Brands tell the history of an industry. Not just the ones that lasted throughout the years, but the pioneers and innovators as well. This is particularly true of activities in the great outdoors. As technology and the media evolved and got better at spreading word, certain brands made an indelible impact on this industry.
We could look at any element of outdoor activities, but to keep the story short, we’ll only tackle the oldest of them all: camping.
Camping: The Pioneers and Veterans
Camping is arguably the oldest outdoor activity, starting with the first level of civilization, the hunter-gatherers. Hunter-gatherers depended on game and wild plants for food and shelter, which required them to move around as the animals and plants either shifted territory or stopped blooming according to the seasons. Their nomadic lifestyles demanded shelter that could quickly be put up and taken down, and that could be adjusted or adapted to whatever season they found themselves in. The first three commercialized hiking and camping equipment pieces were sleeping bags, camper stoves, and backpacks.
The first brand to commercialize camping gear, in 1855, was Ajungilak, a Norweigian manufacturer of insulation. Prior to this brand, explorers and adventurers would simply adapt bedding with warm down into sewed-up bags. Craftsmen would sew them to their specifications, and add whatever changes were required by the outdoorsmen.
Ajungilak used its knowledge of insulation to create the first commercially produced sleeping bag. Instead of down, possibly for resiliency purposes, they used kapok as stuffing, and reindeer hairs (familiar to North-seeking adventurers used to reindeer skins for shelter). Kapok, seed-hair fiber native to America and Africa, was a cheaper and easier-to-source material than down, which came from feathers. It was the main ingredient for sleeping-bag insulation until synthetic fibers took over the pillows and bedding world in 1950.
Ajungilak survives until today, which makes it the veteran of veterans. One pioneer that did not survive was Woods of Canada, which was unable to compete in the highly specialized sleeping bag industry (or monopoly, rather).
Historically as important as shelter is fire, to cook food, keep people warm, and to scare away wild animals. The discovery of fire is deeply mixed with mythology (a kind of history in itself), which usually has someone or some animal bringing fire to man instead of man discovering it on his own, possibly because of the conditions that need to come together for spontaneous fire to be possible.
When it comes to camping, Swedish company Primus was the first on the fire scene, with its paraffin (kerosene) burner stove in 1892. It started with domestic stoves, saw a market in the campers and hikers, and provided them with a small, portable stove. Like Ajungilak, Primus is a veteran that is still around today. There’s certainly something to be said for arriving first.
Another familiar veteran is Coleman, which started with gasoline pressure lamps in 1900 in the United States. The Second World War gave them the opportunity of a lifetime, and Coleman provided the American government with 2 million pieces of the G.I. Pocket Stove. When the war ended, the pocket stove accompanied the G.I.s home, and Coleman became known for their camper stoves.
Being able to carry one’s shelter, food, and fuel has been a need since man first started traveling. This is especially true when the terrain does not allow for animal carriers or wheel-based baggage carts or wheelbarrows. Soft cloth or leather drawstring bags were the easiest to make. They were laid flat in rough circles, holes punched around the edges, and string pushed through the holes to seamlessly draw the material into a bag. Bags of harder material were exclusively made of that material, like carrying a box on one’s back.
In 1908, Ole F. Bergan drew soft material over a wooden frame, creating the now modern backpack. Being Norweigian, where one of the main instruments of on-foot travel was skis, both his branding and marketing presented the original Bergans backpack as perfect for taking on long ski trips up and down the snow slopes. It was effectively commercialized as an army rucksack for the Czechoslovakian army, and adapted over the years into one of the modern alpine camping backpacks.
For a while, Bergans held the only patent for backpacks specifically designed for cross-country use. It was only in 1920 that a backpack specifically for camping was created, and only in 1951 that the modern frame backpack entered the scene.
Camping: The Innovators
No industry can endure without innovation.
Marmot upgraded the modern sleeping bag by launching the first fully waterproof, Gore-Tex covered sleeping bag in 1976. As a result, it also helped Gore-Tex become widely known in the outdoor equipment world. Rab took it a step further in 1985, by using Pertex fabric to make down sleeping bags. Pertex fabric is lighter and more breathable, perfect for beginner or lightweight campers. Some of the most modern sleeping bag innovations include Kammok’s compact sleeping bag, Selk’bag’s wearable sleeping bag, and many more advanced (or simply fun) creations.
In 1925, Trangia introduced their alcohol fuel camping stove. Alcohol has a cleaner burn than kerosene, creates less smoke, consumes more fuel, and adds less odors to the air. It also creates more heat, important for cooking and for campers trying to get warm. In 1973, MSR released the first remote burner stove, which kept the fuel away from the source of the flame, a safer cooking alternative. Other innovative brands include Johnson Outdoors, which developed a stove-and-pot with heat control so precise campers can create practically any dish they want Most remarkedly is their ability to innovate with items such as Jetboil’s single burner stove. Another brand, Camp Chef Everest, created a portable two-burner stove so that campers can even fry and grill if they want to.
In 1973, Lowe Alpine was the first brand to produce a backpack with an internal frame for a more comfortable and flexible experience. In 1974, Berghaus Cyclops added its own innovation to the internal frame: the “X” structure that provided better strength and support. In 1985, Chouinard’s Patagonia waterproofed “stuff sacks” by sealcoating them at the seams. Modern innovations include Be’s Tahquitz backpack, prized for its elegant but functional look; Waymark Gear’s ultralightweight technology; and Omnipack’s bags that are convertible from everyday duffels to hiking backpacks.
Camping: Old and New
Every great industry has to start somewhere, and this one started with the beginning of human history. However, as we know through history, it is always evolving and always innovating. The brands of today might not be the brands of tomorrow, as people and companies reinvent what we take for granted.