When the salesman mentioned “ceramic-enhanced polyurethane,” my eyes glazed over the way they used to do in chemistry class. Before me was a red Sierra Designs jacket — just one example of the hottest thing in outdoor gear.
I was on a mission to find the latest-and-greatest stuff in the way of colder-weather camping clothes and supplies, but just when I’d figured out what Gore-Tex(R) is — “a polymer ‘membrane’ perforated all over with about nine billion microscopic pores per square inch,” according to Diamond Brand’s Web site — well, here came ceramics and “laminate technology.”
“Ceramics?” I queried, studying the label. Images of my grandmother’s mixing bowls flitted through my mind, but this stuff was so thin it was just one of three layers in the surprisingly light jacket.
“Think of it as a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich,” advised Larry Norman, assistant manager at Asheville’s Nantahala Outdoor Center. He did his best to cut through the high-tech gobbledygook: The top layer is your “bread” — usually nylon. The middle and inner layers consist of materials with the trade name Gore-Tex(R) XCR (for extended comfort range). Laminated to the nylon for strength, they wick moisture away from your body to the outer layer, Norman explained.
He fingered the shimmery middle layer. “To the naked eye, this looks like solid material,” Norman noted. But it’s shot full of those previously mentioned microscopic pores — which both enable the fabric to breathe and reduce its weight — so the wearer doesn’t steam inside the jacket, he continued.
The technology was developed for use in the medical field — repairing blood vessels or some such marvel, the best Norman could recall. But before I got too hooked on high-tech, he noted that old-fashioned materials such as goose down are still popular, still functional.
Then we moseyed over to sleeping bags: “Everyone’s afraid to use down because when it gets wet, you get cold,” Norman explained. However, it’s still one of the best insulators; many designers have compensated by adding Gore-Tex(R) shells (or a similar material) that waterproofs the bag without decreasing breathability.
Norman tossed in a little trivia as we squeezed and squished fluffy bag after fluffy bag: The best down material, actually, comes from the eider duck, which roosts on cliffsides. And those mysterious “fill numbers” you find on down sleeping bags refer to how much space the down takes up when it’s fully fluffed. The higher the numbers, the warmer the bag (because the extra air space in and around the down allows it to trap more of your body heat). A down bag rated at 1,200 is toasty enough for a trip to Mount Everest, but bags rated 550 and up will do just fine for late fall and mild winter around here.
One of the most expensive bags at NOC was filled with down, cloaked in a silk-like material, and weighed in at less than two pounds — “the Cadillac of bags,” announced Norman.
Much as I liked the silky feel, however, I recalled that I used to sneeze all night long when I slept on feather pillows as a child. So Norman turned to the synthetic bags — fluffed with stuff like Polarguard(R) 3D, a hollow monofilament that’s lightweight and compresses very well.
But even if you’ve got the latest high-tech materials, ingenuity also has a role to play. Norman pointed to a GoLite(TM) brand bag, stretched thoughtfully over a bed of rocks so customers can test it in the roughest of conditions: “Here’s the latest and greatest,” he said, referring to the bag’s remarkably simple engineering. It seemed light enough to float, and it comes with a foam sleeping pad that’s Velcroed to the bag — no more sliding off your pad in the middle of a cold night!
Meanwhile, over at Mast General Store, Jason Dilocker and Mike Wolz commented that it’s not so much about the in material of this year or the next. Said Dilocker, “Gore-Tex(R) is still the thing; and down is still hot.”
The real improvements come from better designs, these young men emphasized.
Dilocker pointed out features such as “extremity vents” in the jackets (sleeves with vents that can be opened and even rolled up to release heat). There are also new cooking stoves that allow campers to use anything from gasoline to jet fuel, Wolz added — along with tent poles made with titanium or lighter and stronger aluminum alloys (can you say “ferruleless anodized aluminum” three times, fast?). But don’t go looking for Gore-Tex(R) tents, unless you want to pay more than $1,000, he advised. A lightweight, less-expensive option is a tent made of Pac-Lite(TM).
Other improvements include water filters that snag giardia (a breed of intestinal parasite), microfilters that catch most bacteria, and purifiers that nab all the nasties (including viruses). With such portable, lightweight equipment, you don’t have to lug gallons of drinking water while backpacking. And more and more backpack designers are attending to women’s special measurements, granting us a little more hip room. (Sleeping-bag manufacturers are also getting wise to women’s needs, taking into account narrower shoulder widths, a tendency toward cold feet at night, and 40 turns per night.)
Just the same, Dilocker mused, “There’s something of a myth about the in thing each year.” A few years back, internal-frame backpacks became popular. But now external-frame packs are coming back in style, simply because they still do a better job of keeping the weight off your hips and shoulders, he concluded.
Ultimately, planning a successful camping trip boils down to common sense. “A guy came in, said he was going camping where there’s grizzlies. He wanted a biodegradable, unscented soap. You don’t want to be smelling ‘pretty’ around grizzlies,” warned Dilocker.
I thought I’d stick to black-bear country, myself (but not before making a mental note to lock up my cooler at night: Earlier this summer, a Mount Pisgah black bear grabbed a friend’s 25-gallon cooler and simply dragged it into the woods for his midnight feast ). In due time, this line of thought steered me to the subject of running boots. New, lightweight models abound these days, culminating in the combination running-shoe/hiking-boot phenomenon. Then there’s what Norman — hefting a Vasque leather boot — referred to as the “resurgence of natural materials,” such as leather and wool. Leather is naturally water resistant, lasts for a long time when well cared for, and survives on the simple beauty of its rich color and soft feel. As Norman puts it: “How can you improve on that?”