Blowing Up: Inflatable Gear of the Future

Designers are using inflatable technology to make products—from the ultimate commuter helmet to airy insulation—lighter, safer, and more portable.


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Inflatable gear is nothing new. You probably even have a Therm-a-Rest or blow-up raft stored in your gear shed as you read this.

Now, designers are getting more creative with their inflatable designs. Stand-up paddleboards, tents, and even snowshoes can be set up with an air pump—or some powerful lungs. That means lighter, more portable gear for you.  

Black Diamond Halo Jetforce Avalanche Airbag ($1,275)

black diamond halo jetforce avalanche airbag airbag pack outside magazine outside online inflatable
(Courtesy of Black Diamond)

Few inflatable products have drawn as much buzz as Black Diamond’s new avalanche-safety bag. The Halo Jetforce revolutionizes the airbag pack, making it more versatile and practical for most backcountry skiers.

Jetforce technology uses a battery-powered fan instead of a compressed-gas cylinder, so you deploy can the airbag multiple times on a single trip. You’ll also save money since canisters are good only once before they have to be refilled, which can be expensive. They’re also difficult to travel with because of TSA restrictions.

Klymit Ulaar Jacket ($295)

klymit ulaar jacket inflatable outside magazine outside online
(Courtesy of Klymit)

If there’s an inflatable revolution, expect Klymit to lead the charge. The company has developed a seam-welding technology that allows it to produce products like ultralight cutout sleeping pads and inflatable pack rafts. It’s even trying to replace old rigid backpack frames with air-filled ones.

The company’s most impressive product to date has been its inflatable clothing, which was initially funded through Kickstarter. Both the Ulaar jacket and Double Diamond vest allow the wearer to dial in the amount of insulation using argon gas. The weightless compound provides better insulation than fibrous materials because it won’t get wet and weigh you down. 

Heimplanet The Cave ($670)

inflatable the cave tent inflatable geodesic outside magazine outside online
(Courtesy of Heimplanet)

Inflatable tents are no longer reserved for carnivals and used-car lots. Hamburg, Germany–based Heimplanet has developed expedition-worthy air-pole shelters.

Stefan Clauss and Stefan Schulze Dieckhoff founded the company in 2010 because they wanted a tent that was quick and easy to pitch even in bad weather or at night. They created the Cave, a geodesic structure of air chambers that can be inflated from a single point.

If a frame section fails, a built-in safety system allows the user to separate the chambers. (You likely don’t have to worry about this, however: Videos show the tent holding up to 60 mph gusts.) As a bonus, the tent looks like something out of Battlestar Galactica.

Hövding Helmet ($410)

Hövding inflatable helmet bike helmet inflatable cyclist bike safety outside online outside magazine
(Courtesy of Hövding)

Swedish company Hövding set out to develop a bike helmet that acts like the airbag in your car. Dozens of sensors in the helmet monitor the cyclist’s movement. At the first sign of an abnormality (read: a crash), the helmet inflates and covers the rider’s head and neck. Crash tests show the helmet inflating in less than a second, well before the cyclist hits the ground.

Worn around the neck, the uninflated helmet looks more like a bulky scarf than a typical lid. Take note: This helmet isn’t designed for mountain biking. “Since it’s based on movements from people cycling normally in the city, it could be ‘oversensitive’ while cycling downhill or jumping,” says company spokesperson Maria Persson.

NRS Baron 6 ($1,395)

nrs northwest river supplies inflatable inflatable standup paddleboard sup water sports outside magazine outside online baron 6
(Courtesy of NRS)

Inflatable stand-up paddleboards make a lot of sense in environments from whitewater rivers to high alpine lakes. They’re easier to transport, harder to damage, and lighter than their fiberglass counterparts.

If you’re looking for a casual-float board, check out NRS’s Baron line. At six inches thick and 358 liters of volume, the board could almost accommodate the whole family next time you take to the river.

Like many inflatable SUPs, the Baron inflates to 15 psi, which keeps the board rigid and helps it glide smoothly. The triple-fin setup is versatile enough for rivers, lakes, or even catching a few waves.

Billabong V1 Wetsuit ($TBD)

billabong v1 wetsuit water sports inflatable outside magazine outside online
(Courtesy of Billabong)

After nearly drowning at California big-wave spot Mavericks, pro surfer Shane Dorian wanted a wetsuit that would help keep him safe. So Billabong and maritime safety company Mustang Survival teamed up to design a special suit.

Dorian repeatedly tested the V1 suit in huge waves and found that his time held underwater dramatically decreased with it on. In 2011, the suits were distributed to a handful of elite surfers, but the research and development continued, and Billabong still doesn’t know when the product will go to market.

In the meantime, other companies began to follow suit. Patagonia developed the Portable Self-Inflation (or PSI) vest, and big-wave pioneer Jeff Clark helped come up with the Quatic Inflatable Surf Vest. Few of the products are available to the public yet, but expect to see more prototypes this year and next.