Today it’s easy to find supplies for traversing the backcountry, but decades ago, we weren’t so lucky. Thankfully, these inventors used their wits and wilderness experiences to create goods that help recreationists not just survive but also truly enjoy the great outdoors.
Before founding this apparel manufacturer in Steamboat Springs in 1994, Peter and Patty Duke were ski instructors in Vermont who hated how wet their cotton socks got. Instead of accepting their cold-toed fate, the duo embarked on a mission to find a material that wouldn’t get soggy. After numerous tests, they discovered merino wool, an insulating, moisture-wicking fiber that comes from its namesake breed of sheep. Turns out, it’s not just good for the feet: The company, which was acquired in 2005 by Timberland (now part of Denver-based VF Corporation) for $82 million, also uses it in apparel like sweaters, dresses, and even underwear.
The OG: Merino wool socks
The Latest: Women’s merino 250 drape-neck hoodie in masala heather, $140; merino 250 base layer colorblock bottom in canyon rose heather, $110
Rick Case was an undergraduate at the University of Colorado Boulder in 1989 when he invented Nite Ize’s first product: a headband with a flashlight holder, ideal for late night (or early morning) backcountry bathroom breaks. Following that success, he made dozens of flashlight accessories, and in 2001, the Boulder-based outfitter started expanding its lineup with items like a double-sided carabiner and, most recently, river-ready airtight pouches fitted with the company’s proprietary waterproof zippers.
The OG: Headband with flashlight holder
The Latest: RunOff waterproof medium travel pouch with Tru-Zip technology, $30
Most campers accept that their nighttime setups won’t yield the same quality zzz’s as their pillowtop mattresses at home. Nineteen years ago, though, Bill Gamber rejected that notion, dreaming up a sleeping pad that slid into a sleeve on the bottom of a sleeping bag, allowing for a comfier slumber. Better yet: Combining the two meant the bottom of the sleeping bag needed less insulation, resulting in a lighter load. These days, Big Agnes—which gets its name from a mountain near the company’s Steamboat Springs base—makes tents, camp furniture, and other accessories just as nimble as Gamber’s first creation.
The OG: Sleeping bag with sleeve for sleeping pad
The Latest: Tiger Wall UL1 tent, $350
Hiking pounds of equipment into a remote campsite might not be as easy as a walk in the park, but it’s a lot more bearable thanks to Asher “Dick” Kelty, who, in the 1950s, invented the aluminum-frame pack. Around the same time, he came up with another first—the waistbelt, which takes much of the load off wearers’ shoulders. Kelty’s eponymous brand started in California but moved to Boulder in the mid-’90s and has continued to roll out lightweight backpacks, tents, camp furniture, and cooking supplies.
The OG: Aluminum-frame backpacks; waistbelts
The Latest: Cosmic synthetic 0 sleeping bag with synthetic insulation for lightweight warmth, starting at $120
Today, you can spot Spyder’s wares—including new-this-season Gore-Tex and merino-wool-lined sweaters—on the U.S. Ski Team and just about every other weekend warrior on the hill. But back in 1978, David Jacobs was hawking jackets, pants, and coach’s bibs out of his car in Boulder. It didn’t take long for the nation’s elite racers to start clamoring for the former Canadian professional skier and coach’s padded sweater, which protected competitors when they hit gates—and for their instructors to fall for his bib with padded knees that allowed them to comfortably kneel and buckle their protégés’ boots.
The OG: Coach’s bib
The Latest: Wind- and waterproof Legacy Gore-Tex Infinium lined sweater in volcano, $450