Military turns to outdoor gear makers to equip soldiers

Posted: Friday, March 21, 2003

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) That spiffy new high-tech tent or backpack you just bought may have been wear-tested by G.I. Joe.

The U.S. military, realizing that weapons systems and armor alone will not ensure the survival of its fighting forces under extreme battle conditions, is increasingly turning to recreational outdoor gear-makers for help in equipping and clothing its soldiers.

Civilian users of outdoor gear unknowingly benefit from having the heavy-duty products designed for the military field-tested by U.S. forces.

Our guys are going to beat gear up and treat it worse than anybody else,'' said U.S. Navy SEAL Scott Williams of the Northern Warfare Training Center in Kodiak, Alaska. If it stands up to that, it'll stand up to any other user out there.''

Manufacturers who make gear for the military must cater to the exacting requirements of troops who operate in sweltering deserts and frigid mountains.

Their gear has to be perform flawlessly,'' said Casey Sheahan, president of Boulder, Colo.-based Kelty, which supplies tents and backpacks to the U.S. military. And it has to be simple. It has to carry everything they need, and keep them under cover as much as possible.''

Most of us just have to worry about staying warm, dry and hydrated in the mountains. Soldiers have to worry about all that and the enemy, too.

The difference between being in a high-risk environment (as a mountaineer) is that the mountains are trying to kill you in three or four specific ways and, barring some mystical belief, they are non-sentient,'' said Mark Twight, president of Salt Lake City-based Grivel North America and one of the world's top climbers. Whereas, in combat, you have the most efficient killer in the history of the world man trying to kill you in a virtually infinite number of ways.''

Williams has been coming to Salt Lake City for the past three years to shop for gear at the Outdoor Retailers Show, held twice annually at the Salt Palace Convention Center. He knew as soon as he arrived in Alaska to take command that some gear changes would be needed: His soldiers were making themselves targets by using brightly colored tents and sleeping bags.

Williams has assembled a 58-piece gear kit, with another 15 clothing items. Manufacturers have tweaked products to cater to his needs.

It's a win-win situation,'' said Williams. We get to put the best stuff on the military and we give them feedback.''

The military's prime requirement is for lightweight gear. Besides the equipment that all mountaineers must carry, soldiers must also tote ammunition, radios and night-vision equipment.

There's a lot of weight they can never get rid of,'' said Twight, who wrote the book on lightweight mountaineering, Extreme Alpinism: Climbing Light, Fast and High.

For the past two years, Twight has been working as a consultant with the U.S. military to help develop a new protective combat uniform, which uses a Scottish-developed self-drying concept that goes beyond Gore-Tex.

Williams challenged suppliers this year to cut pack weight from 12 to eight pounds. With special-operations forces typically carrying 150-pound loads near the limit of pack design and human endurance, says Kelty's Sheahan that is a tall order.

Outdoor military gear must also be hardier than recreational gear. Soldiers don't get to wait it out when the weather is bad.

And soldiers also tackle feats no mountaineer would attempt. Navy SEALs might swim a mile to shore using rebreathers, switch from drysuits to winter gear, then climb into the mountains prepared to meet the enemy.

That's why tactical-colored gear is crucial. MSR, which supplies the SEALs with fuel bottles, used to send its standard bright-red bottles. Now it supplies black and tan bottles, saving the SEALs the bother of painting them.

By law, the Pentagon is also required to buy clothing made only by U.S. factories of 100 percent American components. The Buy America Berry Amendment'' poses some problem for Williams, who has been unable to find a U.S. manufacturer of mountaineering boots. He is also hunting for a sock woven from domestic wool.

Just as the space program brought us Tang and Teflon, the military's need for high-performance outdoor gear has resulted in new products for the recreational user.

We're developing suspension technology that makes a 50-pound pack seem like a puff of cloud,'' said Sheahan. Even to a pacifist, designing tents and backpacks for soldiers isn't a stretch, said Kelty product designer Mike Scherer. These are things that are going to help another person,'' he said. It's not another armor-piercing missile.''

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