home to the world’s busiest pedestrian intersection.

Tokyo is a polite place where people always stand to the left on escalators so others may walk on the right, and hollering “On your left!” or “Coming through” at strangers on the sidewalk is simply considered gauche.

“Absolutely rude! Would never do that. Runners always try to be ultra careful, slowing right down,” says famous Tokyo GPS runner Joseph Tame. If blocked by lollygaggers, proper etiquette dictates one must wait for a gap or find a way around. Runbell allows runners to scatter human roadblocks, with grace.

The United States could only hope to have such a dilemma of decorum. In our decidedly less courteous country—the land of non-budging escalator rogues and runners proud to announce their approach—the bell still solves the problem of removing pesky pedestrians from one’s intended path. And the added benefits are well worth the $25 Kickstarter price tag:

 

  1. The unmistakable brass ding will make pedestrians think a tiny, crazed cyclist is overtaking them. Not only will walkers move over, they’ll leap out of the way. Even better: their expressions of astonishment and/or confusion when no bike passes by will be worthy of a new internet video genre.
  2. Vocal communication while pounding out an interval is out of the question. If you can say, “Pardon me,” you’re not running hard enough. Use the bell.
  3. In the event that your Runbell causes sidewalk rage, it doubles as brass knuckles.

 

Fully adjustable, Runbell also fits over gloves for winter jaunts. As of this writing, it had $10,776 pledged toward its $20,000 goal, with 12 days to go in its campaign.

If you’ve considered investing in fitness technology, now’s the time to fork it over. Because nothing moves slowpokes and dawdlers out of the way like the charming sound of a tiny bike bell. And because wearing Runbell, with its “Runbell Tokyo” stamp, will connect runners in sound and spirit with their respectful brethren across the Pacific.  

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No, the Grand Canyon Skywalk Isn't Going to Fall

Visitors to Chicago's Willis Tower—the Western Hemisphere's second-tallest building—got quite a scare Wednesday night when the floor of a glass observation box protruding from the 103rd story appeared to crack.

If you're like us, the incident might have left you wondering, "Could the same thing happen at the famed Grand Canyon Skywalk?" Well, yes, but that shouldn't stop you from going out onto the glass. 

Here's why. No one was hurt in the Willis Tower incident because the cracks appeared in the floor's protective coating, not in the floor itself. In 2009, building operators changed the skyscraper's name (to our everlasting consternation) from the Sears Tower and introduced these four glass Skydeck boxes, known collectively as The Ledge. Six million visitors have stepped onto The Ledge since then, often surrounded by large crowds. 

There was nothing unusual about Wednesday night. Tourist Alejandro Garibay and his four family members were standing on one of the ledges (which are designed to hold five tons), when they heard an ominous noise beneath their feet. The floor of the ledge appeared to be cracking. 

They stepped off—as most smart people would. But despite media hype to the contrary, they were never in true danger.  

"At no time whatsoever was the integrity of the structure compromised," says Willis Tower spokesman Bill Utter. "Willis Tower Observation Decks Crack" may make for a sexy headline, but that's not how the structure works. According to Utter, the surface's non-glass protective coating occasionally cracks, which is what happened Wednesday. "The protective layer did exactly what it was supposed to do," he said, emphasizing that visitors were never threatened.

At worst, the cracks showed that the deck's floor—made from three layers of half-inch thick glass—was under unusually high stress. But the threshold for cracks in the protective surface is far lower than that of the floor itself. Scary? Yes. Truly dangerous? Not really. 

So if you have reservations to visit the Grand Canyon's Skywalk, that other glass-floored observation deck, don't cancel them. Projecting 70 feet from the canyon's rim and more than 3,500 feet above the Colorado River, the Skywalk is an engineering marvel designed to sustain the force of an 8.0 magnitude earthquake. In other words, it's really freaking strong. 

And even though the walkway could support 822 people weighing 200 pounds each, operators only allow 120 visitors on it at a time. So you'll be fine if you step out onto the bridge's 2.8-inch thick, five-layer glass floor.

But if you've still got some butterflies in your stomach and decide to skip the thrill, we won't judge you. Just know that even if any cracks appear, you likely won't go plummeting to the bottom of the canyon.  

