Change for the Better

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Almost 200 years ago, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark left St. Louis and did the unthinkable. In search of the mythical Northwest Passage, they spent two years traveling through extreme weather--and they did it without Gore-Tex rain gear, Capilene long underwear or--gasp--a fleece pullover.

Nor did anyone in the Corps of Discovery have ultra-lightweight titanium cookware, VO2 Max energy bars or a hand-held global positioning system. To keep warm, the explorers wore fur. When short of food, they occasionally ate a horse. To navigate, they looked at a compass or the stars--or hired a guide.

Outdoor gear has come a long way in the last 200 years, with much of the improvement coming in the last two decades with the advent of a variety of sturdy, lightweight materials. Sleeping bags became warmer, yet lighter. Backpacks weigh less, but carry more gear comfortably. Tents are also lighter and stronger--and the better ones will keep a person dry in a monsoon.

Which begs the question: What's next?

Will there be self-erecting tents that come squirting out of toothpaste tubes?

Will backpackers eat like the Jetsons--popping a little pill that gives them the satisfaction and nourishment of, say, a five-course Italian dinner?

Will there be T-shirts that have the warming power of a parka? Air conditioned boots? Stoves that run for a week on an ounce of fuel? Wireless satellite televisions the size of a calculator?

"Things are getting better and things are getting lighter," said Hal Thompson, the public affairs and products spokesperson at Patagonia, the Ventura-based outdoor clothing manufacturer. "You never think things can get better, but they always do."

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But, how much better can they get?

"Well, all the easy apples have been picked," said Rob Henderson, manager of the REI outdoor gear and clothing store in Northridge. "Gear is getting stronger and more lightweight, but the interesting thing about the big leaps in the outdoor industry is that they often come out of nowhere."

One prime example: global positioning system handsets. GPS has the potential to one day replace the compass, which has long been the mainstay of back-country navigation.

Although GPS is still far from perfect, it potentially can tell a hiker his exact location quicker and more accurately than a compass. It is easy to see how this might be useful--a lost hiker could use GPS to pinpoint his precise location on a map, making it easier to determine a route to the nearest road.

GPS has become wildly popular as both a tool and a novelty. "During the 1996 holiday season, we carried just one GPS model," Henderson said. "It was about three-quarters the size of a loaf of bread and cost $1,000. Now, we have all different kinds of GPS, including one model that is the size of a cell phone and sells for $100."

Traditional gear, such as tents, sleeping bags and backpacks, will probably not radically change. Rather, their changes will continue to be more evolutionary.

The likeliest candidate is the tent. Although many of today's tents are quite easy to build, no manufacturer has yet offered a reliable self-erecting tent. This would be convenient for those stuck in a rainstorm. Or, for the mechanically inept.

It is also likely that electronics will one day be introduced to improve tents. The obvious starting point would be a light. Another could be a fan or some device that rids the tent of condensation.

In the last 20 years, Patagonia has been making sportswear that is considered the best in the business (as well as the most expensive) at keeping people warm and dry. Now, Patagonia has created a process called Encap-sil, which is used to create a waterproof fiber.

This has been the Achilles' heel in the waterproof clothing industry. Today, most waterproof clothing is created by layering fibers and then laminating the finished product with a waterproof coating. The problem with lamination is that it eventually wears out and it's often not very breathable--yes, the rain is kept out, but a sweat house is created inside.

According to Patagonia's Hal Thompson, Encap-sil and Capilene (another Patagonia product) will contribute to clothing that will be more durable, more compressible and dry quicker. How far this will go is anyone's guess--Patagonia already makes pile vests that ball up to the size of a fist.

There is one catch: This stuff won't come cheap. "We're not going to make things cheaply because then we would have to do things we don't believe in," says Thompson. "And, we're not going to make it cheaper because then it won't last."

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Technology also raises ethical questions.

Patagonia's take on ethics is to produce a product that impacts the environment in as few ways as possible--a policy the company hopes other manufacturers will emulate and consumers will demand. "We are for enjoying the environment, so it doesn't make sense to make products that destroy it," Thompson said.

The other ethical question is comfort--will emerging technologies make the wilderness too comfortable?

Last year, for example, the Sierra Club's monthly magazine asked readers if it was ethical to bring a cell phone into the wilderness. Reader responses were wildly varied. Some thought cell phones were a sensible item to have because they could save someone's life. Others thought phones were both a moral and legal intrusion of the wilderness and should be legally banned.

This is a notion that Rob Henderson doesn't buy into--and he says it's not just because he makes his living selling this stuff.

He has three arguments:

* Technology has produced items such as kid carriers, which allow parents to get outdoors comfortably with their kids.

* Getting people into the wilderness is the best way of getting people to save the wilderness from outside threats.

* Technology certainly has not stopped some people from getting into big trouble in the wilderness.

"Look at how Lewis and Clark were traipsing around the wilderness 200 years ago compared to what we have now," Henderson said. "Yes, it's certainly different, but it's never going to be a hotel room out there."

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