As Oldsmobile might phrase it, this is not about your father's camping gear.
Over the course of a generation or so, campsite and backpacking paraphernalia have evolved to the point that what your parents used - or what you knew as a younger you - in the backcountry is not what it once was. Fortunately.The necessities and accessories may be broadly the same, but the gear is almost universally better.
"Everything has changed," says Jerry Richardson, sales manager for Utah's Kirkham's Outdoor Products, 3125 S. State.
Prepared food has improved. Packs, sleeping bags and tents are lighter, stronger and last longer. All sorts of gadgets new and old-but-refined are on the market.
Another change has been in our approach to recreational endeavors - and the time we have to devote to them.
"People don't have a week to get away," Richardson said. "Usually it's more like three or four days."
And then they want to travel lighter and go farther in a shorter time, with perhaps a few conveniences and safety measures to help make the experience more pleasurable.
What if, say, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark - outback explorers of historic note - could step into an outlet like Kirkham's today?
"They'd love it," Richardson said. "They'd think they were in a candy store."
A tour through the aisles offers an enlightening update on what has happened to the gear and equipment that make roadside overnighters and backcountry trekking a pleasant experience.
- BACKPACKS. "The backpacks have really changed," Richardson said. "They've gotten much more comfortable."
Part of the revolution has been toward light-structured internal frames; such body-hugging packs can now carry the same weight as the sturdy old external frames. "We sell more internal frames than anything," he said, "about 75 percent."
Carbon fiber and nylon rods on the inside offer lightweight framing and support. The straps and padding have shifted the suspended weight from a hiker's shoulders to his or her hips. These are engineered with different varieties of molded foams, from stiff to soft, to fit better anatomically, and loads can be adjusted or shifted with the tug of a strap. "With the old ones, we were always playing with the pack to make it comfortable," Richardson said.
Today's packs also come with options: The lid may be removable, to turn it into a daypack or a fanny pack; more pockets and belts allow better organization; holsters and mesh hold water bottles and other necessities.
The fabrics used in packs - as well as for sleeping bags - have markedly improved, he said. They have a tighter weave and are smoother, so the equipment is softer, stronger, waterproof and abrasion resistant.
If anything, the weight of the packs hasn't changed that much, Richardson said. "Forty pounds now was 40 pounds then - but it felt 10 or 20 pounds heavier."
The variety of packs has also proliferated, with all kinds of designs and sizes - for the back, at the side, for the fanny; intended for different kinds and lengths of excursions; and sculpted to fit people of different heights and contours (including males and females).
- SLEEPING BAGS AND MATTRESSES. The synthetics used in sleeping bags have improved a lot, Richardson said. In some, hollow insulative fibers trap air inside, and when the bags are rolled and compressed for hauling about they're smaller. Down is still the best, most insulative filler, but manufacturers have become choosy about which feathers they put in the best sleeping bags, so the down isn't poking its way through the fabric.
Shell material, too, is better. Gore, for instance, which developed the popular Gore-Tex, now offers bags made of what it calls Dryloft, which, though not waterproof, "is three times more breathable than Gore-Tex," Richardson said. "When you're sleeping, the heat and moisture will travel through it."
Shapes have evolved from the old standby sleeping-bag rectangles to semirectangular contours and snug, almost tubular mummy-bags.
Pads have really improved, with several size options and materials and construction processes that allow these portable mattresses to self-inflate when unrolled.
- TENTS. Large family tents have seen minimal change in recent years, Richardson said, except in certain features: zippers are better, poles - often aluminum - are lighter and more durable, and the nylon fibers have improved. Smaller, lighter backpacking tents, though, now come in seemingly countless wind- and weather-resistant shapes and sizes.
Kirkham's, a longtime maker of canvas shelters and tents, was itself a pioneer in some designs - moving away from the old A-frames toward roomier, sturdier constructions and introducing vestibules in which to cook and to store gear and boots.
Such innovations proved to be a trend. "Now they're all more roomy, with higher walls, and the structures are stronger," Richardson said.
- FOOTWEAR. Think "plastics," as the man told Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate." They and composites have changed hiking boots and shoes for the better. "You get a lighter-weight shoe and you get more and better support," Richardson said. Leathers are much the same, but new tanning processes make them more waterproof, and upgraded chemicals and treatments tend to stay on longer.
And you don't have to walk across a stream to get new boots wet to break them in, as in the old days. New boots should fit well overall first time out - or else you're not purchasing the right pair.
