The Coolest Thing I Saw At the Outdoor Retailer Show

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Steve Rogerson hadn’t been to the Outdoor Retailer trade show in five years, so he seemed an ideal observer of change in the gear and clothing that we use from trail to summit. Long immersed in the culture of surf, bike, ski, and all that, Steve was for many years a key part of Ralph Lauren’s outdoor line and now was back at the show with Nau in a role that would have him introducing the hip, eco-smart brand to fashion shops. Thus, not only is Steve a core user, he knows more about style than just about anyone in the Salt Palace. The perfect barometer. So, catching up with him outside the Nau booth last week at the hot corner between the convention center’s two ginormous rooms, I asked, “What’s different since the last time you were here?”

He gave it ample consideration. His eyes shifted into space as he pondered what he’d seen. Then he looked back at me and said, “Nothing.”

Ouch.

This is the blessing and the curse of the outdoor industry. It is a stylistic backwater, where the basic designs of its sportswear haven’t changed since the 1970s. Aside from standout pieces by a few pioneering brands—Nau comes to mind, as well as many that have shown at OR and then disappeared, like Topo Ranch, Blurr, and Mission Playground—the show is awash with plaid shortsleeve woven button-ups and hiking pants that are about as flattering on a dude as skinny jeans. And yet, despite being tone deaf to fashion, when it comes to technical apparel and gear, the level of accomplishment is extraordinary. The gear and outerwear don’t change much from year to year because they don’t need to—they’re already damn good.

That’s not to say they don’t change at all. They do—just incrementally. Polartec showed me a jacket from an Italian manufacturer that has taped seams. It’s the first time this particular Polartec fabric has been built with taped seams—an incredibly wonkish thing to note, but the new construction method ultimately means better weatherproofing and sleeker, less bulky garments. A lot of the most intriguing developments are just like this—under the hood, marginal but significant, not so easy to spot or market.

Yet they are important measures, at least to an observer who makes his living reporting on trends and technologies, most of which are introduced at the show, and over the years I’ve come to rely on them as labels or signposts. There was the year of the stove, for example, when Jetboil and MSR announced revolutionary products. Or the year of the backpack, when everyone under the sun had a new suspension system. Summer 2008 was the year of green and 2009 was the season of “I’m just trying to keep my job until the economy rebounds.” This last show would have to mark the year of the standup paddleboard, but as someone who lives at one of the epicenters of SUP it feels like OR is scrambling to catch up, not lead. SUP is old news around these coastal parts.

In any event, as I strode through the halls last week, not much caught my eye. There were a few products here and there, but mostly when I was asked the question du jour, “What did you see that was cool?,” I came up with the same response as Steve: nothing.

Then came my last day at the show. Around 8 a.m., I packed up Vanzilla and left it in under a tree in the hotel parking lot, then shuffled north toward the Salt Palace, sticking to the shady side of West Temple, such as it was, and tried not to break a sweat in the 95 degree heat. Note to guests of the Little America Hotel: No amount of antiperspirant, not even a tanker of Old Spice, will stop you from working up a nice glow on the walk from 500 South.

At one of the many red lights, each of which left me broiling in the sun, a runner pulled up next to me—not yet glowing, I might add. It was Justin Nyberg, an editor at Outside who defines both “nice” and “soft-spoken,” and though we’d seen each other in passing over the course of the week, it was our first chance to catch up. Justin walked as I shuffled, and he told me about a feature profile he’s writing on the legendary mountaineer Fred Beckey, who at 87 is still climbing and couch-surfing regularly. We agreed that pieces like this, which bring you into contact with legends like Beckey, are gifts of such personal reward they couldn’t be measured. The inspiration that comes from meeting people like Fred can last a lifetime.

Justin peeled off and I continued to the Starbucks at the Marriott to meet my friend Chris Fanning of the Outdoor Foundation. While waiting, I ran into friends who introduced me to Kristine Stratton, executive director of Waterkeeper Alliance, one of this country’s most important advocates for clean, accessible water. Chris rolled up, we made introductions all around, and then she told me about the success of the foundation’s Outdoor Nation event in New York a couple months ago. OF is doing nothing less than identifying and training the next generation of outdoor leaders—kids who are as smart and likable and motivated to lead as they are sporty—and Fanning’s doing it with a staff of, well, one.

