Saturday, 1 March 2014

How Outdoor Gear Has Changed Since 1978



High Sierra camp, Pacific Crest Trail, 1982. My gear bottom left - Wintergear Eyrie Gore-Tex tent, Mountain Equipment Lightline sleeping bag, Therm-A-Rest, Berghaus Cyclops Scorpion pack, Sherpa Sno-Claw snowshoes, Simond Couguar ice axe
 
Back in 1999 The Great Outdoors magazine celebrated it's 21st birthday. For the anniversary issue I wrote a feature about changes in gear during those years. I came across this piece recently and, with some updates to take account of another 15 years, here it is.

Aah, the good old days! Gear was gear then, none of this soft fluffy stuff. And it was lighter, and tougher. So goes the ageing walker, sitting in the corner of the bar smelling slightly of dead sheep and mildewed cotton. But what gear were walkers using in 1978?  And was it as good as the stuff we use now? A quick flip through the pages of the first issue of The Great Outdoors reveals advertisements for leather boots with stitched soles, non-breathable cagoules (lots of those), fibre-pile jackets, external frame packs, ridge tents, tartan wool shirts and cotton windproofs. There are ads for Gore-Tex and internal frame packs but fleece, lightweight boots, trail shoes, dome and tunnel tents, trekking poles, GPS and much more are strangely absent. I'm surprised though at how many of the brand names are familiar - Vango, Mountain Equipment, Rohan, Karrimor, Berghaus, Field & Trek, Primus, Optimus, Camping Gaz, Nikwax, Gore-Tex, Zamberlan, Sprayway - but who now remembers Pointfive, Boylans, Daimor, Bukta, Camp Trails, Hawkins, Munari, Ultimate?  

Gear was a major feature of the first issue of The Great Outdoors with seven pages devoted to a review of the 1977 Camping Trades Association Exhibition (CTA is now the Outdoors Industry Association), a page of test reports (a waterproof cagoule from Clarks (!) and a polyester filled proofed cotton jacket from Tenson), two pages of thoughts on lightweight camping by Robin Adshead (showing the lightweight approach was in The Great Outdoors from the start), another two pages on choosing backpacking gear at the age of fifty by Andrew Harper and a Meet the Retailer page on The Great Outdoors (of course!), in Yeadon. That's 13 pages in all, a significant chunk of a magazine with just 32 pages of editorial.

Here I've taken a dash through the past; seeking out those items that have lasted and looking at the changes that have taken place.

Boots

What we put on our feet has changed amazingly. In 1978 the "lightweight revolution", as it was called, was still a few years away and boots were generally fairly stiff and heavy and always made from leather. I walked from Land's End to John O'Groats in the spring of 1978 wearing 5 lb leather boots with metal shanks in the soles, something I shudder at now. The first signs of change came in 1980 with the launch of Karrimor's K-SBs (then made by Asolo) with fabric/suede uppers and a lightweight flexible synthetic midsole instead of a stiff leather one. TGO editor Roger Smith wrote in his review of the 1980 COLA Show that "1981 could be the year when the lightweight walking boot really makes the breakthrough".  He was right and this was reinforced the next year, 1982, with the launch of the first Brasher Boot and the Scarpa Bionic range. In that year I became committed to the new footwear after starting my 2,600 mile Pacific Crest Trail walk in 5 lb stiff leather monsters and finishing in 1.5 lb fabric Asolo approach shoes, the forerunners of today's trail shoes. Then as now some people felt lightweight footwear was unsuitable for serious use. In a feature in the February 1993 TGO I wrote "after 1200 miles, with a 60-70 lb pack, I beg to differ". After many, many more miles with many more loads I still do. 

On the Continental Dvide Trail, 1985. New Balance shoes, Karrimor Condor pack, Rohan clothing, Camera Care Systems camera cases

Although improvements continue modern walking boots and shoes are still based on the designs launched in the early 1980s. The only really new development in the 1990s has been sports sandals, which first appeared in Britain at the 1992 COLA Show and which were first reviewed, very positively, in the September 1993 issue by Cameron McNeish.

However the 1990s did see an important breakthrough in the boot fitting system developed by Phil Oren and the use of Superfeet and similar supportive footbeds.

