Last night, I was sitting in the Denver airport, staring out the window, trying to get home from the Outdoor Retailer trade show, when a bolt of lightning zagged out of the deepening sky and struck the prairie not too distant. All around the airport, bolts zapped the ground, and every time they hit within five miles of the airport it delayed flights another ten minutes. The storm crackled around us and we waited for things to clear, not knowing, of course, when they would.
It seemed an apt metaphor for those working in the outdoor industry. After decades of relative stability, the last few years have brought radical change. Retail, as we all know, is shifting under our feet, tectonic forces sped up fast enough to be seen with the naked eye. Online retail is draining physical stores, manufacturers are selling direct to consumers, and Amazon looms over all, with repercussions felt in every transaction. The media landscape has been turned on its head, and who knows whom to trust. There are tariffs and there may be more tariffs. The world seems to be burning down around us, and, well, climate change.
And yet, my trips to the OR show always hold the most inspiring days of my year. The level of gear and materials technology is through the roof, and even if development proceeds relatively gradually there are always new ideas and new attempts to solve age-old problems. Some of the world’s most passionate outdoor adventurers are there in Denver, and even if the industry is struggling to figure out diversity, sustainability, pollution, and other issues, there are many, many well-intended people working on those issues.
So. All that said, here are a few things I picked up at the show. This is heard-in-the-aisles, stuff—take these, as I do, with a grain of salt.
• Gear sales across the industry were down in the high single digit percentages in May from last year, and the early word on June and July was that they could be down as much as 20 percent in each month from 2017—in the middle of a booming economy. This comes via a top industry exec who, when asked why, simply said, “Millennials.” Younger generations want less stuff, they want more experiences, and they’re more likely to rent or share gear. That’s not new, but maybe this is chickens coming home to roost. With 20,000-plus people at the show, you’ll find lots of counter-perspectives, and there are bright spots in products categories, but overall, crazy for a gear-selling show, the word I heard most was “experience.”
• Practically every brand that can make lifestyle products is making lifestyle products. This isn’t new either, but feels like it’s gathering steam as companies try to extend their revenue streams into less critical, less technical, and more mainstream apparel.
• Metal water bottles are the soft shells of the 20-teens—ubiquitous and often indistinguishable from one another—but if you’re measuring popularity by industry adoption, there’s a clear winner: Hydro Flask. Their bottles and cups were everywhere.
• Despite what I said above about well-intentioned efforts to tackle issues, an incredibly cringe-worthy moment occurred via The Daily, a free publication produced by the show operators and distributed widely throughout the convention center. Beneath the headline “If We’re Serious About Diversity We Should _____,” there was an overlay ad for a $300 Yeti backpack featuring yet another white man. Inside the magazine, there was a page to fill in the blank and deliver to the info desk to “make your voice heard.” Can #tonedeaf people hear anything?
• Gore is now making fabric that’s water resistant, not waterproof. Wait, what? Is it guaranteed to keep you dryish?
• Patagonia and Danner teamed up to create fly fishing boots that were the talk of the show and had AJ’s Justin Housman, a diehard angler, nearly hyperventilating.
• Vibram’s Litebase outsole is going to be appearing in a lot more models next spring and that’s a darn good thing: This tread cuts weight by 30 percent and sole thickness by 50. One footwear manufacturer told me it sheds a full pound off a pair of men’s size 10 hiking boots.
• Big Agnes’ new one-person, three-season, freestanding tent, the Fly Creek UL 1, made with ultralight and ultra-tough Dyneema, which somehow weighs less than a pound, officially pushed Housman into breathing-in-paper-bag mode.
• I continue to be blown away by the work that Shanti Hodges is doing with Hike It, Baby. Launched as a Meetup-style site to get families on the trails, HIB has held more than 63,000 trail events in the last three years. (“Experience.”)
• Sobriety is in. While there’s always spirits at trade shows, and this trade show in particular—whiskey at 2 p.m. in one booth, gallons of margaritas in the Adidas booth—the Sierra Club’s Stacy Bare and SIMBOL Communications’ Shannon Walton held a “Healthy and Happy” happy hour at the Aloft Hotel to connect people in recovery and/or with a desire to keep things on the straight and narrow. As someone who hasn’t tasted alcohol since 1988 and isn’t overly fond of being sprayed at 5 p.m. keggers, I was stoked to see them taking action on a issue that few are willing to address. Alcohol and pot are major social lubricants, and if that’s your jam, fine. But for people struggling to make a sobriety change in their lives, or for those of us who just don’t need or want substances to alter our experiences, it is a welcome, welcome move. “I’m not the best self promoter,” Shannon told me, “but I think it needs to be clear this isn’t just about the recovery crowd. Stacy and I came up with whole new words—sober supportive, sober curious, and wellbriety. We are starting a wellness movement—and a celebrate being perfectly imperfect movement.”
• With naturally feathered and luxuriously thick hair, Backbone Media’s Penn Newhard has always been the outdoor industry’s Stevie Nicks, if Stevie Nicks were a rugged handsome dude telemarker and agency titan. But now that Penn’s gone high and tight and razored his coif, he’s our Stevie no more. We need a new doppleganger for Penn.
• My favorite products are almost always obscure interpretations of classic styles by Japanese brands that will rarely been seen or sold here, and that I think I would wear but maybe not. Thanks, Cordura, for sharing the work of your partners across the Pacific, especially if/when it’s Accidental Wes Anderson.
• I didn’t get anywhere near enough Brendan Leonard time. Just sayin’.
• My favorite new-to-me brand is Architec, which makes tight, seasonal collections of menswear for travel. Launched by Justin Seale, the design stud behind Mission Workshop and Chrome bags back in the day, Architec creates just four pieces per season. The runs are small, the prices are highish, and the quality is exceptional. I got to try on the merino Carson hoodie—it was exceptionally tailored and probably the best-fitting hoodie I’ve worn. Yes, I would pay $158 for it, because I’d know it looks good on and would probably last the rest of my life.
• Caroline Gleich and I are in complete agreement that Strava should split its monthly distance and climbing challenges into indoor and outdoor categories. You ride an indoor bike? Cool, but that “vertical” isn’t the same as real vertical. Also: Strava needs to let users create elevation goals and to sort PRs by which bike or shoes you used.
• Q Martin, whither thou? No text, no kismet in the aisles, no fist bump, no hug. 🙁
• Don’t think #vanlife is going away any time soon. Mercedes Sprinters continue to be the number two talked-about thing behind “experience,” though the lifted, customized Metris van in the Mercedes booth had a lot of people dropping by. Modded by TouRig in Golden, Colorado, this van has an inch and a half lift, aluminum rims, KO2 tires, a popup to sleep two in a penthouse, and a pull-out kitchen. At $65,000, it still isn’t the people’s van, but with a well-kitted new camper Sprinter starting above a hundred large, it’s at least a more accessible dream.
• On the Adventure Journal front, the number one thing people talked to me about was our story on why we don’t accepted sponsored posts, paid reviews, native advertising, or sold social. Lots of attaboys and high fives, including and maybe especially from brands that buy sponsored content. Will that mean more advertising support for AJ? One can hope, cuz we have big plans.
• Finally, to all of my friends who told me, “I’ve been meaning to subscribe to AJ but I’ve just been so busy,” well, I feel your inertia and raise you a link. Let me make it easy: Click here. We need ya.
Okay, there you have it. A random, superficial, possibly incoherent download of some of the things we saw and heard at the show. Do with them what you will.