Thursday, March 4, 2010

Designer Backpacking Gear?


 

I'm always on the lookout for backup Platypus bottles and when I found one at an outlet store on sale for only $4, it seemed like it was a no-brainer purchase--until I saw the design change they made for 2010.  What used to be a humble, soft-sided water vessel had turned into a flashy "accessory" that looked more like it belonged on a fashion runway in NYC than in the side pocket of a backpack in the wilderness.  My once familiar, Spartan 1-liter soft bottle now had a bright orange retro-looking "wave" splashed across the bottom.  I was disgusted by the aesthetics, yet tempted by the price.  So did I buy it?

I did (partly out of frugality but more to remind me about a trend in backpacking gear I've noticed recently).  "Fashion" has clearly infiltrated outdoor clothing for some time now.  It has crept up on us so slowly that glaring logos and graphics seem normal on jackets, hats, and hiking shoes.  But water bottles?

After thinking about it, I realized that the same trend in clothing is starting to happen with gear (hard goods).My Peztl Tikka Plus head lamp has a funky graphic on the head band.  I remember when you had one choice of headband color:  black  (The old Henry Ford approach).  Now, you several have choices of neon headlamp colors.



Light My Fire Sporks come in a variety of colors.  Sigg water bottles have become canvasses for all kinds of crazy graphics:


Even survival tools like firesteels now come in a choice of colors.   Look at the Osprey Talon.  Those "talons" on either side of the pack add nothing to the functionality but someone in the marketing or design department must have thought it was a good idea.
 
I'm not saying that we're on a slippery slope to fashion driving gear design (yet).  But I think about the implications and wonder what the rest of you think.  Do you like "designer" gear or do you like to keep it simple?  Or, do you put function over aesthetics so much that you don't care what a piece of gear looks like as long as it serves it's purpose?  I think I'm somewhere in the middle:  if it's not aesthetically offensive to me and is functional, I can live with it.  But I prefer the way the cottage industry does it"  plain and simple. What about you?
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43 comments:

ADVENTUREinPROGRESS said...

My main issue with fashion is that it makes stuff look outdated later on. If I buy a plain piece of high quality gear, it can last years, so it is my preference that it be plain so that it doesn't stick out like a sore thumb 10 years from now. I think some manufacturers may be moving towards fashion to get people to buy gear more often. Remember the neon colors of ski fashion in years gone bye? Nobody would be caught dead wearing something like that these days, even though some of it may still be perfectly functional.

Jason Klass said...

AdventureinProgress-

Hmmm, that's a good point I didn't even think of. I guess I replace gear so often that I probably won't run that risk, but I guess if more durable hard goods start taking the trend, we will all run the risk of committing fashion faux pas with our stoves and compasses in the near future.

Anonymous said...

Platypus definitely seems to be making the move toward obsoleting products as a means of selling new gear. They stopped selling their cap to hydration tube adapter so they can sell complete systems. I think I'll let them sell to someone else while I look for a different brand.

Jason Klass said...

Anonymous-
One word: Evernew.

Stephanie said...

I wish that these companies would put more of their time and effort in to making sure the products will last, instead of making a fashion statement. Durability trumps all in my book!

I have also ranted before that just because I am female doesn't mean I want purple, magenta and baby blue colored items. Then again, I did know a girl who had to have her climbing harness, chalk bag and shoes all match when she purchased them. Guess who has their gear collecting dust? ;)

Those of us who really want to be outdoors aren't going to be as influenced. I think the flashy colors and patterns are for the wannabes, but that is just my opinion! =)

Jason Klass said...

Stephanie,
Another good point. I think it's funny that the gear companies think women want a pink pack. It makes it look like women don't take backpacking seriously--like they need a superficial incentive to go. That brings up another question: do you think things like women's specific packs, sleeping pads, etc. actually make a difference or are they just marketing B.S.?

Stephanie said...

I started with just a regular pack, tried it once and didn't try backpacking again for years. I thought I would give it another shot and bought a pack designed for women. I definitely have a womanly figure. The shape and contour of shoulder straps and hip belt made a HUGE difference. I am a total believer as far as packs are concerned.

I am not as convinced about the sleeping bag and pad having to be specifically made for women, but I happen to own some.

