… is another guy’s nice try. So says Ryan Jordan of BackpackingLight.com in a piece he calls
“State of the Market for Backpacking Gear: Innovation, Broken Promises, and Hope.” Ryan’s trying to be a call-’em-like-he-sees-’em guy in deflating just about every claim of “innovation” the outdoors industry has hurled our way in the past 20 years but after about the 27th such deflation I started thinking: dude, uh, lighten up. I know it’s a drag that it’s the year 2006 and we still have no time travel, teleportation and Jetsons cars, but everything takes time.
Interestingly, one innovation Ryan neglected was the Internet enabling people to share their knowledge and collaborate on getting into the outdoors. Gearheads in India can swap tales with explorers in Antarctica. Conversations impossible 15 years ago happen all the time these days.
I’m thinking you’ll never find true innovation on the rack at REI. The products are better defined as byproducts of somebody’s bright idea — like the founder of GoLite who thought backpacking gear was too heavy and started a company to do something about it. But somebody else gave him the idea of where to start.
I have an uncle who was a machinist all his life; I asked him once about who comes up with the ideas for the incredibly complex machinery used to do things like manufacture tractors, airplanes (devices for making nails are amazingly clever) and such. His explanation was that it was never any one guy’s idea; each new machine builds on the pluses and minuses of last year’s model. And that’s pretty much what’s happening in the outdoor-gear world. It is getting better all the time, just not as soon as we’d prefer.
Nothing would happen at all, though, if guys like Ryan Jordan weren’t out there busting the industry’s chops now and again. This goes back to the Internet reshaping how business can work: BackpackingLight.com is a subscription-based business complemented by discussion areas, user-produced content and a small selection of gear. With cheap distribution costs and no bossy advertising clients to coddle, Ryan and his crew are a damn sight more credible than the hacks at Outside and Backpacker magazine. And tons more information is available at a pittance compared to what you get in a print mag.
Now that’s innovation.
The innovations that impress me the most used to be the ones that allowed the extremists and fanatics to do ever more daring and impressive things.
Now the innovations that impress me the most are those that show up in Walmart (or REI, Sportmart, etc.) that make it easier and safer for the more casual visitor to discover real wilderness, and to appreciate it to the point that they’ll continue to advocate for it’s protection.
OK, I know that a single blister-packed doo-dad on a store shelf is not going to do this, but I believe the apparent focus of a lot of the outdoor industry on the hard-core adventurers definitely will not.