The Top Ten Innovations in Backcountry Gear
by Paul Richins, Jr.

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Over the past thirty years, extraordinary advances in equipment, clothing, food and medicine have been made. A-frame tents, 60/40 cloth, cotton, wool, white bread and zinc oxide were the standard not that long ago. The advent of the hanging stove, free-standing tents, fleece, lycra, gore-tex, plastic boots, bagels and sunblock have made climbing, backpacking and winter backcountry skiing much more enjoyable by improving comfort and reducing the weight of our loads.

Here is my list of the top ten innovations that have improved the lot of the wilderness traveler. What are your top ten inventions--climbing skins, ziplock bags, GPS, cellular phones, altimeters, patterned ski bases? For a complete list of items to take on a multi-day trip refer to the equipment list.

Bibler Hanging Stove

The hanging stove has revolutionized winter camping. No longer does one have to contend with the discomfort of freezing feet and cold hands while preparing breakfast or dinner in the mist of a snow storm. Fighting the wind and cold to start and keep the stove going is a thing of the past. The hanging stove heats the inside of the tent while it is cooking your meal allowing the winter camper to relax in the warm environment of the tent. Enjoying breakfast and a hot drink in bed is now the norm. Thank you Todd Bibler.

Free-standing tents

Remember the center-pole tent or the A-frame style tent. These tents had to be staked from all directions, would flap like a flag and were very noisy in the slighest of breezes. There stability in a storm was marginal at best. The free-standing, domed tent is a vast improvement as they are stable, taut and easy to set up. They provided increased interior space when compared with the sagging sides of an A-frame tent. The tent buyers guide contain purchasing tips.

Gore-tex parkas

Remember the 60/40 parka? Sixty percent nylon and forty percent cotton. It was more like, sixty percent nylon and forty percent sponge! It was not long ago that this piece of junk was the standard outer wear parka. Unbelievable!!! What were the manufacturer thinking? What were we thinking to buy such an item. The parkas absorbed, not repelled, water like a sponge; weighted a ton when wet and took days to dry. Outside of these minor deficiencies, they were great. Gore-tex parks and gore-tex outer wear is a vast improvement.

Therm-a-rest sleeping pads

One of the best inventions of all time. What an improvement over ensolite, foam rubber or the heavy traditional air mattress (that never stayed inflated) we used to sleep on.

Synthetic clothing

Not long ago, wool pants or wool knickers and wool shirts with a wool sweater were the standard attire for the backcountry skier and hiker. Compared to today’s new clothing, wool and cotton are poor insulators--they absorb water and become heavy, and take hours too dry. Conversely, lycra, micro-fleece, polartec fleece, power-stretch, capilene and polartec thermal long underwear absorb very little moisture and wick perspiration away from the body. These synthetics have completely replaced and revolutionized the outdoor clothing we wear. The only viable use for wool today is blended wool socks and indeed wool blend socks are superior. I can think of no good use for cotton other than a bandanna or handkerchief.

Internal frame packs

Packs have come a long way since the days of the European style canvass and leather rucksacks and the external frame backpacks of the past. The internal frame pack is far superior to the external frame pack for skiing, climbing, and off-trail travel. It holds the load close to the back keeping load shifting to a minimum. However, much improvements are needed. Most internal frame packs are much too heavy. A moderately sized pack weights around 7 pounds or more empty. This is more than some well designed tents, poles and fly!!! The challenge for the industry is to get the weight down. Cut the weight in half or at least to 4 or 5 pounds for a 5,000 to 6,000 cubic inch pack. The buyer's guide contain backpacking purchasing tips.

Plastic ski boots and short-fat skis

If any thing has improved the skiing ability of the intermediate and advanced backcountry skier it is the plastic telemark boot in combination with short-fat skis. The 210 centimeter long, skinny skis and leather boots are relics. No more frozen boots in the morning or wet feet in the afternoon. Your turns, whether telemark or parallel, will be made easier providing for greater enjoyment on steeper terrain. And, at the end of the day, your legs will feel the difference and thank you. Couloir Magazine rated the plastic boot as one of the top innovations in the past 10 years. Ski buying tips are included in the buyer's guide.

Outdoor Research front-closing velcro gaiters

The old rear-closure zipper gaiter is a thing of the past. I can remeber all too vividly, struggling for an inordinate amount of time, in the extreme cold of several Alaskan expeditions, to clear and thaw a frozen zipper to remove my gaiters and boots. What a supreme hassle--a slow and painfully finger-numbing experience. No more pain with the velcro front-closing gaiters.

Medicine--Sunblock, Aloe Vera and Motrin

No more messy zink oxide. No more creams and gels that do not work and leave your skin coated with grease. Prior to sunblock, no matter what I used, I would get sunburned to a crisp and my face would peel for weeks. No more damaged skin with sunblock SPF 50. If a little sunburn, apply some aloe vera gel for quick healing. And for those aching muscles and joints 200 mg of Mortin does wonders. One pill with dinner relaxes the muscles and greatly improves the potential for a restful night’s sleep.

Food--Bagels, Gatorade and Pringles

No more nutritionally-deficient whtie bread and smashed sandwiches for lunch. Bagels are tasty, stay fresh and can be packed without being smashed in your pack. How did we ever survive without the popular whole-wheat or multi-grained bagel and gatorade to wash it down. Gatorade replaces the sweet tasting drinks that left a bad taste in your mouth. Gatorade hits the spot, all day--breakfast, lunch and dinner. There is no better snack in the mountains than Pringles patato chips (other than peanut coated M&M’s), packed in their protective cardboard cylinder. See the menu planner for suggested backcountry meals and preparation ideas.

Backcountry_Resource_Center--Paul Richins, Jr.

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