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Outdoor Brands Make Big Bucks Selling Gear for War—But Can’t Always Control Who Uses It

When the rigors of warfare prove too much for standard-issue gear, the military turns to the outdoor industry. But the flow of innovation, equipment, and profit is anything but leakproof.

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The Chinook touched down, conjuring a cloud of swirling sand and dust around it. U.S. Army Lieutenant Nate Bethea ran from its rear bay with his head down and immediately took cover flat against the ground as small arms fire popped from the village around him. It was July 2009, and Bethea was part of an airborne unit searching for Private Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier who had walked off an outpost in Afghanistan and been captured by Taliban insurgents. 

Bethea was leading a group of soldiers in a war a long way from home. Joining his unit for the rescue mission, and lying prone next to him, was an Air Force joint tactical air controller (commonly referred to as a JTAC). The helicopter lifted off, and once they realized the gunfire wasn’t aimed at them, Bethea and the JTAC moved off the high ground to avoid being silhouetted targets for the enemy. 

It was in that movement that the seam on the JTAC’s pants tore open and “completely destroyed his trouser leg from cuff up to groin,” Bethea recalls. “He went the entire mission with his underwear exposed like that, and there was absolutely no hiding it.” For the next 12 hours, the man in charge of helicopters, fixed wing assets, and Predator drones in an important American rescue mission would appear to be wearing no trousers.

The good news is that the JTAC was wearing underwear—lots of soldiers don’t—and it was only a 12-hour mission, not a 10-day one. Bethea, who is now based in London and hosts the What a Hell of a Way to Die podcast, said the issue was common. 

“Any single person who deployed to combat in a light infantry unit will have a story of taking a knee and their crotch or their pant seam blowing out,” he says. 

It’s situations like this, when troops go into harm’s way without adequate equipment, that have spurred an industry of commercially available “tactical” apparel, with some of the outdoor industry’s most famous brands as its biggest players. 

When their standard-issue gear isn’t up to the demands of war, troops open their wallets for equipment from high-end outdoor brands to supplement or replace their kits. Elite troops even have access to government credit cards to make sure they won’t be left as exposed as that JTAC was. Underlying it all are large defense department contracts that adapt outdoor gear for use in battle. And yet, almost no one talks about it.

By jacket, boot, and pack, this is how the outdoor industry quietly went to war and came back with profit.

Boots
Danner’s Reckoning Boot Photo: Louisa Albanese

If you’re reading this, you probably know what it’s like to wear a pair of boots that don’t fit. Thousands of words have been printed in this magazine discussing the intricacies of the best footwear for different feet and conditions. For soldiers, who often have to carry loads in excess of 150 pounds, a good pair of boots can make all the difference.

Yet when the United States first deployed to Afghanistan in 2001, troops found that the standard-issue boots did not provide enough ankle support to carry the equivalent weight of a full-grown adult on their backs in the mountains. In 2002 or 2003, the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center at Natick, Massachusetts, essentially the Army’s research-and-development lab, set to work on what would become a 10-year process to develop and refine the Mountain Combat Boot to address this need. 

As the army evolved its own boot designs, troops were often left to find their own footwear that met the military’s standards for appearance, materials, and dimensions, but didn’t turn their feet to mash or wreck their ankles. They didn’t have to look hard.

The civilian, consumer-facing market for outdoor gear already held hundreds of different boots field-proven to work in mountains or desert, rain or dry, and under heavy loads. After all, from a foot soldier’s perspective, fighting wars is mostly about being outside and walking around while carrying a heavy pack—not so different from backpacking. It didn’t take long for the troops to connect the dots, and they turned to outdoor industry mainstays like Danner, Lowa, Wolverine, and Salomon with their own cash to buy better boots.