Clothing
Rohan clothing, Karrimor Condor pack. Continental Divide Trail, 1985

If there is one product that symbolises the difference between 1978 and now it is Gore-Tex. Waterproofs then were made from non-breathable neoprene or polyurethane coated nylon. After a day wearing one of these the inside would be running with condensation. When The Great Outdoors was brand new so was Gore-Tex. In the first issue Robin Adshead (a leading backpacking writer at the time and author of Backpacking In Britain, which I still have) reported on the 1977 COLA Show at which Gore-Tex was launched with garments from Berghaus and Mountain Equipment. Robin wrote that Gore-Tex "works well on some people in some weather conditions " (with which many would still agree) and said of the Mountain Equipment Cascade jacket that it was "not cheap at £38.50 but if Gore-Tex works, it is well worth the money". By the June issue he was "totally satisfied that Gore-Tex has great advantages over less porous waterproof materials". I was convinced too, having worn a Berghaus Mistral Gore-Tex jacket on my Land's End to John O'Groats walk and been amazed at how dry I stayed inside it.

Gore-Tex didn't sweep non-breathables away immediately though. There were durability problems with first generation Gore-Tex and it was expensive (second generation was much longer lasting but less breathable and no less expensive). Slowly though the idea that wearing waterproofs didn't have to mean soaking in your own sweat became accepted. Competition is always a sign of success and in 1983 the first alternative to Gore-Tex, Entrant, was launched. This was soon followed by others, including Sympatex (called Syntatex in TGO!) in 1986 and Paramo in 1989, and by the end of the decade waterproof/breathable fabrics were the norm.

The other great change was the rise of fleece, a name unheard of in 1978 other than on the backs of sheep, which is ironic in that fleece just about saw the demise of wool shirts and sweaters for most walkers. The change began in 1982 with the launch of Mountain Equipment's Thermofleece, followed soon afterwards by Ultimate Equipment's Polapelt. Ultrafleece, still in my opinion one of the best fleece fabrics, appeared in 1984 as did Patagonia's Bunting, which turned into Synchilla a year later. (To be accurate Patagonia had started the fleece revolution some years earlier in the USA but hadn't been available here before). Then 1986 saw the first Malden Mills Polarplus (now Polartec) garments from Berghaus and The North Face and the place of fleece in outdoor wardrobes was assured.

Before fleece there was fibre-pile, a somewhat shaggy, scruffy fabric, though with a better warmth to weight ratio, and after fleece there is still fibre-pile. Indeed the latest fluffy fleeces look more like pile, as it became shortened to, than previous fleece fabrics. Some people never abandoned pile however and paralleling the rise of fleece was the rise of Buffalo with its Pertex/pile garments which were first launched in 1986 and which is still going. The man behind Buffalo, Hamish Hamilton, was also the discoverer of the properties of Pertex (and before that the designer of the original cotton Force Ten tents for Vango).

Chris Ainsworth on a ski tour in the Alps, 1983. Rohan Super Strider breeches and Rohan shirt. This photo was used in a Rohan catalogue.

As well as wool shirts and sweaters and clammy non-breathable waterproofs the walker of the 1970s wore thick baggy tweed or corduroy breeches or trousers. Then along came Paul and Sarah Howcroft and a company called Rohan, just starting out when TGO was launched. Firstly Rohan replaced itchy, heavy wool legwear with stretchy brushed nylon Super Striders, at the time the best cold weather legwear available and the first softshell garments (though the name wasn't used back then). Then for summer came lightweight polycotton trousers and breeches, derided by many (including some who were to make their own versions a few years later) as far too light and flimsy for serious use. They were wrong. My first ever gear review, in the April '79 The Great Outdoors, was of Rohan Summer Striders. I concluded that these polycotton breeches were ideal for summer and went on to wear the trouser length versions, the now-famous Bags, for Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail through-hikes.

Polycotton dominated lightweight clothing in the 1980s but in 1989 the first synthetic microfibre nylon and polyester clothing was launched and this has taken over, though polycotton is still around. 

On the Continental Divide Trail, 1985, Rohan Moving On windshirt and Bags trousers.

