Montana's outdoor gear scene is finally flowering

The thought of spending a night in the backcountry spooning a bunch of guys in Lycra shorts was all it took to inspire James Davies to start his new Polson-based company, GearPods. That mountain-bike ride gone awry 10 years ago—and the threat of a cold night without warm clothes or shelter—got Davies thinking about a better, more convenient way to package survival, first-aid and minimalist camping gear so anyone could carry it. His company launched last fall, and it won't be long before GearPods are available in stores nationwide.

While you might be thinking "a gear company in Polson?" most out-of-staters are scratching their heads and thinking "a gear company in Montana?" Which is understandable—the treasure state has always been rich in wild country, but it's been something of an outdoor-gear hinterland. Sure, we've had some artisans handcrafting birch canoes and hunting knives, but outside the fishing industry, which boasts Simms in Bozeman and Winston in Twin Bridges, few marquee or nationally known manufacturers have roots here. Colorado, Utah and Washington, by comparison, were swimming in successful companies making bikes, skis, boats, backpacks, shoes and more. Montana was a great place to use your gear, but the places making it weren't often based here.

click to enlarge Hammer Gel headquarters in Whitefish - AARON TEASDALE

Thankfully, that's starting to change. In recent years, outdoor gear companies have been popping up like fireweed. Here's a look at a few of the best.

Fit to be tubed

GearPods • $18 to $200


Originally from England, and later California, the outdoor-loving Davies moved to Polson in 2006 after a Montana vacation exposed him to the state's natural beauty and vast backcountry. He'd been studying survival gear ever since that ill-fated but ultimately fortuitous mountain-bike ride, when he and his friends spent most of the night in the woods trying to find their way back to the trailhead.

What he invented as a result is a unique, customizable system of "modular adventure gear" made of interlocking polycarbonate cylinders you can throw in a pack, put in oversized bicycle water-bottle cages, or stow in your car, snowmobile or boat.

click to enlarge AARON TEASDALE

About the same diameter as a can of soup, GearPods come in a variety of heights and can be used alone or threaded together with other tubes to create longer, stacked compartments. The waterproof container system is a potentially useful way to protect your stuff from impact, liquids and other insults.

But the products that really shine are the pre-built kits, including first-aid, cooking and shelter packages. The 8-ounce GearPods Cook kit ($50) uses a minuscule but effective Esbit solid-fuel stove that nests in an aluminum mug, which also doubles as the system's cook pot. The Survival CS ($80) uses the same cook kit and fits a full-featured survival pack into the mug—including everything from a whistle and water tablets to fire-starters—for a slick, grab-and-go, save-your-ass system.

Perhaps the ultimate GearPods kit is the Wilderness ($165), a deluxe, 29-ounce affair that includes the cooking and survival gear, plus a first-aid kit and a Spartan shelter, complete with a silicon-coated nylon tarp, space blanket and nylon cord. The beauty of the package is the simplicity—just about everything you need for a night out or emergency is here. No wracking your brain or forgetting crucial items: just grab it when you head out and you're set.

If you're a backcountry vet and already have your gear systems dialed, you might have no need for GearPods. But for the casual crowd, the search-and-rescue professional, or anyone searching for well designed survival and outdoor goods in tightly organized, cool-looking containers, the pods are an excellent choice.

If I had a Hammer

Hammer Bars • $2.50 each


Whitefish-based Hammer Nutrition, an early pioneer in the state's outdoor-business boomlet, set up shop in 1995 after founder Brian Frank, another California outdoorsman, moved to Montana seeking a better place to raise his family. The expanding company now has 35 employees creating all-natural fuel and supplements for endurance athletes, including its own line of energy bars.

You'll be excused for asking why. There are already dizzying varieties of pre-packaged energy bars on the market, and a lot of them are pretty darn good. But the power-packed, nutrient-rich Hammer Bar truly stands apart. Simultaneously satisfying the needs of both performance junkies and natural-food diehards, Hammer builds every bar on a foundation of nut butter, dates, agave nectar and brown rice protein. In case that doesn't sound healthy enough for you, Hammer then adds a bunch of sprouted flax and quinoa, spirulina and barley grass juice. Everything's organic, and most ingredients are raw foods: Short of adding ground unicorn horn powder, you couldn't do much to make them healthier.

The endurance crowd, Hammer's main market, is happy because the bars are easy to digest while exercising, have a high amount of alkalizing protein to help reduce muscle soreness, and contain no refined sugars, so there's no energy spike and crash. In short, these bars stick to your ribs. They also get more than a third of their calories from fat, which might surprise some people. But they're what Hammer calls "healthy fats," otherwise known as essential fatty acids, which improve endurance and contain a host of important nutrients.

What's better, the bars actually taste good. Available in three flavors—Almond Raisin, Chocolate Chip, and Cashew Coconut Chocolate Chip—they're great on the trail, on the bike, or even when you're desk jockeying and need a calorie infusion.

And since they don't get teeth-shatteringly hard in the cold, they're also a good choice for winter sports. Each bar contains 220-230 calories, depending on flavor, and you can find them at bike and outdoor shops, natural food stores or at Hammer's website.

Besides bars, Hammer offers an array of electrolyte capsules, performance drinks and nutritional supplements. Of particular note, the company sells Heed, a natural and higher-tech version of Gatorade; Recoverite, a drink mix that accelerates recovery after hard workouts by replenishing depleted muscle glycogen; and Hammer Gel, a tasty carbohydrate gel that delivers quick energy in a variety of flavors, including a huckleberry version made with real huckleberries. Now that's endurance fuel, Montana-style.