The day unfolded just like the first hour: I ran into person after person with inspiring stories or efforts. Some were simply amazing—although I just missed seeing him, Mountain Hardwear surprised 12-year-old Matt Moniz, one of its athletes (and an Outdoor Nation ambassador), with a check for research into pulmonary arterial hypertension; this summer, Moniz became the fastest person to ascend the 50 highest points in each of the 50 states—in 45 days—and he did it to raise awareness of PAH. Others were quirkier but no less engaging: Keen CEO James Curleigh told me how he discovered Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters bus at the Kesey family farm in Oregon and wanted to help restore it. In one 10-minute period late in the afternoon at the Patagonia booth, I bumped into Fitz Cahall (The Dirtbag Diaries, The Season), Trip Jennings (kayak-based explorer), Blake Gordon (photographer), John Burcham (photographer), and Karyn Fiebich (artist).

If it sounds like I’m name dropping, I am. But that’s how OR is—everyone you meet has tales to tell, and whether you recognize their name or not doesn’t matter. Fred just took his daughter on a paddling trip. Tami’s going to an art retreat. Karl hiked the Appalachian Trail. Mavis rode her bike from Steamboat to Salt Lake for the show. The outdoor industry—scratch that, the outdoor culture—is comprised of people who are living adventurous lives every single day. Walking the halls of the Outdoor Retailer show is less like going gear shopping and more like breathing from a tank of oxygen laced with raw inspiration: It’s dizzying, lightening, and addictive.

At the end of the day, I exited the Salt Palace tugging on the arm of my friend Jen Semsak. Jen is a product line manager for REI—she oversees the design and development of REI’s branded tents and sleeping bags, as well as other products—and I wanted her to see a short documentary and trailer for 127 Hours, the movie about Aron Ralston, who rather infamously got trapped by a boulder in a Utah canyon and cut off his right arm to escape. The movie, directed by Academy Award-winning Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire), could be one of the biggest films ever to touch the outdoor culture, and Fox was showing the teaser in a portable screening room outside the convention center.

I introduced Jen to Sonia Freeman, who works for Fox and heads the marketing for 127 Hours. I’d met Sonia, a firecracker of energy, in Moab last April, when I’d worked on the production of some of the movie’s extra features, which were being produced by my longtime collaborator Sinuhe Xavier. (I know, I know—too many names. Welcome to OR.)

Anyway, Jen and Sonia started chatting and Sonia got all fired up when she found out Jen works for REI. “I’m a member!” she blurted, reaching for her bag to show a lightweight REI fleece poking out of it.

“That’s a newer piece,” said Jen, clearly pleased.

“I know, I just got it,” said Sonia. “But I have an REI fleece at home…it must be 17 or 18 years old…”

She described how it had frayed at the collar but she just sewed up the loose ends with a needle and thread, how it had been a favorite for so many years, and as she talked excitedly her eyes shone. It was clear that Sonia’s fleece meant more than just something to keep her warm—it had been on trip after trip, on hikes in forests and camping sessions on the coast, and over so many years it had become part of her outdoor history, an artifact indistinguishable from the acts themselves.

I said goodbye, hugs all around, and hoofed it to the van, welcoming the sweat. Within a few hours, I was deep in the desert, 40 miles down a dirt road and readying to sleep under a blanket of the Milky Way. My mind raced with post-show adrenalin, but after days of struggling, I could finally answer the question. The coolest thing I saw at Outdoor Retailer was something I didn’t see at all. It was a 17-year-old fleece top that made the eyes sparkle and reminded that the heart of the outdoor experience doesn’t really change. Fashions come and fashions go, and they’re important in their own way. But inspiration is timeless, and in the end, that’s what the outdoor industry does best.

Images for this story come from issues of Backpacker from the 1970s, which you can see in their entirety at Google Books here.

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{ 15 comments…read them below or write one }

  • fitz cahall

    Great piece Steve. I used to hate the OR show, and I mean hate. It was the part of my life I dreaded the most, that seemed so disconnected to the snow piling up in my drive way in tahoe. My wife and photographer would make me go, but through the years I’ve come to appreciate it and all the people that drive it. Yes it is an industry, but the industry exists because of the culture and right now that culture seems to be flourishing. Maybe that’s this years story. How someone like Blake Gordon — the only person I will answer the phone after nine for because I’m guaranteed to have my thinking pushed — a young guy who is at the root of the culture, has found a home in the industry.

    Fitz

  • Kelly

    OMG, this is awesome! I actually left the industry in my youth, to find change and a place where things moved at a faster pace, technology. But it was awful! I missed the people and the great fact that we are helping others get outside.

    I have a great appreciation now for OR. But I missed seeing you!

