7 things that happened in the past decade; equipment, trends, and the ways the two intersect to create human experience.
The Alpacka booty
The technological advancement of the decade is, for outdoor adventure, without question the packraft. 10 years ago the state of the art was the above. Today, boat shapes make that level of paddling accessible to intermediates. While pushing wilderness whitewater remains the future, especially in the context of landscape trips, modern packrafts are most often put to use making moderate moving water simpler and warmer, which is not a bad thing. Nonetheless, with so much of packraft energy being put into sidecountry and destination backcountry whitewater rather than technical traverses, it’s difficult to not conclude that packrafts haven’t yet justified their seed. This next decade will tell us how much of a place packrafts, as a backcountry whitewater tool, have in the wider outdoor world.
The great bike divergence
A convergence of several trends have made the past decade an extraordinary one when it comes to bikes that will be ridden on dirt. When I began working on this series a bit over 9 years ago there were only three “bikepacking” bag manufacturers. Trans-Iowa was still alive and well and while that event had by 2011 birthed the ethos of modern gravel, the commercial side with pros and more saliently, specialty bikes, was in its infancy. Allroad bikes are what road bikes for the masses should have been all along; mellow handling, a low gear down in the 20s, rock solid braking, room for a 2 inch tire. Good on pavement, great on dirt, good enough on mild tech (or more if you’re skilled). From the other side, these bikes can be coherently viewed as the true successors of early mountain bikes, in terms of both ability and versatility.
Mountain bikes themselves ought to better be called trail bikes, something made very clear by the last decade of development. 2014 gave us the Surly Krampus, and the rapidity with which 3 inch tires were shrunk for 650b rims, widely popularized, and then all-but discarded by the mainstream remains as impressive as it is curious. The appeal of fat-lite is to the rider who regularly sees not-groomed off road terrain immediate. For the groomed trail rider they are, apparently, too heavy and imprecise. And this is I think the quick story of trail biking in the past decade; the move towards specialization, towards bike parks, towards flow trails, towards compartmentalizing and prioritizing downhill ability above all else. I’ve read more than one commenter in the past week say that, in another 10 years, acoustic mountain bikes will be in the significant minority, especially in “destination” mountain bike spots. Electric assists will send riders up the shuttle roads and trails, and big, heavy travel and geo will send the same bikes back down specially made gnar (or flow, which remains another word for easy-for-humans).
In short, I’m not sure I want to be a part of the next decade of mountain biking. Shying away from the broader challenge, from trails not specialized for two wheels, from climbing as much as circumstances allow, from travel at distance across a landscape, isn’t mountain biking as I have known and loved it. Neither is dirt (road) touring, which is plainly the growth direction for capitol B bikepacking. If the old Dial formula that roads are for cars, trails for bikes, and off-trail for feet is currently on life support, this coming decade will determine if it survives as anything beyond the fringe of the fringe.
A decade ago Greg Hill was just a guy in Canada with questionable music and a wife who could presumably support him financially. Then came the year of 2 million feet and the TLT 5 boot and a bunch of local races, and today ski gear is a hell of a lot lighter and better suited to a range of backcountry skiing. The broader ski community is even tentatively embracing human powered alpine skiing as a way to both make money and grow skiing itself. Win/win? There doesn’t appear to yet be a clear uptick in avalanche deaths, so perhaps not.
A decade ago the term FKT had only barely begun to grow beyond its use, by one man from Boulder*, to catalogue his own extensive, formidable, and occasionally bizarre ultrarunning accomplishments. Today, the term itself has become ubiquitous, and the website which birthed it polished and host to a big list of routes and their associated fastest known times. I continue to have existential objections to the whole project, but as the decade has come to a close my objection has become more pointed.
The internet has made publishing routes so quick, and sharing them in detail so precise, that I begin to worry about both increased traffic in fragile areas, and the poverty of imagination that so many off-the-shelf options will breed. As crowded as our outdoor world can occasionally be, inspiration and imagination remain the limiting factors. A good thing and a bad one wrapped into one.
Clothing that breaths
A decade ago active insulation wasn’t a thing, and 120 grams/meter wool was state of the art. Today, we have the Nano Air (since July 2014), Alpha Direct, Polartec High Efficiency (above), light poly baselayers, and windshirts like the Alpine Start. In other areas (shoes) development has been frustratingly circular, but the clothing we have day to day for the outdoors is exponentially better than 10 years ago.
Comfort has long been, and remains, my least favorite word in the backpacking lexicon. As a concept it is not only subjective, it is monumentally lame.
But the Neoair sure is comfortable. By moving the bar on how much loft and comfort one could get from a given set of ounces, Thermarest reinvented the sleeping pad in the most significant fashion since their original inflatable. A Neoair, and the various competitors and clones, allows side sleepers with hips at-home comfort, and allows those less picky to get away with sleeping on slickrock, wooden decking, and generally careless site selection. Winter pack size shrinks a small but potentially crucial amount. Like advances in clothing, the ripple effects are significant, and also like the above advances in sleeping pads stand out in the decade in which other sleeping gear was largely staid.
As a cuben skeptic I’m not going to give too much credit to DCF for providing much actual performance value, but with its enhanced sex appeal cuben has done more visible work than xpac in moving the conversation about performance fabrics and fabric performance shockingly close to the mainstream. The need for laminate fabrics is currently vastly overstated in the mind of the enthusiast; for example I see no point in using them over PU in something like a fanny pack with a top zipper, the functional increase in weatherproofing just doesn’t exist. Even for extreme use cases the value of a laminate pack fabric over good ole Cordura is far less than the overall value brought on in the past decade by the general increase in fabric awareness. MSR completely revisited their tent fabrics, for instance, while PU/sil blends have become common. Enthusiastic-level backpackers might actually know the difference between robic and nylon 6.6. Once some of the fashion talk dies out or moves on I’m tentatively optimistic that a more sophisticated market, with more functional options, will remain.
Which is a nice concluding point to the decade as a whole.
*Bonus points to Mr. Burrell, associate of Mr. Bakwin, for writing the dumbest paragraph of the decade, as follows:
Packrafts. Ever since these were invented I’ve been avoiding them. They’re costly, heavy, and while some respectable adventurers use them, I’ve always thought they sort of looked like dorks. Like wearing rubber galoshes on a trail run. Like carrying a plastic lunch box with little bunnies on it during an ultra (OK, that one would actually be very cool). Kayaks and Stand Up Paddleboards are sleek and slender, paradigms of hydraulic efficiency, are great sports I really like, but packrafts are basically glorified pool toys.