Rucksacks

Small rucksacks were much simpler affairs back in 1978. Most were just simple nylon or canvas bags with shoulder straps. A few had padded backs but it was to be another ten years before these were standard whilst internal stiffening, zip round openings, sternum straps and waist straps were all well in the future. Even further away was the rebellion against complex and heavy packs with ultralightweight ones that went back to 1970s designs but using much lighter fabrics.

Towering rigid pack frames were still popular for backpacking in 1978 - there's one on the cover of the first The Great Outdoors - though Berghaus were making some inroads into the belief that such frames were needed for heavy load carrying with their internal framed Cyclops rucksacks, a range that, with modifications, is still available today. Karrimor had launched the first Jaguar packs in 1976 but their top-of-the range models were still external frame models as can be seen by their two full-page advertisements in the first The Great Outdoors. By 1983 these external frames had vanished and the first Condor packs had arrived. The company that launched the first internal frame packs, Lowe Alpine, first appeared in Britain in 1978. By the mid -1980s the pack frame had just about vanished in Britain though there were still plenty about in the USA and Scandinavia. And by the late '80s the first packs designed specifically for women were available, Jenny Roberts giving the Berghaus Lady Pulsar 65 a positive review in the December 1988 The Great Outdoors.

Dave Rhebehn with external frame pack in the High Sierra on the Pacific Crest Trail, 1982

Some things don't change though. "There seems, however, to be some discrepancy in the methods used by rival makers to find the capacity of their bags," complained Robin Adshead in the first issue of The Great Outdoors. There still is.


Tents

Phoenix Phreeranger tent, Therm-A-Rest, Rohan clothing on my length of the Canadian Rockies walk, 1988

Along with the demise of the pack frame backpackers also saw the demise of the ridge tent, the standard in 1978. When I wrote the piece in 1991 ridge tents and pyramid tents were rare and seemed very old-fashioned, though they have now returned with the use of trekking poles as tent poles. The big names in lightweight tents in 1978 were Saunders and Ultimate with Vango Force Tens on the heavyweight side. In the May '78 The Great Outdoors Robin Adshead praised the Ultimate Tramp, a sloping ridge model with an A pole at the front, as a "first-rate shelter". I agreed, using one on my Land's End to John O'Groats walk. Flexible poles were coming though and in June 1980 Robin Adshead was reviewing the VE24, a geodesic dome from The North Face. At the same time new companies started to make the running with tunnel tents on offer from Phoenix and Wintergear. Even Rohan got in on the act with a geodesic dome called Xanadu though it never reached the shops. Reviewing the new designs in February 1981 Cameron McNeish wrote presciently that "hoop tents and domes will, I suspect, proliferate in the next few years". Of the many designs, some quite weird and wonderful, that appeared in the early 1980s two were especially significant and haven't been bettered since. Single hoop tents, typified by the Phoenix Phreerunner (1982) and Saunders Spacepacker (1983), gave the most space for weight of any design for solo and lightweight backpackers while the stretched geodesic dome shape of the Wintergear Sapphire has become the standard for lightweight mountain tents. The last name probably isn't familiar but all will be clear when I say that the Sapphire was renamed the Quasar a few years later.

Phoenix Phreerunner Gore-Tex single hoop tent, Karrimor Condor pack, Rohan clothing. Pyrenees, 1987

Sleeping Bags/Mats

Compared with tents and packs developments in sleeping bags have been less dramatic. Down is still the lightest, warmest, most durable filling though synthetics have improved enormously since Holofill was launched in the autumn of 1977. The mummy shape, only found on top-of -the-range bags in 1978, is now found even on budget bags.

In my view the major development was in sleeping mats rather than bags with the arrival in Britain in 1978 of the first Therm-A-Rest self-inflating mats. Using one of these left Robin Adshead so carried away that he quoted Shakespeare: "For this relief, much thanks" (The Great Outdoors September 1978). Having used a Therm-A-Rest on many long distance walks since 1981 I can only agree.