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The $1 Million Gear Shed

These days you can share almost everything, from couches to cars. But outdoor gear? The idea hadn’t really been explored until three entrepreneurs launched GearCommons last August.

Mike Brown and fellow Tufts graduate James Rogers wanted to bring gear to the people. Along with friend Joel Weber, they created GearCommons—a sharing network that helps gear owners find people who want to rent their tents, kayaks, and other equipment that otherwise might spend lots of time in storage.

The basic premise is simple. The GearCommons web portal lets users search for rentable gear by type and location. If you see a product you need, you can review its specs and history, as well as the owner’s. Users first connect and make payments online, but gear transactions and returns have to take place between neighbors, in person. That way, the company claims, users get to meet people with similar interests, building a real-life social network of outdoor enthusiasts. 

Brown realized the potential of a “sharing economy” when he started blogging for Shareable* at the beginning of 2013. A biomedical engineer by trade, Brown’s a zealous outdoorsman with startup aspirations. After using car-sharing company Zipcar’s services in college, he realized that shared technology could curb inefficient spending and material use. It could also make outdoor recreation possible for people who either couldn’t afford, or didn’t have room to store, their own gear.   

“We’re trying to build a community of people who will share gear and reduce their impact on the environment,” Brown says. “We think it’s kind of a waste to be buying equipment you know you’re only going to use once—for, say, a music festival or a one-week hiking trip.”

Musing about a world of shared gear is one thing. Actually creating a social network that connects people and gear nationwide is a whole other animal, requiring immense amounts of research and skill. But outdoor gear is a $120 billion industry, and the trio was determined to tap into it.

The company does have some major hurdles to overcome—chief among them is expanding its user base. A cursory look at the GearCommons website and social accounts shows that the enterprise is still in its early stages.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/gearcommons-site-tent_fe.jpg","size":"large"}%}

GearCommons has about $50,000 worth of gear in Boston, but activity is essentially confined so far to that locale—where Brown and his colleagues are based. Even then, site searches for essential gear show that only a few owners have gotten on board. A handful live in western states like Colorado and California, but no one offers gear yet in New Mexico (to our dismay). GearCommons has declined to say how many people have signed up for its services.

Still, some users say the slow extension westward isn’t indicative of the company’s value. “I think the startup has a really great idea. I know that when they are big enough, they could go nationwide—maybe even worldwide,” says member Neil Suttora, a unicyclist and Northeastern University student. Suttora put a tent, unicycle, and sleeping pad on the site after a mutual friend introduced him to Brown a year ago. But he hasn’t found renters for any of his listings yet. 

Some transactions have gone down, Brown says, although the company won’t say just how many. The other obvious obstacle has to do with liability. No one wants to rent out their personal gear if it’s going to come back damaged—or not come back at all. To address these concerns, Brown and his colleagues allow owners to apply security deposits to their gear up front. Renters pay the security deposit at the start and get their money back when they return equipment (in good condition) to its owners. 

Though other businesses in the sharing economy have run into a mess of regulatory hurdles and lawsuits, Brown says that “there’s really not much in the way legally of an idea like this spreading.” Not yet, anyway. 

{%{"quote":"“We have a vision for what we’re calling the Million-Dollar Gear Closet. By joining GearCommons, you’ll have access to a $1 million in outdoor gear from your peers. We’re not there yet, but I don’t think it will take long to reach that goal.”"}%}

Despite a slow start, some business professionals see potential in GearCommons—or, at least, in the idea behind it. 

Perry Klebahn, a consulting professor in Stanford’s engineering school who helps young entrepreneurs get their startups off the ground, predicts GearCommons can carve out its own niche. “Any sort of manufacturer who’s not taking note of what GearCommons is doing and figuring out how they can be involved with the company, or figuring out how they can be involved with reuse of their own products, is nuts,” he says.

But Klebahn isn’t sure creating a new social platform was the way to go. “I might have started on somebody else’s platform, like eBay, and created a store within eBay to prototype the idea,” he explains. “I’m not convinced why the consumer wants another thing in their life.” Instead of immediately opening GearCommons up to all interested parties, says Klebahn, the team should have developed a stronger base of users in Boston before presenting their product nationally. 

