From mountain climbing to trail running, the outdoors require a superior level of protection than casual footwear can provide. To meet the needs of the expert adventurer, material innovators have spent years building technology that can endure the elements — and it frequently comes with a higher price tag.
Now, the outdoor market is seeing an influx of casual consumers, who want to be prepared for the natural environment but need something more accessible — they are looking to bridge the gap between everyday sneakers and professional performance gear. The potential of this large and lucrative audience is inspiring material manufacturers to dream up new applications of their products, to allow more people to explore the world around them.
“The cultural shift to consumers getting outdoors more than ever, combined with the blend of performance and lifestyle, is presenting a tremendous opportunity for us to innovate and deliver compelling products to the modern outdoor consumer,” said Shane Downey, director of global footwear product at Columbia. “It all started with our SH/FT program, which was centered around the concept of shifting your idea of what outdoor footwear is.”
For the average consumer, the traditional outdoor category might not seem catered to their activity level. Products are built to withstand extreme environments, with a particular focus on weatherproof materials, water-resistant fabrics, breathable designs and slip-proof outsoles. This cutting edge innovation is something that experts are willing to pay for.
But the new outdoor consumer is focused on fit, style and function. For instance, the heavy weight of an all-terrain hiking boot might not suit for a relaxed hike to a mountain vista, and some hikers may want to wear their shoes straight from the trail to an outdoor restaurant. To cater to this market, the industry is reimagining how its technology might best be used.
“We are continuously monitoring the market and adding or revising our consumer segments,” said Richard Leckenwalter, global business leader for Gore consumer footwear, gloves and accessories. “We are seeing an increased demand for versatile footwear, with an emphasis on lightweight, great fit and high breathability. Related to this trend, there is also a merging of athletic and outdoor in footwear designs.”
Crucially, companies like Gore and Columbia are still committed to providing protection that’s superior to the average sneaker. And both brands believe that as more people engage with outdoor sports and recreation, they will discover the need for specific footwear. In fact, amateur adventurers may find greater benefits from features like traction than their more-experienced counterparts.
But with this new middle ground between performance and casualwear, there is an opportunity to combine materials in fresh ways, incorporating more comfort and style.
At Gore, the Gore-Tex Invisible Fit product retains the company’s high standard of waterproofing but has been able to be utilized in athletic designs, as shown in the Merrell MQM Flex GTX or Nike Air Zoom Pegasus Trail GTX. The company believes that this versatility is what will appeal to the new consumer, who still demands elemental protection.
“Even a fair-weather hiker might walk through grass in the morning that is wet from dew or mist, encounter puddles or have to cross streams,” Leckenwalter said. “Think of Gore-Tex technologies as ‘enjoyment insurance’: The comfort and protection provided by products with Gore-Tex materials enables the consumer to enjoy their activity and focus on their goals — and not be distracted or have their experience limited by the weather.”
Another priority of this new user group is comfort, which may not have factored so heavily into previous designs. Following a year of prolonged at-home stays, broad fashion trends have shifted to emphasize coziness, and consumers are bringing these expectations to their outdoor gear, too.
For Columbia, this has meant investing in midsole foams and outside traction, to ensure that their footwear product feels as good on the foot as a more casual style. Materials are designed to be soft to the touch — even as they repel moisture and keep wearers protected. Brand leaders said their focus is on building footwear that consumers can trust to keep them safe, which is what Columbia feels will incentivize shoppers to purchase dedicated outdoor product.
“I absolutely believe that you need to invest in your interests, but you don’t have to fret over the price tag,” Downey said. “We are thoughtful about every detail regardless of price, as for us it all centers around the consumer experience. Our product promise is primarily focused on traction, cushion and seasonal protection. In order to be safe, to be protected and set up for success, a small investment will help support that desire to get out and go.”
Ultimately, this expansion of the outdoor audience has opened up a world of new designs for the industry. From a material innovation level, there isn’t much that needs to change. Instead, it’s about how those textiles are incorporated into the final product, and how the brands bring those consumers into their community.
“Our mission at Columbia is to ‘unlock the outdoors for everyone,’” Downey said. “Whether it’s trail running, hiking, weekend glamping or fishing, we are building products that are built to meet the demands of the contemporary customer who desires to get outdoors and go adventure.”