There is SO MUCH hype over pink and showing support for the breast cancer cause that I fear a full fledged assault is around the corner for all things backpacking.

Not to start any opinion wars here, but I like the way Apple approaches design and wish more companies would embrace some of their ideals. Minimalist lines and fewer color options with a high quality product would be good enough for me. At any rate, I am thankful that backpacking is something where you can still make a lot of your own gear. Creativity and problem solving is something that is valued in the backpacking community. Slapping some fancy colors and graphics on an existing product doesn't make it valuable.... it screams of triteness.

packeagle said...

I think I prefer simple functional equipment. I think design can add to the function of the equipment. LNT colors are good for large gear while I prefer bright colors for tent stakes and stuff sacks and other small items. With sporks, headlamps, etc. I feel that offering a variety allow you to identify your items from others easily. I have the gaudy purple bottle and you have the gaudy red one. So to an extent options are good.

Joe said...

The new Platypus 'soft-bottles' look like they've been redesigned to act as fitness/gym 'jogging' bottle, which they're inherent design does not lend itself to at all! I'm also not sure if the new shape will be as backpack pocket friendly.

I'm don't think I've ever chosen a product simply because it looks cool but I've certainly been put off buying perfectly designed, practical products because someone in the company thought it needed a garish colour scheme.

Joe and Lisa said...

Check out the new GoLite Rush pack. That whole line of Hydration and Day Use packs has taken a turn towards the ugly, with the large logos and space-age designs.

pemcleod said...

I really don't care for a design on my gear unless it performs a function.
For instance my daughters sleeping pad has animal prints, games, etc on it. So if they can spend time putting silly logos on my gear why can't they put useful information on it as well?
Your water bottle for instance could give you a break down on hydration needs, your headlamp band could give signaling information, etc.
One more rule, it it adds weight I want it off my gear.

Robert said...

I agree with Stephanie. These are wannabe BP gear items. We'll see these perhaps a quarter mile down the trail from the trailhead. From there, common sense and logic will prevail and the regular platys and plastic soda bottles will reappear in the packs of us UL devotees. These bottles will go the way of the old Columbia yellow/orange/green/black "rain jackets".

Aaron said...

Unfortunatley, fashion happens.

I think that backpacking managed to stay out of the limelight for years, or maybe, stayed in the back woods, so things like colors were a simple decision, make it blend in, or make it stick out (earth tones or contrasting tones).

However, now that big, mainstream stores are carrying more and more of what was once specialty gear, manufacturers have to be concerned with how their product looks on the shelf next to their competitor.

Brands that used to bank on consumers being smart enough to look into what they are buying and make a purchase based on things like functionality and durability are realizing that they now have to accept that some buyers are going to pick up what looks better, as well.

Just the way it goes!

Also... I too have a new style platypus... I bought it because it looked better than the other ones... j/k

Chris said...

I found a side benifit of the fashion trend a couple weeks ago. I found the Outdoor Research Revel jacket I had been wanting on sale for $86 (reg $160). Why was it priced so low? Fall '09 colors. As soon as the new colors come out some retailers are discounting. And the jacket is a subdued gray and tan, not some crazy fashion color. Thats the upside to fashion.

Robin said...

I actually like the way the new Platypus bottles look. The reality is that backpacking gear companies simply can not make enough money by just selling to people that acutally hike! You think North Face is successful because they sell to climbers & hikers? That market it tiny! They need to sell to the general public that like this pretend to be outdoors men. That's OK so long as quality stays up (personally I don't think it did with NF but it has with Mountain Hardwear). To Chris's point about - it can lower prices because if you don't care about fashon the "last years" model will soon be on closeout".
Robin
BackpackBaseCamp Blog

lazy sod said...

To see these companies get larger and start entering into a place where design meets function is ok by me. Ul backpackers are more open to smaller companies than most. As some companies get bigger a void is created that allows cottage start ups come in with new ideas. They don't have to sell to a particular market and have the freedom to create innovative products that don't have be cool ( except maybe to us gear heads).

Jason Klass said...

