SALT LAKE CITY, OUTDOOR RETAILER WINTER MARKET 2011 – Within minutes of walking up to the Salt Palace Convention Center, I was star-struck by the presence of the most recognizable mohawk in the Outdoor industry. For three decades, Glen Plake has embodied the lifestyle of extreme skiing—non-conformist, rebellious and genuine. He made K2, a small ski manufacturer, a household name. He made wearing gore-tex fashionable. He made skiing cool. I knew I was in the right place.
OR (Outdoor Retailer) Winter Market holds an annual event showcasing the juggernauts and emerging startups of the outdoor lifestyle and sports industry. For four straight days, over 21,000 outdoor enthusiasts make the journey to Salt Lake City to check out the latest and greatest products that will grace store shelves and become embedded in 1×1 invisible boxes on e-commerce sites. It’s a Mecca for the alpine enthusiast, a showcase where technology, functionality and fashion collide. Think New York Fashion Week meets NASA meets the X Games.
AtlasOmega Publisher, Calvin Tang, and I made the trek from Seattle for three days of organized chaos to find what’s hot in line for the ski season. After a quick glance around the 515,000 square foot convention center, several trends stood out to me immediately. The combination of promising materials, innovative science and ergonomic engineering continues to revolutionize existing brands. At this year’s OR, hardgood companies continue to blend alpine disciplines into their products. Softgood companies are mixing sleek design with lighter technical fabrics. Finally, everyone was down for “down.”
Below are some of the products that stood out at OR Winter Market 2011.
From skinny to shaped, to fat to rocker, engineers continue to push new designs to build the perfect ski. The newest evolution aims to amend the shortfalls of previous models in the quest of the all-mountain ski. Fat skis are clearly here to stay. Manufactures are building boards up to 160mm at the tip and 140mm at the waist. These monsters almost look like waterskis from afar. In the past two seasons, reverse camber, or “rocker” skis, have grown in popularity because of their ability to float well through and on top of powder snow. However, in recent seasons, many skiers have sacrificed maneuverability for stability in deep snow. K2 may have figured it out with their rocker/camber all-terrain K2 SideStash Skis.
The skis’ dimensions are a formidable 139/108/127 with a 23m turn radius for the 174cm. The tip is elevated with a rocker design for skiers to blast through crud and soft powder. Yet, the waist has enough camber for energy and power to carve on smooth corduroy or ice. In addition, K2 made these skis pre-cut skin compatible. The tip and tail have holes to clip on skins or use the skis as anchors while mountaineering. These features will appeal most to tourers and telemarkers. K2 is also marketing splitboards to give jibbers the big mountain experience.
Crossover appeal seems to be the main focus for most companies. Boot manufacturers Scarpa and Garmont have been working hard during the past few years to bring telemark skiing to the forefront. Telemark skiing has seen a significant upgrade in technology to recruit alpine skiers and snowboarders to free their heel. Scarpa and Garmont telemark boots almost look like alpine boots these days. They offer the same technical features such as triple injected moldings, micro adjustable buckles and thermo-moldable liners. They both showcased their flagship 75mm toe lines in the Scarpa T-1 and Garmont Voodoo.
The two companies were also enthusiastic about the progress of their NTN (New Telemark Norm) line. NTN, originally a joint venture between Scarpa and Rottefella, is in its 4th season of full production. Major improvements have been made for this system that give more power to downhill telemarkers. Both companies are hopeful that NTN will set the new standard. The Scarpa Terminator X Pro and Garmont Prophet also really caught my eye.
SOFTGOODS & Eyewear
I had a great time meeting the folks at Kaenon. Kaenon is a 10 year old company based in Newport Beach, CA that makes premium polarized sunglasses. Each pair of optics have Kaenon’s patented SR-91 lens that provides crystal clear clarity and exceptional scratch resistance while minimizing glare. The company enhanced its edgy lineup of frame styles with some fantastic new finishes, including a semi-opaque “slate” material. Kaenon’s new sunglasses display (pictured here) should be arriving at retail locations soon.
Outerwear styles went back to basics. Simple colors and designs dominated the big companies. The clothing may have looked simple, but major enhancements were made to jackets and pants. For example, most zippers have tapered seams which are waterproof to prevent leakage, something that has been a major flaw for years. Gore-Tex fabrics also breathe more, weigh less and repel water better. Here are some of the designs from Arc’teryx and North Face.