Growing pains aside, other big names are seeing great potential in GearCommons as well. The team, which came in second in this year’s Tufts $100,000 Business Plan Competition, has already been in talks with companies like Patagonia about affiliate programs. GearCommons expects to mine user data to benefit such outfitters and gear developers. 

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/gearcommons-team_fe.jpg","align":"left","size":"medium","caption":"Two founding members of GearCommons, and an athletic banana."}%}

“If you rate a tent highly, we can then suggest that you go buy it. And so that is kind of like a sharing economy–retail hybrid,” Brown says, adding that there might be discounts on items found through GearCommons. “You know, we’re not trying to keep people from buying outdoor gear. We just want them to make more efficient use of it.” 

Over the next few months, Brown thinks that continuing in earnest with social media campaigns and hosting campus and community events is the way to go. However, the team is considering starting a GearCommons community-rep program that would build brand recognition and get word out in person in key locations—in the ethos of the peer-to-peer model. 

This short-term plan doesn’t reflect the team’s long-term vision, however: understanding your potential isn’t the same thing as realizing it. One hurdle will be staying levelheaded. Though many startups explode over a period of months, GearCommons hasn’t so far done that. The company is barely off the ground, and Brown is already thinking big. 

“Over the next several years, we hope to see GearCommons get people outside in every context,” Brown says, mentioning GearCommons-sponsored travel packages, sport lessons, and the like. “We just happen to be starting with access to gear.” 

“We have a vision for what we’re calling the Million-Dollar Gear Closet,” he explains. “By joining GearCommons, you’ll have access to a $1 million in outdoor gear from your peers. We’re not there yet—but, once the word gets out, I don’t think it will take long to reach that goal.”

*Outside previously reported that Brown wrote for Social Solutions Collective, not Shareable, though the link has always been to Brown's Shareable pieces. 

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Made Rad by Tony

At every grand tour, bike manufacturers roll out custom-painted bikes, helmets, and even sunglasses for big name riders and stage winners. Case in point: Scott produced a custom-edition pink Scott Foil for Orica-GreenEdge racer Svein Tuft within 24 hours of him taking the first maglia rosa of this year’s Giro d’Italia. 

But on a recent trip to Tucson, I discovered that bespoke gear isn’t only for the big shots. On the first morning of riding I noticed this snappy looking Specialized Prevail on the head of one of the guys in our group. At first I figured it must be some special edition scheme I hadn’t seen. Special indeed, Tony Baumann, the guy who was wearing it, told me. He designed and painted the one-of-a-kind Mexican Blanket scheme himself.

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Baumann, it turns out, already has a job in the bike industry, on the product side at Specialized Bike Component University, the bike-fitting branch of the Morgan Hill, California, bike manufacturer. But in his spare time, he likes to paint. 

“I’ve been sloshing paint on stuff since I was five,” Baumann told me. “But last year I got a bit more serious about it and started doing helmets and bike frames.”

Baumann’s upstart company, Made Rad By Tony, is only in its infancy, with around a dozen helmets and a couple of bike frames completed. But the designs and skills are so refined that they even caught the attention of the creative crew at Specialized.

“One of the designers saw my helmet,” Baumann says, “and when I told him I painted it myself, he couldn’t believe it. He even offered me an internship.” Bauman politely declined because he already has a full-time job with the company. But he also wants to keep his work and play separate. “It’s my art. I like to do it at home, just do it for myself,” he says.

Specialized did persuade Baumann to create some illustrations for a line of saddles it was considering launching. The project has since been put on the back burner, but Baumann was able to keep a handful of the one-off designs.

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In addition to the saddles, Baumann has painted about a dozen helmets and several bike frames under the Made Rad By Tony mark. But he says the more his work gets out there, the more requests he receives.

And he’s eager to grow his fledgling business, so long as he has the spare time outside his work at Specialized. “It’s really surprising that custom gear isn’t more common,” he says. “In the motorcycle world, everyone paints and repaints their bikes, their helmets, everything. I could see it catching on in cycling, too.”

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