“Manufacturing” Our Recreational Passions

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My backcountry skiing passion depends upon over 30 manufactured products for fun and safety.  This small (perhaps a half million participants annually in the U.S.) [1], but growing industry is characterized by the best elements of modern manufacturing like rapid advances in technology, entrepreneurial companies and a world-wide global supply chain.

Backcountry skiing differs from resort skiing; it’s human-powered for both “up” and “down”.  This requires what’s known as a “free heal” (think cross country skiing) to “skin” up and for most people the ability to “fix” or “lock” the heel for skiing down (like regular resort skiing) [2].  It requires technically sophisticated bindings that are integrated with boots, clothing with a premium on lightweight, functionality and performance plus modern electronics for avalanche safety.

According to the U.S. Forest Service Recreation Trends and the Outdoor Industry Association Backcountry skiing appears to have a bright, growing future that should drive manufactured equipment sales.

Recently I gathered my gear for the 2014 season and quickly reviewed the brand names of the various products as well as their “made in” label to learn where each piece was made.  Of the 31 products 18 came from U.S. companies.  From 21 labels I could determine that 7 were manufactured in China, 5 in the United States and the remainder elsewhere.

backcountry ski productsIt’s clear that global supply chains exist throughout this industry.  Black Diamond for instance, a U.S.-based manufacturer has plants in both Salt Lake City and China.

These are technically sophisticated companies – the most recent gear has carbon, metal composites, plastics etc. as the basis for the high end products.  U.S. companies like Black Diamond, North Face, Outdoor Research and others have numerous patents related to their product technology along with many proprietary processes as well as 3-D printing capabilities being used in new product development activities.

Most of these companies were “boot-strap” started by entrepreneurs – some older than 60 years, some younger than 10.  Even today there are numerous new, smaller companies in Colorado, Utah, Washington and Vermont that make customized or specialized equipment using new designs, and engineered materials.

MEP has worked with several of these companies– Black Diamond and Outdoor Research to name two – supporting the rapid growth of this exciting industry in the U.S. within the context of a strong technology underpinning and a global supply chain.

Whatever your passion – it’s likely that manufactured products helped you make it happen – so next time you recreate, think about the manufacturing supply chain that supports your fun!


[2] Telemark Skiing is another form of Backcountry skiing but with a free heel both up and down

About Author

Tab Wilkins

Tab Wilkins is Regional Manager for Strategic Transition and Senior Technology Advisor at NIST MEP, primarily supporting Centers in the western US. Prior to joining NIST, Tab helped establish and run two MEP centers and has a varied background in non-profit management, leadership development and technology-based Economic Development.

1 Comment

  1. Excellent article about a sector that has the attributes of growth, changeability of materials and manufacturing processes in response to customer needs. The US small mfg base would seem to have an edge over low cost competitors that rely more on labor intensive process. Its likely that the lessons of this “niche” sector also apply to other “niche sectors” in US?

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