From tents that set up in five minutes to hand-held satellite tracking devices that pinpoint locations, the world of camping equipment has advanced by leaps and bounds since the days of pup tents and match-lighted fires.
Whether you're hiking the Appalachian Trail, backpacking along the Gunpowder River or planning an expedition to Mount Everest, there are products to make your experience lighter and easier, and others to make you and your gear less subject to the ravages of wet, cold or windy weather.
Thank the fields of medicine, aerospace and communications for the advances.
"There's been a lot of trickle-down from the very highest levels of technology," said Bob Howells, editor of the Outside Buyers Guide, an annual publication of Outside magazine.
Manufacturers are taking new materials, especially from the aircraft and aerospace industries, and producing products for back-packers and hikers that are lighter, stronger and more user-friendly, Howells said.
There are sleeping bags that have synthetic hollow-fiber fill called Polarguard 3 (from Hoechst Celanese) that are lightweight and continue to insulate even when wet.
There are two-way radios, such as the TalkAbout from Motorola, with a range of up to 2 miles that make it easy to keep track of family and friends in the woods - or on a trek to the mall.
There are binoculars from Canon with microprocessor-controlled prisms that automatically stabilize images.
There are camp stoves from Primus and MSR that weigh just over a pound and burn everything from butane to airplane fuel. And there are vests of Gore WindStopper fleece that are windproof, breathable, lightweight and warm.
"Over that last 10 or 15 years there's been an explosion of new materials," Howells said. "It's just in the last few years that outdoor manufacturers have been grabbing on to them" to produce consumer products.
A trek through the aisles of outfitting and sporting goods shops offers endless high-tech panoramas.
At Hudson Trail Outfitters in Towson, store manager Tim Deinlein demonstrates anodized aluminum tent wands that are constructed in sections and held together with high-tension cords, or shock cords. When the poles aren't supporting the tent, the sections can be stretched apart and folded, so that three or four wands can be tucked into a pouch about the size of a vacuum-cleaner bag - along with the tent itself.
A number of products from Mountain Hardwear in Berkeley, Calif., feature windows of UVX film, a clear, flexible, almost rubbery-feeling material developed to provide weather resistance and versatility.
"It doesn't yellow or crack," Deinlein said. "There's a lot of stretch to it, and it's crystal clear."
The UVX also shows up in Mountain Hardwear's Alpine Cook Tent, a dog-house-sized dome that offers a stable, wind-deflecting space to set up a cook stove. It has vents for fumes, and ports through which you can insert your arms. Placed so the UVX windows catch direct sunlight, it also functions as a fuel-less snow-melter - or a clothes dryer.
At Dick's Sporting Goods in White Marsh, sales associate Chuck Hollick is a fan of Kelty tents with high-tech fiberglass wands. A two-person tent sets up with just three wands, sleeps two and weighs only 7.11 pounds.
"It's especially popular with backpackers," Hollick said.
Another high-tech item is the global positioning system device, which bounces signals off satellites to pinpoint location. The devices, popular with campers, hikers, fisherman and hunters, have been around for a few years, said Brian Govoruhk of Dick's, but the new ones have 12 channels that can keep track of 24 satellites for more precise location-finding.
Most of the advances in consumer camping gear are being driven by manufacturers who want to show the coolest, most gee-whiz items at the Outdoor Retailers' Show in Salt Lake City every August, said Howells, of Outside Buyer's Guide. And serious outdoor types are not slow to pick up on the advances.
"There's a little bit of vicariousness" involved as well, he said. People want what the pros have.
But Howells thinks there is a more universal factor involved: the desirability of well-designed objects. "When form and function are in harmony, it's a beautiful thing, no matter what your field of endeavor."
Pub Date: 6/07/98