Trend Reports from Outdoor Retailer

It's a wrap!
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It's a wrap!

Whew! It’s been a crazy, fun, exhausting, and exciting four days here in Salt Lake City. I’ve walked 43,357 steps and 16.47 miles according to my New Balance pedometer. (I passed them out to all my fellow editors at the beginning of the show—just so that I’d be able to spout off a fun factoid in blog-world. Turns out, most of the bums didn’t use them, so my own stats will have to suffice. )

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably read all our posts over the past few days, covering specific products that caught our eye or events that we had the fortune or misfortune to attend. But what you probably really want to know is this…what’s the next BIG THING in outdoor gear? What are the trends that will determine what lines the walls of my local outdoor shop next spring? Here are few:

Footwear: In the last few years—and this year is no exception-- we’ve seen a growing focus on trail running footwear. Every major and minor boot company out there is going after that magic balance of lightweight, all day-comfort, and underfoot support, and walls are lined with cool-looking lowcut trail runners that cross over into light hiking.

Sleeping bags: Going green is really where this slice of the industry is focused. With lots of new recycled materials--synthetic fills, polyester shell fabrics, zippers, etc.—most of the major bag companies have one or more green bags in their lines. We’ll be digging deep into this trend in the coming months with our Zero Impact Challenge, where will field test this latest crop of bags for performance, and also get a full-blown carbon analysis with the help of our climate partner, Cooler. Stay tuned for more details…

Apparel: It used to be that technical apparel looked, well…technical (read: kind of dorky, especially for women). Those days are officially over. There’s just so much great looking technical clothing out there now, that we’re gonna have a hard time picking the best for our upcoming Adventure Travel issue (Feb/Mar 09). Fabrics are rugged and trail-friendly (water resistant), but feel soft and supple without all the crinkles. Cuts are no longer shapeless and baggy, but flattering and efficient. And fun details are everywhere from stylish sewing to graphic embellishments.

Boa technology: Have you heard of this? It’s a tightening system that consists of a thin length of wire that wraps around a small spool that you click/spin to tighten. In the last few years, we’ve seen it emerge in mostly footwear (as a replacement for laces), but this year we spied it in a hydration pack (to compress the bladder as you drink) and a tent (to retighten the rainfly as it stretches out in a deluge). The jury’s still out on these new developments. They might be trying too hard to solve problems that aren’t really problems, but we will refrain further judgement until the samples roll in!

Tents: The pendulum has completed its swing back from super-duperlight shelters that radically trim space and stability in favor of sub-2-pound-per-person average weights. And thank god. We were starting to tire of cramped, wind-wracked living quarters. This show culminates a series we've seen over the last two years where the number of tarp-like tents pitched with trekking poles or made with condensation-prone single-wall flies has shrunk. There are still a few of those out there for hikers who really want that extra six ounces of weight savings, but what we saw more of in Salt Lake were what I'd call the "happy medium" of lightweight tents: shelters that employ the best new materials (like siliconized nylon and DAC featherlight poles), but don't scrimp on space and pole coverage. Case in point: the Sierra Designs Lightning XT line. The 4 person version still weighs only 6 pounds, 13 ounces, but has plenty of sitting-up space for six-footers. It looks like the perfect blend of old and new, at two pounds lighter than the average tent of the same size just six or seven years ago.

Navigation: The Spot continues to be hot. This personal locator beacon and tracker won our Editors' Choice Award earlier this year, and it just passed 2.5 million transmissions from users. And the real action in navigation continues to be on the digital side -- we're not seeing much in the way of compass innovation these days. In terms of GPS, color screens are becoming much more common, and the size of backcountry handhelds continues to come down. We also saw a cool new touch-screen (think iPhone) series from Garmin. Downside: It's not clear that GPS designers are worrying much about battery life or even the type of battery they use -- lately, we've seen models with rechargeable battery packs that limit functionality on wilderness trips. Watch for reviews coming very soon. On the maps side, we saw new offerings from Bushnell and Delorme that put a variety of road and topo maps at your fingertips, which means all of the major and minor players now have solid offerings. Also emerging: More community-oriented sites that allow users to post and share their trips, like you can in Backpacker.com's own destination area. The demonstrations we saw from 3 or 4 companies all look good; the main question is whether each of the proprietary sites can draw enough traffic to make sharing there worthwhile.

Packs: This is one of those categories where it's hard to imagine a whole lot of improvement. The top pack companies have their designs and suspension systems so dialed, that advancements are incremental, but noteworthy. We're seeing a lot of mid-size packs that have been dieting; designers are scraping off every superflous gram, but trying hard not to sacrifice comfort. One example: Osprey's EXOS line. In our initial trials, both testers have come back raving. There's also a mini-wave of big kid/teen packs hitting the marketplace Deuter and Osprey). And we're not talking just daypacks--but mid-size, multiday models, which is great to see because we're getting tired of carrying all our kids' stuff! 

OK, got a plane to catch. Honey, kids, I’m coming home…

--Kristin Hostetter