It’s an arrangement that has proven to be mutually beneficial. Over the last two decades of the war on terror, the military has come to rely on the outdoor industry as a means to quickly obtain specialized gear or surge production if large-scale deployments need to happen quickly. The outdoor industry is now critical to the military’s ability to operate in a wide range of conditions and has banked tens of millions of dollars yearly by conservative estimates based on a review of publicly available records of government contracts.

The U.S. has the largest defense budget in the world, with $738 billion designated for the fiscal year ending in September 2021. While much of that money goes toward high-tech weapons systems, having the U.S. military as a customer can have a dramatic effect on a gear company’s direction and bottom line. Some brands, like Stone Glacier, which makes lightweight hunting backpacks favored by Special Forces units, might sell a few dozen packs to teams that need them. Others, like Patagonia, Danner, and Mystery Ranch, have built whole sectors of their business around the military, bringing in millions of dollars through defense department contracts. 

But outdoor brands’ primary business is still the consumer market, which means much of this combat gear, or gear informed by combat, is available on the open market. If you have a credit card and an internet connection, it can be yours. 

This January, insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overthrow the government, likely wearing some of the same brands you do when you take off from the trailhead. Selling gear that’s better than the Pentagon’s to anyone who will pay, it turns out, has consequences for the armed forces, civilians, and even some of America’s most notorious enemies. 

Federal government contract awards for select outdoor brands, 2011-2021

Outdoor Research $103.9M

Danner $53.4M

Mystery Ranch $47.9M

Lost Arrow Project (Patagonia) $9M

There’s an inherent conflict between capitalism and responsibility. The outdoor industry is well aware of this; it’s why we are constantly reminded how many water bottles went into our fleeces and how many trees our boot purchases planted. Many outdoor corporations go out of their way to project an image of being “good social citizens,” spending millions on “giving back” and hundreds of thousands on advertising to promote it.

Patagonia is the poster child for this. As outdoor brands go, it’s among the most activist and is extremely vocal in support of public lands and in opposition to climate change. Last summer, the brand famously sold shorts with “Vote the assholes out” stitched on the labels as a way to inflame its customers’ politics into action at the polls.

The brand’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, is a self-described socialist who has long held that capitalism can be a tool to heal the Earth rather than destroy it. In 2004, he gave an interview to Grist, an online magazine focused on the environment, condemning those who profit off the wars in the Middle East rather than seek to curb the oil dependency that underlies them.

And yet, hidden in Patagonia’s corporate structure is a subsidiary called The Lost Arrow Project, which has netted about $9 million in Pentagon contracts since 2011, including $6.18 million in 2020, according to public records. (Patagonia, a private company, does not make its earnings, or those of its subsidiaries, public. The brand declined to answer written questions for this story.) 

Lost Arrow’s only business is state, local, and federal government contracts, and it has a team of designers dedicated to creating a cold-weather layering system for the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, and the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice. It supplies jungle uniforms to the DEA, jackets to the Air Force, and a layering system called the
Protective Combat Uniform (PCU) to U.S. Special Operations Forces. 

Patagonia’s relationship with the military goes back to the 1980s, when its fleeces and baselayers were issued to servicepeople in cold climates. But it was not until the start of the Global War On Terrorism that the brand deepened its relationship with the military, going after big contracts and designing custom pieces. In part, new war spending focused on equipping troops who were fighting in a mountain-desert climate for which their gear was ill-suited. The outdoor industry was ready to answer the call.

Patagonia was not the only outdoor brand benefiting from Pentagon spending, nor the largest. Government contracts make up a surprisingly large portion of the income of several smaller outdoor brands. Outdoor Research earns about $30 million per year, nearly half its annual revenue, from law enforcement and military contracts, according to the LinkedIn profile of its VP of government affairs.

A records request showed more than $100 million in federal government contracts for the brand in the past two decades. (Figures in this story include only federal spending and not state or local entities, which are difficult to track, so the actual revenue from all government sources is likely larger.) If you look carefully at photos of police SWAT or SRT teams firing riot munitions at protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement this year or last, you’ll see many officers wearing OR gloves.

