Selecting the right gear for outdoor pursuits is often a difficult task. Whether you’re looking for hiking boots or shred-ready skis, there are usually numerous brands to choose from, each with their own proprietary bells and whistles. Jonathan Ellsworth, founder of Crested Butte–based gear review website, Blister, wants to make that process easier. “We can better educate the global community of outdoor users by creating new standards and talking about them in some clearer ways,” he says. “People are still spending hundreds and thousands of dollars on equipment that isn’t actually best for them.”
To help change that, Blister created a new partnership with Western Colorado University and the University of Colorado Boulder in January. Dubbed Blister Labs, the new product-testing program takes advantage of Western’s newly constructed, 75,000-square-foot, $60 million computer science and engineering facility, as well as the Gunnison-based university’s pre-existing collaboration with CU. The lab will allow students at Western and CU to develop an emphasis in outdoor industry engineering, as well as help Blister bring better quantitative analysis to the world of gear testing. The effort also has the potential for wider reverberations in the gear manufacturing process itself.
Ellsworth launched Blister in 2011, after growing frustrated that review sites and magazines often receive advertising dollars from the very companies they are (in theory) objectively evaluating. “I founded Blister on a painful principle that we weren’t going to take any ad money from any of the gear manufacturers,” he says. “And we never have in 11 years.”
Another of Ellsworth’s founding principles: Give the gear a rigorous test, not just a few days—or worse, a few runs—on the slopes or trails. Every new piece of equipment is evaluated by multiple people in as many conditions as possible. That has helped the publication produce thorough—and in Ellsworth’s mind, less biased reviews—to guide consumers toward the gear that’s right for their individual needs, not just the newest or flashiest items.
Blister Labs will take that in-depth process to another level, adding a data-driven component to the company’s gear reviews. Skis, mountain bikes, and technical apparel will be assessed in the static (read: unchanging) environment of a lab, where testing will yield essential performance numbers, like how stiff the material is or how well the garment breathes.
After that, engineering students at both universities will take the gear to the mountain or trail for testing. They’ll fit the piece with specialized sensors, such as strain gauges and custom-made accelerometers, allowing them to acquire data across a wide range of terrain and scenarios the item could be used. “The input from the dynamic testing and the static testing are combined to more accurately predict performance,” says Jeni Blacklock, director of the Western-CU Boulder partnership program and an engineer for Blister Labs.
Research is already in the works on individual bikes, skis, and technical apparel pieces, but Blister Labs also has its sights set on analyzing current testing methods and measurement standards, including flex ratings for ski boots, the stiffness and durability of bike wheels, and water resistance for technical apparel. After digging into how these guidelines were established and why (a process that will involve gear manufacturers), Ellsworth hopes they’ll be able to “create new standards, or at least start communicating product attributes in a clearer way that normal consumers will better understand.”
Jed Yeiser, ski product director for K2 sports, has watched Blister evolve over the past decade (there is no official relationship between his company and Blister Labs). He thinks the new project will help tackle some of the biggest problems in ski design. “Often, when modeling complex systems there’s a pretty clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer,” he says. “ ‘Does the structure break?’ ‘Does it provide adequate stiffness?’ Those are easier questions to model than [what Blister Labs aims to model, namely] ‘How will this ski feel on snow?’ ”
Ski manufacturers already perform some of these same tests, but the fact that a media outlet is looking at product data with this level of granularity is a good thing, according to Yeiser. “A publication like Blister … reading deeply into the mechanics of skis will force the industry to innovate and deliver technologies that do have meaningful impacts.”
For now, though, Ellsworth is focused on helping outdoor enthusiasts clarify what gear will work best for them, and where it makes the most sense to spend—and save—their money. “The quality of the data that we’re going to be getting out of this Blister Labs initiative, to then put that out to people around the world in Blister’s gear reviews, that’s never happened before,” he says. “This is just a new level of gear analysis that’s never existed.”