Stoves

In 1978 we cooked on ALP and Camping Gaz butane stoves, Optimus paraffin stoves, Svea 123 petrol stoves and Trangia meths stoves. All bar the first are still available. The two big changes have been the replacement of pure butane in cartridges with butane/propane mixes, which work better in cold weather, and the introduction in 1979 of the first MSR stove, the GK, with its unique use of the fuel bottle as the fuel tank. Now this design is standard with models available from Coleman, Primus and Optimus.

Accessories

Two accessories undreamt of in 1978 typified the walker of the 1990s, though their use was still controversial. The first and most visual was trekking poles, which rose in popularity extremely quickly. The first feature on these appeared in February 1992 and it reflected the fact that the writer (myself) only used a single pole at the time. However by December 1994 editor Cameron McNeish was appearing on the cover using a pair of poles, a picture that, along with other covers, provoked one anti-pole reader to accuse the magazine of promoting their use (which of course we were, along with that of walking footwear, rucksacks and other items).

The other and even more controversial item was the GPS receiver, a development first commented on in the September 1992 issue when Roger Smith, reviewing the £679 Trimble Ensign, wrote that it was "a development we shall watch with great interest, but for the time being, don't throw your maps and compasses away". The advice is still valid.


Conclusion

This rather breathtaking rush through many years of gear leaves me with two thoughts. The first is that I believe that some (note that some!) gear really has improved. I wouldn't like to go back to wearing itchy wool breeches, sweaty non-breathable waterproofs and heavy, stiff, tiring clodhopper boots. I'd also rather carry a stable internal frame pack than a swaying top heavy external frame.

But my final thoughts are that gear doesn't really matter. It's only a tool, a means to an end. The wild places, the glorious hills and awe inspiring forests through which our narrow trails wind, are still out there, still the reason we carry packs and camp wild. When it comes down to it which rucksack, which footwear and which shelter we use really don't matter. Being out there. That's what it's all about.

25 comments:

  1. Totally agree, getting out there is the key. I have camped in my younger days In the clothes I wore, an unnamed sleeping bag with no rating, an A frame tent that weighed a tonne ( not literally ), a multipack bag of crisp and a swiss army knife I was given from my dad. Those were the days.

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  2. Great insight, I can remember the brand name Buckta for some reason. I can't imagine walking with 5lb boots with steel plates, sounds sore. I think for some to the diversity of kit that is now available can become frustrating in trying to choose what suits your individual needs that's where guys like yourself and TGO come in. It brings to mind my first adventure with a friend at the age of 12yrs, a camping trip to Fife to my uncles farm. We had an canvas ridge tent "weighed a ton", pack was an ex army canvas bergen, sleeping a old itchy blanket from home, no ground sheet, cooking utensils were army mess tins and my dad's treasured Billy can, we made our own fire, boots were of the tackety variety, duffle coat in case it rained with shorts. Guess where we were camped? in a paddock with four horses, and it was the height of summer(duffle coat) so you can imagine the midgies, and no midge nets then, but this was our big adventure and we thought it was great. Sorry for rambling on Chris, your article brought back a memory that was slowly fading. To add your a brave man to publish those early pictures of a young Chris ;-) there brill, a bygone era, nice one.

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    1. A pair of Scarpa SL Activs aren't far off 5Lbs even though they don't have steel shanks :)

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  3. A brilliant piece, Chris - fascinating to see how kit has evolved.

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  4. Excellent look at gear development over 36 years. Really interesting.
    Lovely to see the photo's of some well loved classic early Rohan. I had forgotten all about Xanadu (the Rohan tent). Long forgotten.

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    1. Thanks Sarah. I'd forgotten about the Xanadu too.Lucky it got mentioned in TGO!

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  5. Chris, this is a FANTASTIC post. As a "younger" bloke I find changes in kit now only marginal. The changes or evolutions you've posted here is astonishing given the time frame.

    You sir, are a living legend. This post along with our recent camp vindicates that statement personally.

    Wonderful post! And more folks should read it. Should be in TGO. Your words at the end are succinct. True. But for a "young 'in" (and I'm not really nowadays) I found this post really enlightening. Even though I remember rather vividly cotton A frame tents and cumbersome packs from my pre-teens ha!

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    1. Thanks Terry. Of course the original piece was in TGO - in 1999.

