It doesn't happen often, but occasionally a technological innovation revolutionizes how we enjoy the outdoors. We collected 11 of these game-changing gear items, complete with vintage photos. Let's just say a lot has changed. —Joe Jackson
The Neoprene Wetsuit
I had no idea what I was getting into when I began researching wetsuits with surf historian Matt Warshaw. He was adamant that Jack O'Neill had not invented the first wetsuit, but rather that University of California, Berkeley, professor Hugh Bradner invented it. Regardless of your position, no one denies that neoprene wetsuits have changed cold-water surfing, allowing for a pliable, flexible, and reasonably inexpensive way to keep warm in the cold water.
The Tri-Fin Thruster
Professional Australian surfer Simon Anderson built the first tri-fin thruster surfboard to improve on the two imperfect options for fin setups available to him in the early 1980s. "Single fins weren't good in small waves," says Surf Historian Matt Warshaw. "But the twin fin didn't have enough drive." At 6-foot-3, Simon was a big, powerful surfer, and as Warshaw put it, "he would stomp down the tail [of a twin fin] and have it slide out from under him."
By marrying twin and single fin configurations, Anderson was able to add all of the traction that he needed. "Twin fin had horsepower and maneuverability, but the third fin allowed it to adhere better to the wave," says Warshaw. Rumor has it that Anderson was heckled the first time he competed with a tri-fin board. But after winning the Rip Curl Pro in Easter of 1981 and the Pipe Masters that year on a tri-fin, surfers began adopting the configuration. Other fin configurations remain on the market, but the tri-fin has maintained its dominance.
The Self-Bailing Raft Floor
In the early 1980s, Glenn Lewman set out to make a self-bailing raft for his small Oregon rafting company. He was competing against two designs: traditional rafts and self-bailers. Traditional rafts had a solid floor and had to be bailed by hand using buckets. Huck Finns, self-bailers made of four lashed together pontoons, were primitive and could not accommodate many paddlers. After a few failed prototypes, Lewman decided to make the floor from an air mattress tied to side-tubes and a wooden board. He eventually removed the wood, and this design ushered in a whitewater rafting renaissance. "All of the rivers people were running changed. New companies sprung up. There were all of these first descents," said Lewman. "It was a fun time."
The Rotomolded Kayak
Fiberglass—the material kayak manufactures were making boats out of until he 1970s—has terrible impact resistance. And if a boat breaks, it is no longer a boat. In many cases it's just a death trap. In the mid '70s Tom Johnson worked with garbage-can manufacturer Hollowform to make a rotationally molded (rotomolded) whitewater kayak called the River Chaser.
In 1976, Perception used this process of rotomolding—heating plastic pellets in a slowly rotating mold—to create a kayak out of a single piece of plastic. Their first rotomolded kayak, the Quest, was much more impact resistant than fiberglass. This added durability helped kayakers feel comfortable pushing the sport and also made whitewater kayaking more mainstream. Now, all but a few high-end carbon fiber whitewater kayaks still use rotomolding.
The Sports Sandal
As a raft guide in the Grand Canyon in the 1980s, Mark Thatcher was keenly aware of the limitations of the footwear available to his guests and fellow guides. His guests wore sneakers that became heavy when wet and promoted foot rot. Guides made the transition to flip flops but lost them pretty much every time they swam a rapid. To fix this problem, Thatcher used webbing to attach a Velcro watch strap to a pair of his sandals...and the sports sandal was born.
His first selling season was 1984, and in 1988 Teva secured a patent for the Universal—the model you associate with the brand—by adding three points of adjustment. On the original Hurricane model, there was only one point of adjustment—leading to an insecure fit.
Clipless Bike Pedals
Look used technology from their ski binding range to create the the first clipless pedals, the PP65, debuting in 1984. In 1985, French cyclist Bernard Hinault beat an entire field of competitors using toe clips to claim his fifth and final Tour de France victory. Their security and ability to let riders pull as well as push on their pedals made clipless pedals a necessity on every professional competitive race bike.
Integrated Shifting Technology
Shimano began integrating shifting technology into bicycle brake levers in 1988. And Olympic medalist Davis Phinney won the Tour de Trump with them in 1991. "I remember when I tried it out before a race, and all it took was one lap of the block [...] and I was immediately hooked, thinking 'this is miraculous!'" Phinney wrote in an email to me. In the fall of that year, Shimano started selling STI. It was an overnight game-changer: "every bike on the market has integrated shifting—or the next gen—electronic shifting," Phinney wrote.
Plastic Ski Boot
Alpine skiing technology advanced in the early 1960s with new lifts and skis, but boots remained remarkably unchanged—and it was obvious that leather boots did not offer the stiffness skiers needed. People had played with carbon-fiber boots, but it wasn't until Peter Lange started making plastic boots that stiff boots for the masses became possible. Lange hand-poured his first thousand boots in 1966. In 1968, five skiers using Lange Plastic ski boots brought home medals from the winter Olympics in Grenoble. Today, essentially every downhill-ski boot is made from hard plastic.
Rockered and Sidecut Skis
Peter Turner was the head of research and development for Volant skis in 2000 when Shane McConkey, one of their sponsored skiers, told Turner that he was forcibly bending his skis to make them perform bettering in powder. A year later, he came to the designers and told them to look at surfboards and boats—all of them have an upturned nose. He explained that powder acts more like a liquid than a solid, and that everything that is designed to plane on water has this rocker.
Rockered skis have made powder skiing so much easier and, in my opinion, more enjoyable. "They allow you to glide without the tip and tail wanting to snag and bring you down," says Turner. The first rocketed ski, the Volant Spatula, was extremely squirelly because of its full-reverse sidecut—meaning they were thickest under foot and skinniest at the tip and tail. Turner worked with Stephan Drake to fix this problem, adding sidecut to a ski with a rocketed profile in 2005.
Waterproof Breathable Jacket
Early Gore-Tex had billions of pores per square inch of material, allowing your sweat vapors to exit—to an extent—while not allowing water to permeate the cloth. In 1976, Gore sold Gore-Tex to Early Winters Catalog, who turned them in to the first waterproof, breathable rain jackets. While many companies have moved to proprietary waterproof breathable materials, Gore-Tex is still a dominant force in the outdoor market. You'd be hard pressed to find an athletic waterproof jacket that doesn't couple breathability with its waterproofing claims—the true legacy of the Gore-Tex revolution.
Stoppers and Hexentrics
By 1970, Yvon Chouinard made Chouinard Equipment into the largest climbing hardware company in the country, mainly by forging pitons—metal spikes climbers hammer into rock for protection. Disgusted with how pitons were deteriorating his favorite routes, Chouinard stopped producing them in 1970. In 1972, he developed Stoppers and Hexentrics, irregular aluminum wedges that could be fit in and be removed from cracks. The new tech introduced the idea of "climbing clean." Chouinard used his 1972 catalog as an extended treatise on climbing ethics, including a downright beautiful essay by Doug Robinson on the art of clean climbing. Chouinard ushered in modern trad climbing with these pieces of gear and that catalog.