Big brands in the outdoor space have their place in the bedrock of the industry. They make reliable products at scale, bolster their brand cred with money shots of sponsored athletes reaching the highest highs, and continue to innovate new solutions to familiar problems. Sort of like the Rolling Stones of product creation. And we love ‘em—as did our grandparents. These seven companies live happily on the opposite end of the spectrum, breathing new life into the scene and pushing everyone forward.
Photo: sandeepachetan.com, CC-BY
1. Flylow Tough Guy Glove, $20.00; 2. Mount Rainier Mod Sun Raglan, $45.00; 3. The Luzon Backpack, $50.00; 4. The Mantis, $120.00; 5. The Tubo, $198.00; 6. The Shank, $395.00; 7. The Maverick, $90.00
Nathan Borchelt is a gear-obsessed travel writer and adventurer whose collection of shoes, backpacks, jackets, bags, and other “essential” detritus has long-outgrown his one-bedroom apartment (and his wife’s patience).
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Flylow's roots are in snow sports—not surprising, considering it was founded by two CO natives who wanted ski pants that could stand up big-mountain backcountry exploration. But their line has since expanded to cover all variety of active apparel for both men and woman, all done with a focus on style. Signature piece: The Tough Guy Glove ($35) perfectly illustrates Flylow's appreciation for the traditional aesthetic seen in every ski town in the States. Hand-treated, triple-baked pigskin leather, a simple fabric cuff, and a vastly approachable price tag.
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Dubbed "quality goods with a purchase," Parks Project's products proudly displays their love of the country's national parks thanks to their iconic, retro designs. Parks Project also works with 22 park conservancies to ID projects that need attention, like trail restoration in Muir Woods or bear conservation in Denali, focusing in on topics like habit restoration, visitor programs, wildlife conservation, and youth education. Signature piece: All of the shirts boast pretty killer graphics, so hopefully one of your favorite parks are featured, but if you had to choose one, go with the poly/cotton Mount Rainier Mod Sun Raglan ($40)—for every 100 sold, one scout group becomes park stewards.
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Their logo—the profile of a llama's head—already makes them stand out from the crowd. But Cotopaxi's commitment to making fun, functional products is buoyed by their commitment to making positive impacts in the developing world by offering grants and working with organizations to find sustainable solutions in local communities. They also host regional Questival events—24-hour adventure races in cities throughout the country for teams of two to six people. Signature piece: The Luzon Backpack ($50) employs repurposed nylon sourced from the cutting room floor, hand-crafted by employees in the Philippines, making each 18-liter backpack a completely unique design.
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This California-based company boasts a pretty respectable product pedigree, with talents from big-name places like The North Face. But their goal isn't to blow your mind with images of amazing people doing amazing things. Instead, it wants to demystify the act of getting outdoors by making fun, readily usable products—think zip-together tents and sleeping bags, music festival-ready packable camp chairs, and fun/functional packs. They even have offer a "Ranger Station" program, where you can get a camping kit on loan for a long weekend to help erode any excuses you might have about getting out into the wilderness. Signature piece: The Mantis ($120) was one of the first camp chairs to employ tent pole aluminum stays, and it's still one of the best.
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The term indie evokes a DIY one-of-a-kind vibe, and that's precisely what you get with one of Mafia's bags. Each one is hand-crafted from sails that are donated by athletes, organizations, and everyday sailors and kite surfers, which makes for pretty bomber protective fabric. Signature piece: The Tubo ($198)—though the line now includes totes and backpacks, the reason they started Mafia was to find a way to transport a wetsuit, which is why this duffel comes with a fully-lined waterproof interior.
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Focused on "building the future of clothing," NYC-based Outlier targets that sweet spot where high-tech fabrics intersect with a fashion-forward aesthetic. Think streamlined designs, high-quality construction, pain-staking details, waterproof zips, taped seams, and a decidedly subdued urban color palate. Yes, their stuff costs a lot, but it's designed to last a lifetime. Signature piece: The Shank ($395), Outlier's update to the jean jacket, is made of durable, lightweight fabric with four-way stretch, a slim fit, and flat-black stainless steel shanks.
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If Outlier personifies the city-centric aesthetic, then Duckworth is country/folk/roots rocker on this list. The Montana-based manufacturer specializes in high-quality merino products, using "open range wool" sourced from sheep that live at 9,500 feet in the state's mountainous regions and sewn together in the Carolinas. Signature piece: The Maverick, a long-sleeved sport-fit crew shirt that's thin enough to be comfortable in all conditions, crafted with underarm panels for increased mobility. Also available as a mock turtleneck zip.