One company that particularly grabbed my attention was Colorado based Flylow. Founded in 2006 by a pair of Colorado skiers, the two entrepreneurs realized after years of failed outerwear that most of their pants were becoming more suited toward mountaineering than for skiing. Flylow has an energetic freeride appeal but doesn’t compromise superb technical specifications. Their Chemical Pant is made of 3 layer intuitive fabric. Therefore the pants can take a beating. The knees and cuffs have reinforced Cordura fabric. At the same time, the pants are very stylish and will interest all alpinists from snowboarders to telemarkers.
Another great product I stumbled upon too late was Footbalance, a 7-year-old company based in Finland. After 2 days of walking and standing for 25 plus hours, my feet were shot. Luckily I found Footbalance to save my feet for the last day of OR. Footbalance makes individually molded insoles. They provided a foot analysis, and then heat molded a pair of insoles for me in about 10 minutes. Calvin, who already wore custom orthodics after rupturing his achilles tendon, took the Pepsi challenge and found Footbalance to be more comfortable than his orthopedic insoles. I found the process simple and easy. I wished we started our tour on Friday at Footbalance instead of Sunday morning. I probably could’ve walked more and seen more companies.
Goose down has been used for clothing for over a century. Eddie Bauer patented the first down jacket in 1936 after barely surviving life-threatening hypothermia on a fishing trip a year earlier. Bauer began constructing down jackets after hearing his uncle talk about Russian officers living through cold winters during the Russo-Japanese war in 1905. These officers had goose down insulated liners in their jackets which prevented hypothermia. This activewear has become a staple of outdoorsmen from climbing Mount Everest to hunting during cold winters. Down insulation is the best at trapping heat but is useless when wet. Advances in technical fabrics have given down insulated outerwear a complete makeover. Today’s down jackets, as showcased at this years OR, are lighter, stronger, waterproof and form-fitted.
OR probably had the highest concentration of down jacket wearers per capita than any other place other than Everest’s basecamp. It was rare to find major apparel companies that did not sell a line of down jackets. But none seemed to draw more attention and popularity than UK clothing and sleeping bag company, Rab.
Rab has been making high quality sleeping bags and apparel for 30 years. Although relatively unknown by consumers in the United States, Rab is a widely known heavyweight among serious mountaineers globally. There seemed to be a buzz around their Microlight Alpine Jacket. It features a Pertex shell stuffed with 750 power fill goose down with narrow panels to provide a slimmer fit. The entire jacket stuffs into its chest pocket for a total weight of 350g.
Patagonia and Mont-Bell also featured a new trend in down apparel: mid/baselayers. They are in a dogfight for the lightest piece of insulation on the market. Patagonia’s 800-Fill Ultralight down jacket weighs in less than 6 ounces. Mont-Bell’s Ex Light down jacket ups the ante with a 900-Fill baselayer at an astonishing 5.7 ounces.
Storage & Power
Innovation in the backpack space always seems to be exciting. This year we saw incredibly light packs, such as the award winning ultralight lineup from Granite Gear, a company that takes design cues from AtlasOmega Contributor and Ultralight Hiker, Justin “Trauma” Lichter. I also came across a smaller manufacturer called Ivar, whose backpacks display a novel approach to accessibility. The Ivar packs are sensibly designed, with a unique, angled internal shelving system that makes items stowed inside the packs more accessible to the user. My first impression was that this is a very smart configuration and makes the most of the available internal space. The question to be answered is how well the internal shelving system stands up to the use and abuse of time spent in the field and around town. We’ll try to get our hands on a demo unit of an Ivar pack and will put it to the test.
With all of the advancements in outdoor performance equipment over the past decade, allowing humans to reach further and further out into the wildernesses, and the surge in the number of useful consumer electronics (GPS, telecommunications, music players, etc.), one thing has become a huge issue: power.
I met up with a company at Outdoor Retailer that is taking this challenge head-on. FTL Solar has been producing high-grade solar power systems, designed to support the United States Military and other large organizations, since 2006. The company showed off some of its burly solar power cells as well as its portable power storage devices at Outdoor Retailer. These units were were an interesting point of reference, when compared to those generally made for recreational and expedition applications by Goal Zero (a corporate sponsor of Polar Explorer and AtlasOmega Contributor, Eric Larsen).
Given that many of us at AtlasOmega are oftentimes in quite remote places without access to conventional power, we will be closely watching the burgeoning market for portable, lightweight solar energy collection and storage products. It will be interesting to see how the different approaches and advancements in technology play out in this space. So, stay tuned on that front.
In conclusion, I had an awesome time at OR. I found the event well organized and the GoExpo software made available to attendees was highly interactive and useful. Outdoor Retailer 2011 Winter Market was truly a melting pot of innovative technology accommodating the winter lifestyle. After 3 days, I am counting the next 362 days to the next Woodstock for winter lovers…