Mystery Ranch and Danner also contract with the government for seven-figure sums. Danner had $53.4 million in disclosed sales between 2011 and 2020, with the Army, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Bureau of Prisons being their largest customers. The U.S. military stocks Danner boots, among others, in exchange stores on bases around the world, should deployed troops wish to purchase an alternative to their standard-issue footwear. 

Equipment from U.S.-based gear companies is now worn by government agents and contractors everywhere from national-park trails to domestic police lines and overseas battlefields. 

military backpack
Mystery Ranch’s Blackjack 80 pack Photo: Louisa Albanese

Not all of that government money funds big deals like Lost Arrow’s. The U.S. Special Operations Command and others spend in smaller four- and five-figure increments to procure or modify existing outdoor gear. It wasn’t uncommon in the early 2010’s to see U.S. Special Operations Forces roaming the halls of Outdoor Retailer, the outdoor industry’s trade show, looking for sweet new gear. 

As Cam Brensinger, the founder and CEO of NEMO Equipment, explains of the smaller deals, there wasn’t millions of dollars or hundreds of thousands of pieces of gear in play; rather, they were for small amounts of high-end gear for very small units and based on individual relationships. Operators would ask for a few tweaks to a product that seemed promising, try out some samples, and if they liked how it worked, they’d place an order smaller than $100,000, which wouldn’t trigger the government’s request-for-proposals process.

“What led me down this path was a couple of Navy special warfare guys, SEALs, finding us at the OR show around 2006, and saying, ‘Hey, these air-supported tents are interesting, they could really help us out. Could we get them in something other than bright green and test them out a bit in Alaska?’” 

The airbeam tents, which used inflatable supports in lieu of structured tent poles, weren’t a huge hit in the consumer market, but Brensinger made up a few of NEMO’s inflatable shelters in a less visible color, sent them up to the Special Operations Forces Cold Weather Maritime Training Facility in Kodiak, Alaska, and began a back-and-forth that led to the brand supplying a few select units. 

Brensinger admits that such an approach to government work was volatile. “When you get the call [for an order] it’s like, ‘We are deploying in three days we need 50 of these.’” Practically, this meant that NEMO had to carry an inventory of goods that it was never sure when, or if, it would sell. (NEMO currently sells existing equipment to Special Operations, but hasn’t developed a new product for the military since 2013).

Brensinger also struggled with what he thought the public perception might be. “We were uncomfortable with the possibility that if we helped our troops, people would make assumptions about our political view,” he says. “We worried about it for a bit and finally decided we are not making weapons, we are helping American troops be safer.”

As he worked with special forces to tweak his designs, Brensinger found plenty of common ground. “We came to admire them,” he says. “In addition to addressing their military mission, they are basically backpackers and mountaineers and need a lot of the same equipment.”

Eventually, around 2013, such relationships caught the attention of military higher-ups. At that time, brands had begun marketing to military buyers and subcontractors much the same way they do to their equivalents in the outdoor industry. In 2014, staffers from this magazine joined an Arc’teryx-sponsored trip to Chamonix, France. It included a parallel track for customers of the brand’s LEAF arm, which markets to law enforcement agencies and the armed forces. 

Unlike many other mainstream outdoor brands, Arc’teryx does not contract directly with the government. This makes its income from LEAF hard to track. Rather, the brand sells to government contractors who wholesale tactical gear, and whose customers include retail shops for armed forces or law enforcement agencies. There are about 75 such retail shops around the world, including in the U.S., Canada, Europe, New Zealand, Japan, and Afghanistan. Most are located near elite training facilities for special forces in general and Navy SEALs in particular, though any active-duty military or law enforcement and other select government personnel, may purchase LEAF products from those retail shops, according to the subsidiary’s website. (Arc’teryx declined to comment for this story.) 

