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Credit: Redbull Photofiles

My friend Jay, who owns a bike shop, had that four-micro-brew look on his face as he ranted, “Dude, no way snow-bikes are game changers! How exactly do they progress the sport? They’re toys, like, winter tricycles for adults or something!”


If you don’t know what a snow-bike is then you probably live either south of the 49th parallel or in a city with a port. But, even half-brewed, my friend’s passion was real; some pieces of gear radically change the games they were invented for — and others don’t. And we outdoors-people take gear seriously, like “normal” people talk about baby strollers.

Not to brag, but I have a gear wall in my garage that puts the displays found in most outdoor shops to shame. With all this gear, I have to ask myself the deep question of, “Are the outdoors any more fun now than they were 100 or even 50 years ago?”

I mean, people went out and had fun back then too, right? I want to argue that all of this technology must be just for show, the outdoor hipster’s version of 22-inch spinners on a lowered SUV. But I can’t. The new gear makes the outdoors way more fun than it used to be — especially the inventions that really did change the game.

For starters, and for the first time in human history, we can actually stay dry, warm and roughly the same weight when it rains. Until recently, the best we had as humans was stitched sealskin, which, while warm, was stunningly heavy, not that dry and hard on the seals. Gore-Tex made it possible to more-or-less comfortably recreate in places like Vancouver without developing trench-body that used to result from the 60/40 poly-cotton anoraks or urethane-coated clothing we sported back in the day. In the outdoors, functional is just a longer word for “fun.”

Plastic canoes and kayaks also changed their wet worlds. I’d probably be about 40 per cent smarter (I’ve lost enough brain power that the exact percentage is too difficult to calculate) if I hadn’t spent most of a teenage summer with my head inside a decrepit fiberglass kayak, fixing various holes over and over again because I was too ripped on resin fumes in the confined space inside the boat to do the job right the first time. I smile when I hit rocks now — game changed.

And then there’s skiing, which, in what must surely be the funniest and most ironic moment in outdoor sports history to anyone who remembers the ski/snowboard wars of the ‘80s, was saved by the very sport skiers initially hated: snowboarding. When I first started skiing, skis had the exact proportions, side-cut, flex and fun of a couple of extra-long pieces of dry linguine. But we — and the irony here is deeper than BC powder — mocked the snowboarders when they showed up and floated sweeping turns over the snow while we made deep straight gouges through it. Snowboarders were obviously cooler (back then you didn’t even have to ask one, they just told us regularly) but they had the surface area to float and the side-cut to turn, and we didn’t. It only took 15 years before ski industry design wizards had the stunning idea to make skis really fat, with lots of side-cut. Snowboards: game changer for skiing, and now snowboarders are skiing ‘cause it’s cooler not to have to sit on your ass all day long.

On my garage wall, I have a section devoted to headlamps. My first “pro” headlamps cost well over $100, took $25 D-cell lithium-ion batteries and gave about four hours of anaemic dull-yellow incandescent “light” that faded into near-uselessness well before the sun ever came up. My modern $50 headlamps are rechargeable and will stab through the dark to the full length of my climbing ropes, so I can see the ends as I slide down an unknown cliff at night — knowing the rope reaches the ground is a lot more fun than finding out near the end of it that it doesn’t even come close… Amazing, and game changers for sure.

The war continues to this day: Chalk. Disc brakes. Nylon ropes. (Not dying when you fall off? Game changer.) It’s been a few months since Jay and I had our disagreement on whether snow bikes are legit game changers or not; I know I won though, because his shop started carrying them and my garage has just the perfect spot for one.
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