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Better Gear, Smaller Footprint

How gear companies are using innovation to leave a lighter impact on the world. By Jessi Loerch

In just a few decades the gear we used to get outside has been completely revolutionized. While older gear has a nostalgic charm, you’re unlikely to miss heavy, bulky packs and semi-waterproof gear.

With improvements in weight and durability, sustainability is becoming the newest area for innovation. These days, companies are trying to leave a lighter global footprint while giving customers what they want. Here’s how three of them are doing that. 

GSI Outdoors

Spokane-based GSI Outdoors puts its focus on fueling outdoor adventures. GSI was founded in 1985 with its enamelware collection. Since then, the company has grown its business to include technical, innovative, and fun outdoor cookware and gear for eating and drinking.

Over time, GSI has leaned into many outdoor innovations they’re proud of, including nesting cookware, an extremely popular innovation that inspired many companies to make their own versions. They also introduced hard anodized aluminum cookware to the camping world, which upped the quality of lightweight aluminum cookware by providing a durable surface that is much easier to cook on without food sticking. They eventually expanded to stoves as well, creating a tiny backpacking stove with a large base so the pot won’t tip over. More recently, they released a car-camping stove that’s only an inch-and-a-quarter thick. 

MSR Stove Testing 02.jpg
An employee tests MSR stoves in the Seattle factory. Photo courtesy MSR.

Right now, their biggest focus is on sustainability. 

Kurt Gauss, GSI’s director of marketing and product design senior product designer, says that sustainability has always been important for GSI — he talks about the work with a lot of energy and excitement. 

“If we mess up the outdoors, we’ve messed up our industry,” he said. “And our children, the next generation and generations to come, we have to make it better for them.” 

GSI designs and builds their products to last for generations. But that’s not enough. They want to do more. 

Two main areas GSI is working on are reducing plastic use by switching plastic products to recycled materials by 2024. That gives Kurt, and GSI, a lot of work to do. 

“We have to do over 400 product conversions from virgin plastics to recycled plastics,” Kurt said. “It will probably be the most important thing I have done in my career.” 

GSI is also working to increase the amount of recycled metal in their steel products. By 2024, they want their stainless steel bottles to be made of recycled material. They’re also working to offset their carbon use, to offset more than they use by 2030. 

Kurt says forward thinking like this is important to the outdoor industry as a whole and that the outdoor industry can spur changes in other areas, too. 

“Sustainability is our future,” he said. “The outdoor industry is a bellwether to all other industries.”

He points out that the outdoor industry was able, practically overnight, to stop making materials with polycarbonate, which contains BPA, a chemical with several known health risks. 

“The outdoor industry has a huge impact on the design and sales of all consumer goods,” he said. “This is our golden opportunity to really change the world. We work in an industry that has this unique position to affect changes in all industries. We have to do as much as we can and we can’t blow it off.” 

While Kurt is excited about the work with recycled and recyclable materials, he also knows it’s not the end. 

“Re-use will be the next challenge for our industry,” he said. “We as an industry have to figure out how to be profitable with reselling.”  


Therm-a-Rest is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and the company is using it as a chance to look both back and forward. Therm-a-Rest, a name that’s a type of shorthand for “outdoor sleeping pad” is part of parent company Cascade Designs, which has manufacturing facilities in Seattle. 

They’re proud of making mattresses that last, and appreciate that people feel a strong connection to their gear. Jeff Moberg, product line manager at Cascade Designs, was recently at an REI event where someone brought in one of the first Therm-a-Rests. 

“It was an old dinosaur model,” said Brandon Bowers, product manager at Cascade Designs. “But in a way, it’s still the same concept. We have just continued to make improvements that focus on giving a camper the best possible experience.”

A Thermarest employee works on a laptop while testing new sleeping mats.
Brandon Bowers looks at data about the insulating value of Therm-a-Rest products. Photo courtesy Therm-a-Rest.

In the 50 years since Therm-a-Rest started, a lot has changed in the outdoor industry. There’s a lot more gear out there, and it’s a lot easier to find information on it. 

“Someone who wants to get into the outdoors has so much more ability to get better gear now when they start out,” Brandon said. “It does seem like the advanced gear we have now makes it more interesting for people because you don’t have to suffer so much to get outdoors. The thing that has stayed the same is that people who love to get outdoors and love to challenge themselves, they still love gear.” 

Like the camper at REI, many folks have held onto their Therma-a-Rest pads for years, even decades. That’s something the company is proud of. 

“We make products that last as long as possible, and from early on that has been a point of pride,” Brandon said. 

Therm-a-Rest has a repair facility in Seattle. Customers can send in their gear to get it repaired, which is one of the ways the company tries to minimize their impact. They also have deliberately chosen to make their products in the U.S., many in Seattle, where the company is based. This reduces how much fuel has to be used to move products and supplies around the world. It also gives them better control over their products because they control all aspects of the manufacturing.

They’re also working to increase their use of recycled materials — and recycle or repurpose their own materials. Therm-a-Rest is starting to use recycled materials as often as possible, including in their sleeping bags. They’re looking into using recycled materials in their pads as well, but they are proceeding carefully to ensure the new materials will last. They’re also working with other companies to make use of extra materials that would otherwise just sit on their shelves. 

One way they’ve gotten creative with what could have been waste products is with their pillows. Therm-a-Rest makes self-inflating pillows using open-cell foam. To produce these, scrap foam from sleeping pads is shredded and then stuffed into the pillow. 

Brandon and Jeff are excited to think about the innovations to come in the future — and the pandemic has made it extra clear how important that time outdoors is for people. They’re thinking about those new campers and looking forward to meeting their needs in the future. 


REI is an undisputed leader in the outdoor industry — and it’s using that position of influence to help drive changes.

“We believe innovation can play an important role in bringing about solutions to tough social and environmental challenges,” said Greg Gausewitz, REI’s senior sustainability product manager. 

Greg explains that for REI, innovation around sustainability takes two routes. First, with their REI Co-op brand products and second, by supporting sustainable changes via their relationships with other outdoor companies. 

For their own REI gear, the company has been a Bluesign system partner for over a decade. Bluesign works to eliminate harmful substances in the production of textiles. It also works to ensure that the production process is safe for the environment, workers and consumers. REI’s newest line of boots, for instance, includes recycled and bio-based materials that are more sustainable.

One other way that REI is working to reduce its impact is by selling used gear. That also allows folks to buy gear at a lower price. REI’s research shows that buying used versus new cuts carbon emissions by 50 percent or more. 

REI is also trying to be creative and reduce the impact of their business in their work with partners. In 2018, they launched their product impact standards, which establish minimum sustainability requirements for any brand who wants to sell products at REI. They were the first to do so in the industry. The standards also encourage going above and beyond those standards, with additional ways of decreasing the impact that REI prioritizes when deciding what to sell in their stores. 

“REI is in the fortunate position of getting to work with many of the world's leading brands making high-quality products and advancing more sustainable business practices,” Greg said. “We're also lucky to get to work with small, up-and-coming brands that are bringing innovative new products to market by may not initially have significant resources or know-how on sustainability. We view this as an opportunity to highlight emerging, innovative products … and to guide sustainability to emerging brands to help them embed responsible practices into their business from the beginning.”

Gear for good

For hikers, a solid piece of gear that helps you enjoy your time on trail is a joy. Of course, use your gear up, wear it out, repair it when you can. But when you do need to buy something, if you have the option, buying from a company that cares about sustainability can mean longer-lasting gear for you, and a lighter footprint on the natural world.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.