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Gear Gurus is a new series of interviews from Backpacker with some of the biggest names in the outdoor industry. We’re catching up with the movers and shakers, from CEOs to lead product designers, that dream up your ultralight tents and engineer your wind-proof stoves. Where do they find inspiration? Where is outdoor gear headed next? Stay tuned to find out.
Jessica Rogers is the product lead for the trail running/hike categories at Patagonia. While her life is all about the outdoor space now, she grew up dreaming of becoming a professional basketball player. After an ACL tear, Rogers switched to running cross-country at Boston College and eventually ended up working for Saucony and Adidas. Despite the satisfaction she derived from designing apparel for the best NBA players in the league, Rogers got sucked deep into climbing, backpacking, and surfing, eventually heading up the trail running team at Patagonia in 2016.
Backpacker: What’s one product from another company that you love?
Jessica Rogers: When I’m gearing up for trail running, trail hiking, or anything, I bring my Brooks Caldera trail running shoes. The only other brand apart from Patagonia that I’m loyal to is Brooks. Trail shoes have always been hard for me: As a spoiled product person, I always got free shoes at the places I worked, but I had to wear those shoes, and they never fit right. I’ve had a lot of discomfort that I’ve run through; that’s just the nature of testing product and trying to make it better. At Patagonia, we don’t make running shoes. I ended up in Brooks Calderas and they really fired me back up into the trail running space. I really appreciate that product for my feet—the step-in comfort and the fit.
BP: What do you think the next big issue in the outdoor industry is?
JR: At the last Outdoor Retailer show that happened in person, every brand had plastic water bottles essentially taped to their booths. They were saying “we’re taking plastic bottles and turning them into apparel.” And it’s like…cool, but there’s still a lot of plastic bottles out there. We like to say “let’s get off the bottle.” It’s great we’re using recycled polyester. It’s great we’re preventing plastic bottles from getting into the ocean and waste streams, but it’s not enough anymore. Recycled polyester and nylon is kind of old news.
I think the bigger thing we need to be thinking about is, “what is our carbon footprint?” How are we measuring our carbon impacts or our water usage? How are we challenging ourselves to do more with less of an impact? Where can we take product back at its end of life and give it a new life? Versus just saying, “we took this stuff out of the landfill, but when you’re done with our product, it’s still gonna end up in the landfill.” Our product is expensive, but the quality comes from working at fair trade factories and using better, less impactful materials, and it comes at a cost. But it should last longer, and we do have some really cool solutions that we’re working on that give it another life—allowing us to take that product back. It will be really cool if we can figure that out with our industry partners.
BP: What do you think the next major advance in gear or technology is?
JR: Naturals—trying to reduce the use of plastic and different chemicals and to kind of clean up that space. I think there’s going to be a shift with more innovation around natural materials. You think of cotton…you think “it’s a sweaty t-shirt, I’m not going to go run in that.” Or merino … they think it’s going to just keep me warm. Not correct; it’s going to thermoregulate you. It’s bringing naturals in that aren’t just blended with a bunch of polyester and figuring out new constructions so that it can cover these technical needs, whether it’s hemp, cotton, wool, or recycled wool.
BP: What’s the one piece of gear that got you hooked on your industry in the first place?
JR: I was the kind of runner who grabbed a cotton t-shirt and whatever pair of shorts I had. I didn’t think about breathability, moisture management—that’s not stuff I thought about at Adidas. The athletes I was working with were indoors, in an air-conditioned gym. The Patagonia Airshed is the first jacket I tried when I joined. It’s one of my favorite pieces to run with. It’s so tiny that it can pack in my bag and gives me that range of use that I want on the trail. Someone was trying to explain it to me, they were like, “yeah, it’s this really lightweight jacket, and it’s breathable.” And I was like, “how is this helping me? It’s not keeping me warm, it’s not waterproof—why would I want that?” So I tried it out: When it started to get a little chilly, it kept me warm, but not too warm like the trash bag feel of lightweight jackets I used to wear. It opened my mind to the idea that there’s so much more to these materials and fabrics in the industry than I’d ever thought.
BP: What’s the latest outdoor gear trend that you’d like to see die?
JR: One thing we struggle with when creating new product is making a pocket that’s big enough for a phone. Are we chasing Apple’s next iPhone size? Do we design it for what the phone is now, or what it’s going to be? Then they’ll make the iPhone 20 and it will be domino-sized. Newer entrants to the run space are listening to music, or they want to track their run. But I would love to get the phone out of the pocket and away from the body.
I say that from a space of not using apps like Strava. I stopped tracking and timing my runs after college. That was working out. That was pain and struggle and suffering. Taking that burden off was one of the biggest releases in my running career, allowing me to free myself on the trails and not track every little thing; just running, getting back to why we do a lot of this. That might be a personal crusade.
BP: If there were no limits on cost or technology, what would your dream piece of gear/apparel be, and what would it do?
JR: As a bit of a sugar/candy fiend, I love having Snickers Bars and Sour Patch Kids on my run. The biggest challenge is that everything melts into a sticky ball, and then I have a wad of 15 Sour Patch Kids the size of a rice ball in my pocket. A jacket that could hold my candy, hold my beer, and I could not feel any of the weight would be sweet. If I could carry an IPA up a trail and have it not get shaken up, that would be great too. Even better if this weightless refrigerated jacket didn’t make me look like a total dork on the trail.