6 Innovations That Changed How We Play Outdoors

It’s not about the gear. Peo­ple have been hik­ing, camp­ing, climb­ing, surf­ing and pad­dling for hun­dreds of years, regard­less of how much their pack weighed or if their pad­dles were made of wood, fiber­glass or car­bon. But some gear inno­va­tions have fun­da­men­tal­ly changed the way we live out­doors, cre­at­ing a seis­mic shift that altered our out­door play experience.


Boreal FiréThe Bore­al Firé
In 1982, the Span­ish com­pa­ny Bore­al pro­duced the “Firé” style shoe with a rev­o­lu­tion­ary sticky rub­ber sole. Pre­vi­ous climb­ing gear had either used hard Vibram soles or can­vas shoes with reg­u­lar sneak­er rub­ber. The pro­to­type Firé was test­ed in Boreal’s home in Spain, but became all the rage when Yosemite climber John Bachar test­ed a pair on Mid­night Light­ning, the leg­endary and high­ly vis­i­ble boul­der prob­lem in Camp 4. When 265 pairs of Firés showed up in the Yosemite climb­ing shop, they sold out in a day. Now sticky rub­ber man­u­fac­tur­ing is a close­ly guard­ed secret among climb­ing shoe companies.


Gore-TexGore-Tex
Before Gore-Tex, hik­ing in the rain was one of two things: either get­ting drenched from the rain, or get­ting drenched from the steam bath that came from gen­er­at­ing heat inside non-breath­able rub­ber jack­ets and pon­chos. Gore-tex was the first of the water­proof-breath­able tech­nolo­gies that are now wide­spread. In addi­tion to mak­ing hik­ing more pleas­ant year-round, Gore-Tex brought out­door cloth­ing from the low­brow world of army sur­plus stores to the high-tech world of spe­cial­ized out­door companies.


SPOT MessengerThe SPOT Messenger
Before the SPOT mes­sen­ger, when we ven­tured into the wilder­ness beyond cell range, we were just as out there and far from res­cue or human con­tact as we were back in 1985: you’d still have to hike, ski or pad­dle back to a road to get a cell sig­nal. The SPOT changed that, beam­ing a satel­lite sig­nal from any­where. The added mar­gin of safe­ty is great, but also comes with the temp­ta­tions of con­stant con­nect­ed­ness: SPOT allows your friends to fol­low your trip online (and dis­cov­er your secret camp­ing spots) and post mes­sages on social media.


JetboilThe Jet­boil
There are few things as basic to camp­ing, or human exis­tence for that mat­ter, as boil­ing water and cook­ing food. Stoves have evolved in count­less ways, but the Jet­boil has par­tic­u­lar sig­nif­i­cance, issu­ing in the “fast cook­ing sys­tem” that blasts out heat in record time. While the sig­nif­i­cance of how fast you can boil water is ques­tion­able except in the most extreme con­di­tions, it did jump­start the already grow­ing “fast and light” cat­e­go­ry in back­pack­ing, with light packs, long miles and cram­ming a week’s hike into four days off. The moun­tains got clos­er and the food got faster too.


fleeceRecy­cled Polarfleece
Polarfleece was around since Malden Mills began pro­duc­ing it in 1970. But fleece is a petro­le­um-based prod­uct, and ris­ing envi­ron­men­tal con­scious­ness both in out­door com­pa­nies and in gen­er­al con­sumers led Patag­o­nia and Malden Mills to find a way to make fleece jack­ets out of recy­cled plas­tic bot­tles in the late 1990s. The first ver­sions had some issues, but they fig­ured it out and by 2006, the man­u­fac­tur­ing costs had dropped well below the cost of new mate­r­i­al. It wasn’t the first and has­n’t been the last, but it was one of the most pub­licly vis­i­ble ways that out­door con­sumers could vote with their wallet.


Holoform River Chaser kayakThe Holo­form Riv­er Chaser
Before the Riv­er Chas­er, kayaks were large two-piece fiber­glass craft that couldn’t hit rocks with­out crack­ing. Tom John­son, U.S. Slalom Coach and invet­er­ate tin­ker­er, devel­oped the poly­eth­yl­ene Riv­er Chas­er in 1972. Kayak­ing became cheap­er and more acces­si­ble to the mass­es. And instead of metic­u­lous­ly avoid­ing rocks by run­ning big rivers at high water, pad­dlers could explore small creeks, expand the sea­son to run rivers at low water and invent new sorts of play. Mod­ern white­wa­ter kayaking—boofing, run­ning water­falls, and play­ing end­less­ly in holes—all owe their exis­tence to the Riv­er Chaser.