  • Steve Threndyle

    This story is beyond good, Steve. Maybe your best ever. Thanks for sharing – I feel pretty much the same about it all…

  • Tom

    This is the OR I’ve been hoping to find but have been too doggone busy covering it. I came home exhausted and grumpy.

    Actually I saw a video of two people doing this way cool yoga performance thing … that and the Black Diamond z-shaped hiking pole were the niftiest things I never saw in person.

  • Fran

    Caz, great piece about OR. sorry to miss it and you. fx

    BTW was it Teva’s Naturist friend who taught you how to read a trail map?

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  • Blake Gordon

    Great write up Steve! And I’m searching for the appropriate ‘humbly blushing’ emoticon to reply to Fitz…

    My entry into the outdoors (and thus the outdoor industry) was one of “getting away from it all” so there is always a bit of disorientation in navigating the Outdoor Retailer show. I agree with Fitz in that it’s been one of the least enjoyable parts of my work, but as it’s become a place to meet people and share stories it’s been more rewarding. The roots of the industry are solid. The allure of exploring terrain and unfolding new human experiences pretty much sells itself.

    How that plays out with our love for gear in a capitalist environment is always a bit of a circus. The saving grace those is that I think nearly everyone in the outdoor industry has touched that core experience in some way and its moved them to live there life around it. That is certainly why, despite the disorientation of OR, I can’t quite stay away from it.
    -Blake

  • Mike H.

    Steve, Thanks for the moment of clarity. You’ve nicely pinned the reason many of us continue making the twice annual pilgrimage to the Temple of Consumption. People that push our sense of possibility, that help us to imagine beyond our cozy bubbles. Good on ya…

  • shannon stowell

    Hey Steve- great article and it captures the spirit well. I do wish you would have seen our “Adventure Travel Hub” in the Grand Ballroom because I do think it does bring something new to the OR game (which I’ve played 2x a year pretty faithfully since 1998). New not in the way of gear design or sales, but in an opportunity to connect new people and bring fresh opportunities. We brought representatives from Belize, Montana and Norway who were there specifically to meet the sellers and makers of outdoor gear to figure out how to better collaborate and 1) open new markets for specialty outdoor industry, 2) show the travel industry how much better specialty gear/apparel is than cheap, low performing product and 3) show the adventure travel industry what cross marketing opportunities exist in the outdoor retail space. While ours was a quiet entry into the Outdoor Retailer show- watch for it next Summer as the boundaries of the opportunity widen. The destinations were thrilled to meet people in this space and bring new and different energy to it and we see sparks for new fire, new business and fresh ideas at Outdoor Retailer.

  • Stephen Regenold

    Nail hit on the head! I like this: “The outdoor industry—scratch that, the outdoor culture. . .”. True dat! “Industry”? Come on, everyone. We’re more than that, right?

    Great essay here. Most original report on OR I saw this year.

  • Hiking Lady

    Excellent write-up about the show! It was definitely nice to see and hear the improved mood and optimism relative to last year, and I really enjoyed meeting and chatting with like minded people who have a passion for the outdoors!

  • Leslie Hanes

    As a new exhibitor, I found the whole thing a bit overwhelming, and certainly different from many tradeshows I’ve done. I came with products that were both innovative and sellable, and anyone who actually stopped at my booth either placed orders or wanted information. But, it was pretty hard to engage buyers who did not recognize the company name (Discovery Trekking) or the products…and seeing people flee by the booth lest I should (God Forbid) speak to them. When you have media writing great stuff in gear reviews (Backpacker picked our Fast-Dry towel for their Essential Gear Guide, and SNEWS gave it a 5 of 5) , but no way to convey the message to the streams of people who went quickly by, cellphone engaged, it is frustrating. However, I still had a good time. I met great people including reps interested in my line, and learned about how I could do things differently. I came by motorcycle from Western Canada, (destination Sturgis, after Salt Lake) After getting charged by a Bison in Custer National Park, I can’t say that OR was a highlight of the trip!

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  • Niki

    Great write-up. Spot on. I had the same response when asked about the show. It was really busy on days 1 & 2, so I figured I just hadn’t seen enough of the show to see what was hip and new.

    After losing my job at an outdoor company, I thought I wanted to try another industry that was more into high growth similar to Kelly’s comment above. Instead I am trying out the freelance angle and staying in the outdoor industry. 1 day at the show and I now know I made a good choice. Everyone is so cool and it is easy to meet new people, find biz opportunities, and eventually help folks find that outdoor experience that provides lifelong inspiration. I only hope to name drop as good as you, someday.

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