Tuesday 14 August 2018

Classic Gear: Rohan Bags

Bags page in the 1987 Rohan Catalogue with pictures of me on the Continental Divide Trail

Third in the Classic Gear series that appeared in The Great Outdoors last year. This time, some revolutionary trousers.

Lightweight, windproof, fast drying, and comfortable walking trousers have been standard wear for many years. It wasn’t always so though. Back in the 1970s, when I started hillwalking and backpacking, walking legwear was quite heavy and made of wool or cotton so it was slow drying and uncomfortable when damp. It was bulky when packed too – you didn’t want to carry a pair in a rucksack. I remember getting cold legs in wet cotton corduroy trousers in summer and sore itchy legs from harsh wet wool rubbing against them in winter.

Thankfully this all changed at the end of the decade when a new innovative company called Rohan introduced trousers in a thin windproof and fast drying tightly woven polyester/cotton fabric they called Airlight. Where did the fabric come from? Knowing that the properties wanted weren’t available in standard clothing fabrics Rohan founders Paul and Sarah Howcroft looked elsewhere and discovered what they wanted in duvet covers! This imaginative look beyond the outdoor and clothing industries would change what we wear in the hills forever.

Bags page in the 1983 Rohan catalogue

The first trousers, called Trotters, quickly evolved into Bags, launched in 1979, with the distinctive design that has stayed the same ever since with its double-front pockets and tough zips. Bags were originally designed as travel and approach walk trousers for mountaineers and so needed to be lightweight, quick-drying and easy care whilst still being functional and hard-wearing. Of course this meant they were also excellent for hillwalking and backpacking. 

Wearing Bags on the Continental Divide Trail

Bags did take a while to become really accepted. Many found it hard to believe such thin trousers could perform well and stand up to outdoor use. I was quickly convinced – an early adopter in today’s parlance. When I first saw them I was delighted with the low weight (284 grams) and the tiny pack size. I’d never seen any outdoor trousers anywhere near that light or that tiny when packed and I realised that they’d be ideal for my upcoming 2,700 mile Pacific Crest Trail through-hike. They proved excellent on that 1982 walk so I used them again on the even longer Continental Divide Trail three years later. There was no way I was going back to heavy, itchy, slow-drying wool and cotton trousers.

Rohan ad in The Great Outdoors, February, 1987 showing how small Bags pack
Rohan started a trend with Bags and since then many alternatives have appeared from many companies and lightweight trousers with the same properties are now the norm. The original design is still available, along with insulated Winter Bags for cold weather and softshell Stretch Bags for those who like close-fitting trousers. All three share that same design from 1979. It’s just as practical now as it was then. That Bags are still in production after thirty nine years and still popular is testimony to the pioneering designs and fabric research of Rohan all those years ago. 

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