The other story here is specialization.
There are trail hiking boots, trail running shoes, mountaineering and climbing shoes, shoes for walking in water and around the camp. "You have all those things," he said.
- PACKAGED FOOD. "When I first started, about 20 years ago," Richardson said, "you could get dried food, but it didn't taste very good - in fact it tasted like dried cardboard." Manufacturers have fiddled with the recipes, instructions and packaging, adding spices and near-gourmet options to their dehydrated offerings.
These usually come in servings meant for two, four or more people - though, Richardson admits, "2" really means about "1 1/2" when you're a hungry camper slurping right out of the package.
His favorite? "Sweet and sour shrimp." Other tasty dishes include beef stroganoff, turkey stroganoff and even lasagna. He used to hate the dehydrated eggs, but even those are pretty good now.
The prepared foods also make it easier to prepare for long hikes. "You can go for days on power bars," Richardson said. He's been on backpacking trips, for instance, when his day's menu went something like this:
- Oatmeal for breakfast (just add water and stir).
- Power bars for lunch.
- A packaged meal for dinner.
- HYDRATION AND WATER TREATMENT SYSTEMS. "They didn't even have these back then," Richardson said. Oh, campers and hikers could boil water or treat canteens with iodine tablets, but potable water has come a long way.
Filtration devices now help eliminate dangerous organisms, specifically bacteria and nasty protozoans like Giardia lamblia and cryptosporidium. Some filters were available a dozen years ago, but they were very slow. "Now you can get a (purified) quart of water in minutes," Richardson said. In many systems, iodine kills the germs and filters remove debris and larger organisms.
Hydration systems - wearable packs with reservoirs and tubes - allow bikers, runners and hikers to drink on the go. These can be strapped to the back like a daypack or be part of a fanny pack or backpack.
- OTHER EQUIPMENT. There have been refinements galore in other areas as well, Richardson said.
- An outpouring of books and maps is giving adventurers more and better information at their fingertips - and in their packs. "If you want to go to the Uintas, for example, you can find several books now where you used to be able to find maybe one or two," Richardson said. Their information also tends to be more accurate and understandable.
- Those small GPS (Global Positioning System) receivers have revolutionized the concept of knowing where you are and where your are going. "That technology is really only in its infancy," he said - and the price is plunging. "The first ones we carried three or four years ago, they cost $400 for the least expensive. Now they are $109 in just that four-year period."
- More outerwear is being designed for specific purposes and varying conditions. The fabrics are often light, waterproof or water-repellant and adaptable.
- Gaining in years? Need uphill or downhill support? Hiking poles or staffs seem to be making a comeback ("In Europe I don't think they ever went away," Richardson said). Some telescope for easier storage; others have angled and padded grips and shock-absorbing springs; many look high-tech, others are low-tech, varnished and woodsy.
- Flashlights are varied and powerful. He likes headlamps - lights on headbands, that allow hikers to move, work or even read in the dark.
- Cooking gear - pans and such - have gotten lighter. Stainless steel and nonstick aluminum remain popular, but "you can even buy titanium cooking gear now," Richardson said.
- Pack stoves, too, have improved, especially in the efficiency of gases available to the hiker. Propane and white gas are still standbys, but butane and propane mixes, for example, allow cooking and boiling at lower temperatures than in the past, "and prices are very reasonable," he said.
Cost can be a factor for first-time buyers and those ready for an equipment update.
Sure, Richardson said, things cost more today than they did 20 years ago. What was a $160 quality sleeping bag then might now sell for $600.
"That's a lot of money, but dollar for dollar, it's still a very good value," he said. And the price hikes aren't entirely attributable to expensive new technologies and marketing. The cost of living has gone up across the board over the years - and those intending to replace worn equipment may simply be at a time of life where they are willing to move up in quality.
"You have to remember where you are in life," he said.
Richardson said he bought his first Gore-Tex jacket for $220 years ago; within six years, the fabric began to delaminate. "The company gave me a new jacket," he said. Buying a product from a reputable manufacturer is, he believes, a form of insurance, a guarantee.
Today? "You can spend $400 for Gore-Tex really easily," he said.
Well-made outdoor equipment, even if it costs a bit more, Richardson added, is likely to last longer. Maybe 10 years. Maybe 20.
"I expect to get many more years out of these products," he said. "And technology has changed so much that you CAN get a longer life out of them."