TGO Awards: Reflections II — Innovation

Judging the ‘judged’ awards for the first TGO Awards was somewhat of a frustrating experience. Readers of the magazine were asked to nominate gear. The manufacturers of nominated gear were then approached to provide samples for review. Quite a few manufactures wouldn’t or couldn’t provide samples for review — it may well have been the case that the items nominated were no longer in their produce range. This year manufacturers were asked to nominate their own gear in rode that we could be reasonably confident that review samples would be provided. It stands to reason that Awards cannot be given to gear that has not been sampled!

Despite the changes in procedure I still found the judging of categories a little frustrating. Quite a few of the nominations were for products that we neither new nor innovative. I did seem to some of us that the whole nomination experience was very different depending who in the company concerned made the nomination. If the marketing department was nominating it seemed that — to them — producing an item in a new colour was exciting enough! I’m exaggerating here, although possibly not that much. Manufactures nominating gear for the TGO Award should by now aware of the kinds of things that TGO champions!

I shall give a couple of examples, both from companies who’s gear I use regularly and have reviewed favourably here.

The first is Chocolate Fish Merino. This is a great UK based company who produced natural fibre products from ethically sourced materials. Choccie Fish nominated one of their standard base layers. Now, the base layers are well designed and well made but the real story here is the ethical production. As much as I like these they remain a merino base layer and as such there is nothing that much unusual about them (even though I prefer them to alternatives). On the other hand, Choccie Fish produce a couple of very innovative garments made from a blend of merino wool and possum down. The possum jumper I have reviewed here. Everyone I have met who has used this item — or the fleece replacement garment — rave about them. This is wonderful product which has got me wearing wool in the winter again. There must be a reason why these were not self nominated, but I so wish that they had nominated them!

The second examples come from super lightweight gear specialists Mountain Laurel Designs, again a company I have championed for some time. MLD nominated two pieces of gear. In the Camping category MLD nominated one of heir lightweight bivy bags. I have one of these and find it a fantastic piece of kit. This is a design that has been available for some time. This particular product has a cuben fibre base rather than a bathtub base as mine does, but this has been available for a while. I just didn’t think this was new or particularly innovative. In the Innovation Category MLD nominated their Exodus pack which is my standard backpacking pack; I have reviewed the MLD Exodus here. The Exodus is a very well designed and manufactured pack and is the best backpacking pack I have used. But in essence this is a very standard frameless pack and even in MLD’s citation notes they pointed out that it was a development from Ray Jardine’s basic design. And the Exodus is not a new pack; it has been available for some time. MLD have produced a variant of the Exodus with an inflatable bladder as back support but this was not the model nominated. To be fair to MLD they won an Award last for the Trailstar which was taking UK backpacking by storm at the time; it is unreasonable I suppose for us to assume that even an innovative company like MLD can pull out something like the Trailstar every year!

So,manufactures looking to nominate next year take note!  Here are my thoughts on the categories and winners.

 

Clothing Product of the Year

The nominations this year were strong on insulated clothing although not exclusively. We gave Highly Commended Awards to two products. The Berghaus Ramche Jacket utilises ‘HydroDown’ which is a water repellent treated down. Chris Townsend has used this material in field tests and confirms that this does indeed perform in the wet better than untreated down. The other commended Award went to Paramo for their Enduro jacket. The Enduro uses Paramo’s standard Analogy material but is innovative _ for Paramo — in terms of its sleeker design and fit. But, as the Berghaus jacket was a down jacket the Eduro is an Analogy jacket.

There didn’t seem to be much between many of the nominations. The Panel discussed some of the trends that we are now seeing in the industry. The use of Down is increasingly controversial on animal welfare grounds. This may not have hit us as much here in the UK as it has done throughout much of Europe but the industry is speculating that it may not be able to produce mainstream down products in the future! So, the race is on to find synthetic alternatives that can approach the efficiency and effectiveness of down.

Polatec’s new synthetic insulated material Polartec Alpha claims to set a new standard in synthetic insulation. Chris Townsend has tested this material on the hills and has found that it does represent a step forward. Most synthetic insulated products come into their own when you stop and take a break. However, Chris has found that the Alpha material is breathable enough to wear while you are working hard on the hills.

So, the Polartec Alpha impresses and — given the growing issues around down — it seems to represent a significant step forward.

We had two nominations for products that used Polartec Alpha. The Rab Strata Hoodie won out over the Marmot Isotherm on design grounds — the Rab garment’s pockets were designed to work more effectively with a pack and the other features were judged to be better.

