Steve Rogerson hadn’t been to the Outdoor Retailer trade show in five years, so he seemed an ideal observer of change in the gear and clothing that we use from trail to summit. Long immersed in the culture of surf, bike, ski, and all that, Steve was for many years a key part of Ralph Lauren’s outdoor line and now was back at the show with Nau in a role that would have him introducing the hip, eco-smart brand to fashion shops. Thus, not only is Steve a core user, he knows more about style than just about anyone in the Salt Palace. The perfect barometer. So, catching up with him outside the Nau booth last week at the hot corner between the convention center’s two ginormous rooms, I asked, “What’s different since the last time you were here?”
He gave it ample consideration. His eyes shifted into space as he pondered what he’d seen. Then he looked back at me and said, “Nothing.”
This is the blessing and the curse of the outdoor industry. It is a stylistic backwater, where the basic designs of its sportswear haven’t changed since the 1970s. Aside from standout pieces by a few pioneering brands-Nau comes to mind, as well as many that have shown at OR and then disappeared, like Topo Ranch, Blurr, and Mission Playground-the show is awash with plaid shortsleeve woven button-ups and hiking pants that are about as flattering on a dude as skinny jeans. And yet, despite being tone deaf to fashion, when it comes to technical apparel and gear, the level of accomplishment is extraordinary. The gear and outerwear don’t change much from year to year because they don’t need to-they’re already damn good.
That’s not to say they don’t change at all. They do-just incrementally. Polartec showed me a jacket from an Italian manufacturer that has taped seams. It’s the first time this particular Polartec fabric has been built with taped seams-an incredibly wonkish thing to note, but the new construction method ultimately means better weatherproofing and sleeker, less bulky garments. A lot of the most intriguing developments are just like this-under the hood, marginal but significant, not so easy to spot or market.
Yet they are important measures, at least to an observer who makes his living reporting on trends and technologies, most of which are introduced at the show, and over the years I’ve come to rely on them as labels or signposts. There was the year of the stove, for example, when Jetboil and MSR announced revolutionary products. Or the year of the backpack, when everyone under the sun had a new suspension system. Summer 2008 was the year of green and 2009 was the season of “I’m just trying to keep my job until the economy rebounds.” This last show would have to mark the year of the standup paddleboard, but as someone who lives at one of the epicenters of SUP it feels like OR is scrambling to catch up, not lead. SUP is old news around these coastal parts.
In any event, as I strode through the halls last week, not much caught my eye. There were a few products here and there, but mostly when I was asked the question du jour, “What did you see that was cool?,” I came up with the same response as Steve: nothing.
Then came my last day at the show. Around 8 a.m., I packed up Vanzilla and left it in under a tree in the hotel parking lot, then shuffled north toward the Salt Palace, sticking to the shady side of West Temple, such as it was, and tried not to break a sweat in the 95 degree heat. Note to guests of the Little America Hotel: No amount of antiperspirant, not even a tanker of Old Spice, will stop you from working up a nice glow on the walk from 500 South.
At one of the many red lights, each of which left me broiling in the sun, a runner pulled up next to me-not yet glowing, I might add. It was Justin Nyberg, an editor at Outside who defines both “nice” and “soft-spoken,” and though we’d seen each other in passing over the course of the week, it was our first chance to catch up. Justin walked as I shuffled, and he told me about a feature profile he’s writing on the legendary mountaineer Fred Beckey, who at 87 is still climbing and couch-surfing regularly. We agreed that pieces like this, which bring you into contact with legends like Beckey, are gifts of such personal reward they couldn’t be measured. The inspiration that comes from meeting people like Fred can last a lifetime.
Justin peeled off and I continued to the Starbucks at the Marriott to meet my friend Chris Fanning of the Outdoor Foundation. While waiting, I ran into friends who introduced me to Kristine Stratton, executive director of Waterkeeper Alliance, one of this country’s most important advocates for clean, accessible water. Chris rolled up, we made introductions all around, and then she told me about the success of the foundation’s Outdoor Nation event in New York a couple months ago. OF is doing nothing less than identifying and training the next generation of outdoor leaders-kids who are as smart and likable and motivated to lead as they are sporty-and Fanning’s doing it with a staff of, well, one.
