In this consumerist society, there is one universal truth: brands that innovate grow; brands that stagnate die. It’s why many brands attempt to reinvent the wheel seemingly every season, deploying jackets and tents and backpacks that are supposedly the best they’ve ever been. It’s why New and Improved! sends products flying off shelves, and Same Shit, Different Year does not. And it’s why outdoor titans like Patagonia or The North Face are so laser focused on improving one essential gear ingredient above all else: down and synthetic insulation.
We have glimpsed the future of many outdoor equipment technologies. ‘Round-the-clock research and development yields stronger, lighter and faster gear, and, year after year, the outdoor industry continues to grow. If this growth spurt continues, the future of outdoor gear is a bright one. And we have some ideas about what it may look like. — Michael Finn
AJ Powell, Assistant Editor
Materials science will drive innovation. At first, down ruled the insulation game. Eddie Bauer’s Skyliner jacket set the tone when it was introduced in 1936. Then, synthetic fibers took over the spotlight. Patagonia’s Nano Puff was the gold standard, making use of Primaloft, a lightweight and highly insulating material that promised to keep you warm even when wet — something traditional down could never accomplish. Today, there’s a handful of down/synthetic blends that promise the benefits of both materials.
What, then, does the future hold? Will we see a long-sleeved t-shirt that is equally insulating as a down mid-layer and five times as breathable? Maybe, but that’s a long ways off. In the more immediate future, companies like Kodenshi, Bolt Threads and Spiber will continue to move the needle towards the perfect insulating mid-layer. Kodenshi is using ceramic particles bonded to down feathers to make a hyper-efficient insulating material that reflects your natural body heat. Bolt Threads and Spiber are pushing the boundaries of synthetic fibers by mimicking spider silk. Whether or not these innovations are applied across the whole industry, in the way that active insulation was, remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: innovation is on the horizon.
Michael Finn, Associate Staff Writer
Active insulation will become the new standard. Not long ago, after attending the 2017 Outdoor Retailer Winter Market, we observed that the entire outdoor industry had gone completely bonkers over active insulation. I had not just spent three days walking around a convention center; I had been trapped for an eternity in a cavernous psychiatric ward filled with shouts of “This jacket wicks sweat! This jacket traps heat! This jacket is perfect for active pursuits!” For the love of Yvon, make the voices stop!
The voices did not stop. Active insulation remains one of the outdoor industry’s biggest trends. And yeah, the voices eventually broke me — I now believe active insulation is the future of not just ordinary mid-layers, but all insulating layers. Seemingly every major outerwear maker now has its own special active insulation technology. The North Face just released Ventrix, a kind of synthetic down that releases hot air through hundreds of tiny perforations; Patagonia’s Nano-Air line uses its FullRange insulation, which stays put even under loosely woven, breathable nylon shells; Outdoor Research has a few jackets with Polartec Alpha, the one active insulation material that started it all.
It’s only a matter of time before this mid-layer technology floats on up to puffy outer layers, and perhaps even hybrid shells. When that happens, mid-layers could become a relic of the past. And then the voices will start yapping again: “With this jacket, all you need is a simple base layer!”
Tanner Bowden, Editorial Apprentice
Say goodbye to geese. The broader category of insulation can be broken down into two subcategories: down and synthetic. Or better yet, down versus synthetic; the two have been pitted against each other in a fight to fill jackets and sleeping bags thanks to a few crucial and mutually exclusive properties. Namely, down sucks when it’s wet but tends to be warmer and lighter. Synthetic is heavier, due to the bulkier construction of its molecular fibers, but it remains warm against dampness. It’s cheaper, too.
Over recent years, that “fight” has come to a head in an all-out race to the middle, with each side using the other as a benchmark for innovation. The latest advancements in down tech are using synthetic as a model (Eddie Bauer’s new THINDOWN arranges feathers in a single sheet, eliminating the need for baffles), while synthetic is looking toward down for inspiration (PrimaLoft recently introduced ThermoPlume, a blowable synthetic that mimics the structure of down and behaves much like it in application and garment construction).
The divide between the two is thinning, and their inevitable meeting is fast approaching. This midpoint could reveal itself as some sort of down/synthetic hybrid, but my bet is that synthetic beats out fowl-sourced materials entirely. Scientists and engineers have more control over manmade fibers on the molecular level, and once they can design a synthetic material with a warmth-to-weight ratio that surpasses that of down, there will be no reason to pluck our feathered friends of their precious under feathers.