I see there have been some slightly cynical comments about the Awards to Rab on the net as Rab sponsor the TGO Awards. The Outdoor Clothing or Equipment Brand of the Year was a public vote and so nothing too do with the judges. Personally, I find Rab’s range to be very strong at the moment right across the board. If Rab keeps producing gear as thoughtfully as it does at the moment I’m sure the company will continue to figure highly in all kinds of Award competition.  Rab’s great competitors — who also make great gear — are Montane, but their only nomination for clothing was their risk gloves.


Footwear Product of the Year

I remember this being a difficult category last year and this year it felt similar. We had two types of nomination, trail shoes which could be loosely called Inov8 clones band standard boots which seemed to us to be standard. Some of the trail shoes were innovation as far as the manufacturer was concerned, for example, with Zamberlain Crosser Shoe, but it was hardly innovative within the wider market. Of the boots I felt we were looking at a lot of creative advertising hype that simply wasn’t matched by actual features.

Our winner raised a few eyebrows but it is genuinely innovative.

The Hi Tec Zuuk fills a gap in the market. The Zuuk is camp footwear, to be worn at the end of the day in hotel, B&B or campsite. The Zuuk weighs less than 200 grams and can be scrunched up into a tiny stuff sack which takes up little pack space. One of my fellow judges Andrew Denton has had a lot of experience of these. Andrew is — how can I say diplomatically — a stylish man about the hills. Normally, he jokes, he wouldn’t be seen dead in anything from Hi Tec — it has to be a high end brand with platinum thread or titanium bits for him! However, Hi Tec presented him with a pair of these for him to use in a multi month expedition to Antarctica. Andrew can’t stop raving about these. Chris Townsend’s comment to me was “You’re going to see a lot of these on next year’s Challenge” and I’m sure he is right. These are so impressive that several of the judges have rushed out to buy a pair for themselves!

 

Camping Product of the Year

Another category where the nominations hardly set the pulse racing. For example, we had a Primus stove nominated which while new to Primus is very much a Jetboil clone. Our winner was the Nordisk Telemark 2 tent, a conventional material, two person tent, that weighs in at 800 grams and which is competitively priced against its competitors. As a backpacking tent this would be a palace for one.

 

Innovation of the Year

The Brunton Hydrogen reactor stood out by a mile as it genuinely seems to be a breakthrough product. Brunton as also amongst the manufacturers that have developed solar power charging products for backpackers. Solar power has never really worked here in the UK or in Norther climb; the efficiency of the solar cells is not really up there yet. Of those I know who have used Solar Cells  most end up using the battery unit as a conventional battery charged by mains electricity.

The Hydrogen Reactor would seem to be a great option for those of us who don’t see the sun often! The Reactor unit and fuels cells are very light and the recharging options while not cheap stand up to competition from high quality batteries. The reactor is slowly entering our market and I think Brunton are planning to install recharge units at major gear retailer stores.

 

Closing Thoughts

I’ve already written about our Special Award to Gift Your Gear. The judges have discussed tweaking the process and categories for next year as well as reserving the flexibility to award further Special Awards if these seem justified.

These are only my personal thoughts and do not necessarily reflect the views of the other judges. However, the trends are there for all to see. Gear that is designed to keep weight down will prosper as will nominations that are ethically sound or sustainable and which are looking to provide new solutions to industry dilemmas and difficulties.

It was nice to be involved for a second years. These were only the second time the Awards were handed out and I guess it will take a while for the industry get to grips with the nomination process. However, I hope that these notes are useful for those considering nominating their own gear.

As a judge, I can see that these Awards are developing a distinctive edge to them especially as they are consumer focussed rather than simply industry focussed. Hopefully, the rest of you will begin to see this as well as over the next couple of years.

Comments

  1. One deliberate error Andy, Rab sponsor the Challenge not the Awards, which didn’t have a sponsor this year sadly. As it meant my tummy rumbled lol 😉
    My local store in Cheddar, the gorge outdoors sells Rab and its good. I keep suggesting Montane, but Rab covers most they do and I guess for a small one man independent stocking two brands on similar turf is tricky.

    • I really like Montane kit Tony. The big problem I find with it is really difficult to find a store which has a descent range of Montane stuff. Keener pricing often than Rab as well,

  2. Yes, and I mentioned it to Dave and he thought montane was everywhere but it’s not. I don’t know any stores that do it. I’ll keep pressing. It’s space in a smallstore.

  3. Do you have a link to your post on that? Thanks.

  4. It was in a series of posts on the industry — try the Industry debate category from the home page!

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