- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 9, 2001

Advances in modern technology have made gearing up for the simple pleasures of enjoying outdoor sports and recreation a highly complex pursuit. Today's consumer faces a bewildering array of goods that often seem to belong to the category of space-age fiction. Namely:

• A headlamp no bigger than a 50-cent piece that is supported on string strong enough to hold parachutes.

• A lightweight viscose rayon towel that feels like paper and, in theory anyway, can absorb up to 10 times its weight in water and dries in minutes.

• A fleece jacket made out of recycled plastic bottles.

• A self-heating gourmet food bag.

Pity the customer who steps for the first time into any of the area's well-stocked retail stores selling such items. Even the language is different. Some of the terms used to describe the contents of clothing and equipment are trade names — Capilene, Gore-Tex, PreCip and Polartec, etc. — while others, such as neoprene and polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) are generic. Choosing among them can be as much a challenge as the sport or activity itself.

"It's all technology," says an enthusiastic Joe Sakaduski, whose title is hard goods buyer for Hudson Trail Outfitters, headquartered in Gaithersburg. "We're only starting the journey into high-tech for the outdoors. As these [new] materials are invented and discovered and we learn how to work with them, it's simply a matter of application."

The market is driven by fairly simple needs made complex by the ability to produce a variety of specialized products. There are sleeping bags of varied weight and content for nearly every kind of weather; both warm-weather rain gear and cold-weather rain gear; shoes and boots for every possible terrain.

The field is a growth industry, with a seemingly unlimited supply of novel fabrics, safety devices and gimmicks catering to the demand for lighter, more flexible and more protective gear for both amateur and professional use.

Neither Hudson Trail nor the Seattle-based REI chain, two of the largest retailers locally, makes any distinction between novice and expert when it comes to marketing products. Anyone can buy a global-positioning system, called GPS for short, to replace a compass, or a superlight travel alarm clock that sets itself. Even sales clerks wonder, however, how often such fancy and expensive items are needed for a casual weekend out of doors.

The paramount need is to protect and use one's own body heat, plus the need to stay dry in inclement weather. Other important considerations are not carrying excess bulk and having access to potable water.

"Some developments have come out of the need to hydrate when we are exercising out of doors; medicine has pushed the idea," Mr. Sakaduski says. Portable devices can filter and purify water. Storage bottles by Nalgene Outdoor Products made of a hard plastic called Lexan won't discolor or retain odor and are impact-resistant and temperature-resistant to both extremes.

Short of acquiring a doctorate in chemistry, engineering or physics, the best way to understand what is available and learn how new materials and devices work is to ask clerks in the stores. At both Hudson Trail and REI, they generally are well-versed in the products they sell as well as being experienced outdoors people themselves. Manufacturers often do their part to educate customers by attaching explanatory tags.

Some tags, though, provide more hype than help. The tag on the Camp N' Travel Towel, which that sells for $7.50, brags about the towel's "extraordinary absorbency" and says "it's dry in minutes," adding "and you thought the biggest advance in showering was soap-on-a-rope." An initial trial with the towel at home proved disappointing, however, because it took several hours to dry in the open air.

More reliable is the miniaturized bulb headlamp, which Mr. Sakaduski calls "the world's lightest." An advanced circuitry design derived from America's space-age research gives a bright white light powered by three triple-A batteries.

"Such technology is on its way to home use," Mr. Sakaduski says. "Most of our lights in the next 10 years will have it. It weighs 3 ounces and gives 80 hours of burn time." It's useful, he adds, on bike handlebars as well as anyplace where it is necessary to have light accessible at all times.

The support string, he points out, is made of Spectra, a kind of fiber developed by the military to make parachutes light but extremely strong. The cord has a high thread count, which helps keep it abrasion-resistant as well. Spectra, commonly used in bulletproof vests, also can be found in some high-priced hiking jackets to make them virtually tear-proof and thus help preserve their longevity.

Advances in metallurgy have resulted in other intriguing camping and hiking aids, such as fold-up, pocket-size gas stoves and titanium cooking sets. Titanium, stronger than either aluminum or stainless steel, is also lightweight, thereby reducing the poundage of equipment carried in a backpack.

Space-age research also contributed to the invention of self-heating food bags. The hungry customer pulls a string on a sealed brown sack and 15 minutes later can be eating a meal of lemon-herb chicken breast or other gourmet-sounding dishes. The brown bag can be burned, so it leaves no litter.

Equally environmentally sound is Synchilla, known in the trade as a "post-consumer recycled polyester fleece," or PCP fleece. It's made by melting plastic bottles and converting them into thread that then is woven into a warm jacket or vest. "This jacket is trash," announces the whimsical message on the tag for an attractive blue-and-yellow Patagonia jacket.

"Different materials have different advantages," says REI spokeswoman Jennifer Lind, who goes camping and kayaking and climbs mountains. "The stuff I buy is breathable and wind-resistant, so both my bases are covered."

Gore-Tex was patented many decades ago by engineer Bill Gore, based on research into polymers at DuPont laboratories, where he was employed. W.L. Gore & Associates began in 1958 when he and his wife, Vieve, set out to explore applications for fluorocarbon polymers, especially PTFE, according to the company Web site. The patent for Gore-Tex, considered the granddaddy of breathable fabrics, ran out several years ago and allowed companies other than Gore to produce variations and even improvements on the basic formula.

What Mr. Gore created, after years of testing, was a microscopic mesh of an exact size with 9 billion holes per inch, which lets water-vapor molecules through but keeps water molecules out because the latter are larger than the former. The goal, in Mr. Sakaduski's words, was "to make a waterproof fabric that will let me breathe and not let me be clammy."

The result was a range of versatile products, such as the fisherman's pants, called waders, that replace old heavy rubber models. The new ones are said to be not only waterproof but, in Mr. Sakaduski's words, to "breathe underwater" — the basic design of Gore-Tex. The Navy adapted the fabric for flight suits to protect downed fliers adrift in water for long periods.

Such specialization is expensive and not always useful, in the opinion of many who work in the field.

"Probably 90 percent of the people who buy an SUV never go into the mud with it," says clerk Eric Stalzer at Hudson Trail's Tenleytown location, one of the company's 10 stores in the Greater Washington area. "So do most buyers of a three-layer Gore-Tex jacket never climb a mountain in an ice storm."

Professional adventure guide Skip Horner, of Victor, Mont., the first person to take climbers up all seven of the highest peaks in the world, says the real need is for hybrid gear that serves several purposes at once. He has found that cashmere and soft wool blends do better for so-called "activewear" than many synthetics such as Capilene, a quick-drying polyester fabric blend said to wick away moisture from the body.

"Capilene is a sponge," says his wife, Elizabeth, who often accompanies him on trips.

Their view is seconded by Ralph Kolva, a part-time REI employee at the outfitter's Baileys Crossroads store. "Alpine climbing people have gone away from high-tech back to old-fashioned leather shoes," he says. "Gore-Tex does breathe and keep you dry, but people have the [erroneous] impression you won't get messy in it. It's not as wonderful as it sounds."

The Vermont-based IBEX company has begun making activewear of merino and specially treated wool. "I didn't like fleece or Gore-Tex," says company founder John Fernsell, who calls the latter "basically a rain jacket. Wool, by contrast, he says "is anti-microbial," meaning that it doesn't retain odors.

"I don't view our stand as retro," he says. "If wool were invented today, it would be considered high-tech."

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide