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How Professional Athletes Help Design Outdoor Gear

Do athletes in the outdoor industry really have meaningful input on product design?

Chase Pellerin

From Issue Seven of Gear Patrol Magazine.

The phrase “designed by athletes” isn’t new. In many ways, it’s worn out, or, at the very least, misleading. Athletes and ambassadors provide support to nearly all gear makers, but how much pull do they actually have? Do they sit down to sketch plans for a new down jacket or simply suggest minute changes to an already-built prototype? Do they actually have a say at all or are individual endorsements mandated in the fine print of binding contracts?

The answer isn’t entirely clear. Athlete beta exists on a spectrum that isn’t straightforward or explicit, but there are companies that recognize that the things most hardcore users want can also be what the rest of us need. It’s how we get seemingly kooky ideas like insulated mountain shorts or category-blending products like a climbing pack adapted for running.
These items are born from a mingling of necessity and desire, and the stories describing their creation are as compelling as the final products themselves. We asked four professional athletes who have played the role of designer to take us behind the curtain on how their favorite products came to be.

Black Diamond Distance Pack

“We started with this idea of building a hybrid. I loved Black Diamond’s Blitz Pack, which is a light alpine 20-liter pack. Essentially, what we wanted to do was to shrink the Blitz and… add that vest component to make it so it wouldn’t bounce and you’d be able to carry stuff up front. Basically so that you could run with a Blitz pack.
“So the idea for the pack was to have it be runnable but also keep all the alpine components — a more durable fabric, ice-axe attachments, a really sleek way to stash poles once you start to climb or scramble. We wanted to maintain Black Diamond’s mountain DNA so that it wouldn’t just be another running vest on the market, and also not a regular climbing back. A true hybrid.
“One of the things I appreciated most was that [the designers] at Black Diamond really understood when I would say something. It’s hard to communicate things — this toggle, this pocket. They really got it and translated it to the prototypes that we were making along the way. They kind of put the ego aside. We were making something that wasn’t completely different, but it brought a different point of view, and Black Diamond trusted me with sharing that vision.” — Joe Grant, Ultrarunner

Buy Now: $140+

Eddie Bauer BC EverTherm Jacket

“I remember Patagonia came out with a down jacket years ago called the Primo, and it was a regular down-cluster insulated hardshell. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I bought one and brought it to Eddie Bauer and was, like, ‘We need something like this.’ I remember getting full eye-rolls from people — they were, like, ‘You’re crazy, you live in the Cascades. You want a hardshell but with down inside it? That’s just going to wet out and clump up.’ But I pushed it and pushed it.

“I work on Mount Rainier nine months of the year, so I get pelted by rain, wet snow, dry snow, super-cold temperatures and wind. I need something that’s going to last for a long time that I’m going to wear a lot — so I need venting, I need to be able to move in it, to exercise hard in it. But it’s got to be tough and it’s got to have real water protection, not a random shell that goes in the bottom of my pack. I need something that actually works hard, all the time.

“When [Eddie Bauer] came up with the concept to make down into sheets and to have the DWR on the down clusters, it was really cool. We put it in a jacket that was easy to build, easy to test and was marketable. That was the first product that came out. But the question was, ‘What’s next?’ The BC EverTherm is the latest and greatest rendition of this perfect all-mountain jacket that I’ve been trying to get. It’s as close as I’ve seen to the best ski shell, belay jacket, do-it-all working-person’s mountain jacket. This jacket has evolved over ten years. I really wanted a down jacket, but I also wanted performance characteristics of a synthetic insulator, and I definitely wanted a hardshell, but without the heaviness of a hardshell. That’s what the BC EverTherm is.” — Seth Waterfall, Mountaineer

Buy Now: $499

Rossignol Black Ops 118 Ski

“Chris [Logan] and I were filming with Level 1 Productions and we didn’t have a ski that helped us ski the way we wanted to. We wanted a wider ski that you could land switch on that and was better for skiing deep pow.

“We hounded [Rossignol] for over two years. I got the cover of Freeskier’s Buyer’s Guide on a pair of [Rossignol’s 2013] Sickles after they had stopped making them. It was like 200+ Brand New Products! and the guy on the cover is skiing on outdated shit. Maybe that was part of it. Maybe they didn’t want their top two guys skiing on old skis that they weren’t even selling anymore. That doesn’t look too good for the new line if the top dudes aren’t even using it. I don’t know what the turning point was or what gear switched, but they decided to make our ski.

We gave the designers dimensions, the turning radius that we wanted and examples of skis that, in our opinion, looked good. We wanted a cambered underfoot and a rockered tip and tail so that we could have a bit more of a landing pad. Essentially, we gave them all the basic information and they sent us our first prototype and we were like, ‘Don’t change a thing on that ski. That’s the exact ski that we want.’ The Black Ops that we have now is identical to the very first prototype they ever sent us, but it’s made with production-quality materials.” — Parker White, Skier

Buy Now: $699

Bight Gear Men’s Glacier Short

“There was a guide that worked for [Rainier Mountaineering Inc.] that found three-quarter length zip-off long johns when he was in Norway and I thought that was a great idea. Because if you want to take your long johns off after a cold night going into a warm day, like we tend to see on Mount Rainier, you have to take your boots and crampons and harness off. Having full side-zip long underwear was attractive to me because there are nights that I want to wear them, but I get too hot later in the day, so oftentimes I leave them behind and just end up being cold.

“I couldn’t find them on the Internet or anywhere else, so I toyed around with cutting off my long johns and just wearing long john shorts. A couple years ago, I found a pair and cut them off. Then I bought some zippers and tried to sew them myself. I’m no seamstress — they didn’t turn out that well — so I took them down to an alterations shop and told them what I was looking for. The woman was like, ‘What are these things?’

“When Peter [Whittaker] started Bight, he wanted to try different pieces and to pursue some different ideas. We started throwing stuff out there and I brought in that pair of long underwear and a PrimaLoft short that La Sportiva was making that was too hot for what we were doing. No one was into it, Peter wasn’t even into it — they all thought I was crazy. They were like ‘Deal with the long johns or don’t wear them.’

“So I started leaving the shorts in my kit bag at Camp Muir and people would try them and find they were functional. Gradually, Peter started prototyping for the first round of Bight gear, working with Polartec and their insulation, and he was trying to make gear that was designed with input from the people who lived in it. So they decided that we could make these [shorts] out of a thinner material with some stretchy panels for a better fit. What they came back with was the Glacier Short. You can put them on over your climbing pants, they have the full side zips so you can put them on over or under your harness and still finagle your way out of them.” — Mike King, Mountaineer

Buy Now: $189

Read More in Gear Patrol Magazine

A version of this story appears in Gear Patrol Magazine: Issue Seven. Subscribe Now: $39

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