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  6. Thanks everyone. I'm a bit taken aback - and very pleased - at how much interest there is in this.

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  7. yes i remember hiking with a vango force ten tent the all cotton one god nows how heavy that was including the original trangia 27 etc but there was no condensation in the force 10 and i got a great nights sleep

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  9. Chris, this is a fascinating read for someone like myself who didn't get into backpacking until the late 90s. The similarity of some of the vintage tent designs to modern Tarptents is particularly nifty.

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  10. Yes, many things have changed and in my experience durability has declined substantially.

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    1. With some items I'd agree. Lightweight footwear doesn't last as long as the big heavy boots of the past (though you can still get these if you want). But tents last far longer - the old PU nylon flysheets used to get stiff and crack the coating would peel off after a while) and waterproofs a fair bit longer (I used to go through a PU coated waterproof jacket a year - at least they were cheap).

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  11. Yes, the old Force 10 tents have sadly decomposed, as have the KSB3s, but my Karrimor Marathon tent (featured I think on a very early TGO mag cover) is still serviceable, and my Phreerunner remains an excellent backpacking tent. Just as well, I don't particularly want to change my alias to 'Solar Competition the 2nd'! Thanks go to Rohan, Terra Nova and others for their sterling efforts to stay ahead of the game and provide great kit and support over the years.

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    1. The very first issue of TGO in fact, in a Robin Adshead photo. My Phreerunner expired a long time ago - the Gore-Tex began to leak and there's nothing you can do about that. My Phreeranger expired too after two very long walks - the length of the Canadian Rockies and the length of the Yukon Territory - and many shorter trips. I still have a serviceable cotton Vango Force Ten Mk III. Mind you, it's only ever been used for car camping.

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    2. Surprisingly, my Phreerunner is still going strong. It has been well treated, and well used, though nowhere near as much as you may have used yours. Mine has probably done 200 to 300 nights so far, much more than the condensation prone Karrimor Marathon!

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    3. Hi, Chris. I'm probably a bit late commenting on this great post, but I just thought I'd say that my Phreeranger lives on! The PU coating died a few years ago. But Marc at Trekkertent has just made me a new silnylon flysheet using the old one as a template, and added a few tweaks and refinements at the same time. I can let you have more details if you're interested.

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    4. Thanks for that info. Glad to hear one Phreeranger is going strong. Mine is long gone.

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  12. im alan jenkins, i use to traval loads

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  13. The biggest change i've noticed over the 30 years i've been buying gear, is that its not built with the same durability as it used to be. I've got KSB's, an Alpiniste rucsac, and a 92 Quasar still going strong.

    From what I can see, this drop in quality normally coincides with a company off shoring its production.

    Buying kit now, id rather take a chance on second hand old gear on ebay. Should still last longer than new stuff

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  14. I haven't found much difference in the durability of equivalent gear over the decades except in budget gear, which is much better than it was. Changes in materials have made the most difference - tent and pack fabrics are stronger than they were. Where it's made doesn't affect the durability or quality.

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  15. Keep meaning to comment but never got round to it. Lots of nostalgia.
    I had a Saunders fellpine bought in 82 and find it hard to find a tent as light as that at a cheap price these days. I don't remember my Hawkins cairngorms feeling heavy but I did have fancy sorbothane footbeds in them and as for fleece..there was a time when the only people wearing fleece or pile were mountaineers or roustabouts off the rigs. There used to be a company in Edinburgh who could make you anything in pile. My pile jacket suffered a meltdown thanks to my svea which is still going strong.
    I couldn't afford Rogan striders but I did have a tiso copy and I got a fetching grey/purple Rohan smock which I am amazed to actually still have.
    Thanks Chris.

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  16. Started off with heavy leather boots. The normal stove was either optimus petrol or primus paraffin. My first tent was Egyptian cotton. My rucksack was canvas external frame. My waterproof was a cagjak and women still wore skirts on the hill.

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  17. A pair of cotton vango tents (bright orange) are what our family holidays when I was kid were taken in! All that weight saved in folks' packs had made space for more chocolate... and lightweight inflatable watercraft, of course ...

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