In 2013, the military’s credit card spending program largely stopped as part of a broader “sequestration” program, aimed at reducing costs. This coincided with a crackdown by the Pentagon on operators flaunting the rules around personal anonymity that was spurred by the many book deals signed in the wake of the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALs. 

Since then, relationships between the outdoor industry and the military have continued, but in a more muted way. Instead of individual operators looking to make deals, defense procurement and uniform development specialists go to Outdoor Retailer to keep tabs on the products and manufacturing capabilities of different brands, and to form industry partnerships for large-scale contracts through the government’s formal request-for-proposals process.  

But it couldn’t be manufacturing business as usual. Due to the somewhat confusingly named Berry Amendment, which started life as an amendment to Defense Appropriations Acts but became permanent law in 1994, the Department of Defense must procure its uniforms entirely in the U.S., which is not where most brands do their manufacturing.

Other contractors built up a domestic workforce  organized in part under a government program called AbilityOne that prioritizes contracts to manufacturers with staff who are “blind or have significant disabilities.” This program employs more than 45,000 people in the US, including at Peckham, Inc., which manufactures apparel, including Patagonia’s PCU, in Michigan.

 Gear innovations that companies develop for the military often end up in civilian products as well.

The classic example is Polartec’s Alpha insulation, which came out of a military development program. According to Will Tagye, Polartec’s product line manager for military and performance fabrics, the company was hearing from soldiers that “puffy jackets are great for warmth but they don’t breathe well and you can’t take them off with your body armor.” (Per regulations, body armor has to be worn outside any clothing to allow troops access to magazine pouches and other supplies on their vests.) “[Troops] needed something that can keep them warm when static and jettison heat when running,” Tagye continues. “That capability gap is what triggered the development of Alpha, which was first deployed to Special Operations Forces in 2012.” One year later, Alpha hit the consumer market, offering a new solution for stop-and-start activities, and the technology soon spread throughout the outdoor industry.

Similarly, innovations in the consumer market benefit military applications. Some commercial items become so integral to the success of a unit that they are passed down from one team to another along with mission-critical information when units transitioned responsibilities. Bethea recalls Mystery Ranch backpacks being very popular among heavy weapons platoons because they allowed soldiers to better stabilize and carry weighty items.

Luke Buckingham, a project manager at Mystery Ranch, explained that the brand’s NICE frame technology and three-zip design had been developed for the outdoor market, but were well suited to the military. The NICE system, which pairs an adjustable carbon-fiber frame with different packbags, allowed for its products to accommodate a wide range of gear-hauling needs—there is a way to set up the frame to carry everything from a sniper rifle to a gas can.

That versatility scored the brand a windfall. Public records requests show that all three branches of the armed forces, as well as the Department of Justice and Homeland Security, Bureaus of Indian Affairs and Land Management, and just about every other federal government body that sends people outside, have purchased Mystery Ranch packs in the last decade. Since 2007, the brand has netted more than $49 million in federal contracts, excluding individual purchases from soldiers or government workers. In 2019, these contracts made up 40 percent of Mystery Ranch’s revenue and included government contracts, plus sales to individual military members or government workers, and sales of military gear to nonmilitary personnel.

Such gear becomes a touchstone for other defense department contractors, helping outdoor industry DNA burrow deeper into the armed forces. Bethea says that when troops buy gear, they look to mountaineering brands “because their stuff has to work.” The military’s equipment contractors do the same. 

Some off-the-shelf gear is so successful in combat that the military studies it. Records requests show that the U.S. Army Futures Command, which helps develop clothing and other items for the next generation of soldiers, frequently purchases Mystery Ranch packs and Danner boots to test against its own designs. Even with the Pentagon’s Mountain Combat Boots now standard-issue, the military still allows service members to purchase and use commercially available boots, as long as they meet the criteria for appearance and functionality.