The day unfolded just like the first hour: I ran into person after person with inspiring stories or efforts. Some were simply amazing-although I just missed seeing him, Mountain Hardwear surprised 12-year-old Matt Moniz, one of its athletes (and an Outdoor Nation ambassador), with a check for research into pulmonary arterial hypertension; this summer, Moniz became the fastest person to ascend the 50 highest points in each of the 50 states-in 45 days-and he did it to raise awareness of PAH. Others were quirkier but no less engaging: Keen CEO James Curleigh told me how he discovered Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters bus at the Kesey family farm in Oregon and wanted to help restore it. In one 10-minute period late in the afternoon at the Patagonia booth, I bumped into Fitz Cahall (The Dirtbag Diaries, The Season), Trip Jennings (kayak-based explorer), Blake Gordon (photographer), John Burcham (photographer), and Karyn Fiebich (artist).
If it sounds like I’m name dropping, I am. But that’s how OR is-everyone you meet has tales to tell, and whether you recognize their name or not doesn’t matter. Fred just took his daughter on a paddling trip. Tami’s going to an art retreat. Karl hiked the Appalachian Trail. Mavis rode her bike from Steamboat to Salt Lake for the show. The outdoor industry-scratch that, the outdoor culture-is comprised of people who are living adventurous lives every single day. Walking the halls of the Outdoor Retailer show is less like going gear shopping and more like breathing from a tank of oxygen laced with raw inspiration: It’s dizzying, lightening, and addictive.
At the end of the day, I exited the Salt Palace tugging on the arm of my friend Jen Semsak. Jen is a product line manager for REI-she oversees the design and development of REI’s branded tents and sleeping bags, as well as other products-and I wanted her to see a short documentary and trailer for 127 Hours, the movie about Aron Ralston, who rather infamously got trapped by a boulder in a Utah canyon and cut off his right arm to escape. The movie, directed by Academy Award-winning Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire), could be one of the biggest films ever to touch the outdoor culture, and Fox was showing the teaser in a portable screening room outside the convention center.
I introduced Jen to Sonia Freeman, who works for Fox and heads the marketing for 127 Hours. I’d met Sonia, a firecracker of energy, in Moab last April, when I’d worked on the production of some of the movie’s extra features, which were being produced by my longtime collaborator Sinuhe Xavier. (I know, I know-too many names. Welcome to OR.)
Anyway, Jen and Sonia started chatting and Sonia got all fired up when she found out Jen works for REI. “I’m a member!” she blurted, reaching for her bag to show a lightweight REI fleece poking out of it.
“That’s a newer piece,” said Jen, clearly pleased.
“I know, I just got it,” said Sonia. “But I have an REI fleece at home…it must be 17 or 18 years old…”
She described how it had frayed at the collar but she just sewed up the loose ends with a needle and thread, how it had been a favorite for so many years, and as she talked excitedly her eyes shone. It was clear that Sonia’s fleece meant more than just something to keep her warm-it had been on trip after trip, on hikes in forests and camping sessions on the coast, and over so many years it had become part of her outdoor history, an artifact indistinguishable from the acts themselves.
I said goodbye, hugs all around, and hoofed it to the van, welcoming the sweat. Within a few hours, I was deep in the desert, 40 miles down a dirt road and readying to sleep under a blanket of the Milky Way. My mind raced with post-show adrenalin, but after days of struggling, I could finally answer the question. The coolest thing I saw at Outdoor Retailer was something I didn’t see at all. It was a 17-year-old fleece top that made the eyes sparkle and reminded that the heart of the outdoor experience doesn’t really change. Fashions come and fashions go, and they’re important in their own way. But inspiration is timeless, and in the end, that’s what the outdoor industry does best.
Images for this story come from issues of Backpacker from the 1970s, which you can see in their entirety at Google Books here.
If you like this story, you’ll love our free newsletter, each week a different topic–Travel, Gear, Environment, and Calendar. Sign up here.