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.
The 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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
The 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.