Boyz in the hoodie

Beartooth Merino Wool Hoodie

$110 • www.backpackinglight.com

After being banished to the outdoor gear wilderness by the shimmering allure of synthetic fabrics for the last few decades, wool has made a triumphant comeback in explorers' wardrobes. The reasons are many. Like synthetics, wool breathes well and insulates when wet, but it also offers a greater comfort range, delivering more warmth for its weight. Unlike petroleum-based synthetics, it's also a renewable resource (thanks, sheep!). Lastly, and in sharp contrast to synthetic fabrics that seem to capture and magically amplify body odor, wool's inherent anti-microbial properties keep it amazingly stink-free, even after several days of use. The value of this for activities like backpacking cannot be overstated, especially by your hiking partners.

click to enlarge headgear1-3.jpg

The ultralight gurus over at Bozeman-based Backpacking Light know a thing or two about functional garments, which is why they created the Beartooth Merino Wool Hoodie. Ryan Jordan and Alan Davis, both outdoor-loving engineers, launched the Web site Backpacking Light in 2001 to give intensely technical reviews of lightweight backpacking products, and soon became some of the foremost authorities on lightweight gear and techniques. Their site also sells 150 products, 70 of them carrying the Backpacking Light brand, including titanium cookware, 3-ounce fly rods and clothes.

The wool hoodie is Backpacking Light's top-selling clothing item and it's full of smart features to lighten your load. Thumb loops and a balaclava-style hood mean you can leave the gloves and hat at home in midsummer, or get by with lighter ones in shoulder seasons. The partial zipper vents well on warm days and, combined with the hood, offers excellent temperature regulation. For minimalists, this 8-ounce shirt combined with a light shell might be all you need for lightweight summer trips. It's also a fine base layer in colder temps.

As you would expect for a $110 shirt, overall quality is high, with stout seams and edging, and ultra-smooth, itch-free 18.5-micron wool. It's a technical top and looks it—this is not a piece you wear to look dapper around town—but for the savvy backcountry enthusiast, it might just be the perfect shirt.

Note: besides the dizzyingly informative website, Backpacking Light also operates a wilderness trekking school with multi-day courses on ultralight backpacking techniques.

Sole non-sacrifice

Sawtooth Shoes • $100


If you're making outdoor shoes in Montana, they'd better be tough and trail-worthy, especially if you're putting a satellite image of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem on your shoeboxes. Fortunately, Oboz understands this. The company doesn't make shoes for corporate meetings, subway rides or driving to the salon. It makes shoes for the great unpaved—from trail runners and multi-sport shoes to full-blown, waterproof hiking boots. And it makes them to be used hard.

Oboz, whose name is an amalgam of "outside" and "Bozeman," its home base, was started by Josh Fairchilds and John Connelly, outdoor-footwear veterans who once worked for the climbing shoe company Five Ten. The brand was unveiled in early 2008 and already sells at more than 150 retailers, including REI and Pipestone in Missoula.

Perhaps the best all-purpose Oboz is the Sawtooth, a low-top hiking and cross-training shoe clearly meant to go places. When you slip your dogs in the Sawtooth the first thing you notice is the super-supportive sole—it's beefy, plushly cushioned and clearly designed to eat up miles of trail. The footbed tilts forward, too, putting you into an active, ready-to-go stance.

click to enlarge headgear1-4.jpg

It's clear the founders know something about traction. The proprietary rubber on Sawtooth soles is ultra-grippy, while the heavily lugged, triangulated tread pattern digs into soil at all angles for unbeatable purchase. The tread also wraps around the sides and heels of the shoe to help with side-hilling and scrambling. (It's no surprise the shoe shares the same sole construction as some of Oboz's hiking boots.) You can really feel the Sawtooth's robust heel support. It cradles and holds your foot solidly in place when you're hiking on uneven ground.

For people who appreciate non-toe-mangling footwear, the wide forefoot is another nice touch, keeping the Sawtooth supremely comfortable on all-day treks. And Oboz puts in a legit insole instead of the skimpy foam wafers most companies use. No need to buy expensive, after-market footbeds—these shoes are good to go out of the box. In a final flourish, Oboz makes trees grow on money; for every pair of shoes sold, the firm plants a tree through a nonprofit eco-group.

That's not to say you can't wear Sawtooths in the world of pavement. They'll certainly keep your feet happy. And even if you won't be getting into the hills that day, it just feels better knowing you could. If an opportunity presents itself, the Sawtooths will be up for the challenge.

Filling out the field

Quickly establishing itself as the center of the Montana gear universe, Bozeman hosts a constellation of additional gear companies. The welded-seam specialists at Pacific Outdoor Equipment craft sleeping pads, dry bags, panniers and other assorted products. Carl Strong over at Strong Frames handcrafts steel and titanium cyclocross, mountain and road bikes. Backpack guru Dana Gleason and his company Mystery Ranch sell innovative backpacks and bags for recreationists, firefighters, and the military. Simms Fishing Products makes a full line of innovative waders, boots and other fishing attire.

Missoula is the home of Nargear, a young company specializing in rugged backpacks for firefighters and skiers. Up in Kalispell, there's Counter Assault, whose canisters of grizzly-repelling spray have become fixtures on the hips of hikers everywhere. Yet another noteworthy company, Boulder Creek Packs in Hamilton, sells durable wildland fire packs, gear bags, backpacks and hunting gear.

The good news is that even when these companies grow fast, they're staying true to the Montana outdoor-junkie ethos. As Oboz co-founder Josh Fairchilds puts it, "When there's more than 6-to-8 inches of snow, the phones aren't getting answered that morning."

That's the kind of business we need more of in Montana. And if the last few years are any indication, they're on their way.

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