Originally created 08/16/98

Wilderness crowd paying big bucks to rough it in comfort



SALT LAKE CITY -- Suffering used to be a source of satisfaction to the backpacker. Aching shoulders, sore feet, lousy food, getting soaked -- ah, roughing it!

"I remember going out with my dad, and it was almost like a pride thing to get a little beat up," says Scott Monte.

But as publisher of Backpacker magazine, Monte is aware that in the 1990s, pride in pain has gone the way of the canvas tent.

Now people head for the hills in a costly cocoon of comfort and security -- everything from ergonomical backpacks to global positioning systems -- so even well-heeled wimps can weather the wilderness.

The gradual transformation of backpacking into the upscale province of the fitness-and-fashion crowd was apparent at this weekend's Outdoor Retailer Summer Market.

Some 800 manufacturers teased retailers with what could be on store shelves next spring -- gourmet dehydrated food, cloth maps that can double as bandanas and a waterproof material that breathes and stretches for climbers or cyclists who need body-hugging apparel.

Subtle changes in what has evolved over 20 years into high-tech standard equipment illustrate the ferocity of the competition in a $5 billion industry bent on making camping cozy.

Take the sleeping bag, a seemingly simple tube filled with some kind of down or synthetic insulation. Next spring, Kelty Inc. will have one designed for those who sleep on their backs with their toes pointing up.

Not comfy enough? WestWind Trading Co. has six styles of silk sheets to slip inside even the most pedestrian bag.

Germany's Jack Wolfskin is introducing a line of backpacks designed to let air circulate around the shoulders and back to prevent sweat from soaking the pack and spoiling all those gourmet treats.

In another display, Kelty showed off photochromatic tent windows that turn blue when hit by sunlight, reducing daytime light and heat and enhancing privacy.

"Comfort is king," Monte says.

Of the more than 550 who responded to a survey by his magazine, comfort was the top criterion when it came to various items, including backpacks and socks. To Monte and the manufacturers, demand for comfort over durability or price means consumers are getting smarter, not necessarily softer.

"I think at the end of the day, the more comfortable you are the greater is one's ability to stay outside longer," said John Wilson, president of Duofold, which makes underwear with a fabric that sucks perspiration off the skin and through the garment for easy evaporation.

And while it would seem backpacks couldn't hold the endless number of gadgets available, manufacturers keep coming up with ways to make them lighter and more compact.

Mountain Safety Research of Seattle introduced its titanium cookware -- two pots and pan weighing a half-pound combined -- at $89 a set.

Riley Cutler, co-owner of Wasatch Touring Co. in Salt Lake City, believes the cookware is a bit pricey for his clientele. But, he admits, he's been wrong before.

"One year I was worried about stocking a backcountry bistro coffee maker and we sell a lot of those," Riley said. "There are a lot of gizmos there and sometimes you take a gamble."

Monte has found the risk usually pays off, at least when his readers walk into a store.

The average household income of a Backpacker reader last spring was $89,500 and they spent an average $1,050 on outdoor equipment and clothing, in addition to some $3,500 on outdoor excursions the previous year.

While the magazine survey focuses on a narrow group, manufacturers tend to agree the market is primarily well-paid urban professionals seeking an escape and who find the outdoors preferable to the gym.

"Urban areas are getting more crowded and outdoors has a bigger appeal than it ever has," said Ashley Devery, spokeswoman for North Face, known for expedition gear.

The cachet is catching on even among people who want to look like they lug 75-pound backpacks over majestic rock formations -- but never have. Consequently, a growing cadre of department store buyers is among the 5,000 to 6,000 buyers attending the show.

"My customer isn't likely to go into the backcountry wearing an ultratechnical jacket, but will wear it out to dinner," said Mark West, a buyer for Arizona Department Stores.

Devery said her company jumped into the profitable casual clothing market two years ago.

"As the romance of the outdoor mystique increases, outdoor companies experiencing the greatest growth will be those that appeal to this larger consumer market," said Steve Bendzak, a vice president of Ex Officio, a Seattle-based maker of casual outdoor wear.

The most growth is seen in footwear.

When playtime is over for today's hiker, the absolute right thing to wear in camp is a pair of beefy-soled clogs, described by Christian Triquet of Merrell footwear as "sort of a hot slipper."

Is anybody worried the market for newer, fancier outdoor gear will top out anytime soon?

"At some point it may hit a resistance on price, but I haven't seen it," said John Viehman, Backpacker's editorial director. "It's only as limited as people's imaginations."