Custom Gear Revival
In the early years of the outdoor industry, most gear was "custom." Early manufacturers like Holubar, Stephensons Warmlite and others sold products with choices of fill, liner, and options like extra pockets, longer arms, and different colors.
Outdoor enthusiasts have more choices and better quality (overall) than we did 40 years ago, but some of us bemoan the uniformity of this new era, and wish for a way to distinguish ourselves with unique gear that doesn't just work, but serves as an extension of our personality.
New Custom Gear
Recently, several well-established companies have begun
to offer consumers custom gear.
Sandal-maker Chaco's MyChacos program enables customers to order a pair of Z/1, Z/2, ZX/1, or ZX/2 sandals with both custom soles and webbing. Color options for for this program are astounding. For example, straps for the Z/1 are available in 51 different colors. According to Kristen Hathaway, Chaco spokesperson, the inspiration for MyChacos was twofold. One inspiration was a Nike shoe-customization program, and the other was customers who would send shoes back for repair under the ReChaco program and request different colors.
Princeton Tec's Spectrum program enables customers to customize nearly every aspect of the Fuel headlamp's appearance - from the strap color to the color of the batter panel. According to Marketing Director Gerard Armendinger, “The Spectrum allows for all individuals to contribute to the overall aesthetic and color options of our products." Through the Spectrum website, users can customize six parts (in addition to the on/off button and headstrap) of the Fuel headlamp with 10 different colors. Users can also save the design for their custom light, and share it with friends.
A Legacy of Custom Gear
While companies like Chaco and Princeton Tec have just begun to offer custom products, several companies have provided custom outdoor equipment since their inception.
New Hampshire company Stephenson’s Warmlite has been making tents, sleeping bags, clothing and accessories since 1955. One of the first companies to use vapor barriers and other innovative technologies, Stephenson's has been innovating for a long time. Their Triple Sleeping Bag is available in 4 colors and 5 widths and their 2-person climbers' tent offers options for reflective linings, door size, wind stabilizers, windows and even an aluminized top!
Since 1999, Washington-based Nunatak has manufactured custom down clothing and sleep systems. According to owner Tom Halpin, going the custom route was an easy decision, "If we were just out for profit we'd be doing it the same as everyone else. Even with well-made gear, it can always fit better, and there are a lot of folks out there who aren't 'standard size.' What could be better than the best materials, custom designed to fit just you?"
Nunatak empowers customers to tinker with every aspect of their existing products (zippers, velcro, shell fabrics, liner fabrics, dimensions,) and even submit custom designs. According to Halpin, adding extra down fill ($15 per oz) is one of the more common customization requests.
Another Washington company, Esatto, has created custom footwear since 2001. Owner Alex Kovalenko was tired of seeing customers "trying so many boots and spending thousands of dollars without finding a good fit," so he decided to bring "old country" custom boot-making to America. Nervous about ordering a pair of boots that won't fit? If you can't visit their Washington store, Esatto ensures a good fit by sending a "fit kit" that includes measuring tape, carbon paper, pens and a 23-step process for measuring your feet to exacting standards. With data from this kit and an interview about your needs, Esatto creates a last (3 dimensional model of your foot) and stitches the boot's upper around it.
Is Custom Gear for You?
Though custom manufacturers provide advice, buying custom gear requires that each consumer know a bit about the product. Selecting unique materials or unconventional designs involves a degree of risk. Manufacturers might make a 2-ounce sleeping bag for you — but there's no guarantee it will keep you warm!
In addition to taking the time to select all the options, custom gear takes more time to make. Programs like MyChaco, where customers combine existing elements into a custom product, are faster than programs where products are made entirely to the individual customer's specifications.
Custom gear nearly always costs more. Not stoked about paying more? According to Halpin, the simple equation is "Well, you get what you pay for!"
Many manufacturers offer warranties and repairs for their products. Custom gear manufacturers often take this to the next level. Esatto even retains customers' lasts for several years, in case they would like to order new boots or get the old ones repaired.
Custom gear requires an investment in time, money and thought, but offers an opportunity for gear that fits your style, your body or your feet exactly.
Have you considered or used custom gear? Share your experience in the comments, below, or join the discussion on Facebook.