Robin,
Fair Enough. But look at the 4 pictures I posted and picture them all together. Now, imagine a hiker whose every piece of gear from head to toe is covered in crazy graphic designs. If you laid all of their gear out on the ground, it would look like a Jackson Pollock painting! I guess what I'm saying is that maybe a splash of color here and there among more subdued pieces of gear might look OK but when every piece of gear you carry looks like pop art, it seems kind of gaudy to me. Know what I mean?

Also, I'm afraid that your comment about appealing to a wider market is probably true. My concern is that companies that make good quality gear will come down with a case of "The North Face Syndrome" and start to put fashion above quality.

Robin said...

Your absolutely right. Quality is my main concern. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that doesn't happen to Mountain hardwear or Montbell, but it probably will. Kind of sad.

Robin
BackpackBaseCamp Blog

Jason Klass said...

Robin-
Let's all pray to the gear gods that it doesn't. I'm going to go light a piece of sacrificial Maya Dust to appease them right now!

Matt Lutz said...

The trees care not what you look like. If your hiking partners do, change your hiking partners.

Also, this is what happens when you make gear that lasts - the company needs to come out with new makes and models in order to sell that which doesn't break and you don't need more of.

The first sentence of the first comment (by ADVENTUREinPROGRESS) is right on.

Brimstone said...

Never understood why people want to "get back to nature" and drag the colors of the landfill with them. Ego, I guess. What's wrong with blending in and becoming part of the world rather than conquering it? I spent a lot of effort over many years in the military adapting civilian gear by marking out the stupid unnatural colors. Got a closet full of spray-painted Thermorests. And there are some parts of the world where an outdoor traveler does not need to stand out; fuschia gear doesn't help. In this case it's extra stoopid because making the bottle less translucent just allows slime to grow more easily and makes it harder to see what's inside. And Platypus's are already hard to dry out, tempting stuff to grow inside.

baz carter said...

WTF! Talk about losing the plot I'd never give those pack room even if they were the best bottles ever.

Bryan said...

On water bottles, I can understand the trend, but on backpacke I can't. I thought about buying the Osprey, because it fit, it had the right feature, but the trendy fashion look turned me off. I sure hope most companies don't go this way.

Matt DeWitt said...

I have two of these Play bottles .5 and a one liter. They are great but I didn't care to have a orange one or blue one I got the black. My son on the other hand had to pic his color.

Ingmar said...

"Designer Backpacking Gear" is the main reason I mostly purchase olive green "army" gear (karrimor sfm snugpak etc.)

Rachel said...

I just checked the Platypus (Cascade Designs) website. It looks like the old standby "Platy Bottle" is still available. The new flashy bottle is a different product called "SoftBottle".

Sean said...

Well the "talons" are reflective, at least. I just picked up one of those packs, myself - graphite color - at Dynamic Earth in Springfield, MO, a couple of weeks ago. No problem for how it looks, I just think it's a great light-duty pack, and I like how well it fits on my back, when I'm out on a bike. I'd like to say that I'm willing to overlook the designs of the visual features of the pack, for how functional the pack is, overall - it fits close and securely on the back, has plenty of space, in it, and has a plenty of tie-down points, on the outside, as well as an envelope specifically for carrying a bladder from something like a Camelbak. I think it works, and I forget how it looks. anyway, once I've got it on my back :)


I'd like to wager that the fashion designs on equipment could have something to do with some boredom in the offices, at the places where the products are designed. I mean, they have to get payed for something, so why not just add some crazy visual tricks to an existing product design? Something like that?

Bill Hohl said...

The designer aspect of those and any products is to either market to a broader group or to be able to increase your profit margin by adding 'sizzle.' In this case 8 believe it's both to intice novice users to the product (because most hard core users would make their selection on other grounds) and to be able to show their product to be a 'premium' product that has pizaz others don't. The fact that it was in the bargin bin may be the fault of the retailor or the manufacturers marketing may have simply flopped!

Chad said...

Im not saying that what it looks like don't matter to me cause if it's dog ugly I usually won't go near it, however just cause it looks cool don't mean I am going to buy it either. I think it's nice to have a little design to keep it from being totally bland though.
My wife has a womens sleeping bag and she is very happy with it as well as the GG Nimbus Meridian Ki, agian she loves the straps and fit. She is happy with the color scheme as well.
I think for the gear for kids it is a great idea. My son loves the talons on the Osprey packs, however I ended up getting him the Deuter Fox 30. It's pretty plain, but he loves the color (orange, but almost looks red).
As for the platys, I think Im going to start using Aqua Fina or Gatorade bottles. I may even take the label off so not to represent! :) (And it'll weigh less that way....)

