Never again will I make fun of women who get a case of dizzying consumer lust when they walk into a big shopping mall. The exact same thing happened to me earlier this month when I went to the Outdoor Retailer convention, the twice-yearly trade show for the non-hook-and-bullet branch of the outdoor-recreation business. O.R. is all about hiking, camping, paddling, skiing, running, and climbing, and I have a weakness for the design style of companies like the North Face, Mountain Hardwear, Patagonia, and Marmot. Twice a year, in summer and winter, 850 of these outfits gather to show their colorful and shiny wares inside Salt Lake City's gargantuan Salt Palace Convention Center, with the "smaller" winter edition drawing some 14,000 people who wander 300,000 square feet of display floor space.
At this year's Winter Market, I spent the first hour just wandering the aisles, which led to vast sprawls of faux outdoor-store interiors jammed to the joints with great stuff. Gear Lust quickly set in, even over things that I won't ever use, like ice-climbing tools, avalanche peeps, and, of course, expedition-size backpacks. I was standing near Black Diamond's beautiful line of telemark skiing gear—or was I near the Thorlo socks, the Atlas snowshoes, or the Cloudveil soft-shell outerwear?—when I realized I needed to go sit down, fan my face, and recalorize by eating a banana.
Refreshed, I set out to do some trend-spotting for a special type of trend: ones we may not need. Like any consumer sphere, the outdoor biz continually has to push the ball forward—either by improving on the clothes and gear you buy, or by creating new sports that require you to buy new goodies. Sometimes this impulse drives historic innovation: snowboarding, mountain biking, Gore-Tex. Sometimes it results in items like the Puma RS Computer Shoe Pedometer, a mid-'80s strider with chips in the heels that let you download jogging data into your Apple II. For 2004 and beyond, if the outdoor world's professional trend-spotters are to be believed, it's going to result in a craze called "Nordic Walking." I'll let you decide which category that belongs in.
To visualize what Nordic Walking is, imagine that geezer in your neighborhood who "power walks" every morning. Now imagine him with poles, a spandex bodyall, and aerodynamic sunglasses as he moves purposefully and nerdfully forward.
I heard about Nordic Walking as an indirect result of my visit to LEKI USA, the American branch of a German company that makes outstanding adjustable ski and hiking poles. Greg Wozer, company vice president, was showing me the best-selling Super Makalu COR-TEC PA poles—with offset grips and built-in shock absorbers!—when he demonstrated LEKI's Nordic Trigger Strap System. This consists of a secure hand-strap with an attached peg that fits into a slot on your pole handles. Why? So you can disengage from your poles without undoing your straps—just the thing, the LEKI brochure says, "for water breaks and stretching routines."
Wozer said nothing about Nordic Walking, but I later found out that these cutting-edge straps are part of a larger conspiracy. Uh, I mean "marketing effort." I picked up an industry magazine, Gear Trends, which contained an article called "Walking the Walk," a primer on how U.S. pole companies, including LEKI, are marketing special poles and straps for a predicted Nordic Walking explosion. (Wozer is in there, saying that "Nordic Walking is now a category.") The activity was invented a few years ago in Finland and has millions of devoted fans throughout northern Europe. To do it right, you apparently have to use poles and straps, because a study by the prestigious Cooper Institute has shown that walking this way somehow burns more calories than walking with just your arms.
I fear that, in the United States, even more extra calories will be burned by Nordic Walkers as they flee hecklers, dogs, and bratty little kids on bikes. Not for nothing does Gear Trends worry that the major impediment to this Finnish Invasion is an intangible they call "the Dork Factor." Here's a handy "this could be you!" image. You decide if you're prepared to stride down this path.
That night I got hammered at a gear-company-sponsored bash held inside a multistory downtown bar called Port O' Call. Learned a couple of things there, too: 1) Salt Lakers party! By the time I arrived, locals were being herded in for the late shift—among them dozens of fierce, heavily made-up women who were not shy about jumping onstage and bra-flashing the crowd. And 2) If I take up Nordic Walking, I'd better do it "scared straight." En route to Port O' Call, a friend and I got busted for jaywalking, complete with flashing lights. The officer made it clear we were one wobble-step away from getting written up or run in.
The next day I devoted myself to industry, spending part of the day looking at top-shelf stuff like Victorinox's Nth Series travel packs, which are so cleverly designed that I almost sobbed, and part of the day—well, most of the day—exploring what might be called the fringes of O.R.
Off the main floor space there were side floors and meeting rooms, and though nobody would admit this, it seemed obvious that lesser-known companies had been shunted there. I decided to adopt these misfits. They had more time on their hands than the major gear reps, and they were extremely friendly because ... they had more time on their hands. Among the favorite products I saw:
The Bottle Belt: Colorado businessmen Lon Black and Alex Hearn have created a twin-loop strap that fits around your Nalgene water bottle, letting you easily attach it to a backpack using a carabineer. Critics point out that Nalgene bottles come with a plastic lid-loop that serves the same function, but the Bottle Belt press kit scoffs at that: "Bottle flops around immensely—irritating!"
Hummer Footwear: Jordan Saliman has licensed the rights to make shoes and boots in the spirit of GM's popular Arnoldmobile. "These are top-tier integrity shoes," Saliman says. "We don't go into stack-'em-high, let-'em-fly retailers." Made with features like Himalayan yak leather and manikin-flesh-colored nubbly soles, Hummer models include the Backfire, Mudflaps, Hubcap, Hitch, and Lugnut.
Tugz: You know when you're skiing and you're being driven crazy by those cords that hold your eyeglasses on? No? Well, the makers of Tugz Cordless Eyewear Retainers say it's a problem, so they've designed teeny neoprene wedges that fit behind your ears and keep your glasses on. Available in "Hiker's Orange" and "Bicycle's Green."
I closed out my O.R. experience with something I'd been saving: a visit to conference room 151D, an eerie space housing forlorn Asian companies. In the back corner I stumbled upon my personal Best of Show: "ITI: Foremost Meat Processor Supplier from China!"
This Shanghai-based company makes sausage grinders, but they also produce a line of sturdy cast-iron camp cookware. Marketing manager Sam Liu eagerly showed me the wares, at one point holding up a small, rectangular cast-iron grate with two fixed rings in the center.
"What is this?" I asked. "Does it sit on a grill?"
"Well, what then?"
"It is just the thing," he said, "for your cold beer and turkey!"
Ah, at last. Thank goodness somebody covered that base.
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