2012 Outdoor State of the Industry report and Holiday Gift Guide
Yesterday I discussed how 2012 has, in the cycling world, been the year of the fat bike. Below I’ll examine various other categories, in a non-definitive fashion, to highlight similarly industry-shifting developments. These are products which speak of a significant and promising trend, and which I know from personal experience or reliable reports to be well-constructed. For givers with deep pockets they would all make good presents.
Skis: The story with backcountry skis in the past decade has been rocker; who much and where to get an ideal blend of performance characteristics. My suspicion is that solid answers to these questions are becoming more and more clear, along with the realization by many consumers that they don’t live in a mythical realm which gets multi-foot dumps weekly. Thus the story of 2012, and what will be an interesting growth area in the next few years, is skinny skis with rocker. The Black Diamond Current is the best example, recognizing in it’s dimensions that perfect powder is good even with small sticks, and instead focusing on how rocker might help with the harder and more varied snows which make up much of the skiing far from the road.
Boots are of course the other big trend, with the Dynafit TLT 5 having proven two years ago that a good backcountry boot could evolve out of and reflect the heritage of mountaineeering, rather than being resort boots slimmed down. Other companies have been hesitant to follow this, and the only other challenger in the area of non-race light BC boots is La Sportiva. They provide a good alternative for folks like me whose don’t fit the TLT5s easily. I’ve skied my Siderals all of once in what is continuing to be a very warm (and thus, rainy) late autumn, and was very impressed.
The more nordic sides of backcountry skiing have remained moribund. Between Madshus and Fischer we’ve got plenty of options, and Fischer has been experimenting with their nordic rocker. The Annum would absolutely benefit from some real rocker on both ends, but what really needs to happen here is better boots. My Rossignol BCX11s remain satisfactory, mainly because they fit very well, but having them sit next to my Siderals and have the weight be almost identical is cause for discontent. Like snowshoes, their may not be much impetus for growth here.
Snowshoes: This is an area worth discussing because nothing of interest has happened this year, or indeed for many years. The story remains the same; get MSR if you want serious traction for alpine endeavors, and get Northern Lights for everything else. This likely reflects the very small number of core, demanding snowshoe users. Not much money to be made here, aside from those casual winter hikers too intimidated to learn XC skiing.
Packs: In the realm of larger packs, 2012 was outright owned by Hyperlite Mountain Gear. None of the other cottage companies come close in terms of quality of construction and design, and unlike many companies (cottage and mainstream) HMG has kept their eye of the prize of using the least material possible to fight against torso collapse. Stuff like framesheets help marginally in this area, but their primary purpose historically has been to keep pack shape under a poor packing job. Burly stays and a lightly padded back is as close as you can get to uniting the best aspects of frameless and internal frame packs. If I didn’t make my own, I’d own an HMG. The question here is when will we see them in REI?
In the realm of small packs, nothing of great interest happened, at least not when compared with the Ultimate Direction Signature series. The jury is still out as they’ve only been in consumer hands for a few weeks, but I like these for two reasons. First, UD is the first mainstream pack makers to take cuben outside and UL hiking and climbing realms, which bespeaks of how seriously they’re sweating the details. If the claimed weights are accurate, these packs are darned light for having so many bells and whistles. Secondly, someone has finally taken the best concept of shoulder straps and used it as it should have been years ago, making functional, frontal gear and water carry. I’d like to see a 3000 cubic inch pack with a shoulder rig like a beefed-up version of the PB Adventure vest.
The other things to look for with packs in 2013? The return of the external. 90% of backpackers who routinely carry more than 30 pounds would be better served with an external, and it remains impressive that marketing hype has kept them killed off for the last 3 decades. The resurgence here will be driven by the increasing popularity of backpack hunting (amen!), and will hopefully bleed over into the other world of outdoor recreation (but that is a topic for another day).
Packrafts: 2012 was a huge year for packrafting, so much so that I was moved to write an article about it. We ran into a number of packrafters on the South Fork in early August, and I heard of several reports of backcountry descents in Glacier, for whose influence I think I can claim some credit. There are two important things to note here: the Alpacka continues to innovate at an impressive rater, and that no one has yet made a serious attempt to compete directly with the inventor of the modern packraft. Alpacka’s whitewater spraydeck, cargo fly, and drysuit are nifty, but the more I think about it, the more I think they’re taking packrafting away from the way most will end up practicing it. The ideal of doing class IV+ first descents in the course of a big wilderness traverse is an exciting one, and would have come to fruition had Roman Dial been able to track down a partner for the full Klu in this years Wilderness Classic. In years to come we’ll see this, albeit rarely, as packrafts become more and more like kayaks in their ability to punch water and roll quickly. Similar things have happened in backcountry skiing and mountain biking, where select groups of fit and technically advanced users have been able to haul aggressive (read: heavy) gear along to make descents out near the cutting edge possible in the course of multi-day trips. In the grand scheme most folks will have neither the skill nor risk tolerance to do this, and thus I think the sweet spot of weight and performance with packrafts has recently been exceeded by Alpacka. I’d like to see a competent and versatile boat, with a deck drier than the current Cruiser model, that fits a normal adult and is closer to 5 pounds than 6 all-in.
Fishing: For me fishing means Tenkara, and the market was flooded with new rods this year. The wheat is still being separated from the chaff, but more options are good and as I’ve written having shorter rods for truly small stream fishing is fantastic.
Clothing: Here, more than any other area, nickle and dime improvements are to be expected. I’ve been talking about the Rab Boreas for over a year now (and this has become one of my most-read posts), and it remained excellent all year. The fact that it’s mosquito proof was a pleasant discovery. Patagonia’s new Capilene 4 hoody is an outstanding new piece, and seasonally appropriate for those of us in the northern hemisphere. The warmth-weight ratio, and the range of applicable thermoregulation, are impressive, but what really brings the new fabric together is the perfect tailoring and fit. Expensive, but worth it. In the realm of hard shells the jury is still out on the various eVent clones and competitors. For critical consumers, the superior performance of eVent has been known for over half a decade, and I’m sure Active Shell et al. will do fine in this regard. What remains to be seen is whether these new laminates can address the issue with which eVent has always struggled compared to Goretex: durability and longevity. I’d like to try the Haglofs Endo series, based on my favorite Ozo but in Active Shell. It looks like Haglofs kept all the good stuff and fixed the issues I had with the pocket, though it is a fair bit heavier.
Overall 2012 was a good but not great year for the outdoor adventure industry. Innovation continues as expected, with some standouts highlighted above. Plenty of options for material things to stoke the fires of imagination.