Rocksterr said...

I prefer plain functionality from my gear. I don't want to pay extra for someone's idea of what looks good. When form follows function then beauty is a natural byproduct.

Anonymous said...

Forgive my bad English:
Personally, I find the whole color and graphics trend to be very offensive. I go to the woods to get AWAY from that trash! To see the earth. Seeing a herd of hikers splashed with neon colors, and cartoon characters is just insulting. I can understand a loud color for safety, but lets get real; isn't a muted yellow or orange enough? If I had my way there would be a law that stated all outdoor gear must be tones of : green, grey, or brown. Just my "not so humble opinion" though.

Four Jacks and a Pup said...

The platypus bottles do look kinda cool, though i wouldn't buy it for camping. I would like one for working out and running, but it looks completely useless for camping. I agree with Robin that companies can't survive by just selling to hikers and climbers, but don't change the good products to attract other buyers. Make new products, expand your company if you have to, but don't change the good stuff, making it useless for what it was originally made for.

Jason Klass said...

Four Jacks,
You make a good point. It would be nice if they offered different versions for different demographics and not impose the same design on everyone.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately if companies make two different lines of products, they will end up focusing one the line that makes money. This will be the higher margin mainstream line. The natural progression is that successful companies will become mainstream and new startups will come up underneath. This also has the advantage of breading innovation as these small companies don't have to worry about extra employies and can be adventurous. Plus we get to find new businesses to write about and look at.

Kathy Handyside said...

I remember when I went pack shopping, the sales person asked what color I wanted. I told him that color wasn't even on my list of priorities, other than a color that wouldn't jar with the environment. My main concern was getting a pack that fit comfortably. We live in a society in which getting older is almost considered a crime. You can see that attitude in the way everything is marketed: it's all aimed at the barely-20 crowd. And the are the ones who most likely will go for the bright colors and graphics. I still have a copy of William Kemsley's Backpacking Equipment Guide, published in the early '70s, and I'm really glad I saved it, because it's fascinating to see how things have evolved since then. Those were the heady days of backpacking! So many of those equipment names are long gone, sadly.

Jason Klass said...

Kathy,
Is there any way you could post some pictures from that guide? I'd be interested to see how different the gear was.

Kathy Handyside said...

Jason - I don't have a scanner but my friend Margie does. I'm supposed to go to her house for the 4th, so I'll try to scan some of the pages. Backpacking history is interesting!

Jason Klass said...

Kathy, that would be cool. I hope you can pull it off.

Kathy Handyside said...

I'll take my flash drive, scan some of the pages and save it to the flash drive, then e-mail them to you. Might be interesting to do a "backpacking history" posting and we can all reminisce! :)

Maz said...

My start point, as I tend to use ultralight kit, is the weight and effectiveness of a product and, if I have to buy it in a garish colour, then I'll do so. There are not that many true UL companies making good products and so colour tends to come a distant second to those priorities. For example, when choosing a rucksack recently, there were only 3 that really came close to my requirements and so what colour they came in was largely irrelevant. The same with the bivy bags I am looking at now. I guess it's very much about choice - if Gossamer Gear made the Gorilla in 5 colours then I would choose which one I wanted, but they don't. They same of the Big Agnes Fly Creek, GG SpinnTwinn the MLD Soul Bivy and so on. An effective product could be any colour but, other things being equal, I think a neutral colour would be best as it would offend fewer people and therefore sell more!

JoeS said...

Per stephanie and Robert's comments about wannabees...I agree. My daughter doesn't like backpacking, so I bought her a purple backpack (her favorite color) guess what? She still doesn't like backpacking, but the color got me to buy the pack. Does gear addict have to equal sucker?

Chris said...

Just wanted to chime in. I think the Henry Ford solution was perhaps the best. I just bought a Mountain Hardware pack that I love, but why can't I get it in simple green or black? Why must it be bright see-it-from-space red?

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