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Utah Business

Outdoor Tech That Will Help You Live Off The Grid

Humans, even our most primitive forebears, have always used technology to master the forces of nature and make ourselves more secure and comfortable in the outdoors. While modern technologies offer properties far beyond the stone, hide, and wood that 10,000 BC humans had to work with, the difference is one of scope, not kind. 

Make no mistake: knapped flint was a human-invented technology as surely as a carbon-fiber hiking pole; sewed mammoth hides as much as a heated down jacket. The difference is that we’ve gotten much more sophisticated in our creations. 

Manufacturers of outdoor products have always been at the cutting edge of materials science and engineering. Today, companies make products that are warmer, lighter, stronger, and otherwise… better. An intricate linkage ties product improvement to revenue to folks getting outside more: a virtuous cycle that feeds the economy and gives adventurers an enhanced experience.

Composites that create the strongest gear

Composites utilize two or more separate materials to create a new material with “best of both worlds” properties. Back in the day, fiberglass was the latest and greatest, offering a replacement to wood across almost every product category imaginable. Made of blown molten glass cooled into fibers and bonded with plastic resin, it provided a prototype for today’s composite materials.

Composite materials have been around for more than two millennia, used for outdoor, and especially military purposes. The composite bow, for one, gained notoriety in the hands of Mongolian archers under Genghis Khan. Composite bows featured a wood core reinforced with horn, sinew, and other animal products. Composite bows packed greater draw strength into a smaller package than their solid-wood counterparts allowing mounted archers to shoot high-velocity arrows from a relatively small bow.

Modern composites bind carbon fibers—or a blend of carbon and glass fibers—into resins to achieve a variety of performance goals. By varying fiber types, fiber blends, and resin types, manufacturers can optimize for weight, flexibility, strength, or a balance of all three. Salt Lake City-based Cataract Oars, for instance, “began manufacturing oars in 1985 for western river guides,” says Dylan Holt, the company’s product manager and an avid rafter himself. 

Since entering the market all those years ago, Cataract Oars’ paddles and oars have been the gold standard in their category. Parent company, Advanced Composites Inc. (also based in Salt Lake City) makes a lot of aerospace and military components, so it’s no surprise that their whitewater products perform highly.

Cataract Oars uses a process called filament winding to manufacture their oar shafts. Basically, a tube is spun on a lathe while a computerized machine dispenses resin-drenched filaments—highly-specialized string, essentially—up and down the tube length. The entire thing is then heat-cured and the original center tube removed, leaving a hollow, lightweight, composite shaft. 

Some of Cataract’s shafts use pure carbon filaments, while others utilize a carbon and glass blend. The former costs more, weighs less, is stronger, and also stiffer. The carbon-glass blend has more flexibility. For some rowers, flexibility is better; for others, the stiffer, lighter oars are ideal. All of them endure over years of use and abuse, says Holt, “we build oars meant to last.”

Cataract Oars is not the only Utah maker of outdoor products to use composite materials. Ogden-based Enve makes bicycle components such as lightweight, high-performance wheels, forks, stems, and seat posts. Not being shaft-shaped, these aren’t suitable for filament winding production but instead are typically molded: the fibers and resin are injected into a mold and cured under pressure.

Enve’s components aren’t cheap—a set of wheels can run up to $3,000—but are worth their price for riders who want to squeeze out every speck of performance. Such athletes, actual or wannabe, care about every microgram of weight, the way that road roughness translates into vibration, and a myriad of other subtleties.

Performance textiles that can weather the storm

The clothes worn outdoors can make or break our experience, especially in inclement weather. A bewildering variety of apparel technologies, textiles, and coatings now endow our clothing with qualities our ancestors could only have dreamed of.  Gore-Tex has been with us since 1969 as a “waterproof yet breathable” fabric, and it has evolved significantly over the years. 

While Gore-Tex may be the original performance textile, it’s been joined by the likes of Primaloft, Polartec, FutureLight (developed by The North Face), Thinsulate, NuYarn, Lifaloft (by Swedish outdoor apparel manufacturer Helly Hansen), eVent, Pertex, DownTec, Dyneema, Spectra, and more. These fabrics push the boundaries of toughness, lightness, heat retention, water-resistance, breathability or some other aspect important to comfort in outdoor extremes.

Cotopaxi, a home-grown Salt Lake City outdoor apparel and gear company, uses Primaloft for its women’s Cubre Pullover Fleece, a synthetic microfiber that serves as an alternative to down, but, unlike down, retains insulating capacity even when wet. The company’s Fuego men’s jacket, however, uses down—albeit a water-resistant down that’s been coated with a hydrophilic substance on a molecular level.

“The outdoors doesn’t have to be intimidating,” says Cotopaxi CEO, Davis Smith, “or limited to hardcore athletes.” Smith and Cotopaxi aim to produce gear that makes the outdoors accessible to everyone. Smith also wants his products to be at home in any environment—not just extreme ones. He says that Cotopaxi products should be “just as at-home on Mt. Cotopaxi as it is in Manhattan or San Francisco.”

Technologies that survive off the grid

Goal Zero uses the latest advances in photosynthetic tech to offer compact, lightweight solar panels for hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts. The Bluffdale-based company also produces power banks and power stations to keep one’s electronic devices powered up during extended off-grid time.

Goal Zero’s portable solar panels feature monocrystalline silicon, which is more efficient than its lower-cost polycrystalline counterpart (basically, electrons can flow within a single crystal rather than jumping between crystals). The company’s power banks offer the dual option of recharging via USB (plugging into the grid) or from one of its solar panels. In other words, Goal Zero makes cutting edge products that work on a business trip as well as on an extended backpacking adventure.

Another Utah company, Bivy, offers an app that connects hikers, kayakers, bikers, and other outdoors people to relevant trails, rivers, and what-have-you. Based around the discovery of new adventures, the app could be thought of as Facebook for people who aren’t on Facebook because they’re too busy doing rad things like mountain biking the Badlands or exploring the slot canyons of Southern Utah. 

Bivy also makes the eponymous Bivystick, a satellite-connected device that communicates one’s location no matter how far from civilization they wander. Owners of the Bivystick can communicate via text message from the top of Mount Everest, the wilds of the Amazon, or the frozen Arctic expanses.

Ultimately, most of us are torn between our desire for comfort and our longing for adventure. Often, these two are in conflict, but the right gear can bring them more into alignment. And Utah companies are on the cutting edge.

Jacob Andra is a writer, award-winning digital marketer, and technologist living in Salt Lake City. Specialties include account-based marketing, growth hacking for startups, blockchain, fintech, and international issues. He enjoys history, the outdoors, podcasts, and a good book.