gear of the year
(Illustration by Christoph Niemann)

Rebirth of the Cool

The makers of adventure gear and apparel had utility dialed long ago. Now R&D types are zeroing in on style.

gear of the year
James Glave

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Ten years back, when the first Outside Buyer’s Guide hit newsstands, a soft shell was a menu item at Red Lobster, a GPS receiver was about the size of a shoe box, and, if our earnest product tutorials were any indication, in-line skates required nothing short of an engineering degree to master. “Wheel hardness is rated by a durometer number,” we wrote back in 1995.

gear of the year

gear of the year


History is indeed a brutal judge, and, perused today, the inaugural edition of this magazine would offer the sophisticated gearhead page after page of hindsight-powered giggle fits. But it also underscores a greater truth: Adventure equipment and apparel are as much reflections of the day as music, food, fashion, television, or any other slice of the grand Google database that is contemporary American consumer culture.

We can already hear the purists slumping in their external-frame packs. “There’s nothing trendy about gear, and that’s the way it oughta be,” these old-schoolers will argue. “Never mind what color it is,” they’ll huff; “does it have a polytetrafluoroethylene membrane and a tear strength of at least 60 pounds? Does the hipbelt offer adequate padding over the iliac crest?”

True, these things are important, but good design does more than just solve engineering problems: It generates an emotional response. It harmonizes with that ineffable thing called style and the complex connections of trend. And though there have been significant improvements in, say, the available colors and cuts of backcountry-ready apparel—well, for women, that is—we still have work to do. Walk into any specialty gear shop and take a look at the inevitable wall o’ shoes. Bet you an Outside subscription that it’s a stylistic dirge in the keys of moss, slate, and mud.

To be fair, almost every classic outdoor brand—from Cloudveil to The North Face to Marmot—is tinkering with street-smart pieces, and some are rather sweet. The technical DNA is still very much present in these shirts and pants, but you can also wear them around town without looking like you just trekked down from advance base camp. Other innovators are finding ways to reach new buyers—66°rth, a gorgeous technical-apparel line from Iceland, is flying off the racks over at Urban Outfitters. Victorinox is at Bloomingdale’s. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Wolfe, cofounder of the Detroit-based gear chain Moosejaw, is using the Web to reach urbanites who might be too intimidated to venture into that shop with the big-wall-climbing diorama in the window.

The truth is, our world has changed. We’re opening up the lens on a brand-new golden age of cool, one that flips easily between backcountry and front. Today’s shoppers—and, yes, we’re talking about hardcore guys—are unapologetically style-savvy. They know what not to wear. And they’re in the market for hip performance clothing that can carry them from the trail to the office, out on a weekend getaway, or just down to the local java spot for a Saturday-morning dog summit.

Which brings us to this new, expanded, reinvigorated—dare we say, somewhat sexed-up—2005 Outside Buyer’s Guide. You won’t find any waffled long underwear here. Nor will you find a lot of royal blue. Instead, for every corner of this guide, we’ve sought out brands and products that work as hard as you do, pieces that have durability completely nailed but also look sharp while performing. When you’re outfitted to look good, you feel good. Job done.

Recognizing that not every moment of your active life is spent on belay (though maybe you wish it were), we’ve introduced a lifestyle section. There you’ll find a wicked espresso machine and a new scooter, plus digital music players, laptops, PDAs, urban attachés, sporty sunglasses that don’t scream “outdoor geek,” and those quintessential pieces of beach-poaching gear, the flip-flop and sandal.

Not that we’ve gone soft on you. You’ll still find our top picks for the best expedition equipment ever—each candidate was subjected to our trademark regimen of torture trials. Tents were set up in the dark in driving rain high in the Cascades; digital cameras were grip-tested on vertical granite faces in British Columbia; luggage was thrown from the roof of a bus in Panama; and at least one bag was peed on by primates in Nevis (yes, really).

As in past years, we’ve bestowed our coveted Gear of the Year awards upon 17 superlative pieces of gear, from sleeping bags to binoculars to kayaks. When it comes to the equipment and apparel you’ll trust with your life, we take our jobs very seriously indeed.

Question from the back row—the gentleman in the glacier glasses? Yes, you’ve got a point: Today’s ice-blue soft shell will look about as au courant ten years from now as the neon-pink jogging tights in our first issue do today. But you want to look good out there now, right? Then that’s the price you pay, brother.

From Outside Buyer’s Guide 2004 Lead Photo: Illustration by Christoph Niemann

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