According to David Accetta, the chief of public affairs at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Soldier Center, being able to source gear from the consumer market has a number of benefits: Not only does the large boot market allow for customization to a service person’s individual foot shape, it also serves to create “the industrial base” for a “surge” in boot production should the U.S. military deploy dramatically more troops and need to equip them quickly. 

Some brands, such as Arc’teryx, will even ship directly to members of the armed forces on bases overseas. There is an unintended consequence to all this product movement, though: With so much military-grade gear available and in circulation, some of it is bound to fall into the wrong hands.  

Abdullah Ramo Pazara wanted better gear for all the same reasons Nate Bethea did. His boots sucked, his pants tore, his backpack was ill-suited to the demands he put on it. Like troops all over the world, Pazara wanted top-quality gear—the stuff military types call “high speed, low drag”—and he knew that the civilian market in the U.S. was the best place to get it. Pazara logged into Facebook Messenger on his phone, reached out to friends back home in St. Louis, Missouri with a wish list, and they got to shopping.  

When Pazara’s friend Ramiz Zijad Hodzic got to the checkout at Bass Pro Shops, having already spent a few hours at Uncle Sam’s Surplus Store, the final bill was approximately $1,913, which he raised via PayPal from a group of friends. He packaged the gear, including U.S. Army uniforms, combat boots, and rifle scopes, into six boxes, and on October 28, 2013, he sent it to Pazara via a person codenamed “Nail” in Gaziantep, Turkey. In the following months, Pazara and his “Lions” captured Deir ez-Zor, a province of Syria covering more than 12,000 square miles. Soon after, they declared a caliphate. 

According to a grand jury indictment, Pazara and his ISIS comrades relied upon the Bass Pro gear as they murdered their way across Iraq and Syria. They ran up big bills at surplus stores and outdoor outfitters in the U.S., buying everything from first-aid kits to boots, camouflage suits, and backpacks. In one message to an incoming fighter, Hodzic suggested he needn’t bring uniforms or boots as they had plenty, but that he might want to pick up a rifle scope with a built-in camera to record his kills.

In late 2014, Pazara’s Facebook messages went quiet and he stopped updating his funders on how he was using the gear they sent him. Court documents confirm that he was killed by Syrian Arab Army forces, which Hodzic learned on September 20, 2014. Those who helped equip Pazara ended up in prison; Hodzic pleaded guilty to providing material support to terrorists and is currently serving an 8-year sentence, after which he will be deported. 

Pazara wasn’t the only non-government fighter benefiting from the bounty of high-end tactical gear that is readily available in the U.S. Patagonia’s PCU apparel is highly sought after all over the world, the brand’s cachet carrying over onto other foreign battlefields. In Ukraine, where a bloody civil war rages between the national government and Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass region, those Patagonia PCUs command a premium.

The Punisher Store in Kiev is the Ukrainian gray market tactical equivalent of Backcountry.com, only the goat in the logo is replaced with a skull, and where you’d see reviews on the outdoor website, there is a list of units supplied. Included in that list is the thinly veiled “SS” logo of the Azov Battalion, which is active in Ukraine and has been accused of war crimes—looting and worse—by the UN. The fact that the battalion’s logo is on the bottom of a page advertising Patagonia’s PCU uniforms is probably not something the brand had in mind when it launched the line that became the Lost Arrow Project 17 years ago, but it is an inevitable consequence of being part of this market. 

Of course, suppliers can’t control or be held accountable for what users of their products do. And while it can be perilous for brands to preach corporate responsibility while quietly supplying the armed forces, those brands have largely escaped negative publicity or even widespread knowledge of their programs.

But if you make clothes for killing people, sooner or later your logo is going to show up on the chests of some of the worst people in the world. War has human and environmental costs that can’t be offset by using recycled materials or giving money to charity.

In warfare, where reality rarely matches intention but the money is often good, the line between helping and hurting can be thinner than thread.

James Stout is a historian of anti-fascism and a journalist based in California.